– That’s the way to please the Lord,
or so says Javert in the musical version of Les Misérables. I had the pleasure of seeing that show at the Quincy (Ill.) Community Theatre last weekend, and for various reasons, that line stuck with me more than it had in previous performances.
Before I go on about that passage, let me gush for a moment about the QCT’s production. Quincy is a town of 40,000, with a community theater that relies on all-volunteer casts (although this production brought in a professional singer to play Jean Valjean). Yet despite those limitations, the QCT brought in a version of Les Misérables that was remarkably robust and accomplished. I give the music director, Larry Finley, a lot of credit for coordinating a tight 20-person pit orchestra with the singers. The performance was a real triumph for a small-city community theater group and a fitting 400th production in its history.
But back to Javert. He speaks that line when he is sending Fantine on her path to ruin, and of course we are meant to recognize it as the heartless abstraction that it is. It’s a way for Javert to not-think about the human being in front of him, casting her as an example of a principle rather than a person with particular circumstances. We all know people like that; I work with some of them, and there are few more frustrating sorts to deal with than those who insist on an inflexible abstraction in the face of compelling circumstances before them.
What struck me about the line this time, though, was not merely that it shows the limitations of Javert’s spirit, but that it’s so palpably false. Some of my dearest people live for their honest work – devote themselves to it – and receive no reward at all. We’ve all known people who have seen their honest and devoted work get snatched away by workplace politics and the selfishness of others.
So what’s a person to do? There’s no good answer. Persist in your work and ignore the reward or lack of reward that may come from it? Nice idea but it feels like surrendering to those who choose to play the game instead of focusing on their proper work. Play the game yourself? That’s abandoning your principles.
Dealing with our fellow human beings is a messy business, and only the Javerts of this world make it tidy in their own minds with comforting, fake abstractions. And who wants to be a Javert?