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FASTLANES: In search of indignation

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CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 29 May) — The staging by St. Mary’s School of Victor Hugo’s obra maestra, the Les Miserables, last May 20 and 21 at the Rodelsa Hall of Liceo de Cagayan University was very laudable as it was most relevant.

The play directed by Roland Rivera from the non-musical adaptation by Tim Kelly is powerful and magnificent. Something we can be mightily proud of. The young talents who gave life to the work of the great romantic Victor Hugo were splendid.

The play opened with a very common and powerful manifestation of injustice: Jean Valjean, one of the central characters struggling to integrate into society after spending 19 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his hungry family.

Les Miserables is set during the years leading to the June Rebellion of 1832, marked by the Bourbon Restoration that gave rise to a constitutional monarchy following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and subsequent exile to St. Helena.

The lifestyle of the wretched is parodied by the Thenardiers. Perhaps, many of us can relate to it – Filipinos making fun of their wretchedness and tragedies. Fantine, ambitious, ended up a single mother who eventually left her child in the care of the Thenardiers. A Paraluman in the epic song of the Eraserheads.

Marius and the young men and women leading the barricade portray the awakening of the aristocrats to the class contradictions that resulted in the exploitation of the toiling masses, the class transformation of some aristocrats and awakening of the petit bourgeoisie. Marius manages to survive the carnage at the barricade, but his comrades don’t. His salvation by Valjean carrying his limp body is a poignant scene.

The contradiction in the lives of Cosette and Eponine is perhaps the apex of the play’s drama. Cosette eventually ends up with Marius, who both get the blessings of Valjean, who ironically gets his renewal on his deathbed. Eponine on the other hand brings down her love to Marius, her own idealism, and her despair at the barricade.

Watching Les Miserables is like watching a real-life, real-time social commentary. The stories, conflicts, the struggles, the drama were so relatable.

The only difference is that the concept of the republic was the silver lining during the time when Hugo wrote Les Miserables, during his exile in the 1850s and early 1860s for calling Napoleon III a traitor after the latter declared himself Emperor in 1852. Now, the concept of the republic is being challenged. Free elections, freedom of speech, rights to life, and property, off-springs of republicanism – which is about self-rule and the liberties of a state – is now seriously challenged.

Director Rivera could not say it more succinctly: The message of Les Miserables is timeless. “The message of Les Miserables speaks of society as a whole. Nothing has really changed… we face the same passions, the same conflicts, the same struggles between the ones in power and the ones who are powerless.”

St. Mary’s School staged the Les Miserables with a real community where young people are in despair as backdrop – a rise in suicides among the youth, families struggling with high prices of commodities due to high inflation, and where crimes abound. There is widespread contempt by the people of those in power. And yet when people are asked to choose their leaders, they choose the same people they so contemptuously call kawatan, kurakot, bakakon. It’s where the reality of hopelessness, insecurity, and despair results in more apathy.

I am just happy that St. Mary’s School proved that our academic institutions are not about to concede the role of arts and literature to crass commercialism and TikTok. 

I hope the play would help the youth contextualize social problems and take on the challenges to work for change in our society, for the transformation of that hopelessness, insecurity and despair into righteous anger, which German philosopher Ernst Bloch, refers to as the “indignation over assaults upon human dignity.”

(The writer is an environmentalist, and independent climate change and renewable energy campaigner who dabbles in strategic communications and public relations. He is a former journalist. Comments can be sent to bency.ellorin@gmail.com.)

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