Review: Optimism ~ theatre notes

Monday, June 01, 2009

Review: Optimism

In 1958, when the horrors of World War 2 were still fresh, Roland Barthes wrote a fascinating essay about Voltaire. Voltaire, said Barthes, was outmoded. For one thing, his enemies had all vanished - no longer were deists and atheists slugging it out in the public arena - and with this had vanished the spectacle of Voltaire's thought. "Better than anyone else, he gave reason's combat a festive style. Everything is spectacle in his battles ... the skirmishes between Voltaire and the world are not only a spectacle but a superlative spectacle, proclaiming themselves such in the fashion of the Punchinello shows Voltaire loved so much."

He was, said Barthes, not entirely as a compliment, "the last happy writer". "Voltaire's first happiness was doubtless that of his times," says Barthes. "Let there be no mistake: the times were very harsh, and Voltaire has everywhere described their horrors. Yet no period had helped a writer more, given him more assurance that he was fighting for a just and natural cause....What has disappeared is the theatre of persecution, not persecution itself: the auto-da-fe has been subtlilised into a police operation, the stake has become the concentration camp, discreetly ignored by its neighbours." The very enormity of racist crimes backed by a state and concealed by the apparatus of ideology "demands a philosophy more than an irony, an explanation rather than an astonishment".

No doubt Barthes would have been astonished to witness the contemporary return of theism as a force in fundamentalist ideologies of all stripes, so that court cases about the right to teach evolution in schools are as much as feature of contemporary life as they were in the late 19th century. And with the return of fundamentalism, so much a feature of millennial modernity, came the return of spectacle. The German avant garde composer Karlhein Stockhausen prompted a scandal when he remarked, a few days after 9/11, that the attack on the Twin Towers was Lucifer's "biggest work of art". (I feel compelled to explain that in Stockhausen's work, Lucifer is a figure of pure intelligence unmoved by love, whom even in that notorious press conference Stockhausen explicitly rejected).

Yet Stockhausen was correct in seeing 9/11 as an unparalleled media event, a murderous spectacle that galvanised the entire world, at once intimate and alienated as our own television screens. We had a preview of media war spectacle in the first Gulf War, but that was managed with admirable finesse: the graphics and distant tracer fire portrayed a technological fantasy, with surgical weapons making hygienic strikes that scarcely ruffled the hair of babes. In 2001, the Twin Towers collapsed again and again in our living rooms, and suddenly the spectacle of death was scorched again on the western retina: atrocity no longer occurred in secret, the product of mysterious famines or obscure ethnic wars. Three years later, we had the grim theatre of torture in Abu Ghraib, beamed out to a billion homes. The auto-da-fe as public spectacle was back.

So if the theatre of atrocity is returned to us, does it mean that Voltaire's sceptical game of reason, his stylish gaeity, has a new aptness? Is his theatrical irony again available as a response? Does, perhaps, the intimacy of theatre make it one of the few places where Voltaire can be realised, since it is a place where the massive scale of contemporary atrocity can be scaled back to a human size? For the counter-argument to Barthes' point about the "enormity" of the Nazi Holocaust is surely Genet's: that murder is an absolute crime and cannot be multiplied, for a universe is destroyed in each death.

Well, that's a long preamble, and it all spirals out of seeing Optimism, Tom Wright and Michael Kantor's adaptation of Voltaire's Candide, at the Malthouse last week. The word “optimism” first appeared in print in 1737 ("pessimism", which appeared around 60 years later, is supposed to have been coined by Coleridge: I guess it makes sense that a poet invented the term). At that time, optimism referred to a specific philosophical position embraced by thinkers like Rousseau and Leibniz: that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and that all is for the best.

The anti-philosophical satire Candide (Tom Wright’s adaptation uses its subtitle, Optimism) was Voltaire's famous riposte. It’s a picaresque, episodic frolic through catastrophe, in which Voltaire’s wide-eyed hero, clinging desperately to his doctrine of optimism, is exposed to all the reasons for despair: war, treachery, greed, folly, natural disaster and, finally, human mortality. Even so, Voltaire wasn’t arguing for pessimism. Rather, he was savagely challenging optimism’s claim that life was ruled by immutable forces, which was in Voltaire’s view a covert form of pessimism.

Optimism made me think that Voltaire's scepticism of systems and faiths is peculiarly apt now, his insistence on a human scale not merely a bourgeois evasion of responsibility, but a necessary ethics from which the only justice that means anything might emerge. There is something of Voltaire's scorching scepticism and supple wit, for instance, in the political writings of Slavoj Žižek.

Wright's script cuts Candide to the bone, but remains a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Candide's quest through catastrophe, preserving the essentials of Voltaire's story and argument. And there's no doubt this project plays to both Wright's and Kantor's strengths. Kantor's direction transposes Voltaire's relentlessly cheerful prose into a theatrical world of glittering curtains, puppet-like clowns and Eurovision musical kitsch. It's a world of constant speed that ultimately manifests, as Barthes points out, as immobility.

