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Norman McKinnel’s play The Bishop’s Candlesticks is an adaptation of volume one, book second, of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables.

The play is based on the concept that no man is a born offender. It is the circumstances that force him to be so. Punishment or conviction is not the way to reform an offender or a convict. It is charity, faith, hope sympathy and forgiveness that are needed to regain the ‘lost soul’ in a man. In the play, the Bishop does the same with the Convict. But when the Bishop and the Convict were talking the conversation went like this (page 12):

CONVICT: D’you know what I am?

BISHOP: I think one who has suffered much

CONVICT: Suffered? Suffered? My God, yes. But that’s a long time ago. Ha! Ha! Ha! That was when I was a man. Now I’m not a man; now I’m a number: number 15,729 and I’ve lived in Hell for ten years?

What did the Convict mean by “now I’m a number: number 15,729”?

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In Les Misérables, Jean Valjean spent nineteen years in the Bagne de Toulon, a notorious prison.

Nineteen years. In October, 1815, he was released; he had entered there in 1796, for having broken a pane of glass and taken a loaf of bread.

Victor Hugo (1862). Les Misérables, book 2, chapter 6. Translated by Isabel Hapgood.

In the prison he was referred to by his number, not by his name:

At Toulon he was clothed in the red cassock. All that had constituted his life, even to his name, was effaced; he was no longer even Jean Valjean; he was number 24,601.

Being stripped of one’s name is dehumanizing and degrading, and this is what makes the convict say, “I’m not a man”.

Why McKinnel changed “24,601” to “15729” and “nineteen” to “ten”, I find it hard to imagine. Perhaps McKinnel wanted to establish some distance from his source material? But I am not impressed with his dramatic choices. In every case his change from Hugo’s original reduces the dramatic impact. For example, in Les Misérables, Valjean does not steal the candlesticks, but rather “six sets of silver forks and spoons and a ladle”. Instead, the bishop gives him the candlesticks in addition to the silverware that he stole—it is this act of supererogation, going above and beyond what was needed, that wins Valjean’s soul so that he “no longer belongs to evil, but to good.”

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