Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2869
Given the depth and scope of Albert Camus’s other published work, it is difficult to consider his plays without reflecting on what they might, or probably should, have been. Surely no other novelist in recent memory has been better suited or more disposed to write for the theater, and none (with the possible exception of Thornton Wilder) has been assured of a potentially more welcoming or receptive audience. Camus’s ideas and pronouncements were a highly marketable commodity in the 1940’s, and it is ironic that his dramatic output failed to meet the flexible standards of what was prepared to be an appreciative audience, perhaps worldwide. The key to the problem may well reside in the discrepancy, noted by McCarthy, between the public and private Camus. In all likelihood it is the private, instinctive Camus who allowed his voice to be heard through the plays, even as audiences might be expecting to hear the somewhat misconstrued author of The Stranger and The Plague. Nor do Camus’s plays, like certain other works initially misunderstood, appear to have improved with age; with the possible exception of Caligula, they remain every bit as baffling and unworkable as they were at their first presentation and are rarely, if ever, revived in production.
It is ironic that Camus, truly a “man of the people” and proud to be one, sought to express his proclaimed “search for modern tragedy” in the accents of neoclassical kings and princes, themselves an upwardly mobile and decidedly artificial convention of seventeenth century France. People in contemporary France, regardless of class, simply do not speak in the simple past or imperfect subjunctive tenses, yet Camus’s characters do, almost without exception. Indeed, the most frequent criticism leveled against Camus’s dramatic characters is that they appear wooden—owing no doubt in part to the stiffness of their verbal expression—while stopping far short of true caricature, a technique that has worked for, and not against, such disparate contemporary dramatists as Jean Anouilh, Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and even Wilder. Nor did Camus, like Bertolt Brecht, adopt the strategy of setting his characters deliberately against the audience. Quite to the contrary, he appeared to be soliciting the identification of his audience with characters who provide no motivation for bestowing it. Even the most potentially sympathetic spectator is likely to conclude that most of Camus’s characters are little more than ideas with legs—and ill-articulated legs at that.
As Ionesco, Anouilh, and others have amply proved, tragedy need not be couched in eloquent language in order to be effective. Sartre, making no claim to tragedy, nevertheless “crossed the footlights” with his often melodramatic use of street speech and occasional vulgarisms; even if certain of his plays barely merit classification as literature, Sartre achieved communication with his audience, his ideas readily accessible—a goal that continued to hover just outside the reach of Camus’s dramatic talents. Only in Caligula did Camus achieve anything resembling credible characters; it is no coincidence that, alone among Camus’s plays, it is also a rousing piece of theater.
The first of Camus’s plays to be written and the second to be performed, Caligula is unquestionably the finest of Camus’s original dramatic efforts, owing in part to its genesis as a production planned for Le Théâtre de l’Équipe by its twenty-five-year-old founder and director. Although not actually staged until its author was past thirty, Caligula is, as Camus freely admitted, a young man’s play—with all the predictable strengths and weaknesses. First performed during 1945 with the eventually famous Gérard Philipe in the title role, Caligula draws on the sensational accounts of Tranquillus Suetonius, today considered to have been a Roman precursor of what later would be known as yellow journalism. Unfortunately, more responsible observations concerning the reign of Gaius Caesar, alias “Caligula” (12-41 c.e.), have been lost to history; what survives is the dubious testimony of Suetonius, a publicist likely to stress the lurid aspects of any subject matter that fell beneath his hand. For Camus, less interested in sensationalism per se than in a certain perceived logic behind the emperor’s behavior, Caligula emerged as a nearly ideal test case for the limits of human freedom. Strongly influenced by recent and intensive reading in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Camus projected onto the documented madness of Caligula a highly lucid, logical intelligence. Here, as with the later The Just Assassins, Camus disclaims any intention of writing a historical play, despite his appropriation of historical characters and setting. His intention in each case is to bring forth a play of ideas based on, but not necessarily faithful to, the data of history. In Caligula’s case, Suetonius’s account indicates that the emperor was indeed insane, as a result of physiological causes, and had been so for years. In Camus’s version, Caligula has served as the most progressive and humane of rulers until he experiences a sudden blinding vision of the absurd, rather like a religious conversion in reverse. Other characters and situations similarly undergo subtle changes, less in the interests of stagecraft than to elucidate the author’s thinking. As found in Suetonius, the life of Caligula lends itself readily to dramatic presentation. Camus, as actor and director, for once had the instinct not to meddle with an otherwise sure thing. Such recorded incidents as Caligula’s travesties and his awarding of military medals to the most frequent customers of the public brothel are carried to the stage pretty much intact, carefully placed so as to provide support for the author’s basic premise.