On Anna Tregloan's brushed steel set, a strangely modernist construction adorned by at least a dozen fans, the abiding metaphor is air travel, which at once encapsulates the hope and destructiveness of modernity. The show is punctuated by the brutal, obliterating noise of jet engines, and the chorus is provided by a series of air hostesses in purple uniforms, interchangeably played by the cast with no attention to gender. Frank Woodley, with his air of bewildered decency and unkillable hopefulness, is an inspired choice for the role of Candide, and provides some necessary intimacy with his stuttering monologues in front of the curtain. And he's an apt foil to Barry Otto’s Pangloss, the absurd philosopher who, despite everything, sees no reason to change his mind about anything.

They are backed by a superb cast, which includes the musical director, Iain Grandage. The characters, like Voltaire's "beloved Punchinello", are all puppets, or perhaps more properly in these times, cartoon characters: they undergo multiple rapes, obscene mutilations, horrific disease, even dissection, only to bounce back, scarred perhaps, but strangely unharmed, like Wil E. Coyote after he has been flattened by a hammer. When Alison Whyte in one of her several roles recounts her unlikely and tragic history as a former daughter of a pope, raised in luxury, the first response is laughter: Voltaire has her regaining consciousness after a massacre to a eunuch despairing that he is unable to rape her, and her buttock is sliced off and eaten by the starving defenders of a siege. And Amber McMahon's bitter despair as the prostitute Paquette is one of the funniest parts of the show.

Which begs the question: is such laughter inevitably heartless, unthinking and empty? I'm not so sure, although it is a real question. Perhaps the most uncomfortable parts of the show are those which reflect Voltaire's exoticising of the non-European world: the inflatable sufi mystic, for instance, or the ape-ish natives of El Dorado. When Candide reaches Surinam, he is confronted by a man who is missing an arm and a leg, both cut off by the colonial powers: this, he tells Candide, is what it costs to get cheap sugar in Europe. On stage, he is played by Hamish Michael in a bizarre plastic suit and blackface, howling a bleakly passionate version of Altered Image's I Could Be Happy. That was certainly not funny, but it's hard to say what it was. Do such images perpetuate or undermine racism? Or both? It seems to me suspended in its absurdity, at once tragic and bitterly grotesque; but perhaps its most unsettling aspect is what we might make of it.

Maybe the point is that the world, like the Eurovision Song Contest, has gone beyond parody, in the same way that no artistic spectacle can compete with the spectacles of our times. Is it brave or mistaken to tackle spectacle in the theatre, can entertainment ever really spark serious thinking about the issues it raises? Is it always merely evasion? Personally, I prefer this approach to the heavy-handed tackling of issues in so-called political plays; but it's worth remembering that Barthes accused Voltaire of being the arch anti-intellectual. "As a system of the non-system, anti-intellectualism eludes and gains... perpetually ricocheting between bad faith and good conscience, between a pessimism of substance and a jig of form, between a proclaimed scepticism and a terrorist doubt". Perhaps. But the downbeat image with which the show closes, with the cast members grouped hopefully around a pile of earth as Candide holds a watering can, stays with me, as a symbol of all that is beautiful and foolish about human beings.

Picture: (From left) David Woods, Francis Greenslade, Amber McMahon, Hamish Michael, Barry Otto, Frank Woodley and Alison Whyte in Optimism. Photo: Jeff Busby

A short review of Optimism was in Friday's Australian.

Optimism, after Voltaire's Candide, by Tom Wright, directed by Michael Kantor. Set and costume design by Anna Tregloan, composer Iain Grandage, lighting design by Paul Jackson, sound design by Russell Goldsmith. With Caroline Craig, Francis Greenslade, Amber McMahon, Hamish Michael, Barry Otto, Alison Whyte, Frank Woodley and David Woods, music performed live by Iain Grandage. Malthouse Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until June 13. Edinburgh Festival 2009, Sydney Festival 2010.


Born Dancin' said...

That final scene was very interesting - the usual translation of "we must cultivate our garden" was altered to "now we must work in the garden" which seemed odd. Flaubert praised "that laconic conclusion, as stupid as life itself".

If I remember correctly, the Malthouse also left out one of my favourite barbs from the novel: "Pangloss conceded that he had suffered horribly, all his life, but having once maintained that everything was going splendidly he would continue to do so, while believing nothing of the kind." He is a philosopher, after all, and "it would not do to recant". THAT's a concept as relevant today as ever.

Alison Croggon said...

I too looked out for that line (I like it as well). It's there, but changed slightly: "I have to admit that I've suffered horribly all my life...but I can see no reason to change my persepctive now: everything is going splendidly!" Nothing about recanting, but it's kind of implied.

Ethel Malley said...

Were they trying, god forbid, to avoid using the word "recant"? Now why, I ask myself, would Malthouse do that...?