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Albert Camus 1913–1960
Algerian-born French novelist, essayist, dramatist, short story writer, and journalist. In this volume commentary on Albert Camus is focused on his plays. See also Albert Camus Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 4, 9, 11, 14, 124.
Camus is one of the most important literary figures of the twentieth century. In his highly varied career Camus consistently, often passionately, explored and presented his major theme: the belief that people can be happy in a world without meaning. Throughout his novels, plays, essays, and stories, Camus defended the dignity and decency of the individual and asserted that through purposeful action one can overcome the apparent nihilism of the world. His notion of an "absurd" universe is premised on the tension between life in an irrational universe and the human desire for rationality. Camus's position on this dilemma, demonstrated most clearly in his essay Le mythe de Sisyphe (1943; The Myth of Sisyphus), is that each person must first recognize that life is "absurd," that is, irrational and meaningless, and then rise above the absurdity. Although this world view has led Camus to be linked with the Existentialists, he himself rejected that classification. Well regarded for his style as well as his ideas, Camus is also praised as a fierce moralist whose faith in humankind did not waver. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957.
Camus was born into poverty and finished school only by earning scholarships and working part-time jobs. At the Lycée d'Algiers he studied philosophy, but the tuberculosis Camus contracted before entering the university prevented him from pursuing a career as an academician. Instead, he became a journalist and immersed himself in the Algerian intellectual scene. His interest in the theater was already evident, for he helped found a theater group, adapted works for the stage, and collaborated on an original play. His first two books, L'envers et l'endroit (1937; The Wrong Side and the Right Side) and Noces (1938; Nuptials), are collections of lyrical essays detailing his early life of poverty and his travels through Europe. Also written at this time, but not published until much later, is Camus's first novel, La mort heureuse (1971; A Happy Death). This work, although less stylistically developed than his later works, touches on the themes of absurdity and self-realization which recur throughout Camus's writings. In 1942 he moved to Paris and became, along with Jean-Paul Sartre, an intellectual leader of the French Resistance.
Taken together, The Myth of Sisyphus and his novel L'étranger (1942; The Stranger) represent Camus's development of the concept of the absurd. Camus perceived the story of Sisyphus, who was doomed to push a rock up a hill only to see it continually roll back down, as a metaphor for the human condition. For Camus, life, like Sisyphus's task, is senseless, but awareness of the absurdity can help humankind overcome its condition. Meursault, the protagonist of The Stranger, shoots an Arab for no apparent reason, but he is convicted not so much for killing the man as for refusing to conform to society's standards. Because he acts only on those few things he believes in, Meursault is alienated from the society that wants him to make a show of his contriteness. Approaching his execution, Meursault accepts life as an imperfect end in itself and, although he wants to live, he resolves to die happily and with dignity.
While writing these works Camus remained active in the theater, directing and adapting works by others as well as his own. Of his four original dramas, Caligula (1944) is often considered his most significant. It recounts the young Roman emperor's search for absolute individual freedom. The death of his sister/lover shocks him into an awareness of life's absurdity, and as a result he orders and participates in random rapes, murders, and humiliations that alienate him from those around him. Most scholars see Caligula as a parable warning that individual liberty must affirm, not destroy, the bonds of humanity. Le malentendu (1944; The Misunderstanding), the story of a man's murder by his sister and mother, is often considered Camus's attempt at a modern tragedy in the classical Greek style. L'état de siège (1948; The State of Siege) has been viewed as a satiric attack on totalitarianism and an allegory demonstrating the value of courageous human action. The plague that ravishes the town and brutalizes its citizens is stopped only when one character sacrifices his life for the woman he loves. Many scholars argue that the attack on ruthless governments reflects Camus's experience living under the Nazi occupation of France. Les justes (1950; The Just Assassins) portrays a revolutionary who refuses to throw a bomb because his intended victim is accompanied by a young nephew and niece. This work, many scholars assert, further emphasizes Camus's strong sense of humanity: the end does not justify the means if the cost is human lives.
Critical reception to Camus's plays is mixed. Most critics agree that the overriding concern with intellectual and philosophical issues in Camus's dramas makes them stiff, formal, and lifeless. Many also argue that the characters in these plays are too often merely representatives of specific ideologies. Camus is admired as a director and innovator and his plays are generally well regarded as texts, but the consensus among scholars is that Camus's work for the stage is inferior to his fiction.
La peste (1947; The Plague) is a novel which deals with Camus's theme of revolt. Complementing his concept of the absurd, Camus believed in the necessity of each person to "revolt" against the common fate of humanity by seeking personal free-dom. Dr. Rieux, the protagonist of The Plague, narrates the story of several men in a plague-ridden city. The characters react in different ways, but eventually they unite in their battle against the plague. This emphasis on individual revolt is also the subject of the long essay L'homme révolté (1951; The Rebel). Examining the nature and history of revolution, Camus advances the theory that each individual must revolt against injustice by refusing to be part of it. Camus opposed mass revolutions because he believed they become nihilistic and their participants accept murder and oppression as necessary means to an end.
Camus's belief in the supremacy of the individual lies at the heart of one of the most publicized events in modern literature: Camus's break with his long-time compatriot, Jean-Paul Sartre. These two leading figures of the postwar French intellectual scene had similar literary philosophies, but their political differences led to a quarrel in the early 1950s which ended their friendship as well as their working relationship. Sartre saw the Soviet purges and labor camps of the 1940s as a stage in the Marxian dialectic process that would eventually bring about a just society. Camus, however, could not condone what he perceived to be the Communists' disregard for human rights. Played out in the international as well as Parisian press, the debate was popularly conceded to Sartre. The effect on Camus was disheartening and his fall into public scorn cast a long shadow over the remainder of his career.
In following years Camus suffered from bouts of depression and writer's block. His reputation was further damaged when he took a central stance on the issue of Arab uprisings in his native Algiers. Both the French government and the Arabs denounced him, and the furor extracted an additional toll on his emotional well-being. His next novel, La chute (1956; The Fall), is a long, enigmatic monologue of a formerly self-satisfied lawyer who suffers from guilt and relentlessly confesses his sins in order to judge others and induce them to confess as well. Some scholars noted a new tone in this work and suggested that Camus had bleakly submitted to nihilism by asserting that every person shares the guilt for a violent and corrupt world. Many argued, however, that Camus's essential love and respect for humanity is a major element of the novel; they viewed his wish for a common confession as an attempt to reaffirm human solidarity.
When Camus published his first collection of short stories, L'exil et le royaume (1957; The Exile and the Kingdom), many critics detected a new vitality and optimism in his prose. The energy of the stories, each written in a different style, led many scholars to suggest that Camus had regained direction in his career and established himself as a master of short fiction with this collection. In the following years Camus worked around political quarrels, family troubles, and ill health to begin work on a new novel, Le premier homme. He worked diligently and with great hope for this text, but before it was completed he was killed in an automobile accident.
In spite of marked fluctuations in Camus's popularity—his rise to literary fame in the 1940s occurred as rapidly as his fall from popular appeal in the years preceding his death—his literary significance remains largely undisputed. His work has elicited an enormous amount of scholarly attention and, two decades after his death, he continues to be the subject of much serious study. A defender of political liberty and personal freedom, Camus endures not only as a significant contributor to contemporary literature, but also as a figure of hope and possibility.
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Consideration of ["Caligula and Three Other Plays"] by Albert Camus provokes a paradox. They are important without being good. Only one of them, it seems to me, really demands a stage production. This is "Caligula"—a play which marks a date in the French theatre. The significance of this play is related to Camus's position in literature today. Though he writes with both grace and a moving accent, his main contribution resides in his message. His work is a series of parables. He is a moralist: a man who seeks to extract a line of meaning and a principle of conduct from the turbulent contradictions of our times. His aim is to distill hope from the heart of despair….
Camus' work for the theatre, which begins with the somber fatalism of "The Misunderstanding" (1943) [also published as "Cross Purposes"], proceeds in "Caligula" (1945) to the dramatization of the flaw in an amoral revolt against the universal injustice of life and finally moves on to "The Just Assassins" (1949), dealing with the earliest Russian revolutionists. In the avowed morality play, "The State of Siege" (1948), evil is presented as a form of political dictatorship. The total impression these plays make, despite their defects as organic drama, is one of spiritual vigor and integrity. We hold Camus in high esteem because in his own way he represents "a moment in the conscience of mankind."
Harold Clurman, "The Moralist on Stage," in The New York Times Book Review, September 14, 1958, p. 12.
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So honest a man as Camus is obviously at a disadvantage in so dishonest an institution as the theater. His sincerity has become a legend, but it has prevented him from becoming a successful dramatist. The Nobel Committee commended his "clear-sighted earnestness," and Harold Clurman called him "a moment in the conscience of mankind." Obviously, this is not a man who can easily lend himself to the subterfuges of the stage, who can say of his playwriting, as Henry James did: "Oh, how it must not be too good and how very bad it must be!" I can not think of a better application of the term "defect of his virtue"; Camus's strenuous virtue is the key to his plays and to his defective sense of the theater. Explicitly forswearing "psychology, ingenious plot-devices, and spicy situations," he requires that we take him in the full intensity of his earnestness or not at all.
Simple in plot, direct in argument, oratorically eloquent, his dramas are like few other modern plays…. Camus differs significantly from his many French contemporaries who have put ancient myths on the modern stage. The others have turned conventional myths—at least their antiquity has made them seem conventional—into instruments of iconoclasm. Obviously stimulated by French neo-classical drama, Cocteau, Giraudoux, and Sartre became the debunking inside-dopesters of ancient mythology; they made Oedipus into a young man on the make, Electra into a rather addled termagant, Zeus into a tyrant. They overturned or exposed the classical stories. But what Camus does is to begin with a sufficiently cynical legend—the history of Caligula or the murder of the prodigal son …—and to dramatize it as forthrightly as possible, with no tricks, no sneers, no "modernization."
Both circumstances and characters are very carefully selected to perform only what the play requires. Nothing is ever thrown in for good measure or for any incidental purpose. We never encounter in these plays the casual bystanders whom a Broadway dramatist might permit to wander in. What characters there are have strict requirements imposed upon them. Camus primarily demands that his protagonists possess freedom, the capacity for exercising free choice. He has to go far to find his free men. His preference sets Camus off from his contemporaries in the theater; some of this difference is implicit in the contrast Eric Bentley once drew between "Strindbergian" and "Ibsenite" actors. The Strindbergian actor is less restrained: "His emotions come right out of him with no interference whatsoever and fly like bullets at the enemy." But Ibsen, not Strindberg, is the father of modern drama, and, consequently, modern stage characters keep their neuroses in check—or at least in balance. Camus's characters tend to be Strindbergian. Some of Strindberg's unbalanced heroes earn their freedom at the expense of their sanity; one of Camus's heroes, Caligula, pays just this price for freedom. Criminal purposes inspire the principal motivation of The Misunderstanding and so liberate the characters from ordinary scruples. The protagonists of The Just Assassins are also on the far side of the law, revolutionaries who have put aside the usual inhibitions and are in the act of measuring their freedom. The most dynamic figure in State of Siege is, like Caligula, in possession of supreme political power and subject to no regulation by sanity. Camus's characters tear right into the issues, and they ignore small details. Just as Lear's "Pray you, undo this button," could not have occurred in Racine, it also would be an unlikely line in Camus. Everyone in these plays is ready for action—or, more often, for argument. Nothing may intervene to distract, irritate, or enchant us, to explain the characters or to provide context for the events. (pp. 499-500)
The language of these plays is lofty and pure. It reflects the complaint Camus once lodged against our time: "For the dialogue we have substituted the communique." The dramatist sets out to remedy this situation, but his dialogue tends to become, especially in The Just Assassins and State of Siege, a formal exchange of weighty remarks which too clearly expose the dramatist's designs on us. Hardly anyone else in the modern theater lectures us quite so directly…. The result has its merits as oratory and as dialectic, but it is deficient as drama.
The defect of Camus's plays bring to mind the virtues of his fiction, in which the method of narration always keeps up from colliding too abruptly with his themes and, above all, his ideas…. The danger of becoming a pamphleteer in fiction must have been clear to Camus and must have compelled him to use technique as a shield for his ideas. But, in his plays, collisions are head-on; except in Caligula, we miss the theater's equivalents for the sophisticated method of his fiction. (p. 503)
Henry Popkin, "Camus As Dramatist," in Partisan Review, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Summer, 1959, pp. 499-501, 503.
