Friday, 31 October 2008

Why did Bernstein's Candide fail?

Leonard Bernstein's overture to Candide is one of his best-known piece of music and the musical, premiered in 1956, was expected to be a huge success. That's not surprising when you consider the list of those involved in it. Bernstein himself had a strong track record, both as a conductor (mostly of such "difficult" contemporary works as Messiaen's Turangalila and Ives' 2nd symphony) and as a composer of two musicals: On The Town (filmed with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra) and Wonderful Town.

But the proposal for a musical based on Candide didn't come from Bernstein but from the senior partner in the collaboration, Lilian Hellman. She was the more established figure, with a strong track record as a playwright whose plays included The Children's Hour. She and Bernstein had worked succesfully together on her version of Jean Anouilh's L'Alouette (The Lark) for which Bernstein wrote incidental music and the discussions about a musical came out of that collaboration. Candide was Hellman's second suggestion; Bernstein dismissed the first as too unlikely to succeed.

Others associated with the collaboration were: James Agee, Dorothy Parker, John LaTouche and Richard Wilbur. It's possible that Felicia Bernstein and the very young Stephen Sondheim played a part at this stage. Tyrone Guthrie was engaged to direct. And the stars - Barbara Cook, Richard Rounceville and Max Adrian - were as good as could be hoped.

The show opened to all the high expectations the overture arouses but responses were, at best, lukewarm. Subsequent productions have been greeted respectfully - sometimes with pleasure - but never as ecstatically as fans of musical theatre might expect from such a team.

So what went wrong?

I'm going to suggest four possibilities.

1. Perhaps there were too many disasters and arguments between the creators. There were even two sudden deaths - of James Agee and John LaTouche. The death of John LaTouche must have been particularly upsetting. He had been replaced as chief librettist (though many of his lyrics survive in the show) and he died suddenly, days after a legal settlement had been reached, paying him off for his work. Reports often say that Lilian Hellman was "difficult," but this criticism is often levelled at women creators in that period.

2. Lillian Hellman's book was too clunky or too heavy-handed or too political. I've read this in many places - and until I looked at extracts from Hellman's book, assumed it was true, especially since Hellman's words were withdrawn after the 1956 production (later versions have different texts). But Hellman was experienced in stagecraft and the extracts from the book now available on the internet suggest a quite manageable script open to interpretation by the singers and actors. Nor was Hellman as heavy-handedly political as some critics suggest. In the weeks between the Boston tryout and the Broadway opening, Hellman's amendments seem to have taken the political sting out of the auto-da-fe scene. The first (sung) version includes lyrics by Wilbur which implicate the crowd (implicitly American) in executions and persecutions. The second version, used for the Broadway run, makes the inquisitors responsible. Recent critics have suggested that Bernstein's frothy music is inappropriate for Hellman's heavy ironies. But Bernstein knew what kind of work Voltaire's Candide was. The "froth" of his music, which mimics the sweeping emotionalism of the best musicals, works as an ironic counterpoint to their content and context. It's in that contrast that the musical is closest to Voltaire.

3. The political atmosphere of the time made success impossible. All those involved had been affected by the McCarthy witch-hunts and the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities. Bernstein's passport was briefly withdrawn. Hellman had famously refused to name names, declaring "I will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashion." But for all this, Bernstein was, at the same time as writing Candide, collaborating with "friendly witness" Elia Kazan by providing the score for his anti-communist film, On The Waterfront. The pre-Broadway amendments suggest some toning down of political references, for instance omitting the popular enthusiasm for the public execution of a Jew. Perhaps this had too many uncomfortable resonances in the wake of the electrocution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. And some powerfully political lyrics by Richard Wilbur were never used. These include the War and Peace version of "The Best of all Possible Worlds" and The Inquisition song, which makes the parallel with the HUAC witch-hunts entirely clear. Wilbur, rather than Hellman, seems to have been the most political of the writers - and his lyrics have never been called into question as Hellman's book has.

But while the politics of the time obviously had an influence on the reception of Bernsetin's Candide, I tend to think there's another reason for Candide's failure. After all, musicals have famously dealt with contentious subjects - think of Showboat, South Pacific - even Sondheim's Assassins. Bernstein's own West Side Story, which he was writing at the same time (it's been suggested that the music for "Gee, Officer Krupke" was originally intended for Candide) touches on difficult subjects including the hostility some recent immigrants were experiencing in the United States.

