It was in the so-called Age of Enlightenment (roughly the 18th Century) that Voltaire1 wrote the mercilessly satirical novella Candide. The object of Voltaire's satire was the fashionable philosophy of Optimism, particularly as expounded by Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646 - 1716), German mathematician and philosopher, and versified by the English poet Alexander Pope.
If there is an omnipotent, benevolent Creator (argued the Optimists), He must be the best of all possible Creators; and since He has created the world we live in, it must be the best of all possible worlds. As Pope wrote in his Essay on Man, 'One truth is clear: whatever is, is right.'
There may be poverty and misery in the world, there may be disease and death, there may be tyranny and injustice, there may be ignorance and fear and pain and suffering and hopelessness and despair, but if only we could see the big picture and appreciate the great universal plan that our totally good Creator has for the world, we would understand that whatever happens is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds. Such is the central credo of Optimism, and Voltaire entitled his book Candide, or Optimism.
Voltaire found this way of thinking totally absurd, not least when in 1755 a massive earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal, killed large numbers of people and left many more injured, homeless and dispossessed. How could millions of innocent people being crushed, drowned or burned alive be for the best? So he wrote Candide, in which his characters travel all over the world, and are subjected to all sorts of terrible events and afflictions, yet somehow survive and continue to declare, in the face of the most overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that their philosophy teacher (Dr Pangloss) is right to say that everything that happens is for the good in this, the best of all possible worlds.
In Candide Voltaire hits out at the establishment, whether in the guise of royalty, the aristocracy, the military or the merchant class. But one of his major targets is the Church, which was forcing people to convert to the one true Faith, and was burning heretics at the stake.
Voltaire saw that Optimism tends to maintain the status quo; to stifle innovation and change; to inhibit people from seeking to fight against injustice and intolerance; to impede human progress; and to discourage the creative spirit. In Geneva, the book was burned in public; it was prohibited in Paris; and it was banned by the Vatican.
The Modern Candide
In the 1950s, when Bernstein and the writer Lillian Hellman conceived the idea of a musical Candide, they saw strong parallels between the time of Voltaire and the contemporary American scene. In the aftermath of World War II, the USA was supremely confident of its own importance, its political system and its place in the world order, and many of its citizens felt that, in spite of various problems, they were indeed living in 'the best of all possible worlds'.
Yet an evil was lurking - the evil that came to be known as McCarthyism. Scarcely less ominous than the dreaded Spanish Inquisition that Candide revisits, McCarthyism resulted in the Hollywood Blacklist, censorship, lost livelihoods, suicides, loss or denial of passports. You only had to be suspected of having once known a suspected Communist to be immediately placed under suspicion. Bernstein was denied a passport by his own government - as Voltaire had been by his. So Candide was the vehicle chosen to ridicule and satirise, to create controversy and to stimulate discussion.
Candide opened on Broadway in 1956 as a collaboration between Bernstein and Hellman, with the lyricist John LaTouche. There have been various revisions over the years, and notable subsequent contributors in one way or another have been Richard Wilbur, Dorothy Parker, Hugh Wheeler, Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim. Over the years, Candide went through a number of different versions, revisions and productions by different people. Then in December 1989 Bernstein himself brought Candide to London, conducting concert performances with the London Symphony at the Barbican Centre (available on video) and a studio recording, made at Abbey Road, on CD. This Grammy Award-winning version, hailed as 'Bernstein's last miracle', remains the composer's last word on Candide (he died a few months later), and is the version referred to in what follows.
The overture is a brilliantly witty and tuneful orchestral showpiece which is often played on its own as a concert overture.
Act I opens with a 'scene of sweet simplicity' at a castle in Westphalia (for Westphalia, of course, read USA). Candide is the illegitimate nephew of the Baron and is treated as inferior by the fat Baroness and the incredibly vain and narcissistic son and heir, Maximilian. Candide is deeply in love with Maximilian's sister, the beautiful Cunegonde. The pure and innocent Candide is serenely happy in his world of happiness and love. Even the pretty young servant Paquette is happy with the attentions of her mistress, the Baroness, and the rather different attentions of her master, the Baron.
In this idyll everyone is happy - Maximilian with his good looks, Cunegonde with her wealth and beauty, and Candide with his simple, idle pursuits of horse-riding and reading. They have been taught to be happy by their tutor, the great philosopher Dr Pangloss. In class, Pangloss teaches that this is, indeed, the best of all possible worlds. Even war is a blessing in disguise, as it levels all men, uniting rich and poor, and thus improving human relations. So they all declare:
We have learned, and understood,
Everything that is, is good;
Everything that is, is planned,
Is wisely planned, is right and good.
