Robert Darnton and Zhang Chi: a conversation

Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor, Emeritus and University Librarian, Emeritus at Harvard University. He is well known as a leader in the field of cultural history and history of books. Darnton’s works have profoundly changed historians’ understanding of the world of print and communication in eighteenth-century France. On 17 March 2022, he will give a lecture in the Weston Library, Oxford. Please keep an eye on our website for further information.

From 13-22 October 2019, being invited by Zhang Chi (associate professor in the History Department of Zhejiang University, China), Darnton visited Zhejiang University and gave three lectures. Our conversation began with a discussion of Darnton’s recollections of his academic career after nearly half a century of research of the archives of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel.

Zhang Chi: You’ve been into the history of books ever since the 1970s. I suppose it was better to say that it selected you, than that you chose it. We all are familiar with that story: you got in touch with the library in Neuchâtel to get materials on Brissot, and then there were 50,000 letters. You dug into it the way a journalist would do with a murder case. As an American, why did you choose to study French history? What were things like in the field of the history of books when you first got in?

Robert Darnton: First, I would like to express my gratitude for the opportunity to address Chinese readers. During my recent visit to Zhejiang University I was greatly impressed not only by the hospitality I received but also by my hosts’ knowledge of Western history. I realized, too, how much I had to learn about the East. I hope this dialogue will contribute at least in a small way to communication between our two sides of the globe. I have grouped the questions together and omitted a few of them to make my answers more coherent.

As I get older, I have an increasing appreciation of contingency. An epidemic unexpectedly breaks out in a remote city, and the world economy collapses. Events like the American invasion of Iraq have disastrous, unintended consequences. Individuals change the course of history – for better (Nelson Mandela) or worse (Donald Trump). History was not supposed to happen that way, according to the Annales School. When I took a deep dive into Annales history in the early 1970s, I absorbed a view of history as long-term structural change uncovered by statistics – ‘histoire sérielle’, as François Furet called it. Furet introduced me to the historians working with him on Livre et société in 1972. Rather than concentrating on great books by famous writers, they used statistical analysis to detect century-long trends. The Enlightenment appeared implicitly as part of a shift away from religious and toward secular subjects across many decades and on a gigantic scale. A new discipline, histoire du livre, promised to reveal general patterns of culture – profound tendencies comparable to what the Annalistes had discovered in studying economic, demographic, and social history.

It was a compelling project, and I thought I had something to contribute to it, because I had been working in the archives of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel since 1965. I had been doing histoire du livre without knowing it, before the term existed. My research fitted in with that of the Furet group, because it concerned the kind of literature excluded from their sources: illegal books, which I could count and map, showing their diffusion throughout France during the two decades before the Revolution. The history of books has changed enormously since the 1970s, and looking back at it, one factor in my own experience confirms my sense of contingency. I strayed into the archives of the STN by following up a footnote, not to study book history but rather to write a biography of Jacques-Pierre Brissot, who published his works in Neuchâtel. When I abandoned the biography and took up the history of books, I chose a fork in the road, and soon there was no going back. Of course, other factors influenced my decision. It was not a matter of chance.

In answering your question, I want to suggest something that I think has shaped many historians’ careers: opportunities that arise unexpectedly, options taken or rejected, unforeseen consequences, and fortuna. It was good fortune to come of age in the United States during the 1950s, when scholarships were plentiful, and to begin a career in the 1960s, when jobs were easily available. In fact, I have been downright lucky. Unlike my father, who fought in World War I and was killed in World War II, I never had to join the army. As to why I as an American should have been interested in France, a question I am often asked, my answer is that France is interesting, inexhaustably interesting, not only in itself (the cafés, the vineyards, the cathedals) but for its relevance to general questions: How do ideas ‘take’ in a social order? What is public opinion? Why do revolutions occur? Those questions bring me to others that you ask.

Zhang Chi: In What is history?, Edward Carr thought it good for history and sociology to learn from each other. While you belonged to another generation, who were concerned with the conversation between history and anthropology. Many years ago, over 20 years if I remember what you said right, you conducted a joint seminar on history and anthropology together with Clifford Geertz at Princeton University. In addition you have prefaced The Interpretation of cultures. Would you like to talk about this seminar? Why would you think history should be in conversation with anthropology? And on the other hand, what would other disciplines, anthropology, for instance, learn from history?