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Kenneth Haigh, as the emperor Caligula, announces in the first few moments of the play ["Caligula"] … that he is going to be the first ruler ever to "use unlimited power in an unlimited way." He is going to kill whom he likes, ravish what wives he chooses, declare famines on the instant, turn himself into a golden-wigged Venus, try absolutely everything on his unfettered march toward the impossible. He learns, shortly before he plunges from a tower to the knives that finally await him, that when everything is possible, nothing is.
Has Albert Camus' play fallen into precisely the same trap, or is it the current performance that makes the evening seem like the four whirring wheels of a high-powered automobile racing immobile on ice?
Of promised power there is plenty….
Yet there is a treadmill under foot. One crime is really not more shocking than the last. When the first bloodied body has been carted away, or the first deliberately insane law handed down to the empire, we have grasped—to the full, apparently—the uttermost limits of one man's absolute freedom. The murder of Scipio's father does not distress us more than the slaughter of Cassius' sons; when they follow one another, scene by scene, the footfall is familiar, the measured tread monotonous.
In short, drama itself seems to observe the law that our moon-maddened hero must discover for himself. If there are no limits to what a character in a play may do, then the play itself is without intelligible boundaries—without a pattern that forms, without a forward movement that we can either desire or yearn for. The sky is open to us, but the sky has no shape.
The fact that the late Mr. Camus's play has been enormously successful in France, however, leads to other questions. Is there somewhere in the performance a secret, insistent, almost imperceptible reduction in size?… It is always possible that a play about absolutism has not been done absolutely enough—with the anvil stroke and the untroubled resonance of a monster utterly sure of himself….
But in precisely what way should we laugh when Caligula appears on a half-shell in corkscrew curls, when he paints a suppliant's fingernails and then his bald head, when a prissy old patrician purses his lips in a deadpan moue out front? The play means to touch the outrageous, the unspeakable, the ultimate defiance of all human value in these passages. But the light titters that spring up in the auditorium suggest that only a casual, rather flighty, cynicism has been arrived at, not the soul-destroying and mirthless laughter that might accompany sheer negation.
Between the impossibility of moving forward when there is no forward to move to, and a certain readiness of tone and style that thin out a satanically majestic experiment in living, "Caligula" continually stirs interest and then finds its temperature falling
Walter Kerr, "First Night Report: 'Caligula'," in New York Herald Tribune, February 17, 1960.
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Albert Camus' expression of "tragedy in modern dress" portrays men struggling with the emotional and psychological facts of alienation by means of man-made justice. Caligula (from the play of the same name, written in 1938, first performed in 1945), apprehending the alienation inherent in the human condition, exercises absolute power to match the absurdity of the world, inevitably to find the same terrible face of self-separation in his own mirror. Martha, Jan, and their mother, in Le Malentendu (1944), murder and misunderstand in a search for self-definition under "the injustice of sky and climate." The Plague divides the men and women of L'Etat de siège (1948) from their own dignity and, in the end, from their lives, by exercising a justice as logical and inhuman as Caligula's; and the terrorists of Les Justes (1949) attempt to redeem the myth of absolute justice with their lives, sacrificing the relative truths which alone are available to man. Those who seek self-identity fail to recognize the futility of such a task in an absurd universe. Those who deal in justice misunderstand the "pathos of distance" between mankind and the good. (p. 42)
Alternating between a desperate lyricism which is well known to readers of his nonpolitical essays (L'Envers et l'endroit, Noces, L'eté) and the enigmatic parables of his widely known récits (L'Etranger, La Peste, La Chute), Camus' plays embody his thought in dramatic action at once tantalizing and obscure. Gabriel Marcel's judgment, that the theater of Camus fails as a dramatic presentation of his ideas, is frequently echoed, and not always, one must note, by critics who are primarily concerned with the possibilities of financial success. "The essential words," wrote Robert Kemp, theater critic for Le Monde, "are pronounced at moments when the drama, the brutal drama … absorbs the spectator's nervous energy. It is a fine art, no doubt, to mingle thus action and thought, not to separate them," but, he concludes, "the most meaningful words pass so quickly and remain so mysterious that they only brush our consciousness." Germaine Brée questions the strength of the concrete situation to carry the full weight of the thought. To date, the only major staging of Camus in America has elicited mixed comment, but the accusation of oratory mixed with soliloquy, theatricality with intellectualism, seems to predominate. (pp. 42-3)
The theater is for Camus [as he wrote in his L'Envers et l'endroit] a place where each spectator has "a rendez-vous with himself," where he can experience a self-definition occasioned by the soliloquies of "those large figures who cry out on the stage." (p. 43)
Plays, however, are not restricted to soliloquy alone. Camus, at various times actor, playwright, producer and adapter, was aware of this fact, meeting it with varying degrees of success. He experimented with group movement, contrast, divertissements in Caligula. He envisaged a striking red-and-black setting for Faulkner's world in his adaptation of Requiem for a Nun, and in an all-out effort, together with Barrault, to "make a myth intelligible to the audience of 1948" in L'Etat de siège, he offered "a spectacle whose avowed intention is to combine all forms of dramatic expression from the lyrical monologue to collective theatre, passing through pantomine, simple dialogue, farce and the chorus." The play, one should note, was Camus' least successful and one of his few creations to be criticized on artistic grounds. Visually superabundant, at times even noisy and hurried, L'Etat de siège with its simple allegory, in which the Plague evidently stands for bureaucracy and the collapse of human values in society, fails to offer enough for the mind. Camus' most successful plays have been Caligula and Les Justes, which, though widely different in presentation, share a common theme. The reason for the relative failure of Le Malentendu is a matter for speculation; it is the most tightly knit, classic of the plays. The language is beautiful, simple, and the moments of greatest intellectual intensity do not always occur during those instants of intense physical action which made Kemp regret a conflict between watching and understanding. One possible answer may lie in what appears to be the utter nihilism of the play. But the same accusation has been leveled against Caligula, which nevertheless had over 400 performances in Paris. (p. 44)
Caligula and Le Malentendu, which appear to Philip Thody to represent a world without values, where the absurd reduces all actions to equal insignificance, become, in the light of Camus' conception of drama, artistic testimonies to the essential alienation and grandeur of the human condition. Having relinquished at last "the illusion of another world" which sacrifices human values, the dramatist's thought can "spring forth in images … in myths … myths with no deeper meaning than that of human suffering and like it, endlessly fertile. Not the divine fable which amuses and blinds, but the face, the gesture and the terrestrial drama in which are embodied a difficult wisdom and a passion with no tomorrow." The enigma, divine for Aeschylus, is earthly for Camus. "The smile of Apollo" is transformed into the agony of the medieval crucifix and, in the modern world, the absurd joy of the suicidal Kirilov as he writes his false confession or the stony face of Martha as she seeks liberty in the unwitting murder of her brother (Le Malentendu). (pp. 44-5)
Human alienation is intensified by those who live according to absolute, transcendent values which have no meaning in the world of Camus. Total peace, absolute justice, inexorable logic—all misunderstandings of the essential nature of man, which is eternally and pathetically distant from supreme ends. "An unpunished crime, the Greeks believed, infected the city," notes Camus. And he adds, "But condemned innocence, or crime punished too much, in the long run soils it no less." The modern tragedy stems from a misunderstanding, a fatal misunderstanding not of the divine ways of the gods, but of the finite, physical way of man. Camus' great ideal is la mesure, the familiar golden mean, in which man is both related to his natural environment, the earth, and to man and all that the concept man implies—mortality, responsibility, compassion. When the essential balance is disturbed, the scales jangle and dance in the frenzy which is modern history.
Caligula, the earliest of Camus' plays, tells of Rome's young emperor who, driven to despair by the realization of life's absurdity, asks for the moon and plays god with the destinies of his subjects. (pp. 45-6)
Caligula decides to make men "live in the truth" by eliminating contradiction and chance, by exercising his liberty absolutely. He becomes the embodiment of disinterested evil, and dissipates the meaning of life for his subjects by behaving with an inexorable, destructive logic which murders for an ideal—demonstrating life's utter meaninglessness. His logic is the more blinding because it is, in fact, irrefutable. Far from being a detestable villain, Caligula is the most pitiable character in the play. Most cursed because most clear-sighted, he puts men to death arbitrarily in order to make them understand what he has himself understood too well, "that it's not necessary to have done something in order to die."… (p. 46)
Caligula's passion for the impossible is stronger than the passion of those around him for life. Absolute liberty is always exercised at the expense of someone, he notes, and admits this is unfortunate. Absolute liberty is destructive of relative justice. Caligula is as outspoken as the Plague in L'Etat de siège and Clamence in La Chute. All three conceive a rigorously logical attitude before the problem of suffering in an apparently meaningless world. Though Caligula cannot be refuted in logical terms, the very fact that men cannot live every minute with absurdity finally rouses them to revolt. (pp. 46-7)
A sense of alienation underlies the actions of all four characters in Le Malentendu. The over-all "misunderstanding" which unites them is a common belief that a place exists where one can find total self-definition. (p. 48)
Martha and her mother are practiced murderers, but Jan complicates their impersonal routine by speaking openly to them in an attempt to force a recognition from their side…. The two women justify their habit of murder in much the same way that Caligula legitimates his limitless exercise of power: life is more cruel than they are. The identity which Jan seeks will be found in his function as victim, an ironic definition, certainly, but one which is central to all resolutions in the play. (p. 49)
Martha is perhaps right in her over-all view of the human condition, but she has not understood the lesson of her brother's death; victim and murderer are equally pitiable; and could they understand this, human justice would begin. The round of misunderstandings is endless as long as man in his essential state of alienation continues to add to the injustice already in the world.
L'Etat de siège allegorizes the plague as a specific injunction against modern bureaucracy and all forms of totalitarianism. As Camus distinctly states in his "Avertissement," this play is in no way meant to be an adaptation of his novel, La Peste….
While lacking the dramatic and intellectual complexity of Camus' other plays, L'Etat de siège presents characters who strongly recall Camus' récits and strongly suggests several of his central themes in simplified forms. (p. 50)
The Judge, Victoria's father, is a coward willing to turn against his own to save himself from disease. He reminds us of Clamence of La Chute, le juge-pénitent, without ironic self-awareness. Camus' dislike of judges is nowhere as strongly evident as in this play. But the judge is no more unjust than some of his intended victims. (p. 51)
Whereas Diego conquers his fear by a resurgence of his sense of human dignity, Victoria, who is the heroine of the play, is at no time afraid. She wants her life and her love and is willing to risk anything to retain these simple human values. When she dies, Diego realizes too late that his desire to help his fellow man has allowed her death to occur, and offers his life in exchange for hers. The bargain is accepted by the Plague, who has begun to lose his power, and Victoria triumphs in sorrow, vindicating the values which absolutes threaten, fleshly love and the transient beauties of the earth.
In Les Justes a small group of terrorists plans and carries out the assassination of the Grand-Duke Sergei Alexandrovitch in Moscow in 1905. Kaliayev, who throws the bomb and is arrested and hanged, and Dora, who makes the bomb, are the central characters…. Kaliayev and Dora are not monumental sacrifices to the terrible burden of free will. Instead, they are torn between a misconceived sense of duty toward absolute justice and an overwhelming pity for human life. Only one of the terrorists, Stepan, is single in his purpose. He wants the revolution to succeed, because he loves justice more than life. (pp. 51-2)
Only in the fourth act is Camus' total irony unveiled. Until his imprisonment, Kaliayev is still able to believe that dying for an ideal can justify it. A prisoner, Foka, enters his cell and in a friendly conversation it is revealed that Foka has killed three men in a drunken rage. When he learns that Kaliayev has killed a grand-duke, for which the penalty is hanging, he tries to leave suddenly. Kaliayev forces the revelation that Foka is the hangman, whose sentence is shortened by a year for each man he hangs. The line between victim and executioner grows thinner. Finally, the widow of the Grand-Duke comes to visit Kaliayev in prison, believing that only a murderer can understand her experience of despair and absurdity. Kaliayev refuses to ask God's forgiveness, as she entreats. As long as he is to die, he is not a murderer. Absolute justice, to which he offers his life, will exonerate him.