4. I grew up watching musicals - mainly from the gods of the Wimbledon Theatre. The productions of the London Transport Players were a glimpse of glamour. Looking back on those early experiences - shows ranged from King's Rhapsody to Camelot and Half a Sixpence - they have a quality which Candide lacks. Drawing on the film critic Richard Dyer (and adpating him shamelessly for my own ends), what I experienced was an overwhelming sensation of yearning intensity, conveyed through the transparency of the characters in the musical. This is present in all musicals I find successful, though it may take some strange forms. (In Pal Joey, Joey yearns for a nightclub of his own and, in Assassins the yearning for happiness motivates the assassins of the past, from John Wilkes Booth to "Squeaky" Fromme as they crowd round Lee Harvey Oswald in the Texas Book Depository.) But Candide lacks that quality of yearning intensity. The characters are puppets - naive or dishonest as their creator, Voltaire, directs. Moreover they do not yearn - they find ways of being satisfied with their lot, whether by insisting that everything is for the best "in the best of all possible worlds" or by making their garden grow. As Candide and Cunegonde sing in the finale:

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.

This is neither yearning intensity nor its satisfaction. An audience may enjoy elements of Candide but will emerge feeling short-changed, knowing that there is some essential part of the stage musical that has been overlooked, some customary feeling that they have failed to experience.

It all goes back to Voltaire. Perhaps his book was, after all, the wrong choice for a musical. Would Bernstein have done any better with Hellman's first choice of subject - the one Bernstein said would never work? Of course not - it was a ludicrous idea. Who would ever attend a musical based on the life of Eva Peron?

Perhaps Bernstein's Candide works better in a different form. The musical came into being nearly fifty years before machinima came into being. But a machinima adaptation of one song suggests that it is possible to present Candide's ironies without stirring the hopes and expectations that musical theatre arouses. And the on-line game sources for this short film even bring to mind Richard Wilbur's unused "War and Peace" lyrics for the song "Best of all Possible Worlds."


Thursday, 30 October 2008

Getting The Ball Rolling

Kathy suggested I put up a version of how I introduced the text yesterday, so here you go. All very inchoate, but it's really just designed to raise a few points. Annoyingly, the Boston banning story is already here, but repetition is an essential component of pleasure (as my son demonstrates by repeatedly flinging cornflakes around the sitting room)

See if this sparks any thoughts.



[This is basically how I kicked off the group on Wednesday - it's expressly designed NOT to tell you what to think about the book, as that would seem to negate its entire purpose]

1. The book is a journey, from the quasi-eden of Westphalia [but look at the description of this 'paradise' is deeply ironised] to El Dorado and back through the Europe of the 1750s - I want to start by going on a similar, albeit intellectual, journey.

2. Let's start, for entirely sensible reasons, with St Augustine, and his description of the joys of the intellectual life in his Confessions (Book 4, ch.8 for all you completists out there):

Conloqui et conridere et vicissim benevole obsequi, simul leger libros dulciloquos, simul nugari et simul honestari.

or for the non-classicists among us:

Conversations and jokes together, mutual rendering of good services, the reading together of sweetly phrased books, the sharing of nonsense and mutual attentions.

- isn't this what 'Humanities Reads' (and university) is/is supposed to be all about? Not just talking about books, but the sense that discussing ideas/beliefs/theories actually has value ? That the life of the mind matters?

[apologies for my vaguely 19th-Century taste for italics]

- and in this, we differ from the vast majority of the Anglo-Saxon world, which has a [perhaps healthy? - discuss, writing on only one side of the answer paper] pretty strong disdain for the 'pointy-headed intellectual'; insert your own thoughts on general philistinism, and extra marks if you've already remembered Auden's

To the man-in-the-street, who, I'm sorry to say,

Is a keen observer of life,

The word 'Intellectual' suggests straight away

A man who's untrue to his wife.

- As Sterne says, 'They order [...] this matter better in France'

3. France is the country which has really maintained the idea of the intellectual as public figure, as someone whose opinions on contemporary reality are solicited and valued - this goes right back to the Enlightenment, and to people like Voltaire, whose short book (not a novel, btw; it's a conte, which is slightly different, but unless you're particularly exercised by the minutiae of prose genres, don't worry about it) Candide was, and continues to be, the intellectual equivalent of a hand grenade. The text has been banned repeatedly since its initial publication, and continues to suffer attacks from the religious right in the States. Little seems to have changed since 1929, when it was impounded by customs officials in Boston, on the grounds that:

For years we've been letting that book get by. There were so many different editions, all sizes and kinds, some illustrated and some plain, that we figured the book must be all right. Then one of us happened to read it. It's a filthy book ..."

