The Best Interpretation Among all Possible Ones?
By Joscha CHUNG, Theatre Advisor
When the TV series, The Newsroom, made its debut with HBO in 2012, at the beginning, the male protagonist made a strenuous objection to the imagination that “America is the mightiest nation in the world”. The screenwriter wrote a series of long lines like a machine gun for this scene, targeting the optimists who thought they “lived in the best country of the world” and felt quite satisfied with current conditions. It is believed that the operetta, Candide, having its debut in 1956, had already harbored suspicion of the same fantastic illusion.
In fact, it was a play writer, Lillian Hellman, not Bernstein who began the thought of adapting Voltaire’s sarcastic novel in the 18th century into a theatre work. Bernstein once composed the incidental music for Hellman’s stage show depicting Jeanne d'Arc, The Lark, adapted from Jean Anouilh’s French original. They had a delightful working relation; however, the contributing factor that drove both people to decide to adapt Candide was still their shared concern about the current affairs. Since the late 1950s, United States Congress and John Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were tarred with the same brush. In the name of anti-communism and national safety, they widely investigated American citizens’ public and private events which “didn’t belong to the United States”. These investigations directly weakened the freedom of speech that the art workers value the most. Hellman used to be on the blacklist of Hollywood just because she resisted the Congress’ survey. This had significantly affected her to make a living, and even people around her were sent into prison for the rebellion. In the world of music, Copland, a senior that Bernstein admired and himself had been labelled as the spokesmen of communism in the early 1960s.
After having experienced the soar of McCarthyism, from these two creators’ viewpoints, the sarcasm expressed in Voltaire’s novels to the disciplines of optimism in Europe at that time was full of realistic implications. To Voltaire, on one hand, he believed that “the world we lived in is the best one among all possible worlds”, but on the other hand, he witnessed serious natural disasters that caused plenty of casualties, such as 1755 Lisbon earthquake, and the religion check conducted by the Inquisition. He could even be indifferent and justify himself in case of a hard time. He made use of novels to criticize the society, describing a disciple of optimism who faced multiple natural and man-made calamities. Yet, the readers did not have to worry about him because as he moved to the next page, all kinds of ridiculous escape from death, or astonishing rescue and reunions from a long distance that were “extremely impossible amongst all” would happen.
In terms of literature, the novel Candide succeeds the style of an adventurous novel where the leading character travels and wanders freely around the world, like a picaresque novel, Don Quixote. This kind of work contains no strict structure, and the context may lack causal relationship. Basically it poses no much impact on the work even if the leading character go or doesn’t go to a place. It goes without saying that a large amount of embellishment is required to adapt such a loose novel into a play for one night. Eventually, Hellman and Bernstein spent more than two years putting the operetta, Candide, on stage for the first time in 1956 autumn. The form of the work at that time was far beyond Hellman’s initial intention, a stage show plus incidental music. After the lyrics writers had been changed for several times, the script was incorporated with the creativity from lots of people. Even Bernstein and Mrs. Bernstein have made contributions. As a result, from the structure to the content, this play inevitably gives people a feeling of a collage. The script has been undergone some modifications more or less to cater to several significant performances in the past years. This time, the drama to be presented in Weiwuying is based on the concert version in 1993, directly from Bernstein’s production for Scottish Opera in 1988, and the subsequent changes that he made for the concert in London Barbican Centre in the next year. At that time, Hellman and other creators once involved with the script amendments all passed away, so the changes and the performance were dependent on the composers’ opinions.
At the ending of the first season of The Newsroom, the protagonist looked at a young, brave intern and said to her, “You are the reason that America is great.” The producer used the spirit full of realism to respond to the criticism voiced to the “fool optimism” at the beginning of the TV series. It still provides some positive energy that is indispensable in entertainment industry. What about Candide? The leading character is arranged to retreat and take in the characters suffering from setbacks in their lives of the whole play. Besides, he and Cunégonde finally didn’t see something through rose-tinted glasses but face it directly. The theatre ends at a scene filled with warmth in a chaotic age. A modern theatre director would always pursue “the best interpretation among all possible ones”, but the so-called “the best” lies in the unique feeling of the creator in certain moment and place. Director Frederika has stayed in Germany for many years, and she tends to picaresquely set out on her creation journey to and from Eurasia. She chooses a special closure to this play; hence, even this is only a semi-stage production, the performance is still something worthy of one’s expectation.