Yesterday I finally saw the musical Les Miserables (based on the novel by Victor Hugo), performed live by the Maine State Music Theater (MSMT) company in Brunswick. I have heard a lot about this musical, but today I realized why Les Miserables has the reputation it has: it was one of the most powerful plays I’ve seen.
I won’t describe the entire plot, only that it’s built around the story of a man, Jean Valijean (amazing job by Dennis St. Pierre), who after 19 years in prison for stealing bread to feed his sister’s child, has an act of compassion turn his life around. He has learned to hate the world and its injustice, and seems to have no chance in life. When he steals silver from a Bishop who befriended him, he gets caught, and is certain that he will again go to prison, in slavery probably until death. But the Bishop saves him, saying he gifted the silver goblet, and adds some candle holders to Valijean’s bag. Reluctantly the police (including his nemesis, Javert) let him go. The Bishop tells him that he bought his soul for God, and he should take that gift and do good. Valijean is shocked by this act of compassion, and turns his life around, changing his identity and becoming a success.
Yet eight years later (the play is set between 1815 and 1832) he is caught up again in a crisis, as upon rescuing the young Fantine (brilliantly played by Amy Bodnar) he realizes he had stood by as an unfair foreman fired her from his factory, and she has now turned to prostitution to try to make money to send to a dishonest couple who she’s paying to raise a child born out of wedlock. He also finds out that the police and Javert have found a man they think is him, and are going to condemn him for violating his parole. He decides he has to save the innocent man, announce who he is, and give up all he has accomplished. This act of compassion for the innocent man he does not know is compounded as he flees Javert and promises the dying Fantine he will take care of her daughter Cosette. He then pays off the couple raising her, and takes Cosette to Paris to raise as his own daughter.
The play has other acts of compassion. Eponine (the daughter of the couple who had been raising Cosette, all of whom have become beggars in Paris) sacrifices her life to help the man she loves but who is oblivious to her, Marius (awesome performance by Daniel Bogart), send a message of love to Cosette. Marius is involved in rebellion in Paris, which is put down harshly. Valijean, the hero, after finding out about Marius and Cosette, goes to the barricades, ostensibly to help the revolt, but really to try to protect Marius so he could be with Cosette. The rebels have captured Javert (the cop) and give him to Valijean to do what he will. Javert has been chasing Valijean now for almost 20 years, and now Valijean can end it by killing Javert. Instead he lets him go, and then rescues a wounded Marius and saves him. He tells Marius his story and asks him to take care of Cosette. He flees, knowing his true identity if found out would dishonor Cosette. Marius and Cosette marry, but Javert, his world view shattered by the act of compassion granted him by Valijean, commits suicide.
The fact the play is a musical allowed the story to have intense emotion; I was choked up and near/in tears through much of it, not just because of the human emotion of death and love, but a powerful emotional connection to the message: love and acts of compassion are the strongest and most noble forces in the universe. The Bishop’s act to save the criminal who had stole from him makes it possible for him to rescue Cosette and Marius, and change their lives. Eponine’s compassion is part of this as well.
The story involves some of the worst aspects of 19th century France, intense poverty and injustice for the poor. The rebels, young scholars with heads full of radical ideas, have the right idea, but their heroism and sacrifice are meaningless. The scoundrals and villains in the story seem untouchable, injustice reigns. Yet humans are capable of acts of goodness, and these acts, even if they involve sacrificing ones’ life or freedom, create good and make the world a better place.
Look around the world now. People get caught up in political movements, parties, candidates, all convinced their side has the right idea about what to do to make the world better. They have their “isms” – capitalism, communism, socialism, anarchism, libertarianism, communitarianism, etc. They put effort and time into trying to fight for their causes. Yet in so doing it’s easy to get so caught up in the abstract notion of a battle and fight for justice, that one doesn’t concentrate on the real things people can do to make another’s life a little better. People are willing to risk their life for ideology and country, but not for love or compassion.
This may seem odd coming from a political scientist, but I believe politics is overrated. Ideology is vastly overrated. Ideology is just a simplistic interpretation of a small part of human existence, and is at best vastly incomplete and riddled with errors — every ideology. People who lose themselves in politics and ideology risk losing sight of the fact that the world changes less from political movements then from people doing the right thing and treating others with love and compassion.
To be sure, Victor Hugo’s work is fiction, but in the arts — both the novel and the musical — ideas can be conveyed that touch the soul, even if the head can show many things wrong with that perspective (see also: alienation and the arts). I’m not saying politics isn’t at all important, or that we shouldn’t fight for just causes in our world; on the contrary, we are here and should act to do whatever we can to help real people live more just and better lives. Instead, I’m noting that perhaps our priorities get screwed up when the abstract cause and political theory or ideology trumps notions of love, compassion, and treating others right.
The musical ends with a rousing finale, imploring the audience to join their fight, not for political change or revolution, but to show love and compassion — the most powerful force of all in the universe. It recalled to me when Chanda Luker, a survivor of the Cambodian genocide when she was but a child (now a travel agent here in town), spoke at UMF. Her story was powerful, and the group of 300 listening were silent and in tears as she described the brutality she had experienced. Yet at the end she asked one thing of the audience: be kind to each other. That is more important than anything anyone can do.
So I’ll try my best. I’ll talk about politics, culture, and offer my own social critique of a society that to me seems to have lost it’s soul in pursuit of material excess. But I will fight the temptation to give in to abstraction, to lose sight of the power of love, the importance of compassion, and connection with other humans at a personal level. That will leave more of a mark on more lives than anything else one can do — the more we practice kindness and compassion, the better this world will become, regardless of the politics and economics.