Albert Camus Drama Analysis - Essay

Albert Camus Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 2869 words.)