Robert Darnton: Like many historians, I have found inspiration in anthropology, sociology, and other academic disciplines. Yet I would like to point out a misconception about interdisciplinarity. Speaking for myself, at least, I don’t believe in rummaging around in the social sciences in order to come up with tools. With the exceptions of economics and demography, I don’t think social-science methods can be used to engineer historical research. In place of methodological prescriptions, I would invoke two remarks by historians I admire. Marc Bloch said (I am speaking from memory and may get the words slightly wrong): ‘The historian is like the ogre of the fairy tale; where he smells man, he finds his prey.’ And my friend and colleague, the late Carl Schorske, used to say: ‘Man is a meaning-making animal.’

I think the need for meaning is as fundamental for humans as food and drink. By that I don’t mean to imply that ordinary people think like philosophers. As Lévi-Strauss demonstrated, they express ideas and feelings by combining concrete things in their thoughts. Some things in certain cultures are peculiarly good to think with (the French says it better: ‘choses bonnes à penser’). Anthropologists have come up with famous examples – Mary Douglas’s pangolin, Victor Turner’s milk tree, and E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s witchcraft-substance. The power of such thinkable things consists in the way they are woven into rituals and fit into general patterns of culture. Anthropology can help a historian understand cultural patterns, but it does not provide instruments that will unlock symbolic systems. There is nothing instrumental or mechanical about it. It is exegetic, interpretive, hermeneutical, but it is not arbitrary. Symbolic worlds really exist. In fact, they constitute reality. However, historians, like anthropologists, can get them wrong – and fail to get them adequately right, just as we do when we cannot make ourselves understood in a foreign language. In the seminar I taught with Clifford Geertz, we tried to help the students understand that the interpretation of culture requires rigor, evidence, and conceptual clarity. We had no tool kit to offer, but we were able to orient discussions around a basic problem: what made life meaningful for other people in other times and places.

I fear that I am sounding avuncular, a danger that increases with age. Perhaps it would be better if I gave an example of a sociological concept that I recently found helpful. In The Presentation of Self in everyday life, the sociologist Erving Goffman argues that interpersonal relations can be understood as a form of theatricality. We assume roles and act in conformity with implicit scripts. When I first read the book, I took away from it little more than the notion of role playing, a fairly obvious thought that Goffman works over with a great deal of wit. In rereading it, I understood a more challenging idea: when we assume the roles of audience and actors – for example, in placing an order with a waiter for a meal or in registering with an official to get a driver’s license – we define a situation; we accept a mutual understanding of what is going on. While reading reports of incidents in Paris during the so-called prerevolution of 1787-1788, I found a surprising tendency for contemporary observers to use theatrical metaphors. The Assembly of Notables, for example, was described as a ‘troupe de comédiens’. As I accumulated information, I realized the constant references to acting in roles was a way of construing events – what Goffman calls ‘defining the situation’ or determining ‘what is going on’. As the Parisians understood it, the fundamental situation in 1787-1788 was a struggle against despotism. Yet as historians have traditionally understood it, the prerevolution was an aristocratic revolt. The disparity between the contemporary and the historical views opened up a possibility of rethinking events and of seeing how they figured in the creation of a collective consciousness. That is the subject of the book I am now trying to write.

Zhang Chi: In studying the history of books, you focus on books themselves: how were they made, subscribed, and sold? But you didn’t seem to be concerned with the way people understood them, and the impact such understanding cast on their actions. Is that true? If so, your researches would be different from your friend Roger Chartier’s history of reading. We can know what people read, if there are necessary materials, but it’s hard to know what they think. I think that would be the problem with the history of reading. Would you have divergence with Charter on certain problems? How do you understand the history of reading?

Robert Darnton: I certainly agree that the history of books should include the history of reading, and I have attempted in a few essays to understand the way the French read books two and a half centuries ago. The problem I kept running into was the paucity of sources. Fortunately I found enough evidence to understand how readers responded to the works of Rousseau, but I did not come across documentation about the response to other authors. Of course, we can study marginalia, commonplace books, reviews, and a few other sources. But we do not have enough material to construct a rigorous history of reading – nothing like what we can demonstrate in studying the production and diffusion of books. We are reduced to aperçus. They can be important, suggesting, for example, that silent reading existed in antiquity and that conventions about the spacing of words and punctuation arose during the Middle Ages. I am persuaded by the insights of Roger Chartier and other historians, but I do not think they have produced a history of reading.