The final act shows Dora and the revolutionaries waiting to find out if Kaliayev has betrayed their ideal and repented or if he has, instead, died. Dora, in her anguish, begins to doubt the moral position of the just assassins. "If death is the only solution, we are on the wrong path. The right path leads to life, to the sunshine. One cannot always be cold."… Perhaps taking responsibility for all evil in the world is not a gesture of sacrifice, but one of pride, pride which will be punished. At last, she hears the painful account of Kaliayev's death—he has not betrayed their ideal. However, the report of his final horrible cry brings Dora to the brink of absurdity. Her only consolation is a decision to be the next one to throw a bomb. Exaltation and oblivion will fill the void left by the death of human values. (pp. 52-3)
In the theater of Camus characters search for self-identity through the pursuit of absolutes. They are portrayed as fatally failing to understand that self-identity is illusory and unattainable, that the static resolution they desire is a denial of the very nature of man, which is eternally separated from clarity and from justice. Weighing consciousness against oblivion, reason against submersion in life, responsibility against evasion, Camus' plays express a true humanism which maintains a precarious balance. Each excess increases the alienation of man from himself and the alienation of man from man. In a world where the criminal is no further from justice than his prosecutor, the only things worth striving for and preserving are those which recognize man's limitations. In a theater where each man has a rendezvous with himself, Camus creates a gesture at once supplicating and defiant before a world in which all men are guilty. (p. 53)
Rima Drell Reck, "The Theater of Albert Camus," in Modern Drama, Vol. 4, No. 1, May, 1961, pp. 42-53.
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Nowhere but in France, it seems, do men of letters whose greatest talent clearly lies in other genres devote so much of their creative energy to the theatre. The Golden Age of Corneille and Racine, kept alive by an ever-growing number of French repertory companies, stands constantly before the writer, challenging him to try to rival its inaccessible perfection…. Albert Camus' passion for the theatre was lifelong, from his participation in the Algerian Worker's Theatre in 1936 to his tragically short reign as director of a government sponsored avant-garde company in 1959. In the midst of the virtually unanimous acclaim accorded him as novelist and thinker during his last years, Camus continued to see himself primarily as a man of the theatre in search of new approaches to the technical problems of the stage. And in a brief program note written for his Paris production of Requiem for a Nun, he admitted that his greatest ambition was to create a form of tragedy indigenous to our age. In each of his own plays there is, as Germaine Brée has pointed out, a solitary hero marked for destruction by a fatality which he himself has created. This seems to be the stuff of which tragedy is made. It is now generally acknowledged, however, even by those whose unrestrained admiration for the man has often paralyzed their critical faculties (one reviewer wrote that "to read Camus is to want to shake his hand") that Camus did not realize his ambition.
The technical flaws in Camus' works for the stage are apparent to every reader or spectator. The Misunderstanding (Le Malentendu) is weakened by unconvincing dialogue. The characters speak in those polished aphorisms ("He has gone into the bitter house of eternal exile … neither in life nor in death is there any peace of homeland.") which look fine in print, in the novels of Gide, Malraux and Camus himself, but which sound strangely hollow in the theatre, where abstraction is the playwright's greatest enemy. Caligula … fails because of Camus' predilection for the theoretical, for misplaced lyricism and pretentious rhetoric. Nothing much happens on the stage during The Just Assassins (Les Justes); the characters pursue those endless philosophical debates, so gripping in the novels of Dostoyevsky but so deadly here and in Camus' stage adaptation of The Possessed. State of Siege (L'Etat de Siège), a dramatization of the myth of the plague, is his most ambitious and least successful play. Written for Jean-Louis Barrault, it contains a variety of dialogue ranging from lyrical to burlesque, stylized choreographic movements by the chorus, complicated lighting effects, and music by Arthur Honegger. (pp. 106-07)
In spite of his enviable achievements as adaptor and director, Camus ultimately failed as playwright because he consistently tried to force into the dramatic form themes and situations perfect for his prose narratives but totally alien to the stage. For Camus, as for so many French novelists before him, the theatre proved to be an irresistably attractive but stubbornly hostile medium.
The author of The Stranger counted himself among those writers "whose works form a whole where each illuminates the other." Camus' two major novels, The Stranger and The Plague, are therefore each complemented by two plays and a book of essays treating essentially the same theme. A more forceful statement of his preoccupation with unity is the proud confession, in The Myth of Sisyphus, that "no artist has ever expressed more than a single theme in different guises." Exile or revolt are the themes that have most frequently been assigned to Camus' work; both are equally applicable since the central character in the novels, the four plays and even the essays has invariably been both an exile from the mass of humanity and a rebel against the meaningless pattern of life of that humanity. There is another theme which is far more important, however, because it leads not only to the core of Camus' philosophy but to his choice of literary techniques as well. Each of his novels and plays tells of an intellectual or spiritual metamorphosis. Without exception, his heroes, or the author himself in the case of the early poetic essays, undergo a series of experiences which lead, often abruptly, to an almost clairvoyant understanding of the human predicament, a subsequent inner transformation, and perhaps a new course of action. (pp. 107-08)
In his very first book, L'Envers et l'Endroit, published in 1937, and as yet unavailable in English (the best translation for the elusive title would be "The Right and Wrong Side"), we find Camus already committed to the technique implicit in the basic theme of inner metamorphosis. "If I've walked a lot since this book, I haven't walked very far," he wrote in a preface to a recent edition. These lyrical essays, almost short stories really, are written in the first person and tell of the narrator's encounters with loneliness, frustration and death: an old woman, half paralyzed, is left to spend the evening alone when her family goes to the movies; an old man talks desperately to three young men in a café, afraid to stop because his audience might abandon him; a mother is too sick with fever to assuage the anguish of the young son spending the night in vigil at her bedside. Each of these visions of suffering leads the narrator further along the path toward understanding. The tone, while clearly sympathetic, remains objective…. It is a foreshadowing of Camus' basic narrative pattern that the narrator, after playing the role of observer in the two opening essays, turns to the monologue to analyze his own existence. His feeling of total estrangement during a visit to Prague forces him to examine his conscience and to realize that his present predicament is symptomatic of a more fundamental human condition. Experience has led to awareness, to understanding. The fog of indifference created by daily routine is dispelled: "Man is face to face with himself: I defy him to be happy." Again, a change in narrative tone, from objectivity to lyricism, provides the alternative to despair. In the brilliant light of the Italian sun, the narrator is reinitiated into the world of beauty and hope. He finds inscribed on the façade of a villa the motto which sums up all of Camus' work: In magnificentia naturae resurgit spiritus. This stylistic and thematic tension, between the naked and prosaic inner drama of man's conscience as he observes, and participates in, the meaningless despair of daily routine, and the world of the sun which only poetry can communicate to the readers, is at the heart of Camus' work. "For the absurd man," he wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, "it's no longer a matter of explaining and deciding, but of experiencing and describing." (pp. 108-09)
The extremely thorny problems of stage technique posed by this emphasis on the inner awakening of a character troubled Camus throughout his career as dramatist. In Révolte dans les Asturies, a play written "collectively" by Camus and some friends for the Workers' Theatre in 1936, he is already experimenting with new approaches to point of view. "The spectator is to be the center of the spectacle," he wrote in the preface. "The play takes place in a square in Oviedo. The spectator must feel he is in Oviedo, not in front of it; everything goes on around him and he must be the center of the tragedy." In other words, the spectator is to see through the eyes of the miners during their unsuccessful uprising. He is to share fully in their emotional reactions as they are gradually defeated by the Legion, represented on stage by an enormous loud-speaker. This experiment, based largely on the theories of Antonin Artaud whose work exerted a profound influence on Camus' conception of the theatre, was a failure because, in Camus' own words, "it introduces action into a frame that is not suited to it: the theatre." This is an extremely revealing admission by Camus; though he dispensed with the experimental implications of Artaud's theories in his later plays, he continued to make the same mistake. (p. 111)
Reviewing the first performance of Caligula for Le Monde in 1945, the influential drama critic Robert Kemp wondered whether there were any characters in the play: "When I listen to Caligula, I can't stop thinking about Albert Camus…. I never wonder: What is Caligula going to do? What are Cherea and Scipio thinking of?—but: what does M. Camus want to say?" The characters of Camus' most successful play, written in 1938, are acting out his own inner drama. From self-satisfied complacency Caligula is shocked into awareness of the absurd, into a futile quest for the absolute and finally into the realization that absolute idealism is the twin of nihilism. In his preface for the American edition of his plays, Camus called Caligula a "tragedy of the intelligence."
As the curtain rises, a group of patricians is awaiting word of Caligula who has been absent for three days since the death of his beloved sister Drusilla. During this time Caligula's personality has undergone a complete transformation, for he has realized that death obviates all human values as well as life itself and that consequently nothing has meaning except death. The audience, however, does not see this change taking place…. Thus when Caligula finally appears on stage, pensive and distraught, the audience sees him as strangely aberrant and cannot understand that through suffering he has discovered what Camus sees as an absolute truth: the absurdity of life. Caligula's constant glances in the mirror and his dramatic gesture of erasing the image of his past self from the mirror lose their impact in the theatre. The dramatist is unable to make us realize that the reflection in the mirror is of the Caligula who existed before the curtain rose. (pp. 111-12)
The complacent patricians who believe in the validity of their social and religious institutions need, in Caligula's words, "a teacher who knows what he's talking about." And the Emperor's violent parodies of religion, justice and fate constitute his pedagogical method. "He forces everyone to think. Insecurity, that's what makes one think," Cherea says. But because theatrical time, as opposed to novelistic time, precludes the kind of leisurely realistic treatment of social institutions exemplified by Meursault's description of his mother's funeral, Caligula is forced to resort to such an extreme caricature of religion in the Venus scene, to cite but one example, that the audience cannot feel the relevance of this scene to its own institutions. We are too far removed from prosaic reality here to acknowledge the veracity of Caligula's, and Camus', discovery that our lives are governed by sham and pretense. (p. 112)
Camus' attitude toward Caligula is ambivalent. While he admires the Emperor for having reached that level of awareness which enables him to deny the gods (and by gods Camus means all abstract belief from table manners to justice), he despises him for denying man. The audience is supposed to share this attitude. At first, by his sharp caricatural treatment of the complacent patricians, Camus tries to force us to see these social parasites through Caligula's eyes and to accept the necessity for his unmasking of their hypocrisy. As his actions grow more excessive, our sympathy should shift to Caligula's friends, Scipio and Cherea, and to his mistress Caesonia who counsel moderation. But because we were never really convinced of the validity of Caligula's theory of the absurd and because the increasingly degenerate nature of his acts of violence is revealed indirectly, through the patricians' complaints against what has been transpiring off stage, we are not conscious of the gradual disintegration of Caligula's personality. We thought he was mad when he first came on the stage; what we hear about his capricious fondness for murder merely confirms our belief. (pp. 112-13)
The scenes best suited to the stage are those where Camus' preoccupation with the "tragedy of the intelligence" is least apparent. Caligula's abrupt changes of mood, from touching, almost childlike, humility to the most ruthless sadism, permit the actor to display his virtuosity. The Emperor's terrifying solitude as his assassins approach comes close to being "great theatre." He shatters the mirror when it reflects his own horrible image. And yet, though the symbolic link to the mirror of the opening scene is obvious, the impact of this dramatic gesture is attenuated because we never wholly understood the change that had taken place in Caligula. His last speeches, in which he admits his guilt but simultaneously proclaims his triumph at being one of the few in history to have grasped the finality of death and the absurdity of life, are beautifully written; but the audience is unable to accept Caligula's insight because it did not witness each step of his itinerary of self-discovery.
