Respectable Women Who Listen To “Faust” by Arthur Brisbane

Story type: Essay

You know what happens in Gounod’s great opera, “Faust,” which is based on Goethe’s work.

An old man–his name is Faust–yearns for youth. He gets the youth, makes the devil’s acquaintance, sells his soul to the devil for the devil’s help. In the opera the devil is politely called Mephistopheles. Everybody is beautifully dressed, from the devil and Faust, the peasant girls and the ballet dancers, to the old grandmothers, with their diamonds and pearls, in the boxes.

If you want to study human nature, you ought to look at the respectable old and young women at the opera while “Faust” is sung.

The centre of the whole thing is a young woman named Marguerite. When the curtain goes up she has the best of intentions, the best character, the prettiest of faces, and two long, yellow braids down her back. She is dressed very prettily indeed, and in the opera house she has a high-sounding name, like Melba, Nordica, Calve or Patti.

Every night that “Faust” is sung this young woman goes to the bad.

Every night that “Faust” is sung every woman in the audience sympathizes with Marguerite, who behaves so badly. Many shed tears over her misfortune. All forgive her, feel sorry for her, and know that she is not to blame.

The most severe old woman in the most expensive box would put her arms around Marguerite’s neck and tell her not to fret. —-

How does that old lady act if on the way to her carriage she finds the sidewalk obstructed by some unfortunate creature who has Marguerite’s sorrows without Marguerite’s good clothes? Does she not say that it is an outrage for the police to allow such things?

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Possibly she will observe that in the opera Marguerite has not a fair chance.

Faust has such beautiful silk tights, one leg striped and the other leg covered with spangles; and, besides, he has a devil to bring a box of jewels to tempt Marguerite.

But we should like to tell the conservative old lady that the erring housemaid whom she may have judged so severely had greater temptation and a better excuse than did Marguerite, even though she could not get her voice up quite so high.

Mephistopheles is just as busy with housemaids and poor, overworked shopgirls as with any Marguerite that ever lived. And his work is made easier by long hours, dull routine and hopeless future.

It is strange and sad that moral women find it so easy to sympathize with the Marguerite whose sins and life end in the beautiful “Anges purs, anges radieux” aria written by Gounod, and not with the Marguerite who ends in the hospital, the morgue and the Potter’s Field.

It makes a great difference, apparently, to moral and virtuous women whether the erring Marguerite has a famous tenor on one side of her and a famous basso on the other, or whether she has on one side of her Bellevue Hospital and on the other side Blackwell’s Island.

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