Queen’s Theatre, February 14th 2018
We live in strange times as far as morality is concerned. People in America were willing to ignore all kinds of sleazy behaviour when they elected their president. On the other hand there is a definite hardening of lines with regard to behaviour generally.
After seeing Les Miserables recently, I was reminded how this spectacularly successful musical also portrays a world of conflicting moral extremes. There are appalling characters such as inn keeper Thénardier, who cheats his customers and gropes his staff. On the other hand there is Inspector Javert whose determination to follow the letter of the law, results in just as much misery and injustice as the behaviour of Thénardier. One side of the moral equation is a reflection of the other. The bulk of the story then focuses on people who try to get along in the grey area between extremes. Jean Valjean, the central character, spends nineteen years in forced labour – punishment for stealing a loaf of bread in a time of desperate poverty. On release he breaks his parole and goes on the run, eventually getting his life together and becoming a respected town mayor. As mayor he meets a character similar to himself, a young woman named Fantine, forced into prostitution in an effort to support her daughter. Like Valjean, this young woman is technically a criminal, even though we see the virtue of her struggle.
Inevitably, a group of students and radicals stage a rebellion against their unjust society. The rebels are sworn enemies of the government. However, the revolutionary views of rebel leader Enjolras mirror that of Inspector Javert – in the sense that they both hold to their principles regardless of circumstance. And while rebels and government inspectors are similar in their extremism, as usual we have ordinary people in between. Valjean joins the rebels on their makeshift barricade, raising initial suspicion, since he is an establishment figure as far as the youngsters are concerned. A student named Marius, is also in a somewhat ambiguous position. He has just fallen in love, a complication which the cause of revolution has no time for.
Following a government attack on the barricade, Valjean manages to carry an injured Marius to safety. Valjean lives long enough to see the young man he saved married to Cosette, the daughter for whom Fantine sacrificed everything.
At the end of the play there seems to be a place in heaven for everyone, which sort of makes sense in light of the suggestion that virtue and villainy are closer to each other than we might think. However, there is a special place in heaven not for the saints, but for ordinary people, neither saintly nor sinful, who have done their best. Maybe that is one of the reasons Les Miserables has been so successful. Les Miserables presents humanity’s extremes, only to celebrate the majority of people who muddle along in the middle.