Dr. Pangloss and Candide, from the production playing at the Huntington Theater

Writing and thinking about T. S. Eliot (see my previous post) has engaged me in thoughts about what is timeless and why certain works of art just keep speaking to generation after generation. It is an esoteric chemistry, what must come together for a creation to ride out on the front edge of that wave that travels through time, never getting sucked into the downward pull of the regenerative curl that keeps surfacing what’s new.

Mary Zimmerman‘s production of Candide (currently playing at the Huntington Theater in Boston after previous engagements in Chicago and Washington) presents a version of Voltaire‘s “schoolboy’s farce” (but, as Zimmerman has said, it is the schoolboy’s farce of a genius) that feels so contemporary I had to keep reminding myself it was actually written in the 18th century. Yes, Voltaire’s Candide has a checkered past—banned and celebrated, reviled and adored, philosophical inquiry as well as a satirical farce, allegorical and yet based on true events—and does not have the high polish of a carefully constructed work. But that unfinished quality may also be part of why it feels accessible to audiences hundreds of years after Europe was struggling through the Seven Years’ War and the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.

How could Voltaire capture the particular nature of Tea Party crazy talk that we are all enduring these days? How could he have captured so accurately the quality of our times—living through calamity after calamity, helplessly witnessing one injustice after another, of naive (and destructive) assumptions about god and human nature, of the perils of optimism as a economic strategy? The characters and attitudes in this tale are all too familiar. And my guess is they will be 100 years from now as well.

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