Issue 230 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
by David Hare
adapted from Voltaire
Candide is a musical--but a musical with a difference. Leonard Bernstein, the brilliant American conductor and composer who died in 1990, wrote this operetta in the mid 1950s. He based it on the short novel written by Voltaire, the 18th century French philosopher. Voltaire's novel was a witty satire on the religious fanaticism of his period--and on the belief that 'everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds'. His attack on this philosophy of optimism was an attack on complacency--the kind of complacency that justified the state of the world as unalterable. So if thousands died in war or as the result of greed and slavery, this was not proof that things needed changing. It was, rather, that they had been ordained that way.
Candide is the naive hero of Voltaire's story. He persists in believing, despite experiencing one disaster after the other, what his teacher Dr Pangloss preaches. Disasters also befall Cunègonde, the woman he loves. Raped, enslaved, diseased, she is far from attractive by the time they are finally free to live together at the end of their story. The moral Voltaire puts in Candide's mouth is simple--experience tells us that we must abandon idle speculation for the practical work of 'cultivating our garden'.
What attracted Bernstein to Voltaire's story? When Bernstein composed the music for the story in the mid 1950s, Voltaire's attack on complacency and fanaticism fitted the nature of US society like a glove. America was 'the best of all possible worlds' and anti-Communism was the religious fanaticism which underpinned this assumption. Anyone who challenged this was subject to the Inquisition of the day, the witch hunt led by Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Bernstein himself had occasion to remember how McCarthyism had smashed anyone in the entertainment business suspected of being a Communist. As a supporter of liberal and radical causes he had enormous difficulty obtaining a passport. This was comparatively mild treatment. His principal collaborator on Candide, the playwright Lillian Hellman, had been viciously persecuted for refusing to name names to the HUAC. She was denied all work in Hollywood and her partner, the crime writer Dashiell Hammett, suffered imprisonment.
Candide, then, was a wonderful opportunity to hit back, with highly singable music to carry the satire. However, Bernstein allowed its first production in 1956 to have its satirical edge blunted and he continued to revise the music for the rest of his life.
This production is yet another revision, this time by director John Caird. The principal addition is the introduction of the figure of Voltaire himself, brilliantly played by Simon Russell Beale, who acts as a kind of speaking chorus on his own story. This device, with the character speaking the original text, allows much more of the original satire back into the operetta. So any sugariness is etched with acid. This is particularly true of Cunègonde's showstopping song 'Glitter and be Gay', which becomes in this production a hymn to greed. It's as if Bernstein's music had been transfused with a dose of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht.
There is great singing from the principals and chorus, and the Old Woman, who is Cunègonde's cynical companion, steals the show with her combination of acting and singing skills. The round stage, with a minimum of props, is put to brilliant use. This is no empty piece of musical showcraft. It's a hugely enjoyable evening that leaves you thinking.
Candide plays in repertory at the National Theatre, London