23 December 2011

Les Miserables: “To love another person is to see the face of God”

"Crépuscule," Victor Hugo. Public Domain.
When Jean Valjean reenters French society after serving a 19-year sentence for stealing bread, his existence has become defined by retribution and the struggle to survive. So when a bishop takes him in, Valjean steals the bishop’s silver and escapes into the night.

But Valjean’s world is unmade when the bishop forgives him, gives him the candlesticks as well, and challenges him to become an honest man because, as the bishop says, “I have bought your soul for God."

“I am reaching, but I fall,

And the night is closing in,

And I stare into the void,

To the whirlpool of my sin,

I’ll escape now from this world,

From the world of Jean Valjean,

Jean Valjean is nothing now,

Another story must begin.”

With that, Valjean breaks his parole, adopts a new identity, and eventually becomes a businessman and mayor, and
Inspector Javert relentlessly pursues him.
Javert’s and Valjean’s lives wind through and intertwine with a swirling mosaic of other characters. Fantine suffers harassment from the factory foreman and her coworkers, loses her job, sells her locket, her hair, and herself in an effort to support her daughter, Cosette. The Thenardiers ostensibly care for Cosette but are more interested in the money she might bring in—as a boarder…or a blackmail victim. A group of students foment an insurrection. But when Javert goes undercover to help put down the insurrection, his identity is discovered, and Valjean saves his life.

Valjean’s
kindness and forgiveness shatter Javert’s world, which had been defined by the law, retribution, and his identification with the law:
“I am reaching, but I fall,

And the stars are black and cold.

As I stare into the void

Of a world that cannot hold,

I'll escape now from the world

From the world of Jean Valjean;
There is nowhere I can turn;There is no way to go on....”
Valjean’s love and forgiveness change him and those around him. Javert, though he remains true to his principles, ultimately demonstrates the inadequacy of his understanding.
But it is not just a powerful story, deep character development, or great production that makes it soar—though "Les Mis
erables" has those things. There’s something about the world the characters inhabit and the way they relate to one another.Because “love is everlasting,” those who love do so in the context of something greater than themselves. Something that has meaning beyond their lifetimes. And it inspires hope that real redemption is possible, not based on accumulated merit or happy endings but in relation to something more, so that—in Valjean's case—there's more to being human than survival—for Marius and Cosette—love is possible despite the loss that happens along the way and—in Eponine’s case—even unrequited love has meaning and dignity.

“Do you hear the people sing?
Lost in the valley of the night,

It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light;

For the wretched of the earth, there is a flame that never dies.

Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.

They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord;

They will walk behind the ploughshare, the will put away the sword.

The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!”



It approaches though does not state explicitly what C.S. Lewis in "The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe" called deeper magic—“…when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.” Or to borrow from another British literary figure, it inspires hope everything sad might someday come untrue.

Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s original French musical came out in 1980, based on Victor Hugo’s novel. Cameron Mackintosh heard the score in 1982, and in 1985, the original London production opened with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and sets by John Caird. Mackintosh’s new 25th anniversary production of "Les Mis" features some new orchestration, and the set design by Matt Kinley uses light and projection based on Hugo’s paintings and adds a sense of place and motion through the story.

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