The plot of The Misunderstanding, the first play by Camus to be produced in Paris though it was written more than four years after Caligula, had already been delineated in the second half of The Stranger. Under the mattress of his prison bed, Meursault found part of an old newspaper clipping which told of a strange murder. A young man who had left his native village in Czechoslovakia to seek his fortune returned twenty-five years later to be reunited with his mother and sister who were inn-keepers there. When his mother failed to recognize him, the son, now a rich man, decided as a joke to take a room at her hotel. During the night his mother and sister bludgeoned him to death, took his money and threw his body in the river. (pp. 113-14)
In expanding this extremely slight plot into a three act tragedy, Camus found himself obliged to deëmphasize action and to turn instead to the inner drama of Jan, Martha and the mother (the victim and the two assassins) as they proceed inexorably toward the violent dénouement. He uses two types of scenes to reveal his characters' most secret thoughts: conflicts between characters (Jan trying to convince his wife Maria that he should go through with his game of disguise, Martha struggling to overcome her mother's tired yearning for religion and sentiment); and conflicts within a character conveyed largely through monologues (Jan resisting the temptation to disclose his identity, the mother hesitating at the moment of the crime). The dramatic efficacy of these subsurface tensions evaporates in the face of Camus' inability to create convincing human characters whose actions are motivated by something other than his own philosophical theories. The audience never understands, for example, the reasons for Jan's persistent refusal to reveal his identity to his mother and sister. "I came here to bring my fortune and, if I can, happiness," he explains to his wife who had urged him to let his heart speak, to say spontaneously "Here I am." Nowhere does Camus even supply Jan with a good reason for undertaking his game of anonymity in the first place. With each scene marking yet another opportunity missed, the audience in exasperation rejects the validity of Jan's inner struggle, realizing that he withholds his identity for a philosophical reason completely external to his own personality. He is the nameless stranger, modern man, who can gain his true identity only through a spontaneous manifestation of the kind of love which in this world is absent if not impossible. (pp. 114-15)
Equally perplexing are the reasons for Martha's career in murder. Early in the play she explains that she needs to rob only one more victim to be able to escape to a land where "the sun kills all questions." As in The Stranger, the sun is the real instigator of murder…. As for her personality, she is impervious to any warm human emotions, and it is difficult to see her obsessive need for sunlight as anything but Camus' own favorite symbolism. Nor can the audience fully understand Martha's coldly detached cruelty until she offers a philosophical explanation of her behavior at the end of the play. Unable to reach the land of the sun, just as Caligula was denied the moon, Martha sees her crime as a revolt against the absurdity of a "life that is more cruel than we are," a revolt which like Caligula's proves futile. This "absurd" is never conveyed to the spectator, however, if one excepts the continuing game of mistaken identity. (p. 115)
The Misunderstanding has been called the tragedy of lack of communication. Whereas Meursault was able to show his detachment from humanity by extended description and laconic indifferent conversation, a character in a play must talk and the characters in The Misunderstanding are incredibly prolix, though they talk at cross-purposes. This is aggravated by Camus' choice of such a flimsy, untheatrical plot. His failure to create an effective language of the theatre, however, is the main cause of defective characterization. The mother, supposedly a simple woman wavering between sympathy and cruelty, cannot act out her inner struggle in silence as in a novel…. The sudden intrusions of lyricism in Martha's speeches in praise of the sun ("No, I prefer to picture those other lands over which summer breaks in flame, where winter rains flood the cities, and where … things are what they are.") only serve to remove the dialogue even further from human dimensions. Only Maria, Jan's distraught uncomprehending wife, speaks in other than metaphysical terms, and this is possible because for her there is no inner drama. She is the personification of marital devotion; she never quite realizes what has been happening and is totally oblivious to the philosophical assumptions which led to the murder.
Unlike Caligula which had undeniable visual appeal, The Misunderstanding is almost totally devoid of stage action. To maintain spectator interest, Camus was forced to resort to an embarrassing amount of that kind of theatrical effect which is more appropriate to melodrama: the passport that Martha does not bother inspecting, the mother's arrival just after Jan had swallowed the drugged tea, Jan's decision to return to his wife at the very moment that the drug is taking effect. (p. 116)
The Plague, Camus' second and most ambitious novel, poses even more complex technical problems for State of Siege and The Just Assassins, the two plays which complement it to form, with the essay The Rebel, a tetralogy on the theme of revolt. The Stranger told of one person's encounter with the absurd and of his subsequent inner transformation; The Plague tells of a collective reaction to a collective problem. Now it is an entire city facing the absurd, and the isolation of individual inhabitants is but a fragmentary symptom of the quarantine imposed on the city as a whole. In The Stranger the first-person narrative forced the reader to see with Meursault's eyes and to share in his reactions to experience; the use of the third-person in The Plague makes the objective "chronicle" of the suffering of the city of Oran possible. It is not the "author" who acts as chronicler, however, but Doctor Rieux, the central character, whose occupation requires travel throughout the plague-ridden city and makes him a privileged witness of the private dramas taking place in extremely diverse sectors of the population. The focus of the novel is therefore wide…. This broad range of action, with its emphasis on crowd scenes and frequent shifts in locale, will prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to Camus' attempt to adapt the myth of the plague to the limited spatial potential of the stage in State of Siege. Moreover, the plague is at its most insidious not at the dramatic moment of a victim's death but in its slow, almost imperceptible power to demoralize the still healthy population. The relaxed pace of narration needed to convey this gradual disintegration is possible only in the novel.
Though some critics have professed to see that amorphous entity the city of Oran as the real hero of The Plague, the central theme of revolt depends to a large extent on the inner drama of Dr. Rieux. "La Peste is a confession," Camus wrote in Sartre's review Les Temps Modernes when asked to explain his use of the third-person, "and everything is calculated to make this confession all the more complete since its form is indirect." Dr. Rieux, like Meursault, continually finds himself face to face with the absurd, here symbolized by the plague, and comes gradually to understand first his own and then the city's predicament. It is highly revealing of the consistency of Camus' novelistic art that the crucial scene in which Rieux achieves true awareness is one based primarily on point of view and change in tone. (p. 117)
State of Siege is not a direct adaptation of the novel but rather an attempt to recreate the myth of the plague as "total theatre," a synthesis of drama, ballet, mime and music. Camus' first task was to find a way to put the plague on stage that was both theatrically feasible and dramatically convincing. Obviously, the slow accumulation of physical details possible in the novel was out of the question; nor could the setting of the play shift rapidly enough to follow the spreading of the plague. Realizing that there was no possibility of conveying the plague's symbolic role as an impersonal and totally destructive force to the theatre audience, Camus decided to make the plague a character in his play. The universality of the symbol is lost when the plague, wearing the grey uniform of a Nazi officer, appears on stage to prescribe new codes of behavior to the citizens of the city of Cadiz in a four page inaugural address. The greatness of Camus' use of the myth of the plague in the novel lay precisely in the extraordinary variety of associations, religious, literary and historical, which it summoned up in the reader's mind. The theatre audience, however, forgets the myth of the plague entirely; on the stage there is a very sarcastic but not unlovable petty bureaucrat always accompanied by a secretary whose function is to keep up-to-date the list of the inhabitants of Cadiz.
Since State of Siege like The Plague tells of a whole city's reaction to enslavement by the enemy, Camus had to cope with the always difficult problem of putting crowd scenes on stage. His task was complicated by the fact that the crowd of citizens of Cadiz is not "part of the decor" but is in effect one of the central "characters" in the play. Camus unfortunately elected the most obvious solution to his problem when he created an enormous cast which included nameless voices, five messengers, beggars, gypsies, women of the town, men of the town and guards. As a result, the stage is cluttered, and the occasional choreographic movements by the crowd only partially attenuate the general impression of chaos. The silent, patient suffering of the widely dispersed population, so moving in the novel, is clearly impossible to realize in the theatre. (pp. 118-19)
The difference between novelistic time and dramatic time is the greatest stumbling block to Camus' adaptation of essentially novelistic conceptions to the exigencies of the stage. As the plague makes its presence felt throughout the city, scores of domestic and personal dramas of separation and physical anguish ensue. The novelist can take the time to make even the minor participants in the collective suffering seem like full-dimensioned characters…. In the play, the tempo is of necessity to rapid for such development of minor characters. These tend to become dehumanized abstractions, speaking in the stock phrases of their particular occupation. (pp. 119-20)
The core of dramatic interest in State of Siege is the gradual emergence of Diego as a rebel. Continuing the pattern established in his earlier works, Camus sees the choice confronting his hero in the contrast between the prosaic and the poetic, between the absurd and nature, between the sea and the bureaucratic organization imposed on the city by the plague. Only a wind from the sea can rid the city of its enemy. Camus seems to lose all stylistic control when composing dialogue; the carefully restrained lyricism which makes his descriptions of nature so effective in his novels becomes a veritable flood of imagery in the plays…. It is Diego's love for the sea which leads him to rebel. He asks a boatman to take him to the ships lying at anchor outside the harbor of the quarantined city. Just as he is about to embark on this illegal trip outside the city limits, the Plague's secretary arrives on the scene to prevent his departure. Diego refuses to yield even under threat of punishment, and the secretary admits reluctantly: "… the machine has always shown a tendency to break down when a man conquers his fear and stands up to it. I won't say it stops completely. But it creaks, and sometimes it actually begins to fold up." Armed with the knowledge of the power of revolt, Diego tries to convince the citizens of Cadiz to follow him. Unlike Rieux who by his own exemplary action against the plague succeeded in winning the participation of others in his health brigades, Diego, whose revolt consisted of saying "no" to the plague, relies on words. (pp. 120-21)
Camus said of The Just Assassins that never before had he felt himself so little the author of his own play. He adhered closely to both the plot and the dialogue furnished by Boris Savinkov's Souvenirs d'un terroriste, and it was thanks to the severe limits imposed by his given material that he partially avoided his usual pitfall: excessive abstraction in the dialogue. Savinkov's memoirs of the 1905 revolution provided Camus with a specific historical context and a universally understandable ethical question: Are ideals corrupted when unworthy means are used to bring about their realization? The play is not predicated on the audience's a priori acceptance of Camus' personal notion of the absurd.
Yet, in spite of the relevance of the moral issue of "ends and means," the very issue which led Camus to break with Sartre, The Just Assassins seems verbose, if not boring. This may be due in part to the rather lifeless quality of the French translation of the dialogue in Savinkov's book. But there is another reason more consistent with Camus' repeated failures in adapting narrative material to the stage. The action never takes place on the stage; the characters only describe it and philosophize about it. (p. 121)
Camus probably realized that he was taking a chance in basing his entire play on a delicate moral problem. An essay would seem to be a more appropriate form, but the essay did not offer the dialectical situation that Camus needed to shock his audience into an awareness of the complexity of the ethical problem facing the revolutionary. In a play he could stage a series of debates between characters holding opposing views. These are absorbing at times because of the relevance of the subject under discussion, yet one wonders how much more effective these debates would be in a novel. In The Brothers Karamazov, for example, the danger of excessive theorizing in the lengthy discussions on evil between Ivan and Alyosha is avoided by Dostoyevsky's careful alternation of action and dialogue. And reading philosophy is certainly less painful than hearing it. Moreover, Dostoyevsky knew that the most secret torments of man are only partially revealed by what he says; the most significant inner drama takes place in silence, in the mind or soul. Camus the novelist was fully aware of this, and the "drama of the intelligence" of his narrator-heroes is not brought out in their usually laconic conversations with other characters but in their solitary meditations which only the reader witnesses. Just one of Camus' narrators, Clamence in his last novel The Fall, is garrulous; he talks to escape solitude and the inner drama that would inevitably ensue.
If Camus' failures have been emphasized here, it is only because his stature as novelist and moralist is so apparent as to need no further confirmation. His failure as dramatist can be defined by a simple truism: in the theatre silence is impossible. To write a good play, a dramatist must create effective dialogue; and this is precisely what Camus was unable to do because he continually transported novelistic techniques into the theatre. How ironic that what is perhaps his finest work for the stage should be the adaptation of someone else's novel. In spite of its disastrous Broadway run, Requiem for a Nun at times comes close to being the modern tragedy that Camus so desperately wanted to write. "Faulkner," Camus wrote in his preface for the French translation of the novel, "had solved, in his own way and without being aware of it, a very difficult problem. How to make characters in modern dress speak a language which is contemporary enough to be spoken in our apartments and unusual enough to suggest tragic tone?" Thus it is that in the crucial scenes of Requiem for a Nun, those in which the main characters reveal their most secret thoughts, Camus retained almost all of Faulkner's dialogue. This constitutes his own admission of failure, and one can only speculate whether the Don Juan which Camus was writing at the time of his death would have marked the beginning of his career as a creator of modern tragedy. (pp. 122-23)
Albert Sonnenfeld, "Albert Camus As Dramatist: The Sources of His Failure," in The Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 5, No. 4, June, 1961, pp. 106-23.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1421
[The essay from which the following excerpt is taken originally appeared in Educational Theatre Journal, October 1961.]
