Victor Hugo: Les Miserables From Page to Stage

Picture of Cosette from the original 1862 version. Now used, of course, in publicity for Les Mis

Picture of Cosette from the original 1862 version. Now used, of course, in publicity for Les Mis

Well, the name says it all really. The stage version of Les Mis is back in town again and this display at the State Library explores the book Les Miserables and its adaptation for film or stage. It’s a paid exhibition ($15 adults; $10 for foundation members).

The highlight of the exhibition is the 1862 manuscript of Les Miserables- a real coup for the library as this is the first time that it has been seen in Australia. It’s a huge volume, and each page is written vertically on half the page only, so that Hugo could make his changes in the space on the other half of the page. The first drafts were written on loose paper, then transferred into the large bound book for further editing. A line was drawn through the loose paper version to show that it had been incorporated into the bound text.

With the increased frequency of travelling library exhibitions over recent years in Australia, we have been exposed to more and more of these draft versions of great books. For example, the National Gallery’s ‘Treasures from the World’s Great Libraries showcased a number of first-draft documents.  It is almost unthinkable to many of us now to contemplate writing much by hand, although some writers still do ( but surely they will be a dwindling band in the future). [As an aside, there was an interesting segment on the Media Report about a journalist who decided to write everything by hand for -ahem, two days- then photographed her handwritten version to distribute electronically as usual.] I know that the State Library of Victoria holds Peter Carey’s laptop but  the machine is not the same thing as its contents. There is something so material and human about seeing the towering tome of volume one of Les Miserables with its additions in cartoon balloons on the blank side of the paper. What happened, I wondered, when he ran out of room on the blank section?

It took Victor Hugo seventeen years to write the book, much of it while in exile from France after he was involved in an attempt to overthrow Napoleon III – or “Napoleon the little” as Hugo dubbed him in a pamphlet smuggled into France.  I am rather embarrassed that I was completely oblivious to Hugo’s political involvement. On the basis of his eminence as a man of letters, he had been elevated to the peerage by King Louis-Phillipe  in 1841 and entered the higher chamber (similar to the House of Lords). In 1848 he was elected to the house as a conservative, but seemed to become increasingly progressive in his views about poverty, education, the suffrage and abolition of the death penalty. When Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) seized power, Hugo left France.

I also hadn’t realized that the release of the first two volumes in 1862 was such a big occasion. It sold out almost instantly, and public readings were quickly organized for those who missed out. Within three months 100,000 official copies of the book had been sold, worldwide.

The exhibition is divided into two parts. The first deals with Hugo, the book, artistic depictions of the main characters, and sketches and photographic images of pre-Haussman Paris. As you might expect for a book that has been filmed so often, there were clips from the various versions, spliced together into a film loop. I was disappointed that the clips weren’t dated and labelled: there was a small panel to one side identifying the version, but once you moved back to see the film, you could no longer read the panel.

The second part of the exhibition is displayed in the Experimedia section of the library, which worked well as a space. This section is devoted to the Boubil and Schonberg “Les Mis” in its different manifestations all over the world.  It is appropriate, perhaps, that a book that had such a commercial and international debut 120 years earlier should spawn a truly global theatrical phenomenon.  There are publicity materials from productions all over the world: I found the Japanese Les Mis particularly interesting. This section was perhaps a little too commercial for my liking- capped off by the obligatory exit through the gift-shop- but I must confess to spending a good twenty minutes watching a film clip of the concert version.

And, I admit, I walked out humming “Do You Hear the People Sing?”

Exhibition open 18 July – 9 November 2014

10-6 Daily, Thursday until 9.00 p.m., State Library of Victoria

Other links:  The Conversation has an interesting review from the perspective of a Dickens scholar.

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2 responses to “Victor Hugo: Les Miserables From Page to Stage

  1. I really enjoyed your experience of the exhibition Janine, and it made me super keen to see it. I did manage it a week or so ago, on a short, busy work trip to Melbourne- no time for catching up I’m sad to say. It was a great exhibition, I really enjoyed it and walked out humming too- impossible not to really. I did know about Victor Hugo’s exile as he appeared wherever we went on our 2010 trip to Europe- Paris of course where I went to the Musee Victor Hugo, and he was also in exile in Vianden in Luxembourg where we went randomly one day.

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