Critical Context

While Camus is best known for his novels and essays, Caligula has long been recognized as one of the great plays of the twentieth century. It stands with Camus’s best novels, L’Étranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946) and La Peste (1947; The Plague, 1948), and essay collections, The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel, as one of his most distinguished works. Although none of Camus’s other plays has achieved this status, he did have significant success with Le Malentendu (pr., pb. 1944; The Misunderstanding, 1948), L’État de siège (pr., pb. 1948; State of Siege, 1958), and his stage adaptations of William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun (Requiem pour une nonne, 1956) and Fyodor Dostoevski’s The Possessed (Les Possédés, 1959).

The Misunderstanding is a tale of tragic irony, in which a long lost son returns to his family anonymously only to be robbed and killed by them before they learn his identity the following day. State of Siege is a freewheeling poetic fantasy that Camus referred to as a “spectacle” rather than a traditional play. Featuring song, dance, and choral ode, it eschews a coherent plot, presenting instead an almost impressionistic exploration of modern political atrocities, both subtle and blatant. A terribly demanding piece of theater, State of Siege rambles and is often obscure. It was to be Camus’s last such experiment; his future plays would feature a much more conventional structure.

Les Justes (pr. 1949; The Just Assassins, 1958) is a morality play about the relationship between justice and political violence. The characters are well drawn, the subject matter is suitably dramatic, and the theme of just ends and means is penetrating. In the last few years of his life, Camus achieved significant adaptations for theater of works by Faulkner and Dostoevski. Camus took liberties with Requiem for a Nun, clarifying the motivation of Faulkner’s characters and eliminating much of the rich ambiguity of Faulkner’s prose. Camus stuck more closely to the original in his adaptation of The Possessed, preserving much of the work’s complexity. The result was one of the most successful productions on the French stage in 1959. None of these efforts has matched Caligula in critical acclaim, but they all reveal a great instinct for theater and illuminate Camus’s philosophical concerns.