By Emily Lataif
Next semester’s Mainstage play, “Candide,” has sparked debate and opened up discussion on what it means to be both a Catholic and a liberal arts school.
The project gained attention from the student body when at least two students confirmed that they had declined to participate in the play, citing moral reasons. The University News interviewed the students and confirmed their stories, but the students asked to remain anonymous.
The production is an operetta version of Voltaire’s 18th century French Enlightenment novel “Candide.” Known for its biting, satirical nature, the novel earned a place on the Catholic Church’s list of banned books in 1762 for its harsh portrayal of Catholic clergy. In the mid-1950s, acclaimed composer Leonard Bernstein set the novel to music with lyrics by poet Richard Wilbur, among others. The production was initially a flop, but underwent a series of successful revisions with various “librettos,” or scripts.
The drama and music departments will be collaborating in the production and will be using a libretto by John Caird written in 1998. As a novel, “Candide” is seen as one of the Western world’s greatest artistic works.
This is the first time that the drama and music departments have collaborated on a production. Stefan Novinski, assistant professor of drama, will be directing the play. He cited several reasons as to why he chose “Candide” as next semester’s Mainstage. According to him, it is an important work of the Enlightenment; it is a mainstream musical; it raises fundamental questions relevant at the University of Dallas; and, at its core, it contains a truth about human nature.
He believes that UD students can handle watching their faith, along with other weighty topics such as rape and prostitution, treated satirically.
“I would say the university is mature enough to handle it. If we’re not, then we should be very worried,” said Novinski.
The satire tells the story of a naïve young man named Candide whose philosophical tutor tells him that our world is the best of all possible worlds. After he and his love, Cunegonde, undergo every possible kind of physical and emotional torment, Candide — disillusioned — rejects his tutor’s optimistic outlook on life and decides to settle down and base his life on work.
At the center of students’ concerns is the anti-clerical and anti-Catholic nature of some scenes in the operetta. These scenes include suggestions of a cardinal sleeping with a prostitute and a pope having a daughter, and the insinuation of a homosexual priest.
After being raped by Bavarian invaders, Cunegonde is sold into prostitution to a Jew named Don Issacar. The Grand Inquisitor — described as a corrupt cardinal — discovers Cunegonde’s beauty and threatens the Jew with a visit from the Inquisition if he does not share Cunegonde with him.
Cunegonde’s friend, the Old Woman, is described as the daughter of a pope. In a later scene, she references a friar with whom she slept.
Cunegonde’s brother, Maximillian, becomes the Reverend Father Colonel of an order of rebellious warrior Jesuits after, “the Father Superior conceived the most tender affection for me.” Maximillian recounts a time when, “I happened to meet a young fellow one night—extremely good-looking—who wanted to go for a swim…I had no idea it was a capital offence for a Christian to be found stark naked with a young Muslim boy.”
Priests of the Inquisition are shown torturing and killing innocent people.
Some students felt that though the operetta casts the Church in this negative light, these events have happened and still do today. Others, however, did not see the value in mocking actions of members of the clergy that is deemed sinful by the Church.
When it came to members of the faculty, they fell on both sides of the spectrum.
Dr. Scott Crider, associate professor of English, believes that the University of Dallas’s religion should not be used to censor.
“UD is a Catholic, liberal arts school, and it has nothing to fear from Voltaire or Bernstein,” he said. “Our curriculum and culture presume faith, reason and imagination, the dialectic among which defines our vibrant culture. UD’s wonderful Catholic character should not be used to prohibit speech deemed by some to be mistaken.”
However, Dr. Susan Hanssen, associate professor of history, said that she found it “embarrassing” for UD to perform “Candide.”
“I have always found adolescent displays of rebellion against the Christian tradition like Voltaire’s in the eighteenth century to be based on an appallingly shallow knowledge of what it is that they are trying to ‘execrate,’” she said. “If the University of Dallas is not a place of peculiar and surprising fidelity to the Catholic Church in a wasteland of banal secularism, then it is nothing.”
