…We’ll do the best we know.
We’ll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow.
Final Chorus from the Broadway musical Candide
Probably the best known of Voltaire’s works today is his satiric novel, Candide. The story follows the adventures—more often misadventures—of Candide, the optimist. The book lampooned so many individuals and institutions, that Voltaire, who had already spent a disproportionate part of his life in either exile or jail, published it under the pseudonym, Mr. Dr. Ralph (or Monsieur le docteur Ralph, for you Francophiles). More than anything, Candide skewers the philosophic argument of Gottfried Leibniz who argued that since the world was created by a perfect God, it must therefore be the best of all possible worlds. As our hero, Candide, experiences ever more horrendous misfortune, his teacher, Dr. Pangloss (A.K.A. Leibniz) incredibly argues that things couldn’t be better!
The history of the musical is nearly as complicated as Voltaire’s plot. Despite a brilliant musical score by Leonard Bernstein, incisive lyrics by poet Richard Wilbur and writer Dorothy Parker, and a book by playwright Lillian Hellman, the show was an immediate flop when it opened on December 1, 1956. Fortunately, interest in Candide was kept alive by the brilliant (and still definitive) original cast recording released by Columbia Records. In the early 70’s, legendary producer and director Hal Prince introduced a completely revamped and highly comedic one act version that enjoyed popular success. In the 1980’s, a two act iteration appeared with the renewed help of Bernstein and input from none other than Stephen Sondheim. It’s been a hit ever since.
Both the book and the show end with Candide’s enlightenment. From a Dervish he learns that a life spent theorizing, rationalizing, speculating and debating is basically a life wasted. From a simple farmer he learns that deep contentment and satisfaction require neither wealth nor power. Rather, it’s a matter of developing your own innate gifts and applying them wherever you happen to be, that will create your own best of all possible worlds.
A lot of us spend our time fretting, worrying and grumbling about our situation. We don’t know exactly what we want beyond the certainty that it’s not what we’ve got. We just know that the perfect job awaits us just out of sight—the one that’s challenging, pays well and gives us plenty of free time. We just know that the perfect relationship is out there—the one that involves an extraordinarily good looking mate, who’ll meet our every need while cheerfully enduring our personality quirks. And of course every parent just knows (and this is true) that there are better behaved kids somewhere out there!
But the truth is in the chorus! Let’s do the best we can with what we’ve got. We can build our house by nurturing the relationships that give meaning to our lives and by prudently using our resources. We can chop our wood by earnestly applying heart and mind to each responsibility we’ve accepted along the way. Most of all, we can make our garden grow by unselfishly applying every gift with which we’ve been endowed toward the betterment of the place in which we find ourselves. Home, work and in between—let’s make our garden grow. —Ebert