One of the most frequently noted aspects of the contemporary theatrical scene is the triumphant arrival of unintelligibility as a major feature of many highly regarded plays. Ionesco, in his Bald Soprano, indicates both by the irrelevancy of his play's title and by the repetitive no-sense of his dialogue that though his play may have meaning he is dedicated to the belief that that meaning shall not be achieved by intelligible devices. His meaning exists beneath the action and the dialogue and he faithfully, and successfully, shatters the normal, intelligible form of both so that the spectator is refused the possibility of deriving meaning by a rational or intelligible process. (p. 160)
The effect of such theatrical efforts was for some time, however, extremely tangential to the main line of theatre art and it is only recently that unintelligibility has come to be reckoned as a major force in modern drama. (p. 161)
Exciting and valuable as this foray into the unintelligible is, it is not this aspect of the modern theatre that demonstrates its greatest break with the past or its most striking contribution to a possible drama of the future. Such a contribution is rather to be seen in that branch of the modern theatre that may be said to concern itself with new ideas of purpose and refurbished accent on the human will.
This theatre, as might be expected of an art that aims at unintelligibility as well as meaning, is more complicated than the theatre of no-sense. Two major phases of it may be distinguished, however, and although any such arbitrary division is more useful than accurate, it is not amiss to consider the new theatre of ideas as being represented by the otherwise opposing points of view of such authors as Bertolt Brecht and Albert Camus. (p. 162)
Camus and Brecht participated (perhaps unconsciously) in a revolt against the late nineteenth century theatre of ideas not because it contained ideas (the basis of Ionesco's objection), but rather because the ideas it contained no longer seemed to be of central importance. As Brecht points out in the Introduction to his Little Organum, "everything had been emptied out of the contemporary theatre." It reflected "false images of the social scene on the stage (including those of naturalism so-called)." (p. 163)
A new idea of the world was necessary to complete the revolt against the naturalistic theatre of the last part of the nineteenth century, and a new theatre of ideas was necessary to express this revolt. The work of both Albert Camus and Bertolt Brecht is central to this new theatre of ideas.
The theatre of Camus, which more directly concerns itself with philosophical issues than does that of Brecht, illustrates one of the directions taken by the new theatre in a re-evaluation of man's relationship to the world. [A] quotation from Caligula … illustrates the basis from which this change was accomplished: "Men die and they are not happy." The fundamental assumption about the world is no longer, as with the naturalists, that it is material, measurable, predictable, but rather that it is unpredictable, lacks congruity, is, in a special sense, absurd.
The world of things (Sartre's en-soi) looms large in this new world, but man is no longer considered as a thing among things. The world of things is not man's world. The absurd is felt when man's desire that the world should be explicable is seen to be opposed by the fact that the world cannot be made explicable in human terms. Camus sees the absurd as a clash between the world's "irrationality and the desperate hunger for clarity which cries out in man's deepest soul. The absurd depends as much upon man as upon the world."
This is what Caligula understands. This is why he feels that the world is insupportable and that he needs "the moon, or happiness, or immortality; something foolish, but something that is not of this world."
But both the moon and happiness are out of his reach, as he considers them out of the reach of all men in a world where incomprehension, misery, and solitude are masters, and so, in this world where it is impossible to justify moral values, he turns to pure evil … in order to equal the gods, who only evidence themselves by their cruelty. (pp. 166-67)
Martha, in Cross-Purpose, has, like Caligula, dedicated herself to evil because of a world that is absurd in its cruelty, its isolation, its indifference. Her defiance, like Caligula's, is hopeless and non-fruitful. (p. 167)
[In the world of Caligula and Martha] evil is not measurable, man's nature not predictable. Evil is senseless, as is good. No moral values exist in a world that is absurd in its essence. Man exists among things, but he is not of these things, and he evidences his manhood by rebellion against a world that he can neither understand nor control.
The outlook, in Caligula and Cross-Purpose, is pessimistic as opposed to the implied optimism of the earlier theatre of ideas, but even if the vision is essentially more repugnant it is at the same time more engrossing and more personal. Camus is not presenting a world of "others," he is not dramatizing what happens to a group of people with a certain environment, a specific heredity. He is dramatizing his despair, his anguish. From the basic tenets of the play, Caligula's defeat is his, as it is ours, as it is everyman's. Camus, and his characters, and his audience, are all confronted by the same problem. If his play touches you at all, it is apt to touch you profoundly, for Camus and you have not so much observed the same phenomena as you have become engaged in the same activity. You and he are at the center of the play. What you have participated in may be a thesis play rather than a play of character, but it is intensely human because the thesis concerns you and not others.
The recognition of the absurdity of the world and man's need to rebel against it are not, however, the concluding notes of Camus' theatre. Many will maintain that his most effective work for the theatre was done when he did not advance his argument beyond these steps, but his plays are works of art and as such they followed his development as a man and reflect the increasing enrichment of his point of view.
The new conclusion that was to be expressed by Camus in the theatre in such plays as The Just is clearly formulated in his Letter to a German Friend, published in 1944. In this essay, Camus remonstrates with a Nazi for having drawn Caligula's conclusions from Caligula's premise. He blames the Nazi for adding to the injustice of the world that he sees around him. For Camus,
… man must affirm justice in order to struggle against eternal injustice, create happiness in order to protest against a universe of evil.
He remonstrates with the Nazi for having chosen injustice, for having, as did Caligula, thrown in his lot with the gods. As for himself, says Camus, "I have chosen justice, in order to remain faithful to the earth."
Five years after the publication of this "Letter," Camus presented the same problem dramatically in The Just. In this play, Kaliayev recognizes, as did Jan in Cross-Purpose, that one thing that must be reached for in a world of absurdity is happiness for others. "One cannot be happy," says Jan, "in exile." Kaliayev accepts becoming a criminal only in order that the world will finally "be covered with the innocent." For him there is no individual salvation, no happiness in solitude. For these reasons he is, unlike Caligula, "un meurtrier délicat," a scrupulous assassin. (pp. 167-69)
Camus' theatre gathers its force by replacing the outworn ideas of the naturalistic theatre by newer ideas based on a re-evaluation of the situation of man and the meaning of the universe. It is a theatre founded on the dark premise of no-sense, against which man, because he is man, is forced to revolt; a world of no-values, in which man must strive, no matter what the failure, to establish value; a tragic but human-centered world in which "revolt is justified by failure and purified in death." (p. 169)
James H. Clancy, "Beyond Despair: A New Drama of Ideas," in Essays in the Modern Drama, edited by Morris Freedman, D. C. Heath and Company, 1964, pp. 160-73.∗
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The critics have long since demonstrated that while Camus was not an existentialist, Sartrian or otherwise, there are nevertheless existential elements in his thought. I am not interested here in assessing how few or how many of his ideas are existential and certainly I have no intention of making of Camus an existentialist in the face of his own express statement to the contrary. Nor am I occupied by the unlikely problem of the possible influence of Sartre on Camus. I should like to show, however, how Sartre's ontology, which evolved simultaneously with the early writings of Camus, can be used to illuminate Camus's major literary works. (p. 124)
Obviously the various characters of Camus do not live and think in a static world or in the same emotional, geographical, chronological world. My point of departure is, therefore, the relationship between being-for-itself and the death of the other since it supplies us with the central idea necessary for a unifying interpretation…. This is not to say that Camus's plays and novels can be reduced to a single concept. Such an oversimplification would deny Camus's literary output one of its most significant aspects, its evolution. Nevertheless when Camus speaks in his essay 'Réflexions sur la guillotine,' a determined and passionate plea for the abolition of capital punishment … we realize that the rupture of … solidarity by the death of the other provides the primary impetus for the action of most of Camus's works. An interpretation of the effects of the death of the other in the light of Sartre's remarks could give added meaning to these already meaningful works.
In Caligula, the first version of which was finished in 1938, we find the death of the other precipitating the whole action of the drama…. As a result of the death of Drusilla, the emperor's sister and mistress, Caligula initiates his reign of the impossible which can only end in his own destruction. Early in the first act Caligula attempts to explain to his faithful servant Hélicon the meaning of this death for himself: 'Cette mort n'est rien, je te le jure; elle est seulement le signe d'une vérité qui me rend la lune nécessaire.' When Hélicon asks the emperor what this truth is, he replies: 'Les hommes meurent et ils ne sont pas heureux.' Death, then, is for Caligula the sign of a truth, the absurd truth of the human condition…. (pp. 124-25)
On another level, however, Camus's treatment of the death of the other in Caligula can be said to illustrate Sartre's ontology, especially when the enigmatic ending of the play is taken into consideration. Caligula must first establish the universal guilt of all, that guilt of which Sartre treats when speaking of being-for-others. According to Caligula's implacable logic, 'On meurt parce qu' on est coupable. On est coupable parce qu'on est sujet de Caligula. Or, tout le monde est sujet de Caligula. Donc, tout le monde est coupable. D'où il resort que tout le monde meurt.'… One is guilty simply because one is being-for-others. All are guilty because all are subject to the same being-for-others. For Sartre, death is the phenomenon of a personal life, that is, a life which does not begin again. All being-for-itself is subject to the same phenomenon of death; thus, since we are all subjects of Caligula, we are all guilty and we all must die. Caligula has forgotten for the moment that he too is being-for-itself. (pp. 125-26)
Once the guilt of others has been established, Caligula must realize the supreme desire of man, which is, according to Sartre, to be God. The fundamental project of human reality is to metamorphose itself into the ideal of a consciousness which would be the foundation of its own being-for-itself by the pure consciousness it would have of itself, that is, to metamorphose its being-for-itself into being-in-itself-for-itself. (p. 126)
The emperor later forces the Roman poets to improvise in one minute a poem on the subject of death…. The suffering young Scipion, who refuses both to help Caligula because he has had his father killed and to take part in the emperor's assassination because he understands him so well, easily wins the contest. Scipion departs, leaving Caligula alone with his loyal but uncomprehending mistress Caesonia. When Caligula realizes that to be logical to the end he must kill her also, he says: 'Quand je ne tue pas, je me sens seul. Les vivants étes tous là, vous me faites sentir un vide sans mesure où je ne peux regarder. Je ne suis bien que parmi mes morts'…. Caligula's universe is empty because, according to Sartre, the look of the other steals his world from him, decentralizes the world which he is attempting to centralize. Only by eliminating the other's look can he refute the objectivity he is for the other. Only by reducing others to a thing, an object, a being-in-itself, only by killing them can Caligula deny others the limit which their being sets to his freedom. He is happy among his dead because the perfect isolation, the perfect solitude would be that of the being-for-itself which exists alone in a world of objects, of being-in-itself.
