Staging race, protest, justice and revolution in Thatcher’s Britain: Les Misérables and the autumn of 1985

I’ve been sitting on this academic article for a couple of years – I meant to come back and edit it and revise it, but decided that ultimately I wanted it to exist. As ever, I’m writing from the position of a white British academic in making these arguments. It explores the relationship in much further detail and thinks about how whiteness is coded into what we experience in megamusicals. Because it’s written in the ‘before-times’ – it doesn’t mention the most recent summer of protest. Also, academic articles are generally massive – I’ve posted it as a series of blog posts and slightly edited it so it works on a blog series rather than an individual piece.

Part 1: race, protest, justice and revolution

June_Rebellion.jpg (466×292)
An 1870 imagined view of the 1832 rebellion that Hugo’s novel focuses on

The theatres open their doors and present vaudevilles; the curious laugh and chat a couple of paces distant from these streets filled with war.’[i]

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862)

The fact that Hugo might have said exactly the same about the musical based on his own novel has very rarely been discussed. The musical’s early production history closely overlaps a period of some of the most significant acts of public protest and ‘riots’ from within racially minoritized and socially deprived communities in the UK. While the streets ‘filled with war’ were a few miles rather than paces away from the theatre, they were some of the most violent protests seen in Britain.

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In the weeks following September 27, 1985, the British adaptation of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s French language musical opened for a trial run of eight-weeks at the Barbican Centre. The musical was co-produced by Cameron Mackintosh and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), at the RSC’s then London base. Existing scholarship around Les Misérables has focused on the musical’s status as a global phenomenon: the musical has run for almost thirty-five years in London, been seen by more than 70 million people in 44 countries, in 22 languages, and had 47 cast recordings.[ii]  But the lack of attention to the musical’s political context in the autumn of protest in 1985 in critical literature is surprising.

In that autumn Les Misérables performed an elaborate balancing act that ultimately enabled a largely white bourgeois audience to celebrate the imagined poor’s resistance without really having to notice what was going on anywhere else. Whatever the good intentions of the practitioners and performers involved in the production, the only attempts to connect the actual people attempting social revolution that survives, or even appeared to exist, is a single line from an interview from an actor.

These protests were often only a few miles from a theatre playing a musical about social revolution. If an audience member was carrying a newspaper to the Barbican in that October 1985, that newspaper would have been full of ways in which living protesters were being deplored and dehumanized.

The Musical and Protest

The musical facilitates a kind of revolutionary inertia by carrying out a disappearing act on actual protest, and while this may likely have been inadvertent on the part of the practitioners involved, in that moment – it took some doing. Images of protest were a familiar image in British life; by 1985, the country was six years into Margaret Thatcher’s premiership and her Conservative Government’s program of reshaping and minimising the role of the Welfare State.

Thatcher had managed the collapse of the British Miners’ year long strike in early March of that year, having branded the miners’ leaders ‘the enemy within’ Britain.[iii] Poverty and social inequality worsened through the early years of her government (though some of the trends such as the decline in manufacturing had preceded the start of her leadership).[iv]

My argument here is that Les Misérables actually makes the act of protest stop mattering, by using the structure of the musical form itself. I don’t think it necessarily was an intention on any practitioners part to do this – but I would suggest that we need to think about how this whiteness actually works in practice. Because while there is a barricade and we see death, the end of the musical ‘invisibile-izes’ or dematerialises the promise of better todays by promising that only heaven can be a solution to injustice. What the end of the musical shows is a series of images which resonate through key shorthands in white supremacist structures to produce particular meanings on stage.

In order for any of this to take place – it’s important to note two particular circumstances that shape that moment of production. Firstly, British audiences of the musical in 1985 had very little background knowledge of the protests Hugo’s novel fictionalises. These public uprisings were real, unsuccessful, and brutally curtailed on the streets of Paris. This uprising was in part, an attempt to restore France to a republic after the installation of Louis Philippe I as King in 1830. The intricacies of the French history of protests and barricade building in Paris are obscured by the popular image of the “French Revolution” as a singular event involving cake, or the lack thereof, and the guillotine.

Secondly the musical focuses on individuals over community. Like all the vast majority of musicals, it elicits a profound emotional response from its audience around these tragic individual stories. In the context of 1985 – these individuals were read-as-white, not least because of their heavenly transcendence (but more on that later).

I am well aware that attending to this musical is somewhat charged, not least because of the profound spiritual and personal audience and fan responses to it that many people have. I wrote a short book on the relationship between this musical and my late father, and obviously it has a special meaning to me. [vi] This is not about ‘cancelling’ or blaming individuals – but I remain perplexed that the unique moment of production of this musical about protest took place when racial protests on the streets of London were at a moment of intense crisis. And no one has really noticed.

So what is the connection between this musical and this forgetting or looking away – and what that might tell us about how the musical as a form can look away from racial protest and injustice. All of these leads to some uncomfortable questions about what the megamusical as a form is actually doing and enacting – during the 1980s, sure, but perhaps more pertinently, now.

This connection to white supremacy is disconcerting, and is often extremely uncomfortable for white people. Frances Ansley has noted the reticence of many to think of this term as something apart from white supremacist hate groups, but defines it as a ‘structural reality’ which continually benefits and privileges white people. She reads it as the following:

 […] a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions. White supremacy produces material and psychological benefits for whites.[vii]

Frances L. Ansley, “White Supremacy (And What We Should Do about It)

Over the next few posts – I want to think more about this ‘conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement’ here, contrasting the processes of staging protest in the musical by considering a radically different approach from the same cultural moment, in the extraordinary film Handsworth Songs. But first, the next post will explain in detail what was actually going on during that Autumn – and how closely the timelines of the musical overlap with this real world protest.


[i] Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, The Project Gutenberg EBook of Les Misérables, 1887, June 22 2008, translated by Isabel F. Hapgood Book 4 Volume 10, Chapter V – The Originality of Paris, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/135/135-h/135-h.htm#link2HCH0270, accessed 16 February 2019.

[ii] Dewynters, “Les Misérables – Facts and Figures”, Les Misérables, 2017, http://www.lesmis.com/uk/, accessed 16 February 2019.

[iii] Margaret Thatcher, Speech to 1922 Committee 20 July 1984, https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/105563, accessed 11 November 2018.

[iv] Simon Rogers, “How Britain changed under Margaret Thatcher: in 15 charts”, The Guardian, 8 May 2013,https://www.theguardian.com/politics/datablog/2013/apr/08/britain-changed-margaret-thatcher-charts#poverty, accessed 11 January 2019.

[v] At this point it is necessary to acknowledge my own position as a white, British academic.

[vi] This is something I have addressed in a short monograph specifically around fan connections to the musical; Sarah Whitfield, Boublil and Schönberg’s Les Misérables (London: Routledge, 2018).

[vii] Frances L. Ansley, “White Supremacy (And What We Should Do about It),” in Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror, ed. R Delgado and J. Stefancic (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997), 592.

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