When a production of “Les Misérables” came to Milwaukee in late 2022, Dr. Ben Pladek extended the reach of Romantic Studies by leading the community in conversations about the musical’s 19th century origins and contemporary relevance.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker
By Laura Bengs
Like one of Victor Hugo’s characteristically ludicrous coincidences woven through his classic novel “Les Misérables,” Dr. Ben Pladek, associate professor of English and an expert on 18th and 19th-century literature, discovered that the Marcus Performing Arts Center was presenting the Broadway musical of the same title during a semester when he was teaching a course on the novel.
“It was like the hand of God reaching out to say: You should talk to them,” Pladek says. He connected with the Marcus Center and offered to guide the community in a discussion of the book’s contemporary relevance. His talk was hosted in conjunction with the musical’s performance on Dec. 4. The story of “Les Misérables” explores the aftermath of the French Revolution, which Pladek argues is the most important political event of Romanticism — his area of historical specialization.
“’Les Misérables’ is a book about just how hard it is to ‘be the difference,’ and about why it’s always worth it to try.”
Dr. Ben Pladek
“Les Misérables is a book that feels eerily prescient,” says Pladek, whose scholarship examines Romanticism’s modern reach. “It focuses on systemic abuses, and some of them include workers’ rights, police violence and the difficulties of doing activism in a system that is set up to snuff it out
Pladek delivered a 15-minute talk prior to the Dec. 4 matinee that touched on the historical context of the book and discussed how the book and musical jointly speak to some of today’s most urgent problems. He concluded the talk with a Q&A session.
And that wasn’t all. That same weekend, Pladek discussed the enduring legacy of “Les Misérables” and the prescience of Romantic literature as a guest on As Goes Wisconsin, the live radio talk show and podcast hosted by humorist Kristin Brey.
Pladek, the author of “The Poetics of Palliation: Romantic Literary Therapy, 1790-1850” (Liverpool University Press, 2019), says conversations about historical literature can provide a blueprint for navigating struggles that humans have faced before, and this kind of literature helps students — and the community — see those blueprints and compare their experiences with earlier struggles. He acknowledges grappling with the larger questions “Les Misérables” raises when crafting his first novel, Dry Land (University of Wisconsin Press), out this fall, which takes place in the early 20th century during World War I.
Hugo’s story, as portrayed in both the book and musical, captures the spirit of great hope tied to great despair, but shows how activism can eventually effect change.
“Les Misérables” is a book about just how hard it is to ‘be the difference,’ and about why it’s always worth it to try,” Pladek says.
Learn more about the “Les Misérables” tour, including tour dates.