A week after the Paris attacks, actor Hugo Chiarella found himself performing through sobering parallels, causing him to re-examine the events.
The Saturday after the Paris attacks, I took to the stage with the Australian cast of Les Misérables to perform a musical depicting acts of political violence in the streets of Paris. It was a charged atmosphere and a particularly emotional evening for both the cast and the audience. But as I experienced Victor Hugo’s story unfold and took in the lyrics – “The blood of the martyrs will water the meadows of France” – I found myself troubled by some of the parallels that were jumping out at me.
When the leader of the student uprising, Enjolras, turns to his compatriots during the final attack on the barricades and sings, “Let us die facing our foes. Make them bleed while we can…Let others rise to take our place until the earth is free,” I couldn’t help but think of the three men in the Bataclan Theatre detonating their suicide belts as the police entered the building.
When Marius, one of the young revolutionaries, sings of his guilt at not joining his friends in martyrdom when the student revolt is routed, I found myself thinking of the young Australian Muslims fleeing the relative comfort of Australian suburbia to give their lives to ISIS.
When the ghosts of the fallen students march on stage to welcome Jean Valjean, the story’s major protagonist, into heaven and sing of the fallen, “They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord. They will walk behind the ploughshare. They will put away the sword,” I find myself thinking about the Quranic promise of a place in paradise for jihadist martyrs.
As these troubling parallels became more pronounced and more specific, it became apparent to me that the connections I was identifying between our story and the events that had taken place the night before in Paris were not with the victims, but rather with the perpetrators. It suddenly felt to me a somewhat strange and unpleasant job to have to portray someone who was willing to kill, and in doing so sacrifice their own life, for the sake of ideology.
Of course, it is important in discussing this emphatically to distinguish the goals of these two historical moments. The June rebellion of 1832 was an attempt to overthrow a cruel and oppressive monarchy and reverse some of the systemically entrenched inequality of the time. The Paris attacks and the work of ISIS are an attempt to establish a worldwide caliphate under a cruel and oppressive regime dictated by violent and discriminatory religious tenets.
What’s clear, however, is that both groups are mobilised to commit acts of violence for their beliefs. It is possible to see how, to the ruling class of 1832, the students firing at the National Guard in the streets of Paris would have been viewed as terrorists. It is also possible to see how to uneducated, impoverished Jihadists growing up in a war-torn country, the relative wealth and excesses of western culture might seem like oppressive, systemically entrenched inequality and injustice. What’s more, it seems like the only thing separating our perception of the actions of these two groups is an ideological allegiance. Both groups believe in their cause with the same level of vehemence, perhaps even fundamentalism. I point this out not to excuse the actions of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks, nor to denounce the actions of the characters in Hugo’s novel, but rather to suggest that our perception of right and wrong is largely shaped by culture.
There is a reason that Les Misérables continues to have such a strong resonance with audiences around the world. Hugo’s story has become a kind of mythology of our values. Liberty, equality and fraternity have come to seem like the guiding moral principles of any civilised society. The way we continue to invest in the plight of the students of Les Misérables – willing to kill and lay down their lives for these principles – suggests to me an unquestioning cultural belief in the inherent unassailability of these ideals.
Perhaps it is even fair to say that many of us are actually extremists and fundamentalists of these very values, willing to defend them and propagate them at any cost. This fundamentalism leaves us vulnerable to the manipulation of leaders who would exploit these values as the catch-cry for acts of imperial violence and expropriation elsewhere in the world, in particular in the Middle East. This is not to suggest these values are not worth fighting and dying for, only that the notion that certain principles are of greater value than individual human life is one that is common to most cultures, regardless of how different those principles may be.
It is sometimes uncomfortable to consider this level of moral relativism, particularly in light of events such as the Paris attacks.
I am in no way trying to justify or explain the actions of those attackers.
They are abhorrent, repulsive and misguided. I nonetheless do feel compelled to question the simplicity of a narrative that would portray them as evil (and us as good). What I question is not the wrongness of their acts, but the possibility of interpreting them in any simple, unilateral moral way.
One might argue that participating in any art, but particularly the theatre, is an exercise in empathy. So, what is the value of an experience that causes us to empathise with people who are currently committing violent atrocities around the globe? I would argue there is nothing more valuable right now. I went into that performance of Les Misérables already grieving for the victims of the Paris attacks.
My empathetic muscles were already working in that regard.
What this exercise in empathy forced me to do was interrogate the relativity of my own values and scrutinise the justification of violence in their name.
What is the role of art in the face of terrorism or indeed fear? Empathy. The questioning of totalising ideologies, even (perhaps especially) our own, are the ways towards a more tolerant and peaceful world.
Note: "This piece is written and published of the author's own volition and in no way shares the views of nor is it intended as publicity for Les Misérables Australia."