As I’m writing this, it has been exactly a year since I last went to the theatre – which, for a lover of drama like myself, is still a bitter pill to swallow. Little did I know as I took my seat at the Théâtre National de Nice, where I was doing my year abroad, just how much the production I was seeing would encapsulate all that was to come.
That production was an adaptation of Voltaire’s Candide, a staple of French literature and of philosophical writing. The eponymous Candide is the illegitimate nephew of the Baron de Thunder-ten-Tronkh (many of the names in the text have been ridiculously exaggerated in this way) who falls in love with the Baron’s daughter, Cunégonde, and is consequently banished from the Thunder-ten-Tronkh castle. True to the original text, this production chronicled the numerous misfortunes that befall Candide following his banishment and contribute to his disillusionment from the philosophy of blind Optimism instilled in him by his former tutor. Director of the TNN production Arnaud Meunier claimed Voltaire’s work “would appeal to everyone, not just the intellectual elite.” I would absolutely agree with this assessment – more than ever in light of the pure chaos of the past year.
Much of Candide is aimed at satirising the philosophy of Optimism. Catastrophes such as the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and the Seven Years War (1756-63) proved to Voltaire that evil and suffering existed in the world, often without rhyme nor reason. It seemed that philosophers like Leibniz, who argued that by necessity everything works out for the best, were mocking all this pain and misery. And so, Voltaire’s characters are subjected to all sorts of atrocities, from syphilis to slavery to cannibalism and everything in between. Yet the depiction of these brutalities is acutely and deliberately funny. In Meunier’s production, the ensemble, dressed in absurd costumes, acted with greatly exaggerated movements that bordered on clowning; the Baron’s flogging of Candide reminded me somewhat of the Monty Python ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’ sketch. The rapid succession of these scenes produced a whistle-stop tour of human suffering, all taking place beneath the proscenium arch which proudly heralded ‘The Best of All Possible Worlds;’ an utterly ironic juxtaposition.
This feeling of accumulating horror will be sadly familiar to many of us given the past year. In the first few months of 2020, we saw the Australian bush ablaze, a plague of locusts in East Africa, Trump almost going to war with Iran, even before Coronavirus and its horrendous fallout became part of our collective consciousness. Also sadly familiar to many of us will be the “toxic positivity” that seemed to flood social media, particularly at the start of the first lockdown: the pure rage that came from seeing Lucy following her 10k morning run with a breakfast of homemade granola telling us from her second home in the countryside that, if we were only as productive as her, it would all be ok. Because for many of us, it felt (and still feels) overwhelmingly not ok. With over 170,000 Covid deaths in the UK, Lucy’s optimism, just like extreme optimism in the 18th century, seems bizarre.
It is clear from the first scene of Candide that this is very much not ‘The Best of All Possible Worlds’, despite what the philosopher Pangloss insists. Yet even as we recognise the similarities between the current state of the world and that of Candide, we should remember that this is ultimately a comparison of hope. Candide and his friends, by the end of the play, are willing to give up physical wealth and the vain practice of philosophising and dedicate their energy to tending the small amount of land they own. Rather than waiting for things to fall into their laps, they actively cultivate their own happiness. Meunier’s staging saw the characters standing apart at an equal distance to suggest a sense of the balance and equality that this new simple way of life had provided them, while a soft wash of light lent the scene a newfound tranquillity. As the curtain came down, green shoots began to spring up over what had been a previously barren stage. In their own small way, the characters were making their world a better place.
I feel that this is a message we can bring to the current situation. Of course I’m not suggesting that we all take up gardening (although if that’s something that has helped you through lockdown, then by all means, plant away!). Rather, we should remember that we don’t always have to focus on the big picture. Meunier’s fantastically imaginative interpretation of Candide showed me that this world may not be the best of all possible worlds, but by concentrating our energy on the little things that are within our control, we can always make it slightly better.