The sight of Dr Pangloss giving Paquette some very private tuition in the bushes inspires Candide and Cunegonde to declare their love for each other and their plans for future happiness, in the duet 'O Happy We'. While Candide dreams of raising chickens and growing cabbages, Cunegonde's dreams are of riches and luxury, yachts and jewels and Champagne. They are both so happy.
But the Baron is furious. Candide, his illegitimate nephew, is not a nobleman and ranks far beneath the social standing of the Baron's daughter, Cunegonde. How dare this upstart embrace her and declare his love? Candide is thrown out of the castle, to wander alone and lovelorn. But is he despondent? Of course not. He has been carefully taught that everything is for the best and 'there is a sweetness in every woe'. He knows people will be kind to him.
Candide is press-ganged into the Bulgarian army. He tries to desert, but is recaptured and severely beaten up by his comrades. By the time he is just able to start to walk again, war is declared. Westphalia is a battle zone. At prayer in their castle, the Baron and his family are attacked, massacred, cut to pieces. Cunegonde is gang-raped before being bayoneted. Candide sings a lament as he searches among the ruins for her corpse and bids it a last farewell.
Time goes by and Candide wanders, alone and starving. He comes across an old man in a truly terrible state - a syphilitic whose extremities are rotting away, and who has to wear a tin nose. There is nevertheless something familiar about him: it is none other than Candide's old philosophy teacher, Dr Pangloss. He has somehow been brought back to life, and cheerfully explains his present condition in the song 'Dear Boy'.
Pangloss explains that he caught syphilis by an entirely natural process: love. And because love is divine, any side-effects can only be for the good. He goes on to point out that if Columbus had not ventured to the New World and brought syphilis back to Europe, life would lack all sorts of luxuries:
All bitter things conduce to sweet,
As this example shows;
Without the little spirochaete
We'd have no chocolate to eat
Nor would tobacco's fragrance greet
The European nose.
In any case, Pangloss continues, love - the great goddess whom all men worship - knows no boundaries or frontiers, so venereal disease naturally 'rounds the world from bed to bed, as pretty as you please'.
Candide and Pangloss take ship bound for Lisbon. The ship is wrecked in a storm, but they manage to stagger onto the Portuguese shore just as a volcano erupts, killing 30,000 people. They are arrested as heretics and sent off to endure trial by ordeal before the Grand Inquisitor at the Auto-da-fé, which is a great day out for everyone, involving various public tortures, hangings, and burning at the stake, complete with the usual side-shows and all the fun of the fair. The crowds sing joyously:
What a day, what a day
For an auto-da-fé!
It's a lovely day for drinking
And for watching people fry!
Hurry, hurry, hurry,
Watch 'em die!
The Inquisitors arrive on the scene. Pangloss protests that they can't execute him as he is too sick to die. He launches into a long patter song explaining how he got syphilis, and who passed it on to whom as it travelled right round the world and eventually, as he triumphantly explains, came back to him - thus proving the universal truth that it is love, sweet love, that makes the world go round. The Catholic crowd, however, is adamant:
When foreigners like this come
To criticise and spy,
We chant a pax vobiscum,
And hang the bastard high!
Pangloss is hanged. Candide is flogged, but still believes that Pangloss was right. In his pitiful state Candide decides that if the world appears cruel it must be because he cannot see the kindness and goodness that must be there. 'It must be me,' he concludes.
The scene now shifts to Paris, where a mysterious beauty has become the paramour of both a rich Jew and the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, who share her favours on alternate days. The mysterious beauty turns out to be Cunegonde, who sings an operatic tour de force, 'Glitter and Be Gay', a sure-fire showstopper. She begins by bemoaning her fate, lamenting about how she is forced to sell her body and her purity in such a sordid way. Yet at the same time she confesses that she loves all the trappings of wealth, the jewels, the clothes, the Champagne, the social status. So she decides to carry on living the high life, while asking us to note how brave she is in hiding the deep and bitter shame she says she feels. Oh yeah?
By a strange coincidence Candide arrives in Paris and recognises Cunegonde, his long-lost love. They sing a duet - 'You Were Dead, You Know' - as they rejoice in their happy reunion. But both the rich Jew and the Archbishop are approaching. Candide 'accidentally' stabs and kills them both. The Archbishop's final resting-place is in a great cathedral, the Jew is disposed of in the sewers.
