We give names to periods of time so big that without the name we could not grasp them: the Age of Reason, the Hundred Years War, the American Century, the Renaissance. What are we to call the time in which we now live? Earlier this week I got an inkling.
On Monday, I went to the Santa Fe Opera to see a musical version of Voltaire’s “Candide.” I don’t go to the opera lightly. Depending on which way I drive it is a round trip of 150 to 200 miles. I also need time to listen to the pre-opera lecture and eat a leisurely picnic at one of the tables scattered beneath the trees on the edge of the opera’s vast parking lot (think a Walmart Superstore parking lot, multiply by 10 and add a panorama of the Sangre de Cristo and Jemez mountains). It’s about 1 a.m. when I get back home to the East Mountains. Thus standing through a three-hour opera along with sundry attachments serves to kill both an afternoon and an evening, and leaves me so exhausted the next morning that I have a hard time writing or playing tennis or even being civil.
So I expect in return for my effort to receive something fairly considerable from the opera, and on this occasion I didn’t feel I had gotten it. Somehow the 18th-century wit and wisdom and elegant ironies of Voltaire eluded the multiple librettists, the celebrated composer Leonard Bernstein and the usually dextrous artists at the SFO, producing instead of their customary magic a repetitive, boring and unexciting evening tumbling into the crevasse between musical comedy and operetta.
To my surprise, the performance was little more than an extended and highly repetitive joke, a kind of elaborate shaggy dog story.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth, and many of his works, including “Candide,” are enjoying revivals across the country. “Candide” has attracted the collaboration of some 35 librettists, including Lillian Hellman, Stephen Sondheim, Dorothy Parker and Bernstein himself. That so many have tried so hard for so many years is evidence of the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of converting Voltaire’s carefully crafted insults of armies, religions, governments and elites to musical drama. Bernstein’s operetta (it is a stretch to call it an opera) was first performed in the mid-1950s, within two years of his more commercially and artistically successful “West Side Story.”
For me, however, the evening was far from a waste, for it got me to thinking about entirely different but not entirely irrelevant matters, such as this nameless age we are currently enduring.
“Candide” is the simple story of a naive young man who is sold optimistic snake oil by a series of shamans before finally discovering how to live with himself. “Let us cultivate our garden,” is the famous dictum that results. The short 18th-century novel is a parody, or if you will a satire, of narrow-minded elites who declare this “the best of all possible worlds,” but fail to see the suffering and pain that fill the lives of most human beings.
For example, Pangloss, Candide’s tutor and mentor, explains that the death and destruction of war is really a good thing because it afflicts all alike and thus narrows the gap between classes and generations and increases equality. (Of course, war does no such thing: the young fight and die for the old who send them into battle, and the poor become refugees and lose their homes, possessions and loved ones, while the rich get richer manufacturing armaments, running black markets and managing the war.)
Voltaire’s cynicism cuts through the jargon of the hypocrites he skewers, as in this exchange:
“’Do you believe,’ said Candide, ‘that men have always massacred each other as they do today, that they have always been liars, cheats, traitors, ingrates, brigands, idiots, thieves, scoundrels, gluttons, drunkards, misers, envious, ambitious, bloody-minded, calumniators, debauchees, fanatics, hypocrites, and fools?’
“’Do you believe,’ said Martin, ‘that hawks have always eaten pigeons when they have found them?’”
All of which brings me back to my contemplation of our own age. Just as Voltaire’s assault on authority is relevant to our own time, so is another opera on the Santa Fe stage, “Doctor Atomic,” about Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos, a city whose lights, by no coincidence, are readily visible through the open rear of the stage.
So too is the David Mamet play “November,” now being performed by the New Mexico Actors Lab at Teatro Paraguas in Santa Fe. Although written in 2009, when only readers of New York City tabloids were preoccupied about Donald Trump, its flawed presidential protagonist cannot help but suggest the present White House occupant, which is presumably why the play was selected.
And in the fall, Albuquerque audiences will have a chance to watch the theatrical version of George Orwell’s novel “1984,” a dystopian vision that has also been on many a person’s mind of late.
What all these artistic expressions have in common is pessimism. They reflect skepticism not just of the success of this country, even of this civilization, but of its moral authority. Does a country, a people, that acts as we do deserve to thrive? At what point do the elimination of endangered species, the blindness toward climate change and the failure of liberal democracy outweigh the declarations of universal human rights, equality and justice?
Is this then the Age of Pessimism? Should that be the sobriquet we apply to ourselves?
Voltaire has the following exchange in “Candide”:
“’What a pessimist you are!’ exclaimed Candide.
“’That is because I know what life is,’ said Martin.”
Voltaire wrote “Candide” in an optimistic age before the French Revolution smashed all of Europe’s certitudes. Bernstein composed “Candide” in another age of optimism, before the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan smashed American certitudes, when the world was at peace and America was prosperous and powerful. But both the writer and the composer saw beneath the vainglory a deeper angst that seethes today.