'Filth', however, isn't really the reason why it stirs up so much opprobrium; the main reason is surely that it's one of the great works exemplifying the Enlightenment's antiestablishment, antiauthoritarian and freethinking beliefs.

4. This is a philosophical book about the dangers of philosophy, or rather, about the dangers of believing that any one belief system can possibly have all the answers. This is where PANGLOSS comes in, with his one-size-fits-all school of 'metaphysico-theologico-cosmo-nigology'. More than that, the book is also laying in to the doctrine of optimism [hence the subtitle], as expounded by Gottfried von LEIBNIZ.

- The book really slams Leibniz's ideas, and arguably presents him as little more than a philosophical Pollyanna - this is unfair (but isn't this always true of satire?); readers who want to see another side of the story, and in particular to learn something about his importance to the history of science, should turn to Neal Stephenson's brilliant Baroque Trilogy, and in particular the final volume, The System of The World, which dramatises the protracted intellectual battle between Leibniz and Isaac Newton over who really invented calculus. (I can sense I'm not selling this to you, but the novels are fantastic; if you want to read fiction that is funny, exciting and actually expects its readers to come equipped with a brain, read Stephenson. Intellectual history, pirates, and a duel fought with cannon. At the Tower of London. End of plug.)

5. Back to optimism - it's not so much the idea that 'everything is perfect', but that, if the universe is created by a just and loving God, then it stands to reason that such a creator can only create the best of all possible worlds for his creatures to live in. The world, in Leibniz's eyes, is ultimately rational; there is an order to creation, even if we fallen creatures cannot perceive it.

6. And this is where Voltaire goes for the jugular. In their journey round the globe, his characters are shown a vision of the world as cruel, bloody, and ultimately senseless. The innocent suffer, whether it be death, rape, disease and/or war, and there is no sign of a cosmic plan. Above all, how can a just and loving God allow the Lisbon earthquake to occur in 1755?

7. How do we make sense of it all? Can we? These are the key questions of the book, and lead to the enigma of the ending. What does it mean, to 'look after our garden'? A call for isolationism? (as with El Dorado?) A recognition of the limits of philosophy as a universal panacea? A call for total selfishness: if there's no God, are we free to do exactly as we wish? This last alternative strikes me as the most troubling; the freethinking of the Enlightenment gave us Rousseau, Diderot and Voltaire, but it also gave us the nihilistic excesses of the darkest of all philosophers of human nature, the Marquis de Sade. From Westphalia, via the horrors of the Seven Years' War to the dungeons of the Chateau de Silling (location of Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, filmed by Pasolini as Salo; now out on DVD, and appallingly uncomfortable viewing) may not be that long a trip.

8. This is what Candide brings up in my mind; your opinions will be very different. For a short text, it raises so many issues; it's a picaresque tale, a very dark Bild├╝ngsroman, a social critique - and, as well, a comedy. This is at times a very funny book, but it's a particular type of comedy, rejecting any sense of laughter as consolation. Some may find the humour far too cruel, a series of sneers at human idealism and hope, and there are possibly grounds for this - Voltaire may be humanist, but is he humane? Laughter in the dark? There's a lot of Voltaire in Beckett, but I find Beckett infinitely more tender towards his creations; this is probably due to an entirely reasonable taste for cricket-playing Anglo-Irish Nobel laureates. Anyway, over to you, folks; while it may not show us 'the best of all possible worlds', reading Candide gives you the chance to discover one of the best of all possible books.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Banning Candide

I don't know if Candide has ever been banned in Britain but apparently in 1930 the United States customs seized a consignment of copies bound for Harvard. In 1944 it was the United States Post Office that insisted that this obscene book be omitted from a catalogue.

Candide was probably written in 1758, when Voltaire was over 60 years old. The book was published anonymously the following year. In 1759 it was banned by the Roman Catholic authorities in Paris and burned under the authority of the Calvinist Great Council in Geneva. Three years later it was placed on the Index of the Roman Catholic church. Both Catholic and Protestant authorities were concerned with the book's anti-religious views.

So are we reading a classic, an anti-religious tract or a dirty book?