The philosophical satire Candide is the best known piece of writing by Voltaire, and Voltaire wrote a lot. One of the most prominent figures in 18th century French national life, he wrote not only thousands of letters (his correspondents included Catherine the Great of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia), but also poetry, plays, historical studies, political pamphlets, scientific works and even science fiction: the title character of Micromégas is a 120,000-foot tall alien who visits earth with a mile-high chum from Saturn. They are amazed that such minuscule creatures as earthlings should be so intelligent, but find their self-importance hilarious.

He wrote an opera libretto too, based not on Candide but on the biblical episode of Samson and Delilah, for the composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. That opera, however, was banned and never performed. Although no atheist, Voltaire was too much of a troublemaker when it came to criticising the church for the authorities to let him loose on a religious story.

Candide too fell foul of various authorities (including US customs as late as the 1920s) but here the attempts to censor it upon its publication in 1759 failed to stop it becoming a best-seller. Its combination of slapstick, criticism of busybodies ranging from the Spanish Inquisition to self-appointed philosophical gurus as well as its references to actual events meant it was an immediate hit.

Voltaire (1694-1778) was born François-Marie Arouet in Paris, his father a lawyer who wanted him to enter the same profession. But the man who would reject his surname for a nom de plume was not one to bow to authority, whether paternal or institutional, and resolved at school to be a writer.

A feud with a nobleman led to a spell in the Bastille that was commuted to two years’ exile in England from 1726. This journey had a significant influence on his thinking. His preoccupations included liberty, justice, anti-clericalism and religious anti-fanaticism, and the preferability of the sort of parliamentary monarchy found in Britain over the potentially despotic absolute monarchy that then ruled France.

Such ideas, typical of the period commonly called the Enlightenment, were never far from the surface in his work, whether in cultural history such as the Philosophical Letters (1734), the epic poetry depicting the life of Henri IV in the Henriade (1723), fiction such as Zadig (1747) or indeed Micromégas. More obviously, they motivated him to speak out against injustice, as he did in 1763 to defend Jean Calas, a Protestant merchant he believed had been wrongly executed for murder at the hands of Roman Catholic society. His efforts meant Calas’s bereaved family were compensated.

So it is no surprise to find them in Candide too. Voltaire was moved to write it in part by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake that is a key moment in his madcap satire. He uses it, along with the many other misfortunes befalling its characters, to denounce an idea proposed by the philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716): that the world we inhabit is by definition the best it could be because God is responsible for it.

Leibniz’s principle, known as optimism (from the Latin meaning ‘best’), was too much for the instinctively outspoken Voltaire to swallow when faced with natural disasters capable of killing tens of thousands, as occurred in Lisbon. As for bad judgment, tyranny, duplicity, war and superstition: are we really to accept these as unavoidable facts of life that our choices and behaviour cannot change? Optimism, in its more familiar sense, hardly seems the word.

by Toby Deller

Conductor & Director Jonathan Butcher
Designer Jill Wilson
Lighting Designer Rob Callender
How to book:
The Minack Theatre, on the cliffs at PorthcurnoCornwall TR19 6JU
Performancesmap[Evenings:Monday 16th to Friday 20th July 2018 at 8pm Matinées:Tuesday 17th July and Thursday 19th July at 2pm]
TicketsAdults £14 and £10, Children (under 16) £7 and £5
Box office01736 810 181
Online Booking


Photographer: Lynn Batten

Candide Stephen Anthony Brown
Cunegonde Charlotte Hoather
Lizzie Holmes
Dr Pangloss / Martin Tom Kennedy
Old Lady / Baroness / etc. Joanna Gamble
Maximilian / Don Issachar / Captain / etc. Giles Davies
Governor / Vanderdendur / Ragotski / etc. Brian Smith Walters
Paquette / Waitress / etc. Rosie Clifford
Baron / Cacambo / Tsar Ivan / etc. Tim Baldwin
Father Bernard / Huntsman / Waiter / Slave Driver / etc. Callum Speed