Cunegonde has with her a companion, an old lady known only as the Old Lady, who now recounts her life story. The daughter of a Polish Pope, she has survived rape, riots, slavery and cannibalism (one of her buttocks has been sliced off and eaten). She sings the Old Lady's Tango, 'I Am Easily Assimilated'. This very catchy number is partly in English and partly in Spanish, and was obviously personal to Bernstein in view of his father's immigrant origins. Bernstein spoke (in all apparent seriousness, but definitely with a certain amount of tongue in cheek) about the line 'My father came from Rovno-Guberniya'. He explained that he had long wanted to include it, but was unable to find a rhyme for it until, late one night, he awoke his Chilean-born wife Felicia Montealegre, who came up with the Spanish line 'me muero, me sale una hernia' ('I'm dying, I'm growing a hernia'), which fits perfectly. He said that all the Spanish lines in this number are by Felicia.
Wanted in Paris for the double murder, Candide accepts an offer to go and fight for the Jesuits in South America, and together with Cunegonde and the Old Lady takes ship for the New World and, they hope, a new life.
Act II opens with everyone still convinced that everything is for the best in this wonderful world. Candide and his two female companions arrive in Buenos Aires where, unknown to them, both Maximilian and Paquette (miraculously restored to life) arrive, both disguised as slave-girls. The Governor of Buenos Aires falls in love with Maximilian then, realising his mistake, falls in love with Cunegonde instead, and proposes to her. She protests her purity and insists on marriage before sex.
Maximilian goes off with an amorous Jesuit father, and Candide goes off into the jungle, having been persuaded by the Old Lady that the police are still after him. After further bizarre encounters and experiences Candide arrives at a Jesuit mission, where they urge him to join their flock. There, deep in the jungle, he amazingly encounters Maximilian once more, and once more declares his love for Cunegonde and his intention to marry her. Maximilian (now a Jesuit Father Superior) is outraged, as Candide is socially inferior. Candide unfortunately stabs Maximilian and kills him, then flees into the jungle once more.
Eventually, lost and starving after further incredible adventures, they come into the fabulous land of Eldorado. Here all is perfect, yet Candide is still pining for his love, Cunegonde, and decides to leave. The happy people of Eldorado cannot understand why, but nevertheless kindly send him on his way laden with gold and jewels as a parting gift.
Candide arrives in Surinam, where he meets Martin, a professional Pessimist. Martin believes that everything is absurd in this, the worst of all possible worlds. Candide refuses to believe this, especially when he is offered a fine sailing ship bound for Venice, where he hopes to meet Cunegonde once more. He pays a lot of gold for the ship, but has of course been conned, as it is a rotten hulk and soon sinks.
Neverthless Candide somehow makes it to Venice, where it is carnival time - greed and corruption at the gaming tables are rife, and everyone is ripping everyone else off. Paquette is the chief prostitute of Venice, Maximilian (miraculously re-restored to life) is the corrupt Chief of Police, Cunegonde is there to attract gamblers to the roulette wheel, and the Old Lady is there to fix the way the wheel spins.
Cunegonde and the Old Lady, unrecognised by Candide behind their carnival masks, give him some sob-story and get Candide to promise them a large handout. Somehow, Pangloss is there too, apparently enjoying a whole bevy of ladies of the night.
But the masks fall, and Candide realises the truth. Has he endured all his hardship and exhausting travels in search of Cunegonde, only to discover that she is really a greedy and conniving virago? Candide is in deep shock. For many days he does not speak.
Between them they manage to scrape enough money together to buy a small farm outside Venice. Cunegonde's nagging goes from bad to worse. So does the Old Lady's. Pangloss longs for a German university. Paquette continues in the oldest profession, but no longer makes any money. Gradually they come to realise that 'Life is neither good nor bad, life is life, and all we know'.
Eventually Candide speaks again. They have all changed, and everything is different now. They have been foolish and short-sighted, but have learned their lesson now. As Candide asks Cunegonde to marry him, they all acknowledge:
We're neither pure nor wise nor good,
We'll do the best we know.
We'll build our house, and chop our wood,
And make our garden grow.
Other Entries in This Project
- Leonard Bernstein - Composer
- West Side Story
- Chichester Psalms and Arias and Barcarolles
- Mass: a Theatre Piece