Cautious Optimism for All Ages | Playbill

Classic Arts Features Cautious Optimism for All Ages
Voltaire's Candide was a scene-stealer long before Leonard Bernstein brought it to musical life.

Even against the brilliant constellation of philosophers who lit up the French Enlightenment, Voltaire's audacity dazzled, and Candide is his masterpiece.

"To hold a pen is to be at war," wrote Voltaire, born François Marie Arouet, and the satire that flowed from his pen earned him exile or imprisonment‹including a spell in La Bastille‹roughly once every ten years, until his epic repatriation à Paris just before his death, at home in bed, at age eighty-four. Deftly turning misfortune to advantage, Voltaire produced plays while imprisoned, and cultivated friends in high places while exiled. His output was prodigious.

Although skinny and sickly, Voltaire was ebullient. His tastes were expensive, the company he kept, royal‹even in an age of patronage, when an artist without pedigree was technically a servant. "The Great Man," as he was called, had an authentic grasp of the commoner's plight in feudal Europe, especially the misery of refugees, both political and religious. Voltaire's fame lay in his condemnation of the many follies and cruelties of his times, and his celebrated crusades in later life sealed his immortality as a champion of human rights against tyranny. "It is very advantageous," Voltaire wrote of courtly life, "[although] the cage is so exquisitely gilded that one must try not to see the bars through the gold."

Voltaire's breezy way with a quip made him popular, but his enduring influence owes much to a revolution in print technology across Europe. Some 14,000 of his letters survive, many of them transcripts of pithy party patter, and more than 2,000 pamphlets and books.

Candide, the slim volume which is Voltaire's masterwork, is the wildly concocted itinerary of a sycophantic student and his master, stringing together the social, political, and religious pet peeves of the author's long life. When Swiss censors ordered all copies burned, Voltaire's publishers distributed Candide from Stockholm.

By the time he wrote Candide, Voltaire was over sixty and well ensconced in his estate at Ferney, France, on the remote French-Swiss border‹a "princely establishment," said guests, and Voltaire's private socio-economic laboratory, complete with theater, silk factory, and low-income housing. There Voltaire worked in his study as his drawing room teemed with fancy visitors. Boswell. Casanova. Ben Franklin. If Ferney's commodity was freethinking, its currency was flattery. "The great, brilliant poet kept [the company] amused," wrote Casanova, with not a little envy, "[and was] always applauded, though satirical and often caustic, but always laughing, and never failing to raise a laugh."

Just so does Candide "raise a laugh," gaily decrying medieval superstition and challenging the institutions that exploit it to tyrannize the undefended. Voltaire called his satire Candide; ou L'optimisme, traduit de l'Allemand, de M. le Docteur Ralph (Candide; or the Optimist, translated from the German by Herr Doktor Ralph). The subtitle is the key: Candide is Voltaire's response to a prevailing philosophy of "Metaphysical Optimism" articulated by such Enlightenment lions as English philosopher-poet Alexander Pope and German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz. Both were commended by Voltaire‹but not for their embrace of Optimism.

At the root of Metaphysical Optimism is the axiom of an omniscient, almighty and benevolent God. If a better world were possible, the theory goes, the benevolent God, being omniscient, would know about it, and, being almighty, would have the power to create it. But God hasn't done that; ergo, a better world is not possible. "Whatever is, is Right," intoned Pope. The nature of God is never in question, but nonetheless, humanity suffers both evil and calamity. In a world of woefully unfinished business, "What can I hope, when all is right?" scribbled Voltaire, in the margin of his copy of Pope's Essay on Man.

Thus we arrive at, in philosophical parlance, the "Problem of Evil." An all-good God is capable of neither doing evil, nor of delegating it‹to, say, the Devil. Whatever we experience as evil or suffering must therefore belong to some larger plan‹which we would understand, says Leibniz, "had we but God's point of view," neatly sidestepping any pesky inconsistencies. Leonard Bernstein's Candide sings, "There must be sunlight I cannot see. / It must be me. It must be me." Voltaire answered, "[Optimism] drives to despair the philosophers who embrace it…. The problem of good and evil remains an inexplicable chaos for those who seek in good faith."

Voltaire slips the most salient and untenable of Leibniz's reasonings into the "Metaphysico-theologico-cosmolonigology" of Candide's master, Dr. Pangloss, and sends the youth on a tour of disastrous humiliations which even Pangloss is hard put to reconcile. By saga's end, Pangloss confesses to never really believing his own theories. Voltaire wrote elsewhere: "Leibniz realized that these questions were unanswerable…so he wrote thick books in which he did not agree with himself."