As seen by Camus, the youthful emperor Caligula suddenly perceives, on the death of his sister and of his mistress Drusilla, that life has no meaning apart from the sole certainty of death. Wrongly construed as simple grief by the sycophants and nonentities in his entourage, Caligula’s malaise goes far deeper than grief and is metaphysical rather than emotional in origin. From the basic awareness that “men die and are not happy,” Caligula proceeds to question the discrepancy between human reality and human aspirations that Camus would later, in The Myth of Sisyphus, characterize as the absurd.
Traditionally, it is outsiders and social rejects such as Dostoevski’s “Underground Man” who form such questions, with precious little effect on society, but in the present case the questioner is the most powerful monarch in the so-called civilized world, presumably better able than any other mortal to transform his ruminations into reality. Devoid of hope, Caligula decides instead to live in logic—using his absolute power to ensure that the rest of the world will join him. Irritated, for example, when the imperial treasurer interrupts him in conversation, Caligula chooses to take the man at his word and assumes, as he puts it, that “the treasury is of capital importance.” Soon thereafter, his pun takes on added grisly significance when he orders that all private citizens rewrite their wills, designating the State as the beneficiary; when the government happens to need or want money, it will execute a citizen or two. Borrowed almost verbatim from Suetonius, the Treasury incident acquires new power and eloquence in Camus’s version. In one master stroke, the seemingly mad emperor both ridicules the petty interests of self-important bureaucrats and substitutes his own logic for the incomprehensible caprice of an indifferent universe. After all, he observes, the people in question would all die sooner or later, but perhaps at an inopportune time; far better, he observes, to make their deaths serve some useful purpose.
Throughout the remainder of his reign, Camus’s Caligula continues thus to turn the world on its head, curiously assured of the spectator’s sympathy because he happens to make more sense than most of the characters around him. When taken to task for his atrocities, he points with justifiable pride to the fact that he has waged no wars during his reign, adding that the “smallest war” undertaken by a “reasonable ruler” would in fact have taken ten times the toll in lives exacted by his drastic measures. True, acknowledges his interlocutor, but at least people would understand, wars being a somehow more acceptable way to die. The passage in question is vintage Camus, foreshadowing both The Stranger and The Plague and resounding through the spectator’s mind long after the moment has passed. Why, indeed, should wars be somehow “acceptable”? Why should death in battle or by pillage be accepted as “natural”? In Camus’s terms, the ultimate tragedy of Caligula is that his single-minded pursuit of logic precludes any remnant of solidarity or fraternity with the remainder of the human race; his behavior, therefore, is presented as thought-provoking but hardly exemplary. Caligula’s assassination, onstage as in life, is amply prepared throughout the action as the only logical—and doubtless chosen—result of his bizarre experiment, which is in fact little more than a cosmic form of suicide. Unlike his historical counterpart, however, Camus’s Caligula leaves in his wake an exemplary, memorable, and oddly inspiring message, exhorting the spectator to share in the best parts of his peculiarly distorted dream.
Sufficiently rich in spectacle to counteract its relatively heavy burden of thought and exposition, Caligula, although the first of Camus’s plays, is not only his finest but also markedly superior to the routine work of dramatists who are judged to be greater than he. The dialogue, although formal, moves quickly, with frequent wit and repartee, animated by a playfulness of spirit that either deserted Camus soon thereafter or at least turned backward on itself, producing such tortured distortions of irony as those to be found in The Misunderstanding.
Presumably helped in its initial performances by the versatile Maria Casarès, generally considered to be the love of Camus’s life but here cast ironically against type, The Misunderstanding nevertheless failed in its premiere and continually defied its author’s efforts to revive it, either in text or in production. Despite several highly memorable scenes—as memorable as some of the best in Caligula—The Misunderstanding remains academic and wooden, peopled with characters who somehow fail to achieve credibility despite their frequent claims to suffering and their occasional outbursts of violence.
Enigmatically and ironically referred to in Camus’s early notes as a “comedy,” The Misunderstanding may be seen as a parody of traditional comic procedure, with clues left hanging and double meanings that fall on deaf ears. Jan, the would-be protagonist in a comedy that is of his own making, becomes a minor and expendable character in “an order . . . where no one is recognized.” Totally dehumanized by the hard work and squalor from which Jan has come to rescue them, his mother and sister Martha are barely speaking the same language that he is; at any rate, all the words seem to have different meanings. Better tuned to the accents of the absurd, Martha and her mother can make little sense of the smiling traveler from warmer, sunny climes, and even less can he make sense of them. Recalling Camus’s description in The Myth of Sisyphus of the absurd as “this divorce between the actor and his backdrop,” Jan often appears as a witless comedian who has somehow stumbled into the wrong theater. Traveling under an assumed name, as if in a spirit of playfulness, he will wait in vain to be recognized; the simple truth is that his mother and sister are past caring. His death at their hands is utterly devoid of any recognition that might afford him tragic stature; oblivious to what is happening, he simply drifts off into drugged sleep before being drowned in the river.