I have also followed Roger Chartier in taking inspiration from the works of Michel de Certeau and Richard Hoggarth. They emphasize the active role of readers in construing texts – even to the extent of finding meanings that were not intended by the authors. In this view, readers exert independent power, and readings vary accordingly. However, that raises a problem: if readers behave as poachers, acccording to de Certeau’s famous remark, the poaching, taken as a whole, could look like anarchy, endlessly varied individual experiences, and it would be impossible to perceive general tendencies. One way out of this dilemma could be to fall back on the notion of ‘interpretive communities’ developed by literary theorists such as Stanley Fish. That can be helpful, but how can those communities be detected and described? Where is the evidence of their activities? Like many literary scholars, I have become wary of theory as a way to understand the history of literature.

Despite these difficulties, I think it would be a mistake to ignore the impact of a few important books such as Uncle Tom’s cabin and The Sorrows of young Werther. Rousseau’s works had a profound effect on the reading public in France, even after 1789 when they appealed to émigrés as well as revolutionaries. The Wertherfieber certainly deserves a place in the social history of Germany. In casting about for ways of coping with the difficulties, I have recently been impressed by the insights of the sociologist Gustave Tarde and the historian Benedict Anderson. They relate reading to the formation of collective consciousness. Although, as they acknowledge, individuals read books in different ways, readers as a whole share a sense of participation in the same general activity. Anderson goes so far as to interpret this collective experience as a decisive factor in the development of nationalism in colonial societies. I think that the reading public under the Ancien Régime, varied as it was, developed a general awareness of participating in literary culture. The eighteenth century was a time when writers were celebrated as public personages, when the ‘sacre de l’écrivain’ took hold, and when the intellectual as a social type first emerged. That, too, is the subject of a book I hope to write.

Couronnement de Voltaire sur le Théâtre Français, le 30 mars 1778 (engraving by Charles-Etienne Gaucherl Wikimedia Commons).

Zhang Chi: Compared with the history of books you were concerned with, what kind of breakthrough would the history of communication bring into the understanding and interpretation of history?

Robert Darnton: The connection between reading and collective consciousness has implications for the attempt to understand the relation of the Enlightenment to the Revolution. I think it is clear, for example, that Voltaire mobilized public indignation about abuses in the Church and the judiciary during the Calas Affair. He did not simply ridicule religious orthodoxy as he had done in his early career; he damaged the authority of priests and parlementary magistrates by occupying a higher moral ground. It was the shifting, not just the sapping of moral authority that made the Enlightenment a force. Empowered by that realignment and driven by that ethical energy, the revolutionaries set out to create a new world.

Utopian fervor can spread through the social order like wildfire. Historians have shown how it drove millenarian movements, especially during the Reformation, and I think that something similar took place in the French Revolution. The common people in the Sections of Paris were seized by the energy and vision of radicals who had absorbed the ideas of the Enlightenment during difficult careers in the lower ranks of literature and the law. Pierre Manuel, as I have tried to show in The Devil in the Holy Water, typifies Sectional radicals of this kind. Thanks to the power of the press, men of the same stripe – Brissot, Carra, Marat, Danton, Desmoulins – rose to power at the national level. When I first developed this argument, which identified radicalism with the milieu known as Grub Street, I over-stated the case. But I did not mean to reduce revolutionary energy to the frustrations of hack writers. Instead, I intended to demonstrate the importance of obscure intermediaries in the process of ideological mobilization.

A poster of 1793 displaying the Phrygian bonnet.

Non-print media were crucial to this process. Few sans-culottes read books, even if they were literate. They listened to speeches, sang songs, marched in processions, and ate off plates decorated with Phrygian bonnets and crowing roosters. Newspapers and pamphlets belonged to a general stream of sounds and images that swept through Paris. The same was true before 1789. In Poetry and the police I tried to reconstruct the course of that stream in the context of the political crisis of 1749-1750, a time when the Maurepas ministry was overthrown and when contemporaries attributed its downfall to ‘songs’. That observation was a short-hand way of describing the mixed messages that passed through all the media of the time and that actually shaped events. Chamfort made the point with a witticism: ‘France is an absolute monarchy tempered by songs.’ So, yes indeed, I do believe that the history of books should be situated within the study of other media and of communication in general.

