Theatre Review

The Virtues of Reflection

Candide. National Theatre.

One of the characteristics of turn-of-the-millennium capitalism is that people rarely reflect about life. True a lot of people will wonder about how they are going to survive in the next few weeks and months, whilst most of the rest of us will worry about coping with the stresses and strains of everyday life. But such actions are a million miles away from what I have in mind. I’m thinking about standing back from the ordinary and the commonplace, and trying to look at the world, and the lives that people live, in a larger, more objective way.

I had occasion to think about such matters at the end of Candide, the wonderful musical—music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics Richard Wilbur, book adapted from Voltaire’s famous novel, by John Wheeler, in a new version by John Caird—which has been marvellously revived by the National Theatre. As I wandered out of the Olivier Theatre after a second visit, I couldn’t but become aware of the favourable audience comment. “That was marvellous,” said someone. “Wasn’t that wonderful?” said someone else, rhetorically, and when I joined the queue for a drink just about everyone seemed to be saying much the same thing. But no-one was prepared to offer anything more substantial. No-one sought to justify why it had been wonderful or marvellous, or whatever, and when I joined my three companions to drink our cups of tea, the conversation quickly moved to other matters.

Voltaire, were he to be about to witness such things, would probably have been amused, but saddened, by the audience’s reaction. By inclination an amateur philosopher, he cast a sardonic eye on the musings of the world’s supposed best thinkers. And he would have been no doubt registered, with deep irony, that although by the end of the 20th century the human race had unlocked many of the secrets of Nature, and deployed the resultant knowledge in ways that would barely have been conceivable when he was alive, most people seemed still locked in an almost prehistoric mindset.

Voltaire published Candide in 1759, and like all works of literature it can only properly be understood in the context of ideas of its time. Voltaire was a sceptical, Enlightenment figure, and Candide examines two ideas which were prevalent at the time. One was Optimism, a crude extrapolation based on Leibniz’s “Principles of Sufficient Reason”. The other the idea of Rousseau that in the state of Nature people are naturally good: a notion which seems to suggest a genetic predisposition to goodness, rather than goodness being learnt.

Leibniz held that since god could have created any kind of universe, the fact that he chose the universe we now inhabit can only mean that since god is good this must be the best possible universe. It follows that, “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”, a uniquely optimistic point of view which is elaborated by Dr Pangloss in Candide.

Not that Voltaire was an Optimist. Indeed the terrible earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 which had killed tens of thousands of people, many of them whilst sheltering in the cathedral, had persuaded him that not only was Leibniz’s theory incorrect, but that such events challenged belief in the existence of god and any necessary coincidence between god the creator and god the source of goodness. And if “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”, the consequences of all human actions is already determined, and with it the possibility of morality based on choice.

The wild, helter-skelter adventures of Candide, a student of Dr Pangloss, are at the heart of Voltaire’s novel. And by the end Candide has learnt that neither goodness nor malevolence are natural or predetermined. At the end Candide migrates to a hospitable location which he describes significantly as “Like Eldorado but without the gold”. Voltaire, the humanist, lays before us a tale characterised by war, pillage, arbitrary cruelty, rape, starvation and deprivation. The corrosive impact of religious certainty tied to metaphysical justifications in a class-riven society are examined, and rejected. Rather Voltaire suggests that we attend to the facts of the case, in a spirit of co-operative endeavour, and seek to the best we can for all humanity.

Yet on the evidence of my two visits, contemporary audiences have been so successfully taught by the ideological apparatus of society as not to wonder about the lessons of Voltaire’s tale for themselves. Could they, too, be the unwitting victims of thousands of present-day Dr Panglosses? Have they so lost the capacity to reflect that whilst recognising the absurdities of the 18th century beliefs which Voltaire parodied, they might also unwittingly believe that “All’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds”? What irony that we can even pose the question.


Leave a Reply