“Ah, how can worldly things take the place of honor lost? Can they compensate for my fallen state, purchased as they were at such an awful cost?”
~ Quote from Leonard Bernstein’s musical adaptation of the Voltaire play, Candide.
The first connection that came to mind when I read today’s prompt was Cunegonde’s aria Glitter and Be Gay from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. The more I thought about the aria and story, the more I realized how fittingly it illustrated my state of mind as I reflect on this beautiful, yet magnificently flawed country of ours, and the Grand Experiment that attempted something better than what was.
For those of you unfamiliar with the convoluted plot originally created by Age of Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire in his 30-chapter play, Candide is the story of how we travail through life’s trials and what we do to adapt, and the traps we so easily succumb to that can forever compromise who we are. Most of us don’t start out as corrupt and conniving and some of us end up. It’s usually a slow progression into ruin. The character Cunegonde who sings Glitter and Be Gay, and also the love interest of title character Candide, is a great illustration of that progression. We see through Cunegonda’s eyes how easily seduced we are by life’s pleasures when we’re desperate and in need. The choices we make in those moments may not feel choices at all, but once we’ve slipped down those slippery slopes of compromise, it’s hard to slide our way back up.
~After escaping a war which suddenly broke out on her wedding day, Cunegonda and her mother, The Old Lady, flee to Paris. Finding her way through life without money or a husband, Cunegonda is forced to become a kept woman. She finds a benefactor in an old, wealthy Jewish man with whom she begins an affair – but only on alternating, mutually agreed upon days. This stipulation somehow seems to lessen the blow.
Bedecked amidst all her newly acquired finery, Cunegonda reflects in sorrow on her fallen state. Though, the comfort she finds in these new distractions is a little too enthusiastic to truly believe her sorrow real. Surrounded by all her pretty jewels and clothes, Cunegonde distracts herself from the reality of how this refinement was obtained with the aria,
“Glitter and be gay, that’s the part I play; here I am in Paris, France. Forced to bend my soul to a sordid role, victimized by bitter, bitter circumstance.
Alas for me! Had I remained beside my lady mother my virtue had remained unstained until my maiden hand was gained by some Grand Duke… or other.
Ah, ’twas not to be; Harsh necessity brought me to this gilded cage. Born to higher things, here I droop my wings, Ah! Singing of a sorrow nothing can assuage.
And yet of course I rather like to revel, Ha ha! I have no strong objection to champagne, Ha ha! My wardrobe is expensive as the devil, Ha ha! Perhaps it is ignoble to complain…
Enough, enough of being basely tearful! I’ll show my noble stuff by being bright and cheerful, Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha!
Pearls and ruby rings…Ah, how can worldly things take the place of honor lost? Can they compensate for my fallen state purchased as they were at such an awful cost? Bracelets…lavalieres, can they dry my tears? Can they blind my eyes to shame? Can the brightest brooch Shield me from reproach? Can the purest diamond purify my name?”
And yet of course these trinkets are endearing, Ha ha! I’m oh, so glad my sapphire is a star, Ha ha! I rather like a twenty-carat earring, Ha ha! If I’m not pure, at least my jewels are!
Enough! Enough! I’ll take their diamond necklace and show my noble stuff by being gay and reckless! Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha!
Observe how bravely I conceal the dreadful, dreadful shame I feel.
Ha ha ha ha!” (repeat, ad nauseum).
~ Not to be outdone, The Old Lady also entertains us with the ways in which she’s adapted to all life has thrown at her. My favorite memory of this song is my own mother singing it when she played the role. I always hear her voice no matter what recording I listen to. It’s a role requiring a certain kind of irony that can’t be laid too thick or it falls into a campiness out of character with the serious, yet farcical undertones this story carries. To capture the right kind of humor you must walk a very thin line, one my mother was particularly adept at. ~The Old Lady’s Tango,
“I was not born in sunny Hispania; my father came from Rovno Gubernya. But now I’m here, I’m dancing a tango; Di dee di! Dee di dee di! I am easily assimilated…
I never learned a human language. My father spoke a High Middle Polish. In one half-hour, I’m talking in Spanish: Por favor! Toreador! I am easily assimilated.
It’s easy, it’s ever so easy! I’m Spanish, I’m suddenly Spanish! And you must be Spanish, too. Do like the natives do. These days you must be in the majority.
Tus labios rubi dos rosas que se abren a mi, conquistan mi corazon, Y solo con una cancion. Mis labios rubi dreiviertel Takt, mon tres cher ami, oui ou, si si ja ja ja, yes yes, da da.
Je ne sais quoi! Je muero, me sale una hernia! A long way from Rovno Gubernya! Mis/Tus labios rubi dos rosas que se abren a mi, conquistan mi corazon, Y solo con Una divina cancion. De tus labios rubi! Rubi! Rubi! Hey!”
Candide is also a retelling of the Adam and Eve story, of falling out of blissful, idealistic naivete into the harsh realities of life and how to cope with what we see once we’ve fallen. It’s a story about the disillusionment we feel when our innocence has been spent, and we see the world, and all its false charms and pretense with unveiled eyes and look behind the curtain for the first time.
~ Upon discovering the two women who’ve just tried to swindle him out of his money are actually The Old Lady and his lost love Cunegonda, Candide retreats into silence for three long days. After spending a lifetime idealizing his love, believing her beyond reproach, Candide now realizes to his utter disappointment, that Cunegonde was just as human as he was all along. ~ Candide’s lament in his aria, Nothing More Than This:
“Is it this, the meaning of my life? The sacred trust I treasure, nothing more than this? All my hope and pleasure, no more than this? The love I dreamed and cried for, no more than this?
All that I killed and died for, no more than this? That smile, that face, that halo around it, that youth, that charm, that grace, behold I have found it. Is it this, the meaning of my life, nothing more than this, no more than this?
What did you dream, angel face with flaxen hair, soul as dead as face was fair? Did you ever care? Yes, you cared for what these purses hold, you cared for gold.
Take it for my kiss, my bitter kiss, is it this, the meaning of my life, the sacred trust I treasure, nothing more than this?”
In the end, Candide is also a story of resigned hope. We’re reminded how to find beauty in all our varied flaws once we accept who and what we are, how much more resilient our love for one another is when we look unflinching into the light where all our dark secrets are laid bare. We see life for what it is and isn’t, and how heartbreakingly beautiful all of it is in the end.
(…at least, that’s what I got out of Candide. Others may have a different interpretation…)
~ After wallowing in disillusionment long enough, Candide accepts his plot and decides to forgive Cunegonde and start over. He settles into a little house outside of Venice where he asks Cunagonda to be his wife once more. The play ends with the two lovers reunited in marriage as they shed the chaos of their former lives and make plans for a fresh start.
This time, with the idea of building a life deep with roots they plant and grow together. A simpler life, cultivated in the quiet, peaceful countryside where they’ll build their home. ~ The finale of Candide, Make Our Garden Grow:
Candide: “You’ve been a fool and so have I, but come and be my wife. And let us try, before we die, to make some sense of life…We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good, we’ll do the best we know. We’ll build our house and chop our wood and make our garden grow…”
Cunegonde: “I thought the world was sugar cake for so our master said. But, now I’ll teach my hands to bake our loaf of daily bread. Let dreamers dream what worlds they please, those Eden’s can’t be found. The sweetest flowers, the fairest trees are grown in solid ground.
Both: We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good, we’ll do the best we know. We’ll build our house and chop our wood and make our garden grow…”
Yes, let’s all plant seeds and help them grow. Seeds that can create the world we know this could be but have just forgotten to tend for far too long…let’s hope it’s not too late to begin again.