A real-life playwright’s development in Victor Hugo’s novel
The young orphan hero hovers on the verge of greatness, The mystery play he has written for the national double celebration of the festival of the Kings and the Fools is about to commence. His audience has been waiting for hours. Aside from the adoration, he is also is looking forward to receiving payment so he can fill his empty stomach, replace his battered hat and pay his overdue rent to enjoy a good night’s sleep, finally.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it, creators? Hopes and aspirations for a piece of business or a life-changing commission? As some enterprises reopen for the first time since COVID-19, that palpable excitement may be growing, or maybe it has passed.
What do you look for in a hero or role model? Is it a success story with a linear journey of actions taken, goals achieved, and subsequent results? Is it a Steve Jobs or Elon Musk model where the method involved holding onto that bone of greatness through all adversity?
This is a story about another kind of hero.
Pierre Gringoire was a real playwright whose life was loosely fictionalized in Victor Hugo’s, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Why him? As with so many things in life, it was probably about the timing. In 2017 my first play was haphazardly produced by myself, and feelings of excitement, anticipation, and disappointment that Pierre experiences in the story resonated with me.
“I have neither regret nor desire; I have arranged my mode of life.”
What a stoic! Yes, Pierre — that’s exactly how I felt. The end of a great passion had drawn nigh which came with its ups and downs but could I say that I regretted any part of the journey? No. Yet I no longer desired the same path. Something had ceased to be alive, yet not forgotten, which is the case with all of life’s lessons, if we choose to listen to the passing chapter.
And as lessons are much easier to attribute to someone else’s life than your own I wanted to expand my observations of Pierre Gringoire’s life, as created in The Hunchback of Notre Dame written by Victor Hugo in 1831.
I hope he will inspire you, as he inspired me, to live, love, and eventually, learn life’s lessons.
Discomfort and impatience had already set in with Pierre’s audience while they awaited the arrival of the Flemish envoy to start the mystery. Banter had erupted in the crowd, still jovial yet getting more restless with each moment passed.
The play commences after a series of delays, but interruption comes not long into the performance, and the attention of the crowd is lost for good as one distraction heaps upon another. It starts with a vagabond who climbs atop a pillar to beg and who is then shouted at by an oafish youth, stealing the attention from the stage. Events pile one on top of another so that when a Flemish hosier in the felt hat makes a noisy suggestion that they cancel the mystery altogether and proceed with a fools parade the crowd is mightily receptive.
“I know not whether that be what ye call a mystery, but I do know that ’tis not amusing.”
Owch. What a change in circumstance in a mere hour. The Great Hall empties as the entire audience goes in search of a king of fools. Poor, sad Pierre Gringoire.
Have you ever had your expectations dashed so suddenly and cruelly and by such random-seeming circumstances? We hear a lot about resilience in business, and this has never been truer than right now when so many companies are in flux.
You think you have it made, one moment you do and the next it has pulled rapidly out from underneath you.
I don’t know what advice we can glean from this misfortune if nothing else than sometimes life throws these things at you and sometimes it gets worse before it gets better sometimes, as we’re about to discover.
Things get worse
It wasn’t just his pride and ego that were destroyed with the premature termination of his play. Without the show going on, he could not get paid for his work. Being already indebted to his landlord, he could not return to his lodgings, and having not a single piece of money on his person he could only roam the streets on this January night in Paris; hungry and sorry for himself.
Conditions continue to deteriorate. He loses his jacket, nearly drowns and freezes, gets set on fire, and is just about to give in and die when he sees the young Gypsy girl Esmeralda dancing with her goat Djali. Pierre decides to follow her after her performance is interrupted by the story’s antagonist, Don Claude Frollo.
Point to note here is that we make our worst decisions when we’re down in the dumps and all foggy with despair — following a young girl through the streets at night — wrong decision Pierre.
As he follows, she is getting understandably nervous. After a few turns, she leads him into the Court of Miracles, where he finds a grotesque band of beggars and thieves.
“Where no honest man had ever penetrated at such an hour. That stream of vice, mendicity which ever flows through the streets of a capital.”
In the Court of Miracles surrounded by the Truands, a group of thieves and vagabonds, Pierre’s problems have shifted, and even he recognizes this. Suddenly the failed play seems like a lifetime ago. He has stumbled into a forbidden land where unfamiliar laws govern, and he receives a severe sentence for his trespass- death.
He makes several attempts to avert this fate; by swearing to live the honest life of thief and beggar and throw away all of his civilized habits. The Truand leader is not satisfied and gives him an impossible balancing trick, which he fails, furthermore proving himself to be useless to the Truand community.