Zhang Chi: In The Cambridge Companion to the French Enlightenment (2014) French scholar Antoine Lilti asked: ‘Is it possible to write a social history of the Enlightenment? What connections should be drawn between the works, ideas and authors that brought great changes to the intellectual and political landscape in France during the long eighteenth century – commonly called the Enlightenment – and the social changes that occurred during this period?’ What would be your answer to this question? Half a century has passed since you first published The High Enlightenment and the low-life of literature in Pre-revolutionary France. In your opinion, what kind of progress have we made in understanding Enlightenment as a social phenomenon generally? Digitization changed a lot about historical researches. What do you think about its implication?

Robert Darnton: I think Antoine Lilti has partly answered his question by his own work on the salons and the nature of celebrity. Both of his books successfully relate the Enlightenment to social life in Paris during the eighteenth century. Yet they do not constitute a social history of the Enlightenment, a large enterprise that would require broader research. One problem, of course, is how to conceive of the Enlightenment itself. I am not a great believer in definitions, because they tend to reify a subject – that is, to treat it as a thing-in-itself, which, once identified, can be traced through history as if it were a radioactive substance in the blood stream. Antoine Lilti is conscious of this danger and therefore emphasizes the games and worldly amusements of the salons along with the performances in them by the philosophes. He puts Rousseau’s influence into a social context by showing how it was carried on the wave of a new phenomenon, the fascination with celebrities, which included a few philosophes but usually featured non-intellectuals like Cagliostro and the cardinal de Rohan. The more we know about the social context of the Enlightenment, the better we can appreciate it as a historical phenomenon. By situating the Enlightenment socially, however, we may raise the danger of blunting the sharpness of the philosophes’ ideas, of underestimating their cutting edge.

That problem did not seem urgent to the generation that set the course of Enlightenment studies immediately after World War II. Although I myself did not intend to become a historian of the Enlightenment, I got to know the leading scholars of that generation thanks to my tutor at Oxford, Robert Shackleton, the expert on Montesquieu. He introduced me to Franco Venturi, the historian of intellectuals and the reform movement in Italy. Later I became a close friend of Roland Mortier and met other specialists like René Pomeau, Ralph Leigh, and Ira Wade. They did not find the Enlightenment problematic, although they disagreed in describing aspects of it. Its leaders could be identified, its ideas analyzed. It was a field of study, with its own reviews, organizations, and congresses. Above all, as they understood it, it challenged orthodox ideas. It took the Church as its principal target, and it fomented reform of all kinds, social and political. This militant Enlightenment suited a generation that had fought fascism in World War II and opposed totalitarianism during the Cold War.

The current generation has other concerns. Without presuming to characterize it as a whole, I would mention two factors that have shaped its scholarship: globalization and digitization. The attempt to see everything globally can appear as a fad, yet it is an appropriate response to the interconnectedness of the world today. The International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, which was devoted primarily to the famous philosophes (above all Voltaire) at the time of its founding by Theodore Besterman, now includes 37 national societies, which cover most of the globe. Their members want to investigate Enlightenment thought as it affected people in Rio de Janeiro, Tunis, and (yes!) Beijing – and they want to know how those people developed ideas of their own. One line of inquiry that corresponds to the interests of this generation deals directly with connectedness. Enlightenment scholars have studied correspondence networks, showing how intellectuals communicated through the mail and how their exchanges created a common sense of participation in an international Republic of Letters. The correspondence of Samuel Formey, the secretary of the Berlin Academy of Sciences, is astonishing. He wrote and received dozens of letters every day from nearly every part of the Western world.

That brings me to the second subject, digitization. If Formey’s correspondence were digitized, it would be a map of the Republic of Letters. (There have been attempts to do so, but I think they have foundered.) We now have nearly complete editions of the correspondence of Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, and Jefferson, and they have been digitized. Taken together, they already constitute such a map; and they have been combined with digital versions of many other writers in a gigantic data base, the Electronic Enlightenment administered from Oxford. The digitization of texts such as ARTFL’s version of Diderot’s Encyclopédie raises endless possibilities for word-searching, context-scrutinizing, and discourse analysis. I won’t mention other examples of big data, which, I gather, are familiar in China. But I would like to conclude by suggesting one direction that might be taken by future scholarship.

