Phantoms of the opera

I don't believe in ghosts, but I do believe in ghost stories. They are hopes and fears flickering in shadow form - a culture's anxieties can probably be identified by the spectres it wants to believe in. Theatres - where so many phantom lives are lived out, night after night, should be perfect ghost-spotting material.

When I worked at English National Opera in the London Coliseum, a friend who had come in to do some work one Sunday had heard a singer practising in a distant room. Nothing new there: at times, every cranny of the old building seemed to house a piano and someone polishing their scales (it's now been refurbished, but then was dusty, plush, swagged in former glories). When my friend left, she told the guy at stage door not to lock up, as the singer was still practising. He looked at her oddly (they always look at you oddly in a good ghostly yarn) and said that no-one else was in the building. My friend insisted, and described what she'd heard. And the stage-door guy said, 'Ah, so you've heard the ghost...'

There are disappointingly few theatre spooks in The Penguin Book of Ghosts, a satisfyingly compact new volume of supernatural sightings in England. It's an old country, and a superstitious one, but most ghosts prefer the outdoors. Perhaps the curiosities which hover round the country are already so gamey (I give you the Worcestershire village haunted by a one-eyed bulldog, or the spectral coach drawn by pigs in County Durham) that no stage setting is necessary: this is the collective unconscious giving site-specific performances before its time.

Nonetheless, there are a couple of goodies fit for Halloween. No-one seems to have caught Shakespeare's shade stalking around Stratford-upon-Avon (he's too busy turning in his nearby grave at some of the production choices), but the church is setting to a ghoulish legend of a young woman who, in time of plague, was mistakenly buried alive. When discovered - too late, too late! - the despairing girl had taken a bite from her own 'white round shoulder.' The story of Herne the Hunter, a dead keeper who haunts an oak in Windsor Forest, invoked at the climax of The Merry Wives of Windsor, was probably Shakespeare's own invention. Nonetheless, several trees in Windsor Park have been credited with being the true oak (and in a fine spirit of hucksterism, if one tree dies or is blown down in a storm, others are immediately planted. Print the legend, or at least find it a good tree-surgeon...).

Anyone out there got a good theatre ghost story? Let me know, I'm in the mood for goosebumps...

October 31, 2008 12:29 PM | | Comments (4) |

4 Comments

Sanjoy, enough with the buahaahaaa... a monkey has a nervous disposition. But I bow to your superior ghost-busting smarts - the infiltration of real life is far more disconcerting. In the theatre and movies, we can all jump, shriek and then giggle. In life, we just feel a nameless dread at the corner of our mind and adopt (oh, it's my favourite) the denial posistion...

I think Vera is right. Ghosts thrive in attics and basements. But the theatre? Not really. Ghosts may be theatrical creatures, but the theatre isn't their home. A place where you deliberately suspend disbelief? Not a good place for a ghost. They need to haunt your real life - and that means your streets, your homes, your cupboards. Buaaaahahahaha!

btw, "a culture's anxieties can probably be identified by the spectres it wants to believe in". So true! Also the spectres it doesn't want to believe but fears may be real (the "in denial" position).

But it's not just ghosts. Apply to horror-fantasy in general. The question "what are you afraid of?" is like a diagnostic skeleton-key question that opens the door to, well, everthing - it's the can of worms and pandora's box rolled into one big bundle of goodies (i mean, er, baddies). Try it. If you dare!

Buaaahahahaha!

You're right, Vera, the Phantom of the Opera is a frustrated impresario. I forgot to mention the one genuine theatrical spook in the Penguin book, who is an audience member -- indeed a stage-door johnny who can't get away. This is the Man in Grey at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, who is always spotted sitting in the upper circle during a matinee. He’s supposedly an 18th-century dandy, stabbed by his rival for a certain actress’ affections. A bricked-up skeleton with a dagger in its ribs, discovered in 1848, prompted the tale, and a sighting of the ghost is considered a good omen for a successful production. Hell, if it can raise wild laughter among the dead - or at least provoke a spectral toe to tap - then a show must be doing something right.

i've seen a falstaff/windsor in which a real -- well, real/unreal -- herne appears onstage, masque-like, to direct silently the final magic of the play. (in vaughn williams's opera version, herne has his own, haunted music: careful what you invoke -- the local kids dressed up and trick or treating, mostly tricking, in the forest suddenly awed by the presence of a proper spirit. ) your theatre voice sounds like john aubrey's 1670 apparition, which being asked whether it was a good spirit or a bad "returned no answer but disappeared with curious perfume and a most melodious twang". there should be ghost stories given the thronged then deserted quality of theatres, the dark on stage, off stage, back stage, under stage; and the transience, disappointment and regret implicit in every production and in careers. but perhaps all the psychic energy -- were there such a thing -- is absorbed in performance. legends of creatures in basement and attic, yes; but the phantom is a front-of-the-house living man, in fact, he's the money, an eye, and i mean AN eye, on the box-office receipts. the total practicality of theatre would miff a genuine ghost -- how could it bear to keep to cue and say no more or less than its part? or have its powerful non-existence reduced (hamlet's father) to a dump of plot exposition? happy halloween to you, too.

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This page contains a single entry by Performance Monkey published on October 31, 2008 12:29 PM.

Found books 2: 'Siddown! Shut up! Take off yer hats!' was the previous entry in this blog.

Practical criticism: when fops go bad is the next entry in this blog.

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