The basic outline of The Misunderstanding is to be found in the novel The Stranger, in the form of a faded news clipping read and reread by Meursault in his prison cell. Considerably expanded for the stage, the bleak folktale nevertheless is little changed; unable to get inside the characters, the spectator is likely to agree with Meursault that “the fellow probably deserved it a little” and that “one must not play games.” The only truly accessible character in The Misunderstanding is Jan’s wife, Maria. Yet as critic Edward Freeman observes, Maria’s very humanity tends to intervene between the spectator and a deeper understanding of the other characters. Even less attuned than her husband to what is actually happening, Maria somehow invites the audience to share her helplessness rather than probe more deeply, for example, into the murderous character of Martha.
A distant spiritual cousin of the homicidal Caligula, Martha is perhaps the most intriguing, if ultimately the least successful, of Camus’s characters in any genre. Unlike Caligula, a man of power and some presumable education, Martha simply cannot be made much more thoughtful or lucid than she is and still remain in character. If she is to be credible at all, her instinctive awareness of, and complicity with, the absurd must appear preverbal, perhaps even preconscious—a cosmic and ultimately malevolent indifference. Unlike such other bloodstained ladies of the stage as Medea and Lady Macbeth, she must appear less villainous than simply hollow or dehumanized—even at the risk of appearing merely boring. Although to a lesser degree, the mother and Jan present a similar potential weakness, failing fully to elicit the spectators’ involvement; given the spareness and austerity of Camus’s exposition, spectators simply do not know enough about the characters to interest themselves in their fate.
With the possible exception of Caligula, The Misunderstanding is the most often reworked and revised of Camus’s plays, and some commentators suggest that Camus was planning still another revision at the time of his death. As in the cast of Caligula, however, later does not necessarily mean better, and the latest extant version of The Misunderstanding may well be the least effective. Prepared soon after Camus’s translation of Dino Buzzati’s Un Caso clinico (1953), a truly absurdist play, the 1958 text of The Misunderstanding reflects Camus’s exposure to the new idiom in ways that detract from his original concept of comedy parodied. In its final form, The Misunderstanding thus remains even more baffling than before and almost totally ineffective on the stage.
State of Siege
Following the success of his novel The Plague, Camus was invited by the actor and director Jean-Louis Barrault to adapt some of the novel’s premises for the stage. Working closely with Barrault, who at the time was interested in adapting some of the dramatic theories of Antonin Artaud, Camus eventually developed State of Siege, an elaborate, spectacular political parable set in medieval Cádiz. Despite the best efforts of Barrault, Casarès, and a number of other distinguished performers, the play was a resounding failure and is still considered the weakest of Camus’s original efforts for the stage.
The Just Assassins
Considerably more successful, and effective, was The Just Assassins, mounted the following year. As in the case of Caligula, Camus in The Just Assassins borrows from history, not to re-create it, but to explore the possible thoughts and motivations of historical characters.
The characters honored in the play’s title are the Russian insurgents who sought to overthrow czarist rule in 1905—to Camus’s view, a far more honorable group than the revolutionaries who actually succeeded twelve years later. Reflecting many of the concerns to be addressed in his essay The Rebel, then in progress, the play draws a fine distinction between revolution and revolt, the former being a corruption of the latter. The main historical figure in The Just Assassins is Ivan Kaliayev, a poet and student who renounced his first attempt on the life of a grand duke in order to spare the lives of two children, the duke’s niece and nephew, who happened to be traveling with him. (His second attempt, two days later, with the children absent, succeeded, whereupon Kaliayev delivered himself up to a swift trial and certain execution.) In retrospect, it is easy to see that the figure of Kaliayev would hold particular appeal for the author of The Plague, in which Dr. Rieux expresses his inability to believe in a God “who allows children to suffer and die.”
In Camus’s play, the assassination and execution take place offstage, narrated rather than portrayed; for Camus, the real interest resides in the characters’ motivations and emotions. Somewhat less stylized than the verbal barricades of The Misunderstanding, the debates and interactions of The Just Assassins produce more than their share of true dramatic satisfaction. Kaliayev, Dora Brilliant, and the others emerge as rounded characters worthy of the spectator’s interest and sympathy. (The single wholly fictitious character, Stepan Fedorov, serves primarily as a terrorist counterpoise to Kaliayev’s considerably more moderate views.) Indeed, in this play, Camus nearly arrived at the creation of modern tragedy.
The Just Assassins was to be Camus’s last original work for the theater; for the remainder of his brief life, he would devote his playwriting talents to the adaptation of other people’s work for the stage, frequently with considerable success, and to the revision of his own plays.