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Courtesy of Russ Baker

September 28, 2016

The Candid Man’s Guide to Humor, Evil and Theatre

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“Il avait le jugement assez droit, avec l’esprit le plus simple ; c’est, je crois, pour cette raison qu’on le nommait Candide.”

Theodicy is the central problem for any incarnation or lyricized reworking of Voltaire’s novella Candide. The eponymous character runs the Weltanschauung-gamut in his pained, hopelessly naïve globe-trekking, alternatively stumbling into phenomenal luck and misfortune, being swindled out of everything he owns or plucking golden pebbles off the streets of Eldorado. It is equal parts absurd travelogue and philosophical disenchantment, what the tale of the Buddha would have been if written by a splenetic Frenchman. It is an irreverent parable with a moral, a Bildungsroman and, on a 21st century stage, a pastiche suprême. It lends itself, if one may be so bold, to musical theatre. At least, it should.

At the Hangar Theatre from September 16-18, the Savoyards, originally our own Cornell Savoyards, staged just such a retelling of Voltaire’s classic. Of the many extant musical versions of Candide, the Savoyards presented the 1973 version by Harold Prince, itself a reworking of the original by Lilian Hellman and Leonard Bernstein. It is, by and large, precisely what one would expect.

Voltaire’s merciless sarcasm and curmudgeonly progressivism are put on glorious display in the production’s taut, catchy songs, which director Gary Moulsdale directs with panache. “The Best of all Possible Worlds,” with its obtuse philosophizing and delightfully gratuitous Latinizing, and “Auto da Fe,” sung before a religiously zealous Portuguese lynch mob, are particularly outstanding in this regard. The cast straightens up rigidly and  undulates wildly about the stage in mock religious indignation One would almost expect the songs to be distracting if inserted improperly or inopportunely into the narrative; it is testament to Bernstein’s composition and the script of Prince that this is entirely not the case. While odd at first glance, the songs of Candide bolster the story’s sense of purpose rather than detracting from it.

In terms of the cast, impressed into service from Ithacanite choirs or the ever-ready corpus of recent I.C. and Hangar Theatre alumni, there is very little in the Savoyards’ production with which one can find fault. Andrew Hubson-Sabens in the titular role is well-suited for interpreting the esprit le plus simple of Voltaire’s invention; his eyes bug out at the lechery and baseness of the world around him, and there is almost an air of the offended puppy about his onstage skulking in the absence of his lover Cunégonde. Nick Roscoe lends his almost Gregorian gravitas to the vocal role of Maximilian before being abruptly, and in comical fashion, killed off (too soon, too soon).

Sarah Welden, who covered for the regrettably ill Karen Wonder-Dumont as the aforementioned Cunégonde, in true bel canto fashion takes her voice to soaring places as she interweaves the tragedy of her sexual violation with the farce of her weakness for shiny, expensive objects. Doug Matthews as Pangloss, the philosophical equivalent of an ostrich with its happy-go-lucky head in the sand, infuses a nasally schoolmaster persona with a considerable amount of pathos, as his schema of the utter beneficence of the natural world unravels in the face of his travails. Foremost amongst the cast, however, is Anthony Di Renzo as Voltaire, the story’s narrator and an occasional participant in its action. With his striking superficial resemblance to the French polemicist, he struts his way through the show, enunciating every word with a scrupulous propriety, and sporting a Ciceronian upturned nose and pursed lips which maintain a bleak, grim levity with tremendous theatrical maturity.

It is on this last word, however, that Candide as told by the Savoyards as a whole encounters a stumbling block that it never truly seems to overcome. Maturity. It is impossible for a modern audience to understand how subversive Candide was for its time, despite what the Savoyards’ program elegantly elucidates. The book was panned, banned and burned depending on the bitterness of its audience; the most offensive suggestion in it to a modern audience is the suggestion that maybe, just maybe, original sin is not an ironclad certainty. Western civilization’s last orgy of book-burning ended in 1945; it is, quite simply put, difficult to understand why anyone would get so worked up over a book that seems remarkably innocuous.

