Laughter misplaced in Les Misérables

When an audience member laughs (while texting) at one of the most moving moments in Les Misérables, what does it say about today's society and the individuals who inhabit it?
Alma Acevedo | Jan 21 2013 | comment  


Something unsettling happened on my way to Les Mis.

A middle-aged gentleman, iPhone in hand, laughed and texted out loud. No, not during the Thénardiers’ sequence -- to which bewilderment and revulsion might be a more fitting response -- but, pointedly, during Jean Valjean’s moments of prayer. Repeatedly, systematically, the laughter and clicking would come from that seat close by, as a dissonant chord in the otherwise quiet movie house.

Why would anyone be tethered 24/7 to their smartphone, except in case of emergency, is puzzling. That anyone would attend the cinema, thus armed, is rude. Where are the movie theater ushers when you need them? Sitting offline and still for a couple of hours seems to have become an impossible feat for some humans. For them, incessantly cybersurfing, texting, and networking seem to be more urgent than elementary civic etiquette.

A few moviegoers may have nonchalantly brushed aside the gentleman’s disruptive behavior as a minor inconvenience or a mindless tick. Its timing, though, was suspicious. That anyone would laugh while a person is begging for divine forgiveness and redemption is disconcerting. A mediocre rendition, perhaps? No, Hugh Jackman’s performance -- Oscar- nominated for Best Actor -- was credible enough. Its very credibility possibly poked my theater neighbor’s unremitting reaction.

I will neither discuss the merits and demerits of Tom Hooper’s recently released adaptation of Les Misérables, nor the musical’s fidelity to the original Victor Hugo’s novel, nor the critical outlooks of feminist politics (quite critical, of course), postmodernism, or new historicism. This task has already been accomplished by countless critics. Why would anyone be the Grinch who stole Les Mis’ religious notes is now my sole concern.

Was the gentleman’s laughter the sound of ignorance or of despair, of embarrassment or of scorn? Was it an awkward giggle or a deliberate snicker? Could it be that Jean Valjean reminded him of his own sins awaiting redress?

Was he reminded of old vows broken and young love lost? Of his own Fantine deserted, his own Cosette forgotten at the depraved inn, his own Fauchelevent left trapped under the unbearable load? Was it the uneasy recognition of a life that could have been?

Could it be that in this age of relativistic melee, repentance and conversion have turned into merely quaint objects of curiosity or amusement? Could it be that “to love another person is to see the face of God,” rather than a divine call, has become a thing of banality, just another cliché or user-friendly game?

When I first saw the musical, years ago, the revolutionary zeal artfully wrapped in showstopper songs caught the imagination. Now, its stories of love appear more moving — Jean Valjean’s love of Fantine, Cosette, Marius, Inspector Javert, Fauchelevent; Fantine’s of Cosette; Eponine’s of Marius; Bishop Myriel’s of Valjean; Cosette and Marius’; God’s of men. A good story speaks to you in distinct but harmonious voices at different stages of your life.

The message of redemption, peace, and true love speaks louder than the rebellion whose grandiose dream of absolute equality overlooks real justice. It rings truer than the revolt expecting to free humanity without first saving the person’s soul. Rather than a reckless and short-lived barricade, the real revolution is, after all, the conversion of the human spirit — steadfast and courageous, faithful and sacrificial.

“I have ransomed you from fear and hatred and now I give you back to God” says Bishop Myriel to Jean Valjean in one of Les Mis’ most memorable lines. Was it fear that moved the smartphone-armed gentleman? Was it hatred? Where does the ransom lie? Will he remember to say a heartfelt prayer tonight?

Alma Acevedo, PhD, teaches courses in applied ethics and conducts research in this field.

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