Why then does Caligula say: 'Mais tuer n'est pas la solution'? Because his efforts are reduced to treating the other as an instrument, because he can never touch the other except in his being as an object. Even if Caligula could abolish the other, he could not eliminate the fact of the other's having been…. The existence of death, Sartre maintains, alienates us wholly in our own life to the advantage of the other. To be dead is to be a prey for the living. Death is a triumph of the point of view of the other over the point of view we are towards ourselves. The unique characteristic of a dead life is that it is a life of which the other makes himself guardian. In this sense Caligula is an objective and opaque being which has been reduced to the single dimension of exteriority. In this capacity he will continue to pursue his history in the human world and in this sense he is indeed still alive. (pp. 126-28)
Again in Le Malentendu, written in 1942–1943 and staged the following year, the death of the other has taken place before the curtain rises. Already in the first scene the mother and daughter have begun to bear only with difficulty the guilt of the death of all the others they have murdered. If they have managed to avoid their guilt up to this point it is because they have successfully reduced the other to a thing in their own minds…. The mother is nevertheless aware that through murder she has ruptured the human solidarity against death and separated herself forever from all others. (p. 133)
The mother and daughter as we-subjects have a common goal, a collective rhythm as Sartre would call it. They are working together for the day when they can escape their dreary Moravia…. They are both searching for respite and release from their own guilt. They would both like to reduce themselves to being-in-itself, to a thing. The we-subject relationship remains however an experience of a psychological rather than an ontological order. It in no way corresponds to a real unification of the being-for-itself of the mother and daughter. The entrance of the old servant in the role of the third immediately transforms their relationship from we-subject to us-object. With the appearance of the third the mother and daughter are precipitated into the world as us-objects, a transformation they experience in shame as a community alienation. The old servant is the witness to their guilt. (pp. 133-34)
Much like Caligula and Meursault, Martha is determined to leave the world unreconciled…. Her tragedy, as well as that of her mother, is that she finds in suicide exactly what she had been seeking, the peace of being-in-itself…. When Maria on her knees begs God to have pity on those who love and are separated, that is on a human group, it is the old servant who as the unrealizable third answers, the third who is on principle distinct from humanity and in whose eyes humanity is wholly object. The third is, according to Sartre, the one who is third in relation to all possible groups, the one who in no case can enter into community with any group. In Sartre's dialectic this concept is one with the idea of God. The old servant's resounding 'Non!', which closes the play, is the pitiless response of the third where the human condition is concerned. We are all condemned to death and, whether we seek it in suicide or find it in innocence, the result is beyond repair and inevitably the same for all. (p. 134)
Camus's L'Etat de siège, finished in 1948, seems, as Germaine Brée says, 'a little outside the main line of development of his work'. For me it is the most abstract and least compelling of his plays. The spectacle can nevertheless be said to illustrate Sartre's ontology in several ways. The action does not truly begin with the passing of the comet in the prologue but with the first death of the other from the plague, that of the actor. Up to this point the people of Cadiz have experienced only the psychological we-subject and are, as a matter of fact, experiencing it at the very moment when they are all united in witnessing the death of the third who is the actor. In the face of the Plague personified and the rupture of human solidarity against death they begin to experience the ontological us-object. (p. 136)
The citizens of Cadiz attempt to flee their community alienation as us-objects in the face of the Plague by insisting upon their own transcendence while reducing the other to an object by killing him. In so doing they are of course violating human solidarity…. It is finally Diego who, in substituting his own death for that of Victoria, in choosing his own death to save the liberty of the city, makes the right choice…. Thus it was Diego who in spite of his solitary experience as the other in love finally assured the human solidarity of the people of Cadiz through love.
Obviously the primary concern of a group of assassins would be the death of the other. So it is in Les Justes, which was produced in 1949. Kaliayev, chosen to throw the first bomb, knows that he will not hesitate before the humanity of the Grand Duke because he has reduced him to an abstraction, to a thing … But when the time comes Kaliayev fails because the Grand Duke is not alone, his wife and niece and nephew are unexpectedly with him. It is the look of the other, the look of the children which arrests his hand…. Kaliayev had not foreseen the children. He had not reduced them to being-in-itself in his mind as he had their uncle. (p. 137)
Certain similarities can be noted between the scenes in which the priest visits Meursault in his cell and the scene in which the Grand Duchess visits Kaliayev in his. Both come with a kind of pardon and forgiveness and both come with religion in their mind and heart. And both are refused. The Grand Duchess is as much with the others as the priest, but in a different way. As a member of the oppressing class she is the third and serves only to unite Kaliayev more strongly with his comrades, with the oppressed. In the closing scene Kaliayev's death is described. We know that, like Meursault, he refuses the ministrations of a priest. His girl friend is sure that he must have walked happily and calmly to the scaffold. Once again the plot has moved from the death of the other to the death of self. (p. 138)
[The major creative works of Camus] demonstrate an amazing consistency in their fundamental attitude towards the death of the other and the subsequent death of self. This obsession of Camus, the death of the other as a literary theme, must be carefully distinguished from the theme of the death of self which, again as a theme, uses a radically different perspective…. It would be difficult to maintain that Camus, as an artist, did not think beyond his major characters. The treatment of the projection of the themes leaves the themes inviolable, open to as many interpretations as there are readers. The point of juncture between Camus's obsession and Sartre's ontology is found in the latter's … remark: 'La mort de l'autre me constitue comme object irrémédiable, exactement comme ma propre mort.' In treating Camus's works in such a light, one is no longer treating the themes as literary themes but as philosophical projections which are as true for human beings as they are for characters in a novel or play. Since Sartre and Camus read and studied many of the same sources it is not surprising to find that Camus's creative works and Sartre's ontology are mutually illuminating. What is surprising is to observe that in this one instance at least Camus's works are even better illustrations of Sartre's existentialist phenomenology than the latter's own creative works. Certainly many of the ideas expressed in Sartre's philosophical treatise bring a new light to bear on Camus's works. The fact remains that Sartre is primarily a philosopher while Camus was essentially a moralist. As a moralist Camus wrote: 'Ni dans le coeur des individus ni dans les moeurs des sociétés, il n'y aura de paix durable tant que la mort ne sera pas mise hors la loi.' Camus was of course speaking literally of capital punishment. That death can never be put beyond the law from an existential viewpoint both Sartre and Camus, both the philosopher and the moralist, would agree. At this point excessive metaphysical anguish finds its corrective in the rigorous but compassionate ethics of the humanist who was Albert Camus. (pp. 140-41)
F. C. St. Aubyn, "Albert Camus and the Death of the Other: An Existentialist Interpretation," in French Studies, Vol. XVI, No. 2, April, 1962, pp. 124-41.
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When Le Malentendu was first produced at the Théâtre des Mathurins in 1944, it was not a complete success, but neither was it a complete failure. (p. 33)
The play has primarily been treated by critics in the most obvious way: that is, as a symbolic representation of certain of Camus's philosophical ideas. The more or less allegorical nature of Le Malentendu has been frequently discussed. However, the problem of the expression of these ideas has often been neglected. This is an unfortunate situation because the play is essentially a work of art. The metaphysical ideas contained in it have been fully discussed in a much more direct manner in the author's essays. Any examination of these ideas would naturally be more appropriate in a criticism of these essays; and consequently, the treatment of this play, along with any of his other plays or novels, should deal primarily with the problem of artistic expression.
This problem is closely related to the creation of a modern form of tragedy that greatly preoccupied Camus…. Since we are dealing with an author who manifests a lifelong passion for the theatre, this problem becomes extremely important in relation to his works as a whole. And since he seems to imply that man's tragic condition is essentially the same in all ages and that only the artistic expression varies, it is logical to assume that the major interest of Le Malentendu for present and future literary critics should be its place in the development of the author's and the epoch's theories of modern tragedy.
First of all, in what sense is Le Malentendu tragic? We find many clear indications in a lecture on the future of tragedy that Camus delivered in Athens in 1955. Tragedy, for Camus, is essentially punishment without crime; it is the clash of two forces that are both in the right. The tragic hero rebels against a certain order or power, which in turn strikes down the hero because he has revolted…. Le Malentendu, then, fits into this general scheme of tragedy in the sense that the main characters, and especially Jan and Martha, are engaged in a fatal struggle with a legitimate order; that is, in an impossible fight to surpass their own particularly human limitations.
Reino Virtanen compares this play with the general folk legend from which it derives and the different literary treatments it gave rise to and points out significantly that 'Camus has understood what others failed fully to realize—in this story the tragic function belongs not to the victim but to the assassin'. This is not completely true, since Jan is also a tragic hero; but it is important to realize that Martha and her mother are tragic figures and that it is their downfall that really closes the play. (pp. 33-4)
There is room for a comparison of Le Malentendu with the classical Greek tragedies, centred more especially on the theme of recognition of the brother in the three extant Electra plays. In Camus's play the final recognition is achieved by means of a token—the passport—a means that Aristotle did not consider very strong. But recognition by this means is quite common in the Greek plays too. Much more important, however, is a comparison of the dramatic atmosphere which accompanies the recognition—or, in Camus's case, the lack of recognition…. It is … rewarding to make the comparison with Euripides' Electra; in this play the atmosphere of the recognition scenes is almost identical with the dramatic movement of Le Malentendu. As Friedrich Solmsen has put it:
[In the Euripides play] the whole pattern of this episode is a movement toward the desired event, then away again, then there is another turn which takes us closer and closer, almost infinitesimally close to what we expect in great suspense, and this is again followed by a movement away from this point…. There is always this arising of hopeful chances, words are spoken that might lead to the discovery; [there is] always the same picture of humanity, of men or women so intent on finding what they desire, striving and struggling so desperately for it, and [who] when they are face to face with their happiness [and] would only have to reach out and grasp it,… are blind.
These words could very easily have been written about Le Malentendu. In this attempt to create a modern tragedy Camus remains close to the traditions of the ancient Greek variety. (pp. 34-5)
[However, it] might in fact be doubtful whether Le Malentendu is a tragedy at all. It is perhaps rather a melodrama with philosophical overtones.
Whether or not the action of the play falls within the realm of tragedy, the basic problem of language still remains…. [One] of the major stylistic processes of the play is ambiguity and, with it, a certain bitter irony. Camus's intention was evidently to reconcile tragedy and modern language by giving simple everyday conversation tragic undertones within the context of the intrigue through double meaning. It would seem, however, that this process defeated its purpose by wearying the spectator. One soon grows tired of looking for a double meaning in practically every sentence that is uttered. The problem is further complicated by the fact that there are several different types of irony or ambiguity used in the play. These will be considered separately.
First, there is what we shall call the author's irony. This is a process that consists in putting into a character's mouth words that have a definite ironic ambiguity of which the character himself could not possibly be aware. (pp. 35-6)
A closely related process is that by which Camus expresses indirectly certain philosophical ideas. Here again he puts more meaning into the characters' words than they themselves are aware of. A very precise and down-to-earth statement in the context of character and situation can take on much more profundity when considered in the context of the metaphysical ideas that the author is trying to present…. What is involved … is not so much ambiguity as … two different levels of meaning on which [a] conversation can be interpreted. This technique has become much clearer and much more striking in the revision of the play. Roger Quilliot mildly reproaches Camus for the way his characters seem to vary in their symbolic function, causing our attention to jump back and forth from the characters as real people to their meaning in the philosophical scheme of the play. In the 1958 version, the author has somewhat diminished this effect by eliminating many direct and conscious metaphysical statements from his characters' speeches…. The new version is much simpler and thus more intense than the older. All the philosophical ideas of the first are implicit in the second, but in the latter Jan no longer steps out of character to express them. He remains a believable character, and the spectator draws out the deeper meanings in his simple, matter-of-fact speech. (pp. 37-8)
How does one explain such revision? Perhaps Camus decided that too many ambiguities would tend to bewilder the spectator. Perhaps he thought that, if he lessened them, those that remained would be more effective. Perhaps these constant allusions and double-meanings gave more lucidity and perspicacity to the characters than he wished them to have. Perhaps he decided that such a technique was too close to the jeux d'esprit which he disliked in the works of such dramatists as Giraudoux. And perhaps it was a combination of several or all of these reasons that occasioned the omissions. Of course, there are still many ambiguous statements left in the revised version. But, for the most part, these fit well into the very nature and theme of the play, as the title itself suggests. They help to translate the basic theme of lack of communication between men. And more than that, they are useful and artistic in the wedding of symbolic meanings with the natural elements of a more or less realistic action. (p. 40)
Closely connected with the process of ambiguity and the use of an image to express a more profound idea than would normally appear on the surface is the problem of characterization. Camus is definitely not interested in presenting a complex psychological portrait of the people in his play. Although we would hesitate to call Jan, his mother, Martha and Maria symbols in the purest sense of the word, we cannot help but consider them as representative of certain attitudes in the context of the author's philosophical thought. A complete psychological analysis of the characters would destroy this function; if they are to carry across on the stage the message that Camus has in mind, they must be simple and, consequently, universal. (p. 41)
An essential element in the communication of the message in Le Malentendu is the characterization of the old servant. He exists on a different level from the other characters, serving an almost entirely symbolic purpose. In the earlier versions he has an extremely small role, so small in fact that many people failed to understand his meaning and were greatly troubled by his appearance in the play. Camus was evidently aware of this misunderstanding, for he greatly augmented and, consequently, clarified the servant's role when he revised his play. At the beginning of Act I, scene ii, stage directions are added to show that the old man definitely sees Jan and Maria…. He knows, then, all the time that Jan is not a lone traveller…. Later …, when Jan hands Martha his passport, the 1958 version has the old man come in to distract Martha so that she will not read it…. This change evidently makes the action more believable, but it can also be interpreted on a deeper level. In Act II, scene viii, Camus has changed the directions to have the servant follow Martha and her mother into Jan's room…. Then when Martha is searching her brother's pockets, he adds indications that the passport falls behind the bed, and the servant picks it up and carries it out without the two women noticing it…. But once again the revision has deeper significance. The author has made it very clear that the old man knows all along about the plot and is probably aware of Jan's identity before the murder. Such changes have evidently been made in order to emphasize and clarify the servant's symbolism; it is much more obvious in the 1958 version that he represents the indifferent world in which the characters find themselves.
