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Schoolboy Prank or Social Comment?

The Candide Kaleidoscope

by Roger Brunyate

Candide at Peabody, March 27–30, 2003

Production photos by Jesse Hellman

This article is reprinted from Peabody News, March 1995, announcing John Lehmeyer’s first production as a member of the Peabody faculty. At the present time, it is not known whether the aesthetics or visual elements of his new production will follow the same lines as his previous one.

“I was surprised by how light and impulsive and irreverent it is. Voltaire wrote it quickly and denied having written it, putting it down as a schoolboy’s prank. And that’s the spirit of it.” This is Harold Prince, speaking of Voltaire’s Candide, the book on which the Leonard Bernstein musical is based. Inspired by this spirit of fun, Prince directed the first successful Broadway production of Candide in 1973. By contrast, the actual premiere in 1956, though critically admired, was not nearly so successful with the public. But times were darker then. Bernstein himself called the work “a political comment in the aftermath of Joe McCarthy.” He should know. He himself had been under suspicion by the House Un-American Activities Committee; and Lillian Hellman, his principal collaborator, wrote the text while her partner Dashiell Hammett was in prison for his defiance of McCarthy.

So what is this work? “A swirling rag-tag world pinned to the stage,” as one critic put it, or “a biting theatrical satire,” in the words of another? For that matter, is it opera or musical or some new genre in between? Candide has the the protean quality of appearing to change as its context changes. It began on Broadway, but has recently found a home in the opera house. It started in the fifties as political satire, but enjoyed its first big success in the hedonistic seventies in a brilliant but abbreviated production aiming for pure entertainment. Perhaps now in the nineties, with the original version restored and the political climate different again, it can hit its social targets once more, without losing its sense of fun.

This dichotomy in Bernstein’s Candide reflects the two sides of Voltaire’s short novel, which is both biting and funny. The challenge which occupied Bernstein and his many collaborators through four years of writing and numerous revisions is the challenge of adapting what is essentially a novel of ideas into the feast of action required by the musical stage.

  Candide is caught
in a physics experiment with Cunegonde; illustration to the original
edition
Candide expelled from the castle
(illustration to the original edition)
The subtitle of Voltaire’s book is Optimism. Candide, the innocent hero, has been brought up by his tutor Dr. Pangloss to believe that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” Many things happen to test this belief. He is thrust into a ghastly war, finds his beloved Cunegonde raped and apparently dead on the battlefield, escapes shipwreck and an earthquake only to be flogged as a heretic at an auto-da-fé in Lisbon – and that is just the beginning. But Voltaire treats it all with a marvelously light touch. The action begins, for example, when Candide is caught in flagrante delicto with Cunegonde. Or, as Voltaire describes it: “One day Cunegonde saw Dr. Pangloss behind some bushes giving a lesson in experimental physics to her mother’s waiting-woman, a pretty little brunette who seemed eminently teachable. Since Cunegonde took a great interest in science, she watched the experiments being repeated with breathless fascination…, and fancied that she could reason equally well with young Candide and he with her.”

Voltaire’s ribald wit was undoubtedly one of the things that first attracted Bernstein and Hellman to Candide, and their version is bawdy and irreverent. Its social satire, like Voltaire’s, managing to insult everybody with a total absence of prejudice. As Peabody conductor Hajime Ten Murai says: “Candide skewers hypocrisy of all kinds. Sexual, political, and social mores are brought out into the open. Its aim is to shock people into reconsideration of their views.... Perhaps only Lenny Bernstein could do this and get away with it.”

The evils and hypocrisies which Voltaire attacked were well-known in his time: the horrors of the Seven Years' War, the Spanish Inquisition, colonialism in South America, the slave trade, religious and racial intolerance, and the treatment of women. He also attacked those philosophies of convenience which enabled people to justify or ignore such outrages. The actual events may be long past, but the attitudes behind Voltaire’s attacks still resonate today. As Bernstein put it: “The matters with which it is concerned are as valid for us in America, with its puritanical snobbery, phony moralism, inquisitory attacks on the individual, brave-new-world optimism, essential superiority – aren't these the charges levelled against American society?”