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The violence and trauma of the original French narrative is striking for its pessimism. Even if Westphalian characters are rescued from the maw of death with a similar sleight of hand as they are in the musical, and even if Candide philosophizes, flees danger and even kills with a similar innocent naiveté in both incarnations, the musical version lacks the essential core of urgency which pervades the novella. The humor in the musical Candide, while black, is comparatively tame to Voltaire’s own, and this is somewhat disappointing.

Let us fashion a revue of some of the original’s highlights: Candide attempts or seriously contemplates suicide on more than one occasion. Pangloss insists on prattling on philosophically as Candide lies wounded and begging for water in earthquake-torn Lisbon. The slain Grand Inquisitor receives a prim and proper Christian burial, but the Jew Issacar is unceremoniously hurled into the Portuguese waterways, like some ignoble Roman into the Tiber. Candide unwittingly kills the monkey lovers of two Paraguayan demoiselles, and is decried by his local guide, who reminds him that the animals are a quarter-human. To be fair, the musical preserves the novella’s grimly hilarious punchline regarding Candide’s elderly female servant, which I do not dare spoil.

Hubson-Sabens’ Candide is limited to the exhibition of bewilderment and an affronted, romantic sensibility. This is true for most of the rest of the play. The play’s first half is tightly staged and exciting, in contrast to the more lax second. There is an uncomfortably long scene of transvestism whose comedic potential does not seem to have been fully grasped. Candide’s repeated reunions and separation from Cunégonde begin to feel less comedically hapless and more tedious. While Hubson-Sabens performs admirably, one cannot help but think that, given half the chance to experiment, the suicidal, neglected, hasty and often willfully ignorant Candide of Voltaire’s original prose would make a more entertaining companion for the nearly three hours the Savoyards’ production lasts.

Other problems persist. The unexpected resurrections of several characters, while canonical and faithful to the original text, are not handled particularly well: people simply appear out of thin air and are abruptly reaccepted into the story without a hint of irony. The actors, by no fault of their own, seem to struggle with what has been given them: the conclusion, in which Candide learns that the secret to a happy life is manual labor, seems almost tacked on, once again, without much for self-aware irony. One feels almost that the play has not earned the moral absoluteness of its ending, that we must simply “make our garden grow,” and that this makes life worth living despite the hate, violence, and baseness of the past three hours. If the impression the audience gets of Candide is purely that it is a delightful little romp across the globe with an ending that is inappropriately glib in its self-assuredness, some kern of the play’s message and its overall effect is missing.

Why was the world created? Pour nous faire enrager, responds the world-sick Manichaean in Voltaire’s original text. The rather nebulous catchwords of métaphysico−théologo−cosmolonigologie, and cause, effet and raison suffisante prop up the essential stupidity of Enlightenment optimism which, as our own Cornellian historian Carl Becker once argued, was far more marked by a rigid, medieval search for structure than by the liberated, free-thinking empiricism of popular imagination. Voltaire decries this in his poem on the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, now generally seen as an ideological prelude to the larger oeuvre of Candide:

“O tristes vérités
O mélange étonnant de contrariétés!
Un Dieu vint consoler notre race affligée;
Il visita la terre, et ne l’a point changée!”

Candide is a merciless assault on Leibnizian wishy-washyness, on the unthinking ideological flaccidity that presumes, without the grit and self-respect of classical Stoicism, that everything is just dandy as it is. Candide, as presented by the Savoyards, is fun, well put together and charming in its first act, but the moment it asks its audience to truly think about the implications of its message, that same amusement and humor becomes regrettably muddled and leaves one wanting more, which is, of course, not forthcoming. I have no desire to be harsh on what was otherwise a well-done show, but these are the thoughts I was inevitably left with. I am only being candid.

Griffin Smith-Nichols is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at gsmithnichols@cornellsun.com. 

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