Red and Black: Everybody Sub-plots from Les Miserables. Everybody Sub-Plot #1: Big is Small and Small is Big

Red and Black: Everybody Sub-plots from Les Miserables

Many of us have had a chance to attend the recent film adaptation of the musical, Les Miserables.  It has been out just long enough now that the buzz is starting to wear off, and so it is the perfect time to revisit the film’s many plots.

Let’s begin with a few disclosures… First, I am a “musicals guy.”  There is no way to get around it.  I should also tell that I had arguably the most transcendent “non-religious” experience of my life the first time I saw Les Miserables on stage in the spring of 1994 from the first balcony of a London theater. Because of these facts, I was skeptical that a decent film adaptation could be made. I was, however, pleasantly surprised. Was it a perfect adaptation? No. There are many critiques that I could make of the film (casting Russell Crowe as Javert for instance was a bit like casting Keanu Reeves for Shakespeare.)  However, for these musing I am going to focus on the “Everybody Sub-plots.”

Everybody Sub-Plot #1: Big is Small and Small is Big

Victor Hugo’s brilliance shines through in his ability to intertwine the epic with the everyday, the global with the vulgar. To this end, Les Miserables offers some of the greatest examples of this brilliance.  In this story, an empire and a child stand-off in the city streets, a street urchin and an army dance with one another, and the whole of the legal system is brought to bear on an anonymous working-class single mother.

This juxtaposition is nowhere more poignant than in the scene/song for which this series is named: Red and Black. With the announcement that the war is about to begin, Enjores, the leader of the revolutionary army, releases a wave of rhetoric to inspire his civilian troops against the Imperial French forces:

The time is near
So near it’s stirring the blood in their veins!
And yet beware
Don’t let the wine go to your brains!
For the army we fight is a dangerous foe
With the men and the arms that we never can match
It is easy to sit here and swat ‘em like flies
But the National Guard will be harder to catch.
We need a sign
To rally the people
To call them to arms
To bring them in line!

Into this testosterone-infused troupe comes Marius.  While a long-standing friend of Enjores and the rest of the rebel horde, his mind/heart is not on battle, but on love.  He has just met the presumed love of his life and is drowning in schoolboy affections:

Had you been there tonight
You might know how it feels
To be struck to the bone
In a moment of breathless delight!
Had you been there tonight
You might also have known
How the world may be changed
In just one burst of light!
And what was right seems wrong
And what was wrong seems right!
 

Andrew Lloyd Webber (the playwright) does something amazing here.  He echoes these two competing and incongruent story-lines off one another with the same tune, rhythm and metaphor.

Enjores sings:

Red – the blood of angry men!
Black – the dark of ages past!
Red – a world about to dawn!
Black – the night that ends at last!
 

And Marius sings:

Red…I feel my soul on fire!
Black…My world if she’s not there!
Red…The color of desire!
Black…The color of despair! 

At first, Marius only has the support of the group’s token drunk, Grantaire, but before the chorus’ end, the entire rebel army is singing with him, with equal fervor to Enjores’ call-to-arms.

So, which is more important, more valid, more “real”:  The French Revolution or schoolboy love?

. . .

Every Sunday evening we gather around our dining room table for a sacred meal amongst friends.  The food is delicious, the wine flows and we serve each other the bread of Christ’s broken body and the cup of his spilt blood.

A few weeks ago a neighborhood couple joined us for our sacred gathering.  They have been friends of my family for about six months.  This couple does not have a place to live.  Mostly they reside in a tin tool shed behind a dilapidated house, where they sleep on top of garbage.  She is extremely ill and will probably be dead within a few months.  It is an incredibly tragic story, but it is the reality of their lives.  We are honored that they call us friends.

That night, Nancy told us about life in the streets, where her husband pushes her around in her WWII wheelchair.  She spoke of the hunger.  She spoke of the constant pain in her body.  She spoke of her impending death.  She spoke mostly of shame, the shame that is levied upon her by a society that only sees her as object worthy of their scorn.  “The hardest part is all the terribly mean things people say to us everyday, just because we are homeless.”

After she spoke, we went around the table allowing everyone to catch us up on life.  After several people spoke, one dear friend confessed to the group, “These past months have been the hardest of my life.”  He spoke of his failed search for a job that had left him depressed and unable to get out of bed some days.  He said that all he wanted was a corporate management job complete with hefty income, bonuses and benefits.  But thankfully, he told us, just such a job had been offered to him and his depression was subsiding.

Once he finished, Matt cleared his throat and asked if he could pose a challenging question.  Since that is the purpose of our Sunday sacred meal, we told him he didn’t need permission.

Matt looked at Nancy and asked, “How do you respond to his comments?  He is complaining about not getting a high-end job with benefits and you live everyday homeless, dying and reviled.  How do you respond to this?

Nancy, sitting in a camel-colored easy chair next to the table, which could support her emaciated body, straightened up as best as she could and slowly looked around the table.  She took her time and chose her words carefully.

“It’s all the same,” she said.  “It’s all the same.  All of us are trying desperately to get through each day… and all of us just need God to help us.”

 

You see, Nancy understands reality.  Big or small, it all feels the same.  Be it pain or passion, it all feels the same.

Red…I feel my soul on fire!
Black…the dark of ages past!
Red…The color of desire!
Black…The color of despair!
 

And just to bring it home.  Here is another angle on the same message by my friend, SAMM:

3 Responses to “Red and Black: Everybody Sub-plots from Les Miserables. Everybody Sub-Plot #1: Big is Small and Small is Big”

  1. I have not seen the movie yet, but appreciate your review. The final words of your post, do however, resonate with me. “We are all the same.” I believe we are more the same than most of us want to accept or believe. My dad believed that we all are born with the seed of Christ within us. Could that be?

  2. Beautiful. Thank you.

  3. My only experience with this story before watching the movie was listening to a dramatic reading of the Bishop giving away his candlesticks to Jean Valjean. Now after listening and praying the soundtrack from the famous London Cast I understand the technical deficiencies in some of the Hollywood singing…yet the story may be one of the greatest Jesus stories I have seen in a mainstream Hollywood movie. After I wiped away my constant tears throughout the film – I kept praying “….this is the faith of Christ.” Ordinary flawed people transformed in and by mercy into something more beautiful. I have been praying the Bishop’s song of hospitality along with “I Dreamed a Dream” over the course of Lent and they are deep wells.

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