Candide in the
Seven Year's War  
Candide flees the Seven Years’ War
Satire, however, is notoriously difficult to transfer to the stage. Voltaire’s satire in particular always involves filtering events through a particular point of view. Cunegonde’s discovery of sex, in the passage quoted above, is funny because it is described through Cunegonde’s inquisitive-innocent mind, which in turn reflects the teachings of Dr. Pangloss. All action in the book is narrated in a similar way, sometimes in Voltaire’s own voice, sometimes through the mouth of one of his characters. This is a problem in the theater, which always prefers to show rather than to tell. The authors of Candide attempt to capture something of Voltaire’s tone through the unusual device of framing the action by a narrator who plays several parts, including the optimistic Pangloss, the pessimistic Martin, and Voltaire himself, so that the viewpoint shifts constantly. Added to this is the device of having all the numerous supporting roles taken by a small ensemble of singers, so that the effect is a kaleidoscope of characters and incidents, some sustained for a number or two, some flashing brilliantly for a mere moment.

Undoubtedly, this kaleidoscope effect was very attractive to Bernstein and his collaborators. Consider the matter of locale. Voltaire’s hero starts in Westphalia and travels all over the world: to Lisbon, Buenos Aires, the mythical country of Eldorado, Surinam, Paris, Venice, and finally to Constantinople. Each of these provided opportunities for music that is full of local color. Westphalia, for example, conjures up a Bach-like chorale; Paris, a heady waltz; Venice, a barcarole; and the music of Spain and Latin America is parodied affectionately in number after number. It is an exhilarating mixture. Ten Murai says: “I love the eclecticism of it: symphonic music, opera, music theater, jazz; period, popular, and ethnic elements all find a place here.” But perhaps it is all too clever. There is evidence of the young Bernstein throwing things in just for the fun of proving that he could do them, or to give the show its requisite Broadway glitz.

  The price of 
eating sugar in Europe; Candide sees mutilated slaves in a sugar 
plantation
The price of eating sugar in Europe
John Lehmeyer, the director of the Peabody production, agrees, seeing problems precisely in this theatrical legerdemain: “Most productions are coy and overproduced, about scenery and too many costumes. It’s not about production – it’s about the words; we must be terribly concerned with what is being said. There is an essential cleanness about Voltaire. That is why I'm keeping this production as color-free as possible.”

Lehmeyer puts his finger on the interpretive crux of this show: whether to focus on satire and irony, or go for what one critic called the “shiny showbiz cheer” of the original production. He has emphatically chosen the former course. His sets will consist of a large platform, a few boxes, and a lot of projections. Singers will change character merely by putting on a hat or a shawl, and the whole will have the spirit of the playground.

Lehmeyer, who joined the Peabody faculty this year [in 1954], feels especially fortunate to be working with young performers. “There is an innocence about them,” he says, “and a lack of jaded pseudo-sophistication. They could never allow the show to become vulgar or overblown.”

To call Candide a cross between showbiz and satire, leaves out one important element – that of the characters. Take Cunegonde, for instance. In the book, she is an ideal rather than a real person, viewed increasingly through rose-tinted spectacles as she is degraded by events. But in Bernstein’s version, Lehmeyer sees something deeper: “There is a Mother Courage quality about Cunegonde; she is a survivor. All the characters are survivors in their various ways, but Cunegonde has a laser-beam sense of survival. She is not a sweet innocent child to whom things happen, but a possessed creature from the moment the show begins. Candide, on the other hand, is truly innocent – the simple, good person we would all like to be. Throughout the play, he tries to maintain his sense of honor and decency. He is the center that all these whirlwinds rotate around.”

Lehmeyer finds this moral balance immensely consoling. He points out that although Cunegonde turns into a withered, unattractive person at the end, Candide marries her anyway. “The Pollyanna in me likes very much the fact that however black it seems, there is still a sense of hope. That is one of the reasons I love to go to weddings.”

Don't we all!

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