Inspiration in the sharp satire of ‘Candide’

Drew Brhel chats about his lifetime love affair with CANDIDE in this week’s KEY TO THE DOOR.

Drew Brhel, Third Avenue Playhouse

Published 11:04 p.m. CT Aug. 21, 2017

I love Candide.

I love the musical “Candide.” I love the book “Candide.” I even love the character Candide. It is an affair that has lasted for decades, now.

I was first introduced to Voltaire’s story (not to mention his world view) in 1989, when I was working at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. One of my roommates had become enthralled with Leonard Bernstein’s musical and insisted I listen to his recording of “Oh Happy We,” the song in which our hero, Candide, and his supposed beloved, Cunegonde, express their wildly varying views on the marriage state:

Candide: Soon, when we feel we can afford it/

We’ll build a modest little farm.

Cunegonde: We’ll buy a yacht and live aboard it/

Rolling in luxury and stylish charm.

And, because they’re not at all listening to one another, they convince themselves that they’re in complete accord:

Both: Oh happy pair! Oh happy we!/

It’s very rare how we agree!

I loved it immediately. One of the things I loved about it was that, as cynical as the song’s message was, it was still played lightly, even triumphantly, in a major key. It made fun of the two young lovers without suggesting that we despise them.

 Soon I had acquired a recording of my own (the 1989 so-called “Final Revised” version with Jerry Hadley, June Anderson and Adolph Green), and I discovered that that particular brand of amused cynicism ran through the whole show — well, nearly the whole show, but we’ll get to that presently.

Voltaire — through Bernstein and his raft of lyricists including Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Richard Wilbur — smiles at our hapless hero, and sometimes weeps with him, but he never despises him. His vitriol he saves for the self-satisfied forces arrayed against Candide: Hypocrisies of all sorts, Nationalism, Family Pride, Vanity, Greed, Social Standing, False Morality, notions of Military Glory, Proselityzers, Half-Baked Philosophy, Romantic Ideals of Love, and Organized Religion (especially the Catholic Church). It’s a long list, and I may have missed a few.

But even Voltaire’s expressions of outrage are humorous. He’s never really heavy-handed; his blade cuts deep, but it’s sharp and lightning quick.

This was heady stuff for the young, psuedo-intellectual skeptic that I was, and I decided I needed to acquaint myself with the source material. If the musical version could speak so clearly to what I felt about the world, how much more clearly would it speak in the original? So I made my way to the library and found a copy. And my, was I surprised!

To understand why, a short synopsis of “Candide” may be needed.

At the beginning of the story, Candide resides with his uncle, the Baron, in a castle in Westphalia — a part of modern Germany — where he is instructed by Dr. Pangloss, the famous philosopher, whose main philosophical tenet is “Everything is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds.”

Life is happiness indeed, until his love for the Baron’s daughter, Cunegonde — and hers for him — are exposed by her vain and prideful brother, Maximilian. This will not do. Candide, you see, is illegitimate, and Family Pride will not bear it.

So, Candide is banished from the castle and begins a long and winding journey that will take him to Lisbon, and Paris, and southern Spain, and South America (including a sojourn in the mythical city of El Dorado), and Venice, and many points in between and beyond.

All along the way, his faith in Optimism (as drilled into him by Pangloss) is repeatedly tested. He is dragooned into the army; flogged for attempting to desert; arrested as a heretic in Portugal and flogged by the Inquisition; fights more than one inadvertent duel and, tenderhearted though he is, can’t seem to stop killing people; gets lost in the jungles of South America; acquires a fortune only to be swindled out of it almost immediately; and barely survives a shipwreck. But no matter what happens to him and those he loves, he retains his basically optimistic outlook.

What finally scrapes the scales from his eyes, and brings about that amazing ending, is his realization that Cunegonde is not the ideal romantic love interest he’s been chasing all around the globe. Once his notion of Romantic Love collapses, everything else goes with it, and he is left, for the moment, with nothing.

All of this is in the musical. Surely the source material would contain even more, far more — aren’t novels routinely trimmed down to fit the stage, or the movie screen?

So, when I went to the library, I scanned the shelves looking for a fat, gargantuan tome, like, well, Gargantua and Pantagruel. Imagine my surprise to find that “Candide” the novel is not much more than a pamphlet. The edition I have at my side as I write this is about 130 pages long. And there are, in fact, things in the novel left out of the musical. Candide spends some time in England, for instance, where he witnesses the execution of a British Admiral for cowardice “to encourage the others,” as they say.

But this only underscores the earlier point, that the story absolutely gallops forward, touching on this and slashing at that almost en passant. It seems in a headlong rush to arrive at the denouement.

And it is this ending, finally, that makes me love “Candide,” and “Candide,” and Candide, with all my heart. Having been stripped of all his illusions, having seen through the basic meaninglessness of all those things that everyone has set up as important, Candide does not despair; he realizes that it is up to each of us to create our own meaning in the universe, the simpler the better.

“We must cultivate our garden,” he says in the book, which will keep us from “three great evils: boredom, vice, and want.”

In the musical this is expressed in the finale, “Make Our Garden Grow.” I could reprint some of that number’s lyrics here, but they are a pale pathetic fraction of the power of the piece as sung, so I won’t. I honestly know of nothing that moves me so deeply, and so consistently, as that anthem to basic human decency. I’m still a pseudo-intellectual skeptic (no longer young, alas), but I find it difficult to sing, for weeping. The best kind of tears, of course.

I’ve said before that “Candide” is the most wickedly cynical musical ever written, the blackest of black comedies through and through, that suddenly, daringly, does a 180-degree turn into a dazzlingly hopeful message in its last 10 minutes.

How easy it would have been to maintain that cynicism until the final curtain. How jaded and “modern” that would have seemed. But how much more satisfying is the ending that it is my pleasure, and my privilege, to perform five times a week, until Sept. 2. Come to Third Avenue Playhouse and see it, and be inspired.

Drew Brhel appears in “Candide” through Sept. 2 at Third Avenue Playhouse in Sturgeon Bay.