When at last, Pierre accepts his fate and surrenders himself a rescue comes from Esmeralda who agrees to marry him to save him from the noose.
A few lessons here. Sometimes, but not always, when we surrender ourselves to our circumstances, the universe responds. This is, of course, a piece about a fictional character, so I’ve got a poetic license to be more romantic than usual.
But more importantly, Pierre is operating without a strategy; on autopilot. He follows young girls through the streets, he wanders into places unknown, he throws out his usual methods of persuasion at the problem, but none of them help because he is in a new world where his old powers don’t work.
Hope at last
All is well after all on this longest of days and nights, yet he discovers to some disappointment that the marriage position was simply a goodwill gesture from Esmeralda. He has food and lodgings, but she is wife only as a favour and does not intend to embark on a love affair with him.
He bears this disappointment well.
Pierre slips into his new life with ease and develops a platonic admiration for Esmeralda and her pet goat Djali. He adapts quickly to the Truand life, making strong friendships and seemingly finding his place in life. He makes a simple amount of money for bread each day he entertains crowds and finds peace in a simpler life.
When Don Frollo discovers him staring dreamily at the chapel of le For-l’Evêque’, he defends his new simple way of life.
‘I have arranged my mode of life. When one has an idea, one finds it in everything.’
And so he had, arranged his thinking and mode of life yet he’s still strolling along and not making a decision. He accepts the fates that come his way, and perhaps I’m unduly harsh on a 15th-century citizen, but the fact remains he is a passenger of life, not a driver.
Does this feel familiar? One day following a couple of changes in circumstances you find your life is flowing smoothly along but not to your own tune; to something else’s rhythm.
Usually, when I’m like this, I have a sense of frustration or disconnect, though, for Pierre, the wake up came in the form of an external force.
Recalled to action
Esmeralda has disappeared, assumed hanged, and died after being charged with murder and witchcraft, and Pierre is pleased to hear that his friend is still alive though he doesn’t see how he has a role in her rescue.
Typical thoughtless Pierre.
When Don Claude Frollo presents him with a plan to sneak into the Cathedral, swap clothes with Esmeralda, and allow her to escape, with Pierre taking her place he is not enthusiastic.
Pierre understands that dressed in her clothes he will be hanged, assumed to be Esmeralda.
Frollo asks him what it is that attaches him to his life so much to which he gives a lengthy soliloquy ending in
‘I have the felicity of passing the whole of my days, from mornings till night with a man of genius — who is myself — which is very agreeable.’
I love that through all of this Pierre hasn’t lost his somewhat overrated sense of self-importance. Yet he doesn’t reject the call to action of Frollo and makes a new plan to rescue the girl.
The personal development of Pierre Gringoire
Pierre leads a failed siege against the Cathedral, and while his comrades, the Truands are fighting he accepts a mission from a cloaked figure to sneak into the Cathedral by another route and help Esmeralda to escape.
Pierre’s mission goes as plan, but as he is rowed to the shore of the riverbank and sees the carnage of the Notre Dame attack ahead of him, he starts to ponder the fate of the goat Djali.
“It was certain that Pierre was in a cruel dilemma. He reflects that, as the law then stood, the goat would hang too, if she were retaken; that it would be a great pity, poor Djali.”
What did Pierre do?
Gringoire had taken advantage of the moment of their going ashore to slip away with the goat.
And finally, Pierre reaches a stage that perhaps not many of us get to in our lives, at least not very often. He takes control of his situation. You may think him, and me, cold-hearted for the celebration of his cowardly final act, but it represents an act of personal and self-development.
For the first time since we have met him, we see Pierre take an active step towards his future.
Poor Esmeralda was abandoned to her admiring companion, Don Claude Frollo who, after being rejected for her love (again) hands her over to the authorities for hanging.
Before you’re too hard on Pierre, it’s worth reflecting that the silly girl doesn’t help herself, but this is about Pierre, not one of Hugo’s badly drawn women, which, I’m not judging that either, could have been a thing from that time.
My top takeaways from the story of Gringoire:
- Life has its moments. Sometimes we forget our purpose, sometimes we allow ego or vanity to judge our failure or success, but perhaps these chapters are evidence of a life well-lived.
- Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better.
- Sometimes we need to surrender ourselves to circumstances, but it doesn’t mean we are giving up forever. We just need a rest.
- There’s no helping some people.
- The most significant decisions in life are often the hardest to make, but we can only grow as humans when we learn how to make decisions ourselves. Perhaps it’s a big part of growing up when we realize life is full of difficult choices; it is up to us to make them or forever be a passenger on a sea of life.
Thanks for reading.