Voltaire’s Candide, a criticism or mockery?

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Two students discuss Voltaire’s “Candide”, as the upcoming University of Dallas’ 2015 choice for it’s Mainstage production in collaboration with the Music department.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Voltaire’s satirical novella “Candide” explores the corruption of the Church, the futility of war and sexual exploitation among other topics.  -Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Voltaire’s satirical novella “Candide” explores the corruption of the Church, the futility of war and sexual exploitation among other topics.
-Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

 

Frances Thrush gives an argument in defense of “Candide.”

For those who are unfamiliar with “Candide,” it is a 1759 French satire written by Voltaire. “Candide” deals with such events as the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon, the Seven Years’ war, slavery, the New World and the Inquisition. Voltaire’s short novella was translated several times, and the variations take many different directions, some focusing simply on hyperbolic and overly sexualized scandal, and others presenting a scathing criticism of politics, optimistic philosophy and religion at the time. The novella was controversial due to its criticism both of contemporary events and the people involved in them and of the views concerning them. The librettos adapted from this incredibly influential and controversial novella led to the creation of one of the more beautifully composed and musically challenging Broadway productions.

What is the relevance of “Candide” to the University of Dallas? It is the play that was selected for the spring 2015 Mainstage production. Both the drama and music departments will be collaborating in this incredibly important production. Unfortunately, the selection of this particular play has given way to controversy. This, to me, is concerning, as the problems addressed in “Candide” should have been long resolved. In addition, the inflammatory nature of the production does not function simply to “get a rouse,” but rather to present the realities of Voltaire’s time so scathingly that the audience cannot help but see the ugliness of the situation.

The story follows the protagonist Candide as he is tossed around Europe, the New World and even the Ottoman Empire; forced into an army; reunited with his lover; and tried by the Inquisition. Voltaire is incredibly eloquent in criticizing the futility of war, the abuse of religious and political beliefs for corrupt ends, and the very disturbing problems with the Inquisition. The novella and its adaptations are also very critical of the work of several philosophers, mainly Leibniz and his optimistic philosophy, and of the behavior of the wealthy at the time.

Many who disagree with the production of this play find it offensive to the Church, too heavy in content, or too sexually laden. To address the latter objection first, the production is not inherently sexual – yes, there are references and interactions of a sexual nature in the novella and the 1973 libretto (both of which I have read). But none of these are unavoidable with good direction. These elements are part of Voltaire’s discussion of the darker aspects of the human condition. What is more, such elements also show the philosophic and moral journeys of the characters. Candide and his lover are thrown out of their pleasant ignorance and into a world wrought with corruption and confusion. Their ideals about love, their bodies and their identities all come into question.

Yes, the content of “Candide” is heavy. I would never pretend it is not, but the weight this play carries is what makes it so influential. This production directly confronts uncomfortable issues of rape, slavery, murder, war, and the horrendous deeds man is capable of doing in the name of something sacred or for the sake of his country. The aim of this work is not to appease the audience, not to leave them feeling that the world is the best of all places and most definitely not to lead them to think that our political and religious institutions can do no wrong. Its aim is to shed light on what and who man is and what man does. The play shows the importance of not being content with the behavior of those in power, whether that power comes from political station, status in the religious hierarchy or moral influence.

If the complaint is that the play paints the Church unfavorably, then I must agree. But to say that this is a negative aspect of the play when it is dealing with the corruption of the Inquisition? Then, I must disagree. The portrait of the Church in “Candide” is indisputably unfavorable. But how could we expect any other portrayal when representatives of the Church were behaving in such reprehensible ways? Can we really stand here in the tail end of 2014 and say that this depiction of the Church is insulting, when the Church herself has acknowledged and apologized for the atrocities of the past? The depiction is uncomfortable, but it is a reminder of what happened, and how one very eloquent and intelligent man, Voltaire, was affected by it, and how we, today, must not allow such abuses to take place.

Though the play deals with the issues of the 18th century, it can still be argued that “Candide” is relevant today. In today’s world, sex trafficking still exists. Religions still struggle to be sources of change that is purely positive. Our politicians still fail to represent the interests of the people, and the disparity between the upper classes and the lower classes is still incredibly unbalanced. I would say there has never been a more appropriate time for this play to be done.

 

Lauren Bergeron explains why “Candide” is a mockery of the Church.

For the first time in University of Dallas history, the music department and the drama department are teaming up to put on a musical. This would seem to be an exciting and monumental moment for our school. Unfortunately, I believe it will be a monumental moment for a very different reason. The drama and music departments have selected an operetta based on Voltaire’s “Candide.” Of all of the wonderful musicals that could have been chosen, the drama and music departments found it appropriate to choose a piece that is highly anti-Catholic and was once condemned by the Church in the Index of Forbidden Books. As UD is one of the most highly rated Catholics school in America — both for its academics and uniquely Catholic character — I am surprised that a play like this would be chosen and approved here.