The Enlightenment can be understood as a campaign to spread light. Most of its ideas had been developed before the eighteenth century. What gave the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ its peculiar character was the diffusion of ideas, followed up by engagement in putting them into practice. Leaders like Voltaire, Franklin, and Formey consciously manipulated the media of their day. Their strategies could be studied and compared so that we could see them at work, enlisting allies, attacking enemies, empowering reforms, and transforming public opinion. Research of this kind is already taking place and could lead to something like a social history of the Enlightenment. If I were to choose one example of a book that shows the way, I would cite Forging Rousseau: print, commerce and cultural manipulation in the late Enlightenment by the late and much regretted Raymond Birn. It gives a deeply researched and superbly written account of how Rousseau became embedded in the collective imagination of the French.

From a letter by Voltaire to d’Alembert, 28 September 1763 (D11433; Gallica images).

Although I haven’t come close to answering all your questions, I had better stop here at the point where globalization and digitization converge. It should be clear at this point that scholarship cannot be contained within national, disciplinary, or political boundaries. I am sending my replies to you from a place of confinement at the height of the Coronavirus pandemic and at a moment when the destructive forces of nationalism and bigotry seem more threatening than ever. Yet we still hear the call of Voltaire: Ecrasons l’infâme.

Another version of this interview has been published in Historiography Bimonthly (2021, No. 1). Thanks for the authorization from its editors. Especially thanks to Jiao Bing, editor from Historical Research.

Entretien avec Nicholas Cronk et Glenn Roe

For those who missed it first time round, here is another chance to read this interview with Glenn Roe and Nicholas Cronk, first published last January.

Glenn Roe et Nicholas Cronk.

Où en est la publication des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire par la Voltaire Foundation ?

Nicholas Cronk

La publication des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire a été initiée dans les années 1960 par Theodore Besterman, qui venait d’achever l’édition d’une gigantesque correspondance de plus de vingt mille lettres. L’édition qui faisait autorité, en quelque sorte, était encore celle de Beaumarchais et de Condorcet, imprimée à Kehl (1784-1785), car les grandes éditions qui lui ont succédé au XIXe siècle, comme celle de Louis Moland (1877-1885) reprennent son organisation. Seulement, l’édition de Kehl est un monument à la mémoire de Voltaire et pas véritablement une édition critique. L’organisation chronologique adoptée par la Voltaire Foundation, sur la proposition de William H. Barber, a permis d’éviter, par exemple, certains écueils de la classification générique, qui a du sens dans le cas des ouvrages d’histoire, des tragédies et de La Henriade, mais qui condamne les petits récits en prose, que Voltaire appelait « fusées volantes », à figurer dans des volumes de mélanges. L’édition de la Voltaire Foundation redonne leur place à ces textes, qui sont tout sauf mineurs. Elle sera achevée à l’automne 2020. Nous travaillons actuellement, par exemple, sur l’édition du Siècle de Louis XV, qui n’a jamais été éditée scientifiquement, sur les Annales de l’Empire et sur les Lettres philosophiques, qui sont plus connues.

Quel est le lien entre les Œuvres complètes et le projet Digital Voltaire ?