The wacky mishaps in Candide are all drawn from actual events. Candide, for example, sings, "Though of noble birth I'm not / I'm delighted with my lot." This was important to Voltaire, whose own aristocratic-sounding nom de plume he invented in his cell chez La Bastille. And Voltaire knew all about courtesans. Never married, he loved smart, self-possessed women, for whom the 18th century offered no legitimate role, and he formed boundary-slipping liaisons with the smartest of them‹mathematician and naturalist Marquise du Châtelet; art patroness Madame de Pompadour; her successor, Madame du Barri; Russia's Catherine the Great. The dreadful misogyny suffered by Candide's female characters is Voltaire's exposé of ordeals faced uniquely by women.

The earthquake of 1755 in Lisbon, Portugal, traumatized the civilized world and pitched Voltaire into uncharacteristic gloom. "Nature," he wrote to a friend, "is very cruel.… Leibniz does not tell me by what invisible twists … this chaos of misfortunes mingles real sorrow with our vain pleasures, in the best arranged of possible universes, nor why the innocent suffer alike this inevitable evil." It was a calamity unthinkable of a benevolent, almighty God, especially on All Souls' Day, a high festival in Portugal, universally observed by order of the Inquisition. And while there is no record on this occasion of "several persons being slowly burned in great ceremony to prevent earthquakes," as Voltaire writes in Candide, the Inquisition's last known auto-da-fè was recorded in Mexico as late as 1808. Voltaire fictionalizes only the particulars. "That ought to teach men not to persecute each other, for while a few holy scoundrels burn a few fanatics, the earth swallows up one and all."

Outside the effete circles of French philosophes, devout Christians, like the Mozarts of Salzburg, for example, were shocked by Voltaire's anti-clerical deism. In 1778, Leopold Mozart advised his son to follow Voltaire's creative routine: "Everyone does likewise. Voltaire reads his poems to his friends, listens to their verdict and alters accordingly." Sulky Wolfgang responded, "The ungodly arch-villain, Voltaire, has died, pegged out like a dog!"

If Voltaire is not read as widely as he once was, it may be because so much of his urgent social agenda is so widely accomplished‹not absolutely, but sufficiently that a despot sticks out like a sore thumb. But when that happens, sure enough, everyone remembers Voltaire.

In 1954, post-World War II America was basking in lethargic optimism when the specter of despotism reappeared. The modern potential for nuclear annihilation had stirred primordial fears in the human psyche, and Wisconsin's junior senator, Joseph McCarthy, saw opportunity in exploiting that fear. He made Communist Russia its effigy, and demonized any American with any connection to it, current or past, however faint. McCarthy teamed with the eccentric, obsessive FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to trawl America for possibly dissident activists, intellectuals, writers, and filmmakers.

In the House Un-American Activities Committee, McCarthy led Inquisition-style interrogations. Suspects were subpoenaed to defend themselves against undisclosed accusers, then encouraged to buy immunity by giving the names of colleagues and friends. When the acclaimed playwright Lillian Hellman was snared, she famously spat back, "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashion." She thought of Voltaire.

Determined to hold up to audiences a mirror of the ideological menace loose in the land, Hellman reincarnated Candide for the theater, fitted out with music by the charismatic composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, who had also been pestered by McCarthy's gang. The painstaking book that Hellman produced‹in 14 drafts‹is often pilloried as the reason for the resounding thud of the show's 1956 Broadway debut. And it may be that the Algonquin wit Dorothy Parker, whose lyrics survive here and there in Candide's score, might have handled Voltaire's rippling wordplay with more facility. Said she, "There were too many geniuses involved." But Bernstein defended Hellman's work in the New York Times, writing, "Lillian Hellman has taken Voltaire and … added, deleted, rewritten, replotted, composed brand new sequences, provided a real ending, and, I feel, made it infinitely more significant for our country and our time."

The "failure" of the original 1956 Bernstein/Hellman Candide has been attributed, by more than one critic, to the audience, unprepared to see itself reflected upon the stage in all its unflattering absurdity. As Hellman would later write to Bernstein, "The trouble with Candide is that it didn't fail."

Many hands have since labored to discover the best-of-all-possible Candides. It may be that every revision and revival of Candide mirrors an image unique to its own times. And surely, in every age, callow Candides set out anew, with the highest of expectations, the best of intentions, the strongest of incentives‹and find out what's what, along the way. Voltaire, no atheist he, even suggests that the prerogative to know God‹or not‹belongs to Candide. The garden is his own; all he need do‹and do this he must‹is tend it.

Kathleen Watt writes frequently on the performing arts.

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