Herb Greer on a fine production of a flawed musical which proves that literature and theatre are very different things.by Herb Greer / July 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Literature and theatre: are they the same? Some years ago, at a conference in Salzburg, Malcolm Bradbury said yes. I said no. The discussion ended in pantomimic shouting: “Oh, yes, they are!” “Oh, no, they’re not!” This did not settle the question, so for the seminar I wrote and directed a one-act play whose dialogue consisted of numbers. This worked quite well and seemed to prove my point.
A more spectacular proof is in rep at the National Theatre: an attempt to theatricalise a literary classic, Voltaire’s Candide, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics and book by a number of people. The original book was written by Lillian Hellman, as a “dark comedy.” Bernstein’s songs were curiously ad hoc, and none had much to do with Hellman’s script. The show was a cobbled-up mess, and did not last long on Broadway.
Bernstein, as optimistic as Pangloss, kept repairing the show. He got new lyrics, fiddled with the book, staged it in London (a production I saw). It was still a mess. Voltaire’s satire on Leibniz stubbornly resisted translation to the stage. Later Hal Prince chopped the show about and produced a fast Broadway version which I did not see, but which seems to have been better.
Bernstein did not approve, and tried to rescue Candide for the serious stage again. Yet another version, with book by John Wells, was directed at the Old Vic by Jonathan Miller. I saw that; it was also a mess. Now Trevor Nunn has turned it into a musical about “contemporary life,” restoring “Voltaire’s searching philosophy.” The result is yet another mess, playing to full houses.
The reason for the mess is that old confusion between literature and theatre. In the first place, Voltaire’s “philosophy” in Candide is not very searching. He says it is foolish and sometimes cruel to be over-optimistic, and silly to be over-pessimistic, and good folk should mind their own business, et voil? tout. His refutation of Leibniz’s optimism is irrelevant anyway, because no one believes in the deity on which Leibniz depends-a God who actively arranges human affairs.
And yet we read Candide with pleasure because Voltaire’s prose is amusing on the page. Unfortunately the page and the stage, rhyme though they may, are unkind companions here. The show spends an evening, like a buttonholing bore, coarsely exposing Voltaire’s shallowness, labouring his point about optimism again and again. Candide himself and his lady Cunegonde are the sort of puppets none of the critics would tolerate for a moment in any contemporary play. Everyone else is papier m?ch?-characters who seem to have strayed in from one of David Edgar’s Marxist tracts, spouting schoolboy bromides. Everything that happens is arbitrary, without dramatic content or movement.
The underlying tedium is worsened by Bernstein’s score, as number follows unconnected number, lunging from pastiche to sentimentality to sarcasm. The flimsy story vanishes into a broken wilderness of disjointed scenes, closest in form to a British pantomime, with rather less narrative drive. And yet-theatrically hopeless as it is-the show does draw laughs. They belong to that special variety of laugh which does not arise from genuine comedy; instead this is the guffaw which responds to a telegraphed signal from the stage, and contains that unmistakable entre nous chortle. The musical numbers are still ad hoc but pleasing-if your attention span is short and excludes any sort of overall impression of the evening’s flow. A brilliant cast and cunning direction help.
The show will no doubt continue to draw punters because of Bernstein’s name and because this pantomimic farrago is very well played by performers whose charm and skill (at least when they are singing) makes the material seem less jejune and exasperating than it actually is. Alex Kelly as Cunegonde and Beverley Klein as the One-Buttocked Old Woman are particularly good, as is Simon Russell Beale in the impossible role of Voltaire/Pangloss (this doubling seems, like so much in the show, quite arbitrary).
If you are among those whose attention span and theatrical taste have been shaped by television and/or pantomime, you will applaud this show. For the rest of us it remains an object lesson in the abyss between literature and theatre, and the grotesque result when even the most talented artists confuse readers with audiences. Candide
The National Theatre