Nicholas Cronk

Publier les œuvres complètes de Voltaire est un travail infini et une édition numérique offre tout simplement l’avantage de pouvoir être régulièrement mise à jour, sans qu’il y ait besoin d’engager de moyens considérables. Le numérique permet également d’imaginer une édition critique d’un nouveau genre, moderne, proposant une articulation thématique, générique et chronologique inédite, enrichie d’hyperliens, de textes annexes, d’images, de musique (car les poèmes de Voltaire étaient parfois mis en musique), etc. Une telle édition doit faciliter le travail des chercheurs : Voltaire, par exemple, pratiquait volontiers l’auto-plagiat, c’est un phénomène qui n’a pas été beaucoup étudié et que les éditeurs de Kehl ont occulté, en supprimant des répétitions qu’ils trouvaient inconvenantes. Or, la redite, chez Voltaire, est une véritable esthétique, et à la fin de sa vie, il reprenait des textes de jeunesse, faisait parfois semblant d’ignorer qu’il en était lui-même l’auteur, les corrigeait, etc. Les techniques d’alignement de séquences permettent de redonner vie facilement à cet aspect de l’écriture. Le numérique doit également nous permettre de repenser des notions clefs de la pensée de Voltaire comme l’athéisme ou la tolérance, qui ont pu évoluer dans le temps, de comprendre son positionnement politique à telle ou telle période, ou les raisons de son intérêt pour la jurisprudence à la fin de sa vie. On doit pouvoir sortir de l’opposition traditionnelle un peu figée entre Voltaire et Rousseau et de la lecture monolithique proposée, par exemple, par le Dictionnaire philosophique en huit volumes de l’édition de Kehl, qui se compose de textes écrits sur quarante ou cinquante ans que Voltaire n’avait jamais pensé à regrouper.

Glenn Roe

Le label Digital Voltaire regroupe un ensemble de projets, qui ont vocation à enrichir, à terme, l’édition numérique des œuvres complètes de Voltaire. Le programme de recherche qui sera fixé courant 2019 prendra symboliquement le relais de l’édition papier. Les projets portent sur l’intertextualité, sur les autorités, sur les phénomènes de reprise, sur les principales thématiques de la pensée de Voltaire, que nous étudions en recourant à des techniques de topic modeling et de mapping. La vectorisation des mots doit nous permettre de mieux comprendre l’évolution de la pensée philosophique de Voltaire. Nous devrions parvenir à mettre au point une sorte d’ontologie ou de cartographie intellectuelle de Voltaire, qui pourra être comparée avec celle de Rousseau ou d’autres auteurs du XVIIIe siècle édités par la Voltaire Foundation.

Quelles sont les priorités de la Voltaire Foundation dans le domaine des humanités numériques ?

Nicholas Cronk

Il est certain qu’un projet numérique qui réunirait les œuvres et les correspondances de plusieurs auteurs du XVIIIe siècle, et qui ferait profiter aux chercheurs des possibilités nouvelles offertes par les outils développés au sein des humanités numériques, est loin d’être irréalisable et a de quoi séduire. Une expérience de ce genre a été réalisée sur les correspondances d’auteurs, dans les années 2000, au sein du projet Electronic Enlightenment, qui regroupe environ soixante-dix-mille lettres dans plusieurs langues. Mais je dirais que l’enjeu le plus immédiat, pour nous et pour Digital Voltaire, c’est aujourd’hui de parvenir à développer ce laboratoire de recherche en humanités numériques qui favorisera les recherches sur l’œuvre de Voltaire et sur sa réception, tout en restant l’édition critique de référence. Ce projet est un modèle de ce que nous pourrions faire à la Voltaire Foundation dans les années à venir, en collaboration avec d’autres partenaires comme la Sorbonne.

– Propos recueillis par Romain Jalabert

The above post is reblogged from Observatoire de la vie littéraire, where it first appeared on 26 January 2019.

Pangloss, Guru of Positive Thinking: Candide at the Royal Shakespeare Company

Candide new imageMark Ravenhill is now in his second year as Writer in Residence at the RSC. His latest play, Candide, ‘inspired by Voltaire’, is currently in rehearsal and opens at the Swan Theatre in Stratford on 29 August, where it will run until 26 October. The play is directed by Lyndsey Turner, and the advance publicity warns that the performances will include ‘strong language, violence and reckless optimism’. Nicholas Cronk, director of the Voltaire Foundation, went to watch an early rehearsal and talk to Mark Ravenhill.

Candide REH-114

Candide in rehearsal

Nicholas Cronk: The RSC invited you to write a new play on any subject: what made you choose Candide?

Mark Ravenhill: Candide is one of those books I read when I was young and that I come back to regularly. It’s a book that makes me laugh and think – it would be very hard to like someone who didn’t enjoy Candide! Also, everyone thinks they know Candide – you hear people described as ‘Panglossian’. So if Candide appears on a poster, it feels familiar.

NC: Candide has often been rewritten as a narrative, for example George Bernard Shaw’s Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God (1932), but less often successfully reworked for the stage – with the notable exception of Bernstein’s Candide. What are the challenges of rethinking this work for the stage?

