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Stanton Wood, playwright, Candide Americana

And why shouldn’t he chance to find Cunegonde? He’s found everyone else. Coincidence (and luck) is part and parcel of Candide. But before you reject all of these coincidences out of hand as nothing but cheap comedy, think about how many of us have unexpectedly run into a friend in a strange city? How many great moments in history and our own lives have been influenced by accident, coincidence, or luck? As always, Voltaire exaggerates, he piles coincidence and lucky chance onto one another with dizzying, impossible quickness. Certainly these moments function as pure comic effect, as plot device, and as a way of satirizing literary forms, among other things. Yet they also reinforce the idea that we are somehow connected, and the hope that we can actually find each other (and a better life) as we blunder around in this chaotic world. Voltaire himself must have thought hope was important (even if it is so consistently dashed in Candide). He ended his poem about the Lisbon Earthquake by writing that hope was man’s sole happiness on Earth:

“A caliph once when his last hour drew nigh,
Prayed in such terms as these to the most high:
‘Being supreme, whose greatness knows no bound,
I bring thee all that can’t in Thee be found;
Defects and sorrows, ignorance and woe.’
Hope he omitted, man’s sole bliss below.
(from the Theo Cuffe translation)

Of course, Voltaire was coy about whether hope meant the hope of heaven, or the hope of making the world a better place.

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There’s something iconic in the contrast between Martin’s clear-eyed cynicism and Candide’s dreamy counter-intuitive idealism. I think I’m now going to waste some time trying to identify the silent, Vaudeville, or ‘50‘s comedy team that most reminds me of Martin and Candide.

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Manicheans solved the problem of evil by believing in two equally powerful forces in conflict. Evil exists because God simply doesn’t have the power to eliminate it.

There’s great comic tension between the philosophy of Pangloss, where evil is by definition good, and Martin’s “WYSIWYG” dualistic point of view where evil is, for lack of a better term, evil. Ironically, Martin’s belief in a dead religion comes directly from observed experience, whereas Candide’s belief in optimism comes from books and Pangloss.

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Candide gives a hilariously feeble defense in support of the best of all possible worlds here, and this exchange is almost like the punchline to the monologue that precedes it. It also serves as a microcosm of the kinds of interactions that Candide has with a variety of sufferers throughout the book.

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Hope is not the same thing as optimism, and it is ultimately hope that distinguishes Candide.

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Martin’s long speech still carries a bite today (even in this translation). I always think of New York City when I read: “Even in those cities which seem to enjoy peace, and where the arts flourish, the inhabitants are devoured by more envy, care, and uneasiness than are experienced by a besieged town.”

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Even physical love, a thing that should ideally be unrelentingly good, carries its own curse.

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This is the first genuinely good person that Candide meets on his journey. He’s like the extra crewmen on Star Trek – you just know this will end badly. The genuinely good people in Candide are not rewarded for their kindness.

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These small hypocrisies and minor betrayals are no less relevant, as here, when the man preaching charity refuses to give any and his wife dumps sh*t on Candide’s head. Incorporating this kind of ironic moment into the natural flow of the action was one of the challenges of adaptation – every moment in the book seems to include an example of someone saying one thing while doing the opposite in a particularly delicious way.

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Voltaire has a lot of fun with the principle of sufficient reason, the idea that there is meaning in the universe and that all things happen for a reason (oh, the causes and effects!). Most of the sufferers in Candide say that the world is confusing, violent, and inexplicable, even as priests, monks and philosophers maintain that it all makes perfect sense. Yet this drive to find meaning is actually very active, and powered the philosophy in our adaptation.

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“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Sorry to interrupt. My name is Candide, and I’m homeless.”

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So in the search for relevant modern wars that are insane and confusing for a modern audience, why not try the Balkans? With minor modifications, this passage, as Candide walks through various destroyed villages, could easily apply to the Bosnian conflict (just read the above, exchanging Bulgars and Abarians for Serbian and Bosnian).

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When I set out to do a modern stage adaptation of Candide where he travels through America, one of the first things I did was read Susan Neiman’s fine book Evil in Modern Thought, which is a history of how philosophy deals with the problem of evil. This quote guided my process: “The book begins in the Seven Years’ War, in which people really were butchered for no reason whatsoever. The inquisition really did burn strangers in the name of God…women really are raped as a matter of course in wartime.” And after a long list of 18th Century atrocities, including imperialism and the slave trade: “This is all just to say: Candide is short, compressed and satirical, but it isn’t for that reason false. As a description of reality, it’s remarkably accurate. Any good European could have drawn up a similar list of atrocities by reading a newspaper.”

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  2. Alice Boone, Curator, Candide at 250: Scandal and Success (40)
  3. Amarish Mena (1)
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  19. Eric Palmer, Allegheny College, editor of the Broadview Editions 'Candide' (3)
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  27. James Basker, Richard Gilder Professor of Literary History, Barnard College (5)
  28. James Morrow, author The Last Witchfinder, The Philosopher's Apprentice (23)
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  50. Nicholas Cronk, Voltaire Foundation, Oxford (4)
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  52. Nicole Horejsi, Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University (11)
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  60. Shelley (1)
  61. Stanton Wood, playwright, Candide Americana (13)
  62. Tom Gilbert (5)
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  65. Victor Uszerowicz (1)
  66. Wataru Hoeltermann, Student at MDC (1)
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Total comments in book: 226