It’s been an awfully long time since I’ve read Candide. Voltaire’s novella is one of those books that are assigned in junior high or high school, well before one is old enough to really understand them. I had a vague recollection that it was comic: The humor may have been bitter and bleak, but it was still humor. And that’s what I was expecting when I saw Leonard Bernstein’s musical version of the story shortly before COVID-19 did its part to mock the notion that ours is the best of all possible worlds.
Which just goes to show how little I know.
Grim and brutal, the musical bludgeons the audience. What little humor there was gives way to stern polemics. The show’s original book was written by Lillian Hellman, a playwright about as funny as Stalin doing stand-up. Hellman’s scourge, writer Mary McCarthy, mocked her version of Candide as “a sad fizzle which is more like a high school pageant than a social satire.” (Perhaps Hellman should have sued McCarthy for that.)
Why didn’t I read about Candide before seeing it? I might have been spared — or at least prepared. But I don’t like to be prepared for the theater. I don’t like knowing a play before seeing it. I don’t like being prejudiced by critics. I don’t even like reading a play if there’s any reasonable chance I’ll be able to see it on the stage first. If you hear there’s going to be a competently performed production of Henry VI, Part 3, do let me know.
And so in my carefully cultivated ignorance, I approached Candide knowing only one piece of music from the show, the impossibly arpeggiated soprano solo “Glitter and Be Gay,” that giddy descendant of Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria. Charming and light and deft, the song had given me a false impression of what the show was like, and that made all the ham-fisted pummeling that much harder to take. Things finally, mercifully, started winding down at about the 17-hour mark. And just when I was begging for the high school pageant to end, what should emerge but something of tremendous beauty, an anthem (almost) unsullied by cynicism, “Make Our Garden Grow.” Candide and Cunegonde are done with fancy philosophies and have committed to the simple pleasure of planting. The image is lovely and sentimental and right for the moment.
With people burning buildings, smashing windows, and looting businesses, what better time to do something profoundly contrarian, constructive, and life-affirming: planting flowers? The loveliness of nature stands as a gentle rebuke to the ugliness all around us. It also happens to be the right time for reasons having nothing to do with political violence: Fall approaches, and that’s the time for getting bulbs in the ground.
I was reminded of that by the arrival of a catalog from my favorite flower farm. It’s positively garden porn. Luscious tulips. Perky daffodils. Bustling hyacinth. Anemones. Erythronium. Alliums. But none of it is for now. The summer is winding down, and gardening in this season is all about laying the groundwork for next year. There is the virtue of delayed gratification. You do the hard work in October, and you don’t see the results until the first crocuses give way to a cascade of colors that change throughout the spring and into the summer.
Planting bulbs is an act of optimism — and never mind that old Voltaire thought optimism to be a foolish thing. Planting in the fall means you’ve made a commitment to sticking around to see your efforts come into bloom. While others are indulging in violence in the moment, gardeners are seeding life that will flourish in the future.
And what could be a more perfect activity in these days of COVID-19. With any luck, the fragrance of flowers planted now will be enjoyed without masks to interfere with the scent. And we’ll be able to look back on these strange days as ones in which we responded by making our gardens grow.
Eric Felten is the James Beard Award-winning author of How’s Your Drink?
Tags: Life, Theater
Original Author: Eric Felten
Original Location: Make your garden grow