The Svengali is a manipulative, controlling mentor that exploits their student for their own gain. While emphatically not a good
mentor, The Svengali is usually not so much trying to pass on a legacy of evil (unlike the Evil Mentor
) as control (and exploit) their disciple by any means possible, from just plain being a Manipulative Bastard
through overt Mind Control
to More Than Mind Control
, often with a side of Stockholm Syndrome
, Lima Syndrome
(or both), and Mind Game Ship
. Typically acting as The Man Behind the Man
, The Svengali is often also The Chessmaster
, or at least The Strategist
, in terms of PR campaigning.
The mentor/mentee relationship may cut both ways, though, since the follower often also serves as The Muse
to The Svengali, who may be Hoist by His Own Petard
as a result, unable to repeat his success without the student. The Svengali is liable to end up more dependent
on the disciple than vice versa. Lima Syndrome
is an occupational hazard, often along with some form of Muse Abuse
, though The Svengali may not himself be an artist of any kind. Expect additional layers of dysfunction if The Svengali is also a Stage Mom
(or Dad), in which case shades of Knight Templar Parent
are also likely. The Svengali also tends to pursue success so ruthlessly that bystanders are maimed.
The Svengali is more likely than the Evil Mentor
to be Obliviously Evil
. Watch out for appearances of "But I did it all for you!" and, conversely "I made
you!" (for extra points, add "and I could break you just as easily.").
On the other hand, The Svengali is relatively unlikely to suffer from Mentor Occupational Hazard
, unless it's Death by Irony
, and may be a Karma Houdini
. Occasionally they will have a My God, What Have I Done?
moment, and may be Driven to Suicide
by the follower's abandonment, but such crises are almost equally likely to turn into an Ignored Epiphany
The Svengali is a frequent, even near-inevitable, cause of Rage Against the Mentor
. Since The Svengali's job is usually to provide their ward with worldly success and Ambition Is Evil
, What Have I Become?
moments (where applicable) tend to turn into What Have You Made Me moments, kind of like I Hate You, Vampire Dad
but with less fangs. Not to be confused with a Mooching Master
: the Mooching Master
might take advantage of his student, but he still genuinely cares for him and doesn't actually utilize him as a pawn beyond simple personal gains.
Often claimed about Real Life
managers of actors and singers/bands, sometimes by
the manager, presumably due to Evil Is Cool
The Trope Namer
is a character in George du Maurier's 1894 novel Trilby
, a hypnotist who makes the eponymous protagonist - tone deaf without him - into a famous singer.
Not to be confused with Svengoolie
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Anime and Manga
- Grace O'Connor in the Macross Frontier TV series. In the movies she develops a full-on Lima Syndrome, though.
- Master Happosai in Ranma ½ which used his students Soun Tendo and Genma Saotome to steal underwear and take the punishment for it.
- Genma is this to his own son and student Ranma, as he has cheated a great amount of people in Ranma's name.
- The Crane Hermit (Tsuru Sen'nin) in Dragon Ball incites his students to lead a life of crime and murder, which they carry out mainly in a sign of respect for him in the case of Tien Shin-han and Chiaotzu; in the end, only his younger brother Mercenary Tao still followed in his treacherous footsteps.
- The shady agent Monkey Saruyama (known as Mr. Shroud in the dub) was this to Ryu Kaiser, convincing him that his failures were due to respecting his opponents and turning him into the selfish, brutal Hell Kaiser. But it worked only too well. Kaiser didn't even show any gratitude towards Sarayama, and when he felt he didn't need him any more, fired him.
- Star Wars: Palpatine. Though it isn't clear with Darth Maul, he clearly used Dooku's death as part of his plan to turn Anakin to the Dark Side, and then intended to use Anakin's death to turn Luke. Had his master plan worked out, the last part hinged on sacrificing Luke to make himself immortal.
- The controlling behavior of theater producer John Barrymore in Twentieth Century leads his actress, protege, and lover, played by Carole Lombard, to protest "I'm no Trilby!".
- Peter O'Toole played a (relatively) benign version of this to Jodie Foster in Svengali, a movie inspired by but not based on Du Maurier's novel.
- Josef von Sternberg is often claimed to have been this to Marlene Dietrich.
- In the 1950 movie All About Eve, the character Bill Simpson (played by Gary Merrill) says to Eve Harrington (played by Anne Baxter), after she tries to seduce him, "Names, I've been called — but never Svengali."
- In a The Three Stooges short film "Hokus Pokus" (and Flagpole Jitters), Moe (Moses Horwitz, AKA Moe Howard) introduces actor Jimmy Lloyd, who was portraying a magician, as, "Svengarlic: He'll take your breath away!"
- In the 1946 film Deception, composer Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains) is the musical mentor of Christine Radcliffe (Bette Davis). He is none too pleased when Christine suddenly decides to marry a cellist (Paul Henreid), and he invokes their mentor relationship when begging her to return to him. When that doesn't work, he puts the couple through a series of vicious mind games.
- Arguably, Grizelda in The Court Jester. There's certainly hypnotism involved.
- The Trope Namer, from Du Maurier's Trilby. (Sidenote: Readers seeking it out should be ready for Values Dissonance, given that Svengali's Jewishness is played out in a pretty similar way to that of Fagin in Oliver Twist.)