The arts are a wonderful expression of the human soul. Pope John Paul the Great wrote many wonderful and thought-provoking plays that would fit well into our core education at UD, yet a play like “Candide” does not seem to fit the bill. The idea of promoting a play that attacks the Church and her clergy is repulsive.

The play tells the story of a young, optimistic man who has many sufferings inflicted on him, often by the Catholic Church. I am not sure how the anticlerical scenes will be portrayed, but to even imply in the operetta that a homosexual priest molests a young boy or that an archbishop sleeps with a prostitute is a scandal.

UD students often joke that we live in a bubble at UD and in many ways that is true.  But I believe we are some of the most thoughtful students in America despite our “bubble.” We have learned to think critically and, furthermore, we have read innumerable counterarguments to Catholic beliefs in our classes in works by Luther and Calvin to Marx and Nietzsche. So why then do we feel the need to step beyond criticism to mock the core of who we are?

What the drama department is doing is not “criticism” of the Church. It is a mockery of the very foundation of this school. The Church receives so many attacks from outside her walls, but the ones that hurt the most are the ones that come from within. I came to this school so that I could get away from a world that degrades everything for which the Catholic Church stands. In fact, at least two students who were asked by the drama and music departments to be in the operetta declined because it went against their consciences. For a Catholic school with a largely Catholic student body to ask students to participate in something against the Church and against their consciences is not what I expected when I chose UD — I suspect many people would agree with me.

As a theology major and a passionate member of the Catholic Church and of the Body of Christ, I feel this is a personal attack. I am disappointed that the administration at UD would welcome such a play with open arms.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Voltaire’s Candide is a work of high literary and aesthetic value. That alone renders it worthy of production in any drama department–Catholic or otherwise. Notice how Ms. Bergeron tellingly didn’t dispute a single claim that Voltaire makes in Candide.

    The arts are not meant to be exclusively used a platform upon which to weave merry morality tales; the arts deal with all aspects (even the grittier ones) of human life. Scandals in the Church are a part of that fabric of human life, too, and so there should be no issue with a department depicting it. If anything, it is precisely because of UD’s Catholic environment that our audience will approach the work with a more nuanced mindset as opposed to a more secular and hostile audience who, while watching Candide, will probably be looking for something to confirm their predisposed hatred of an institution about which they know little.

  2. “. . .to even imply in the operetta that a homosexual priest molests a young boy or that an archbishop sleeps with a prostitute is a scandal.”

    In that case, you might want to avoid ever reading a newspaper or history book.

  3. Reading this and the other article on the subject, I have to wonder if any of the persons who are so loudly expressing their opinions have read the John Cairn libretto version of the Bernstein musical. There IS something to be said for reserving opinion until one has an informed opinion, and I highly doubt Ms. Bergeron or Ms. Thrush (or ANY of the professors (other than the ones actually working on the show) quoted in the other article) have more than a wikipedia level of knowledge about the musical itself. They may have read the original Voltaire but the musical is very, very different.

    • Having spoken to the writers of these articles, Frances Thrush and Emily Lataif actually HAVE both read the Cairn libretto version.

  4. And all–just a reminder of what Dr. Gregory pointed out: UD is a LIBERAL ARTS school–not a Catholic school that happens to promote the liberal arts. And the Catholic spirit–the Holy Spirit–that walks these hills is not one with the tactics of fundamentalists of other ilks that circle the wagons. As St. Paul said–nothing will separate us from the love of God!

  5. Ithought one of the purpose of the arts was to bring subjects into light so we don’t have to do them in real life. Also history is history. Just because I am a German, and plays about Nazi Germany cast Germany in a bad light, am I to forbid such works?

    Ms.Bergenson scares me. Attitudes such as hers eventually lead to book burning. Yikes!

  6. Lauren offers here a very bad criticism of Candide. Candide is not bad because it attacks the Church, it is bad because it is lousy art by any aesthetic or story-telling measure. It is an immature, amateur, self-satisfied piece of propaganda. Successful art is primarily captivated by beauty, and through beauty it comes to truth. Anything which exists to make and argument or prove a point is propaganda. If you want to prove a point, write an essay or philosophy; don’t masquerade your arguments as art. This leads to transparent, overwrought, heavy-handed, and one-dimensional storytelling, and often to some form of preaching.

    To show that I am not merely exhibiting a Catholic bias: I would make the same criticism, for instance, of “Christian music.” This music does not exist because of the beauty or the aesthetic power of the actual music, but to provide a vehicle for preaching. The message far outweighs any meager aesthetic qualities of the song, and that sinks the whole endeavor.

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