Albert Camus

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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...

(The entire section is 2,869 words.)