MR: There is a remarkable nimbleness of style, a balancing act of tone, in Voltaire, which is hard to bring off on stage. When you speak the words out loud, the effect is very different from when you read them. So one needs to do something new with a stage performance, not simply ‘tell the story’. When I was asked by the RSC to write a new play, I was already thinking about ideas of happiness and optimism in modern society. The American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich has written about this in her book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World (2009) [in the USA the book is called Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America]. She talks about the happiness industry, the rise of medication to make us happy and of self-help books, and the influence of all this on religion. In many ways religion has become another form of self-help. We all suffer from over-exposure to positive thinking.

Candide in rehearsal

Candide in rehearsal

NC: I like the idea of Voltaire as agony aunt. There is a novel by Dinah Lee Kung, A Visit from Voltaire (2004), in which the ghost of Voltaire turns up to sort out the problems of a modern-day American family living in Geneva…: this is Voltaire as the inventor of the self-help manual.

MR: In the business world, the idea of positive thinking is absolutely entrenched. The financial crisis happened because no-one could actually say out loud how bad things were…

NC: Voltaire’s novel makes fun of Pangloss and the Leibnizian idea that evil doesn’t really exist. And you feel we are living in a culture that can’t face up to the existence of evil? that makes Panglosses of us all?

MR: We are now so far advanced in our denial of evil that we want to rationalise it away. Twenty years ago, when you bumped into someone and asked how they were, they would say, ‘Mustn’t grumble’ or ‘Getting by’: now they feel obliged to say ‘Just great!’. In both cases, the reply is just a social nicety, but the framework has changed, it’s as if it’s become a social duty to express happiness. Optimism and happiness are not the same thing, but they are becoming interchangeable, and it seemed to me that Voltaire’s Candide gave me a way into something important happening in modern-day culture.

NC: Are there other ways in which the text has contemporary echoes for you?

MR: Rereading Candide, I was struck by the link between optimism and the optimal, the idea that we have been placed in this optimal world rather than some other. Voltaire’s novel offers us parallel universes, the possibility of entering into alternative worlds existing side by side, and this is something quite modern. Nested narratives and parallel universes are popular at the moment in many different art forms.

NC: Candide itself is a very self-referential text, full of spoofs of other fictions. When Candide is driven crazy by his love for Cunégonde, he rushes round carving her name on the bark of trees, like a character in a Shakespearean comedy…

MR: Yes, even within single sentences, there are sudden changes of register. And when the travellers go to Venice, they see a play by Voltaire! This is a novel which has narratives within narratives, such as when Cunégonde recounts her story.

NC: And these nested narratives and parallel universes shape your new play?

Candide in rehearsal

Candide in rehearsal

MR: I have not chosen to create a linear story, but a series of different narratives: in the end there are five plays that almost, but don’t quite, add up to one play…  I start with the story of Candide, being performed as a play within a play, to bring the audience up to speed with the story. Each scene exists in a different universe and moves between different genres. The fourth scene invites us to join Candide in Eldorado and explores life as it could ideally be: this is proto sci-fi, rather like what happens in Gulliver’s Travels. And in the fifth and final scene, we move slightly into the future, as Pangloss finds success as the purveyor of optimism.

NC: How easy is it to stage contemporary characters engaging in philosophical debate?

MR: Theatre within theatre, when characters sees themselves on stage, always raises philosophical questions of choice and free will. And then there is the question of language. Although the play is not written in strict verse form, there is an underlying beat of rhyming couplets, with echoes of Pope and the tradition of eighteenth-century philosophical verse.

NC: For members of the audience who would like a refresher course in Candide before the first night, you have produced a special new version of Voltaire’s novel?

MR: Yes, I have adapted the whole book into tweets of 140 characters, and these are being sent out daily, at the rate of eight tweets per day [from 26 June to 29 August: @TweetCandide].

NC: It tells us something remarkable about Voltaire’s style that his novel lends itself so well to this exercise. You have invented a completely new way of translating Candide: I hope one day we can publish it on the website of the Voltaire Foundation!

MR: Yes, translating Candide into tweets has really deepened my appreciation of his writing – it wouldn’t work so well with nineteenth-century authors. Every single sentence in Voltaire seems to advance the story, and yet stand alone as a sound-bite.