Bernstein’s Candide – May 15, 2015


In 1953, playwright Lillian Hellman approached Leonard Bernstein with the idea of adapting Voltaire’s 1758 Candide as a musical. Voltaire’s novella satirized the prevailing optimist philosophy of the day, according to which “whatever is, is right.” It was the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 that provoked him to question established authority, especially the authority of the Inquisition, which was burning heretics as “an infallible antidote to earthquakes.” Hellman saw a similarity with her own time. She herself had been subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions,” she said, in refusing to name names. Bernstein had been denied a passport by his government, even as Voltaire had been denied a passport by his.

Candide opened on December 1, 1956. Tyrone Guthrie directed, with Robert Rounseville, Barbara Cook and Max Adrian in the principal roles. In the Herald Tribune, Walter Kerr wrote: “Three of the most talented people our theater possesses–Lillian Hellman, Leonard Bernstein, Tyrone Guthrie–have joined hands to transform Voltaire’s Candide into a really spectacular disaster.” Candide closed after 73 performances.

Part of the problem may have been its kaleidoscopic plot, which concerns the globe-trotting adventures of the local Baron’s children, Cunegonde and Maximilian, as well as his bastard nephew, Candide. All are pupils of Doctor Pangloss, who preaches that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” Candide and Cunegonde fall in love, but Candide is banished and joins the Bulgarian Army. When he returns, he finds that everyone has been killed (or so he thinks). Wandering the world in search of his beloved, he first encounters Dr. Pangloss in Lisbon, where they both face the Spanish Inquisition. In Paris Candide is reunited with his beloved Cunegonde, now the mistress of both a wealthy Jew and the local Archbishop. And so it goes. After further scrapes in Spain, Montevideo, Suriname, Constantinople and Turkey, they decide to settle down, live simply and, as the closing number puts it, “Make Our Garden Grow.”

~ Program Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2015.