A few weeks ago, I wrote about my experience watching Les Misérables (the musical) at a theater in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The audience booed Javert when he came out for the curtain call. It was embarrassing and awkward, and an all-around poor display of theater etiquette. I was mesmerized by it. Something else happened during that moment, which I find equally engaging. I have thought about it often.
Soon after booing Javert (who had delivered an excellent performance), one of the tragic figures of the play and one of the great characters in literature, the audience gave one of the loudest cheers of the evening for M. and Mme. Thenardier of “Master of the House” fame. If you are not in the know, they are the crooked innkeepers who abuse the child Cosette, steal the impoverished Fantine’s money, lead their own daughter Eponine to a life of crime, and pillage dead bodies in the streets of Paris (among other detestable activities). They are, in short, the least virtuous of all the characters in the play, and are not at all part of the the group of great characters in literature.
And yet, the audience cheered for them. They cheered for them as if they were the greatest and most important part of the musical too. These two sing one of the catchiest songs of the play, and it has several humorous moments, and so I can understand a little bit of the motivation behind the cheering. They also provide considerable comic relief (to some points of view) in their appearances throughout, although I find it not as comical as others might. The actors who portray these two were skilled, as are any actor in this type of production. But the cheers were not motivated by their demonstration of skill. If it had not been for the Javert incident that had immediately preceded it, I would not have even thought twice about this.
But Javert had been booed. The actor portraying Javert was equally skilled as the Thenardiers, likely more-so considering he had a primary role. Javert’s character is in many ways that of a protagonist, and most certainly a tragic figure deserving a measure of compassion and respect, if not admiration. And he is certainly honorable, if not likable, and maintains an unequivocally law-abiding stance, honest to a fault.
To put it simply, if you were required to pick one of these two, Javert or the Thenardiers, for a neighbor, you would take Javert over the Thenardiers in a heartbeat (just to hear him practicing “Stars” in the evenings, I would say). But still, the audience cheered louder for the villains (the only real villains in this story) and I have often wondered why.
Some of it is the moment, I think I can see that. The actors that made you laugh amidst a play fraught with tears would attract some adoration. Laughter is one of our greatest joys, and that makes sense. Javert offers little to laugh about.
But at the same time, I am disappointed that in the end, truly detestable characters elicited a stronger positive reaction than that of a character trying so hard to live up to a standard of behavior that he believed to be right. His standard was that obedience to the law, an effort to follow an undeviating course of perfect harmony with the established requirements of behavior, is the only appropriate way of life. And though his standard might not be the very best, since it leaves little room for mercy of any kind (in word not in practice, since Javert did not walk the hard line walk he claimed despite his talk), it was still a standard of behavior worth aspiring towards.
The Thenardiers on the other hand use every opportunity to abuse and use the people around them. They delight in cheating and hurting others. They revel in crime and stealing. They prey on the most vulnerable and weak of society. They desecrate the dead. They persecute the minorities of their time. And in light of this, I think there is little excuse for considering the Thenardier characters to be anything more than the charlatans they are.
They are not deserving of a reprieve simply because they made us laugh. Maybe we ought not laugh at them even though they are comical, because in fact, they are lying to us as well. They are mocking the audience just as soundly as they are cheating their faux patrons in the play. Their message is that if you put on the right cover, anything goes. And the audience’s reaction to their performance proves that they have figured out the game quite well.
Please don’t boo the Thenardiers next time you go watch the play. That is rude and they are actors. But take a little bit of this to heart and consider what their characters’ actions really mean. Can we laugh at cruelty and be unchanged by it? Can we dismiss it as “just entertainment” and not simultaneously permit just a little sliver of acceptance of such attitudes? I don’t think we can.
One of my favorite quotes is this from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“Your actions speak so loudly I cannot hear what you say.”
This quote hangs on the wall of my home. I put it there so that I won’t forget to act like I talk, and to be honest with myself about how I act.
Let me also say that clapping for the Thenardiers during a performance or laughing at their antics are not signs of the deterioration of your personal virtue past the point of no return. I think my point here is that we ought to consider carefully what we cheer for and what behavior and attitudes we encourage, maybe less importantly within the walls of a theater and more importantly in our day to day interactions.