After having discussed the various problems of ambiguity, symbolism and imagery, we shall return to the basic stylistic problem involved in Le Malentendu, that of the language of modern tragedy…. The dominant style of Le Malentendu is characterized by simplicity. Its bareness has reminded certain critics of the style of L'Étranger…. The staccato rhythm and simplicity of the scene where Martha fills out the questionnaire concerning Jan's identity is but a slight exaggeration of the dominant tone of the play. In revising the text, Camus has taken pains to simplify the style still further…. The simplicity and sobriety of the style sometimes seem inadequate to express the extreme emotions and profound meanings of the play. But, on the other hand, is this not a more natural method than the declamatory style of the traditional theatre? This is a difficult problem and one which, as we find in the unpublished Notebooks, continued to vex Camus…. (pp. 43-4)
This does not mean, however, that the dry sobriety of tone is constant throughout the play. Camus makes subtle use of rhythm for variety. For the most part rather choppy or staccato, the cadence becomes slower and more complicated as the discussion moves to a deeper level. The most remarkable variety in the style comes during the few moments when Martha throws off restraint and expresses a sort of lyric élan…. In a strange poetry, mingled with desperation and greed, Martha's ardent speeches mark the highest points of the play. For all their bitterness and desperation, they are not entirely unlike some of the more lyrical passages in the essays of L'Envers et l'Endroit and Noces. Yet, at the same time, they are completely in character; in fact, they may have much to do with the fact that many consider Martha the strongest character in the play. In both the aesthetic and practical senses, they do much to emphasize and render more effective the general tone of the play.
We may now arrive at some conclusions about the principles that Camus develops in Le Malentendu concerning the problems of the modern tragedy…. A natural conversational tone, characterized by simplicity and even understatement, is used to bring the play closer to real life. But many ambiguities and ironic statements facilitate a deeper interpretation of the text. Psychologically simple characters, including one who exists almost entirely on the symbolic level, also help to bring out the universal tragic elements. A restrained but masterful use of images, as well as sparsely scattered lyrical passages, give tragic depth to the style. But one must admit that these processes have not been completely effective. The constant shifting from one level of meaning to another has a tendency to bewilder if not annoy the spectator. The constant double-meanings often seem artificial and even border on the precious. The characters, with the possible exception of Martha, have been so simplified that they do not seem to be properly motivated and, consequently, do not really live on the stage. Many of these problems were solved by the time that Camus adapted Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun, another important experiment in modern tragedy. Most important, he has discovered a vital principle inherent in the very nature of the theatre—'Rester vrai tout en jouant large'. It is obvious that Le Malentendu has an important place in the development of Camus's dramatic theories and in the general theatrical evolution of the age. Camus and his contemporaries learned much about the nature of modern tragedy from both the successes and failures of this experiment. (pp. 45-6)
D. M. Church, "'Le Malentendu': Search for Modern Tragedy," in French Studies, Vol. XX, No. 1, January, 1966, pp. 33-46.
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Les Justes is the third and last of his original plays which Camus considered to be attempts at modern tragedy (that is to say, together with Le Malentendu and L'Etat de siège, but excluding Caligula), and is frequently regarded as one of his most successful pieces of writing for the theater. Many accounts of the play appear to be based on an implicit acceptance of its claim to be a modern tragedy. The heroic, exalted atmosphere and the astringent dialogue and structure are admired, and epithets such as "truly Cornelian aura" provide the final accolade. But just as in Corneille's theater the border line between tragedy and tragicomedy is frequently in dispute, so in Les Justes the author's moral ardor can be sensed to be in such an uneasy relationship with his artistic judgment that an objective critic is roused to examine the play's claim to being tragedy. Is it indeed this so much as a play in an inferior genre: melodrama? (p. 78)
An examination of Les Justes as a modern tragedy according to the classic formula will … depend to a large extent on the degree to which the tragic antagonists are equally "just."
The other two principal prerequisites of tragedy which Camus stressed [in a lecture given at Athens in 1955] are particularly relevant to the political and philosophical subject matter of Les Justes. The first is a classical Greek concept which has also been much appreciated by French tragedians, probably more than in any other Western European theater: the necessity of mesure in human conduct, or, to use the terms that echo throughout Camus's works, the importance of observing "la limite qu'il ne faut pas dépasser"…. In Les Justes Camus is asking: What is the limit to the violence one can commit in the pursuit of just ends? To what extent is one justified in descending to the level of one's brutal and unscrupulous enemies if there is no other effective means of bringing about justice and democracy?…
The second characteristic of tragedy is more controversial and raises the whole question of tragedy as a cultural and philosophical phenomenon. According to Camus—and few would disagree with him here—great tragedy has flowered only twice, and briefly on each occasion: in Athens in the fifth century B.C. and in Western Europe during the late Renaissance. (p. 79)
Thus far, Camus is not very original, but where he does enter on new—and disputable—territory is in claiming that the climate is equally suitable for tragedy in the twentieth century…. The modern tragic hero will not be a later version of the Renaissance figures, taking on the same forces as Dr. Faustus. Those battles have been won: for Camus it is the liberators themselves, the spiritual descendants of Descartes and Robespierre, who have become the tyrants. The modern tragic hero, in short, will be pitted not against feudal, Christian ("rightwing") society, but against those who themselves defeated those forces in (predominantly Eastern) Europe in the first half of this century. Camus's theory of modern tragedy, at least as far as Les Justes and L'Etat de siège are concerned, is in fact irrevocably linked with his polemic against totalitarianism, particularly Stalinism, which dominated his art so considerably from 1945 onward.
Les Justes is crucial to this whole debate in so far as it is a conscious effort at creating tragedy along classic lines and is at the same time set in the home of dialectical materialism during the time of transition. In order to understand the exact nature of the tragic dilemma which Camus wished to portray in Les Justes, it is necessary to examine in some detail the sources and genesis of the play. We shall then be in a position to come to certain conclusions about the well-known difficulty of reconciling history, tragedy, and political commitment in general, and Camus's attempt to do so in particular.
One of the first references to Les Justes occurs in the second volume of Camus's Carnets, in an entry for the middle of June, 1947, where the working title "Kaliayev" is used. At this time Camus was preparing the subsection of L'Homme révolté entitled "Le Terrorisme individuel," and came across the historical figure of Kaliayev in Boris Savinkov's Souvenirs d'un terroriste. Camus saw in Kaliayev just what he needed for L'Homme révolté: a rebel with integrity, a man who, unlike the far better-known historical figures of Bakunin and Nechayev, refused to extend revolutionary action beyond certain limits, and who found a unique solution to the difficult ethical problem of tyrannicide…. The characters of Dora and Kaliayev ("Yanek") are clearly conceived from the outset, and a long sketch for their love scene in Act 3 is in fact the first working note for the play. This is important. Kaliayev is to be championed in L'Homme révolté as the ideal rebel, who must possess normal human emotions as a safeguard against the dehumanizing logic of Hegelian historicism. He must form a complete contrast with the terrifying robot visualized by Nechayev and Bakunin in the revolutionary catechism…. Camus was repelled by the inhuman extremism which characterized many of the anarcho-nihilists and bolshevists who, as he was to assert in L'Homme révolté, were the ancestors of the Stalinist tradition. Alternating with such entries are jottings for the play (as yet untitled) which show how Camus sought to emphasize the gulf between the ideal and the real terrorists of the day, and the consequent "déchirement" which this caused for Kaliayev and Dora…. (pp. 80-2)
From the fall of 1947 onward, Camus worked concurrently on Les Justes and L'Homme révolté, merging them completely in an article entitled "Les Meurtriers délicats," in which he extolled the historical terrorists who were in the process of becoming the protagonists of his play. In 1903 the Revolutionary Socialist Party formed a terrorist group known as the Organisation de Combat under the leadership of Azef and then of Savinkov. There followed a wave of assassinations constituting the second reign of terror, some twenty years after the first, which had resulted in the death of Alexander II in 1881…. Of royal personages the Grand Duke Sergei, uncle of Nicholas II, was the only victim; he was blown up by a bomb thrown by Kaliayev in February, 1905, in exactly the same circumstances as those that make up the plot of Les Justes. At the very beginning of the article, Camus stresses the moral scrupulousness of the assassîns…. (p. 83)
[On] his first attempt, Kaliayev checked himself as he was about to throw the bomb when he saw that the Grand Duke was accompanied by his wife, nephew, and niece. Historically, Kaliayev's action was approved by the whole group, even though it placed them at great peril…. This was consistent with their conduct generally…. Savinkov vetoed a bomb attack on Admiral Dubasov in a train because it might endanger innocent passengers. At another time, when escaping from prison, he agreed with his comrade that if necessary they would fire at the officers of the guard, but shoot themselves rather than fire at ordinary guardsmen. The essential attraction of these terrorists for Camus, therefore, was that they had a strict sense of a limit beyond which they would not extend violence.
Once this is known, it is possible to appreciate the importance of an original feature of Les Justes relative to the source material. Stepan Fedorov has no prototype in the Souvenirs and is quite foreign to the spirit of "Les Meurtriers délicats."… Whereas Kaliayev, Dora, Annenkov, and Voinov were modeled with varying degrees of accuracy on historical figures (Dora being Dora Brilliant and Voinov being Voinarovsky), Stepan was not—at least as far as the Organisation de Combat was concerned. Significantly, although Kaliayev, Dora, and Annenkov were referred to in Camus's first notes by their Christian names, Stepan was known only by the descriptive names "le Tueur" and "le réaliste." He is thus a representative figure, standing for the ruthless "jacobin" spirit of the extremist revolutionary according to tradition. (pp. 83-4)
Camus was perfectly aware that he was fitting an a priori philosophical dialectic to a historical situation, and went so far as to assert: [the fact that the plot is basically authentic does not mean Les Justes is a historical play]…. He had done exactly the same thing with Caligula. The difference between the two plays—and in my opinion one of the reasons for the superiority of Caligula—is that Les Justes (like L'Etat de siège of the same period) is openly didactic, whereas Caligula is not…. This didacticism, this moral and philosophical commitment, has prevented Camus from interpreting the assassination of the Grand Duke Sergei with a degree of perspective sufficient to create an artistically coherent "modern tragedy." For despite Camus's attempt to prove that Le Justes is not a historical play—thereby claiming for it the universality which tragedy must have—and despite also the undoubted impression it gives of being a preconceived debate fitted to a convenient historical event (rather in the manner of Anouilh's Becket, for example), the fact remains that Les Justes is nevertheless modeled on historical circumstances with a fidelity that is against all the traditions of French tragedy. It is true that Camus has created Stepan to reinforce the absolutist-relativist antithesis, and in this respect Stepan serves the same function as Cherea in Caligula (although as the opposite term of the antithesis). It is true also that Camus has generalized and conceptualized the crucial issue of redemptive suicide. But, apart from this, Camus adheres as accurately as possible to the known facts of the assassination, particularly in the central debate over Kaliayev's refusal to kill the children. This fidelity to the facts vitiates the whole aspiration of the play to the status of tragedy.