- Fagin in Oliver Twist takes in street urchins and teaches them how to become accomplished thieves. He profits greatly from their thefts and simply writes them off when they get caught and executed.
- Erik, the eponymous Phantom from The Phantom of the Opera is this to Christine. Since he actually is a good music teacher he may also qualify as a Broken Pedestal. Due to the similarity of the stories some regard the Phantom as being Svengali with the Serial Numbers Filed Off.
- In-universe, the supernatural law enforcement rumor mill in the Anita Blake novel Skin Trade has Edward as this to Anita. Or at least that's one of the rumors. "I heard he was more like your Svengali," is the response of one Las Vegas cop to Anita referring to Edward first as her partner and then as her "rabbi" (mentor, one assumes).
- In Terry Kay's Shadow Song, the deceased Avrum Feldman may be seen as this to the protagonist, "Bobo" Murphy. While he was a friend, the older Avrum is also shown to be a manipulator whose influence over Bobo's relationships stems from his desire to live vicariously through him and see his unfulfilled romantic fantasies play out for someone else.
- This is one interpretation of Littlefinger's treatment of Sansa Stark starting late in the third volume of A Song of Ice and Fire.
Live Action TV
- In an episode of the sitcom Seinfeld, entitled "The Wallet", Elaine refers to her psychotherapist boyfriend as a "Svengali" because he wields a powerful mental influence over her. She mispronounces the word as 'svenjolly', causing Jerry and George to mock her.
- The Master in Doctor Who has svengali traits, being a master of hypnosis. Someone asks the Third Doctor if the Master is "a bit of a Svengali" and the Doctor replies "more of a Rasputin".
- In the season 1 pilot of the Moonlight TV series, entitled "No Such Thing as Vampires", Beth interviews a suspect who refers to another character as a "Svengali" who brainwashed students, using literary references to vampires, sex and dark desires and seduced them into his cult.
- In the NCIS season 3 episode "Silver War", Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs consoles Mossad officer Ziva David about her half-brother Ari Haswari, whom she had killed, by describing him as a Svengali.
- In Season 9, episode 6 of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the captain refers to a perpetrator as a "Svengali".
- Rare female example: Frasier's evil agent, Beebee.
- Randall Fuller, the self-help guru with a generous helping of More Than Mind Control in the Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode "Con-Text."
- Wilfred in Wilfred casts himself as a trusted friend, confidante and mentor to Ryan, but in almost every episode he seems to be also working some selfish angle. The overall mystery of the show is figuring out what Wilfred is and whether he's actually good for Ryan or not.
- In Once Upon a Time, Rumpelstiltskin appears to have been this to Regina. He seemed like a typical Evil Mentor at first, teaching her magic, pushing her to the dark side, and even designing the curse that was central to her master plan... but it was eventually revealed that he needed her to unleash the curse so he would be exiled to Earth, but he also needed Emma to thwart Regina's plans and break the curse, so he could finally be reunited with his son.
- Derren Brown named one of his acts "the Svengali", where he uses a clockwork puppet to hypnotize and possess members of the audience.
- Unscrupulous Hero Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It fits this archetype perfectly, although instead of mentoring a specific person like this, he obsessively controls his entire Party. His Villainous Breakdown in Series 4 even involves him screaming at someone objecting to his plan, because he is doing it all for the Party, and no-one should dare ever question what he would do for the Party.
- Malcolm McLaren cast himself as this to the Sex Pistols, and later to Bow Wow Wow.
- Robbie Williams claims Nigel Martin-Smith as this to the band Take That.
- And "The Colonel" Tom Parker to Elvis Presley.
- And Kim Fowley to The Runaways. Heavily lampshaded in the recent film, where Fowley also claims I Meant to Do That in response to their Rage Against the Mentor dumping of him.
- The Human League's "Don't You Want Me" is a dialogue between a Svengali and his increasingly-rebellious mentee.
- Considering he was manager of one of the biggest rock acts of all time, Brian Epstein, manager of The Beatles, was by all accounts a subversion of this trope, being a rather mild, unassuming fellow genuinely devoted to 'his boys'. While he personally would never have dreamt of exploiting them, it has been noted that his lack of business acumen did see them come much worse off from many business transactions (particularly concerning the rights to their music) where a more savvy manager along the lines of this trope might have been able to get them better deals.
- Eugene Landy to Brian Wilson.
- Herbie Herbert to Journey. Dear god, the man claims all the credit for founding Journey, to the point where he was playing group members off each other in a continual power struggle to keep his "creative" vision. Interview here.
- Lou Pearlman to the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC. He was eventually arrested for running a huge Ponzi scheme, and that's just the beginning of the accusations.
- In the Season 2 episode of The Venture Bros. titled "Guess Who's Coming to State Dinner?", Col. Bud Manstrong angrily calls Brock Samson "Svengali" when the colonel finds his mother passed out in Samson's lap.
- Charles Manson, who roped at least two-dozen young people into his murderous "family."
- Charles Sobrahj, a celebrity confidence man and serial killer who used methods similar to Manson's to prey on Western tourists throughout South and Southeast Asia in the 1970s.