Father Thomas Esposito, a Cistercian priest of the theology department, sees both sides of the issue.
“I consider myself a monk of mercy, and in that sense, I see both sides of this argument,” he said. “If the drama department and music department want to collaborate with a composer as great as Bernstein, that’s fine. The fact that they would insist on a play such as this is somewhat strange to me … The church that is portrayed there is — I would hope — very different from the church that exists today.”
He is also concerned about the individual feelings of students and professors.
“I also see from an individual student’s or faculty member’s perspective the conscience question about how we feel offended by this,” he said. “And if feelings trump all else in today’s society, then they should be listened to by the departments.”
Dr. Theresa Kenney, associate professor of English, also brought up the issue of conscience, questioning, “the responsibility of Christian teachers toward their students.”
“If they believe their role is to loosen up the young people’s tightly-wound consciences, they are wrong,” she said. “To make another’s conscience less sensitive is to seduce, and not to teach.”
Also of the English department, Dr. Eileen Gregory expressed concern about the proper perception of UD’s identity.
“I am distressed to feel … the sense that many people think that we are first a Catholic school and secondly a liberal arts school,” she said. “I think that will destroy us. We are hospitable to the Catholic tradition … but we are aiming at a liberal arts education first, not a Catholic education first … And it ought to be characterized by hospitality.”
President Keefe also weighed in on the play’s controversial nature.
“We must be able to acknowledge worldviews of others, and Voltaire’s 18th century satire provides an opportunity for students not to feel attacked, but rather to respond with poise, patience, and wisdom,” he said in a written statement. “Candide is in no way representative of The University of Dallas’s enthusiastically Catholic spirit, but it is a small piece of a larger conversation you may encounter outside of the classroom.”
However, Dr. Joseph Piccione, Catholic moral theologian from Peoria, Ill. noted the disruptive impact on student cast members.
“I was struck by the witness given by the cast members whose discomfort rose to the point in which they left a project in which they were so hoping to participate,” he said. “That was an act of heroic virtue. Perhaps a future calculus of future productions would include the impact on student-actors. As a part of campus life, theatre productions should foster inclusivity.”
Dr. Kristin Van Cleve, chair of the music department and Novinski will be collaborating in the directing of the play. They assured The University News that students who do not want to participate “will not face any punitive measures.”
Novinksi believes that the controversial topics must be dealt with and that satire is one way of doing so. He explains just how some of these difficult subjects will be treated in the play.
Regarding rape, a topic that has been gaining attention in today’s society, Novinski said that he will not show rape on stage, but that it will also not be ignored.
“Rape happens. The word rape will be said. People will be referred to as having been raped because this is about the horrors of a certain period of time,” Novinski said.
Concerning implications of homosexual clergymen, Novinski said that those will be treated carefully. There will be no obviously gay priests.
“I know where I work. I am very sensitive to the community as my track record shows,” he said.
Van Cleve and Dee Donasco, vocal director for the operetta, each of whom have a role in Candide’s production, stressed that the music was especially compelling to them.
“The thing about Candide is that it’s rarely done in colleges because of the difficulty,” said Donasco. “It’s time to step outside the box and do something different.”
At the same time, Donasco is aware of what is at stake. “We have to be careful, too, because the administration could shut us down.”
Novinski stated that he is surprised by the controversy his decision is raising. The drama department did, however, bring the play beforehand to Dr. Charles Eaker, Dean of Constantin College, who is in charge of approving potentially provocative events on campus.
“What we ask faculty to do is if they are going to host a speaker or put on a production that they feel is controversial, they’ll bring those things to me and we can discuss them. So in this case, it was recognized that this … was something that could be misunderstood on campus,” said Eaker.
Regardless of whether or not students or faculty believe in the virtue of producing a play with anti-Catholic sentiments, according to Novinski, UD is “100 percent going to do the musical” and students can judge the morality of “Candide” themselves when it comes to campus.