A play that is based on the premise that there is a limit beyond which human action must not pass can be tragic only to the extent that it portrays a protagonist who, perhaps through some form of hubris (but not essentially), loses sufficient control of himself to move from mesure to démesure. In Les Justes there is some confusion as to what constitutes the limit separating the two concepts. That is to say, in the terms of Camus's political philosophy, what is the point at which justifiable and reasonably ethical revolutionary activity becomes unjustifiable brutal terrorism, aiming at quick results, ostensibly because of concern for the oppressed, but in truth, according to Camus, motivated by hatred of the oppressor and little more? Is it murder, or is it only certain kinds of murder? In Les Justes there are two limits. The first, which is intensely personal to the author, is the total sanctity of life. Camus's early note for the play suggests that all murder constitutes a limit…. To all intents and purposes the assassins have already gone beyond this limit at the outset of the play by having firmly resolved to assassinate the Grand Duke. It is clear from the importance which Camus attached to the idea of redemptive suicide that the tragic action in the play is the assassination itself, which is only the consummation of the movement of tragic involvement which began for Kaliayev, Dora, and the others the day they compromised the purity of their ideals by finally resorting to terrorism…. As is shown most acutely in Kaliayev and Dora, they are living in a hell on earth, that irrevocable state of damnation which was for Dostoevsky "the suffering of being unable to love." In the theater, however, the play, as tragedy at this level, is compromised for those who do not grasp Camus's premise—that the characters, having arrogated to themselves the power of life and death in any circumstances whatsoever, have already fallen into a metaphysical limbo. The point is all the more easily lost in the theater for any spectator who is not a total pacifist, since the assassination of a supposed tyrant does not automatically inspire revulsion and metaphysical anguish.
The real limit in the play at the obvious dramatic level is an extension and refinement of the first—the killing of children. Camus has now moved from the absolute position of a Tarrou (all execution is wrong) to a relative position (some executions are wrong) which turns Les Justes into an ostensibly more accessible political play about the ends versus the means…. Once one accepts that this is the real limit in the play between mesure and démesure, the play loses its tragic appeal. Having to assassinate a man who, if not outrageously tyrannical himself, is a leading representative of an inhuman and despotic system, and succeeding in doing it without exceeding a crucial ethical limit (the distinction between a culpable adult and an innocent child) makes Kaliayev not a tragic figure in any dramatic sense, but rather the exemplary hero of a didactic melodrama exactly as defined by Camus…. Not only exemplary, but lucky, since Fate sees to it, just as in the historic circumstances, that he is not faced a second time with the dilemma of deciding whether or not to kill the children. One feels that Anouilh or Sartre, each for different reasons, would not have allowed Kaliayev to escape so lightly.
Out of respect for the essential facts of the historical incident, Camus has not weighted circumstances heavily enough against Kaliayev for his ideals—his sense of limits—to be strained to breaking point. Kaliayev is allowed to be what Camus obviously believed him to be in real life: the ideal rebel, the perfect anti-Stalinist before the letter. He is too humble, too scrupulous, too flawless to be tragic in the accepted dramatic sense. (pp. 86-9)
Stepan is in fact the crux of Camus's dilemma in Les Justes, a dilemma that originated in Camus's attempt to do three things at once: (1) create a modern tragedy in accordance with a number of basic aesthetic principles; (2) make a statement about a twentieth-century disease of the political mind; and (3) remain reasonably faithful to the historic circumstances of 1905 (although Camus stressed that he was not writing a historical play, evidently he was not prepared to alter the details sufficiently to make Kaliayev a tragic hero in a truly classic and dramatic sense). The fundamental weakness of Les Justes as an attempt at modern tragedy is that there are two structural antagonisms, both potentially tragic but, as handled by Camus, pulling against each other and dissipating the tension. First, there is the play about 1905: Kaliayev and friends versus the established forces of czarist Russia. In Hebbel's terms, an individual representing a new order challenges the old order: he is crushed, but not without making his mark. Nine playwrights out of ten, basing an attempt at modern tragedy on the assassination of the Grand Duke Sergei in 1905, would have structured their play on this conflict. Camus, however, is the one playwright in ten who, anachronistically, saw this historic event as the occasion for a statement about Stalinism and political expediency in general. He thus created a rival antagonism: Kaliayev the idealist, the creator, the poet versus Stepan the realist, the destroyer, the killer.
But this back-dated vision of Stalinism is not the order of the day; it is not the force that crushes Kaliayev. In strict dramatic terms it is an intrusion, a propaganda digression revealing the extent to which Camus's political obsessions of 1946–1948 impaired his artistic judgment…. Our conclusion then must be that the pretensions of Les Justes to modern tragedy are vitiated by the fact that the play contains two parallel, antithetical structures which overlap but never coincide: Kaliayev versus czarism, and Kaliayev versus ur-Stanlinism. The first is tragic but not dramatic; the second, dramatic but not tragic. The two could have coincided only if Camus had had sufficient courage to discard the strict historic framework of the assassination. (pp. 89-90)
As it is, Les Justes is "tragic" only in a loose, philosophical sense (in so far as the assassination of the Grand Duke, like all execution, however well reasoned, is physically and spiritually degrading); but in strict dramatic terms Les Justes is scarcely more tragic than the Oresteia would have been if Orestes had drawn the line after exacting his just vengeance on Aegisthus and decided to spare Clytemnestra. For Aeschylus, it was evil to kill one's mother, but in certain circumstances—such as at the command of Apollo—it was inevitable, and tragic. For Camus, it is evil to kill children. And so children are not killed. Camus would not have their blood on Kaliayev's hands any more than Nahum Tate in the eighteenth century would have Lear's aberration culminate in the death of Cordelia. Thus for three acts Camus points his play in the right direction for a genuinely dramatic and tragic consummation, builds up to a potentially tragic climax—and then commits what can best be compared to coitus interruptus. The last two acts are an anticlimax in every way. At the end of the play Kaliayev inspires in us a warm glow, which may have much to do with moral approbation, but which has none of that combination of pity, terror, and aesthetic pleasure which is the quintessence of tragic emotion.
It is tempting to talk of a failure of the imagination on Camus's part, but it is in fact all too easy to misunderstand his purpose in Les Justes. If he did not contemplate making any radical alteration to the facts of the 1905 assassination, it was because the plot he dug out of Savinkov was already richly suggestive for his all-important antitotalitarian polemics of the years immediately following 1945—and that was enough for him. Ironically, it is conceivable that if Camus had backed up his claim that he was not writing a historical play with greater conviction, and had brought Kaliayev, under pressure, to commit the atrocity I have proposed (which would have made it a much more Sartrean sort of play), he might, by implication, have made his point about Stalinism with greater effect, and at the same time achieved that synthesis of drama, tragedy, and ethics which eluded him throughout his life. (p. 91)
E. Freeman, "Camus's 'Les Justes': Modern Tragedy or Old-Fashioned Melodrama?" in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1, March, 1970, pp. 78-91.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2747
It was shortly after seeing a performance of Les Possédés during its provincial tour that Camus was killed. Those close to him believe that at this time he was just emerging from his long and difficult period of sterility and reappraisal—he is known to have been working hard on a novel, Le Premier Homme, for example. As far as the theatre is concerned, he confided to Germaine Brée in 1959 that he was toying with the idea of a play linking Don Juan-Sganarelle and Faust-Mephistopheles which he regarded as 'two aspects of the same dichotomy'. But it seems certain that no fragment of this or any other late work for the theatre by Camus exists…. Whether, once the Algerian War was over, and with his own theatre to work in amid the very different theatrical atmosphere of the 1960s, Camus would have gone on to produce a quantity of work of any significance makes interesting speculation, but is in the last resort doubtful. And so what finally is to be our assessment of the Camus whose last completely original work for the theatre was performed in 1949? Few critics, and even fewer theatre people, now believe that Camus's plays will enjoy the viability which seems assured for the work of dramatists such as Shaw, O'Casey, Pirandello, Brecht and Anouilh, although this stature appeared within Camus's grasp after the success of Les Justes. Two questions must be asked: to what extent has Camus succeeded in creating the modern tragedy with which he was obsessed throughout his career, and how successful is his work as theatre, independently of whether it constitutes a convincing form of modern tragedy?
In answer to the first question, it seems to me that Camus does not make a really effective dramatic exploitation of the advantages which his political and philosophical theories would appear to give him…. A predilection for the tragic theme of a conflict between a powerful individual (e.g. Antigone) and an invincible order, or representative of order (e.g. Creon), and a passionate concern for the importance of not transcending limits, more or less equating to the classical horror of hubris—overweening pride or démesure—these would appear to leave Camus just as richly endowed in dramatic theory as Corneille and Racine. And so they do. But Camus's practice is not really a logical extension in dramatic terms of his theory. His theatre has the absurd as its premise, and this fact has far greater dramatic significance than the actions which result from it on the stage. Even if one agrees with Guicharnaud that Camus's plays, like those of Sartre, are 'crammed with action or the expectation of action', the fact remains that his tragedy is one of situation. It is metaphysical not psychological, and as John Cruickshank has observed, does not present 'flawed' heroes in the Elizabethan sense. Camus was convinced—strangely so in an experienced man of the theatre who revered Sophocles and Shakespeare—that metaphysics and psychology were incompatible in tragedy; and for him psychology in fact was anathema in any guise in any sort of play.
Unfortunately this conception of metaphysical tragedy has resulted in an excessively abstract form of expression. One of the best examples of this is Camus's handling of the mask, a favourite theatrical device of French dramatists since the Renaissance…. The mask, the instrument of inscrutability, the totally impenetrable screen around the personality, and cause of doubt, misunderstanding and murder, is the perfect metaphor of the absurd. In Le Malentendu, the blackest of his plays, Camus implies that this is the natural order of the world. (pp. 148-50)
[A] vision of a world in which 'no one is ever recognized' dominates all four plays. It should be noted that in each one Camus makes a very sparing literal use of the mask—some form of disguise or game of pretence. Caligula disguises himself as Venus; Kaliayev (off stage) as a street-hawker; Jan assumes the name of Karl Hasek; and Diego wears 'le masque des médecins de la peste'. There is, however, a considerable disparity between the brief and functional uses of the mask at a literal level and its application at the metaphorical level to stress the impossibility of communication, understanding and love between human beings. It is not just in Le Malentendu that Camus presents a despairing picture of a world in which the normal persona of human beings is the mask of tragedy. Once the mask is in place, it stays on. Only once does Camus manage effectively to exteriorize the transformation which has befallen the wearer, and that is in the powerful Act I curtain to Caligula. (p. 151)
An awareness of Camus's idea of how the fact of the absurd can affect the human personality is … essential for an understanding of the structure of his plays. Every main character from the first, Pèpe, to the last, Stavroguine, has become literally and metaphorically figé, fixed, blocked in time. In this respect—and coincidentally and not at all as a result of any 'influence'—Camus is perhaps more fundamentally Pirandellian than the scores of French dramatists who have made such ostentatious use of the Italian's more superficial plotting and characterization techniques since 1923. The trouble is that he hardly ever succeeds in rendering the mask/absurd metaphor concrete on the stage. The skill with which Anouilh, Giraudoux and Sartre manipulate personae is lacking in Camus, if not actually repugnant to him. One feels that Camus's commitment to his thesis—that alienation imposes masks of deception and insensitivity upon the real self—was too sincere. He was not dispassionate enough to use this classic device in a way which might legitimately please and intrigue in the theatre. Criticism after criticism of Camus's theatre offers the opinion that it is 'too intellectual', too obviously the work of a desiccated manipulator of ideas. On the contrary, the converse might just as easily be argued. Camus is indeed an intellectual dramatist in the sense that he believed the theatre ought to be a serious and non-commercial affair, a medium for important statements about the human condition, but hardly an intellectual in the matter of form. He does not possess the ability to stand back from his theme and present it objectively by means of illusion, perspective, juxtaposition of details in the classic manner of French dramatists since the seventeenth century. It is significant that two of Camus's plays which are considered to be among the most successful, Requiem pour une nonne and Les Possédés, are adaptations which retain most of the 'popular' elements of the original novels: physical violence, mystery, dramatic irony, flashbacks. Camus could not avoid the action which is a key feature of the scenarios provided by Faulkner and Dostoevsky, although he did, as we have seen, create a very different atmosphere in each case. I doubt whether, if he had lived to begin a new cycle of plays in the 1960s. Camus would have learned the lesson of these successes, namely that his ideal modern tragedy need not be static, totally verbal and interior. For Camus's abhorrence of technical virtuosity, psychological theatre and the well-made play stem from an intellectual disdain on his part which made him equate popular and 'theatrical' elements with inferior theatre. (pp. 153-54)
[Camus defined Caligula] as a 'tragedy of the intelligence' but made repeated attempts in the successive versions to make the play more human by modifying and developing the characters of Hélicon and Scipion for example, and making the character of Caligula more sympathetic. And yet, as Albert Sonnenfeld has argued in a detailed discussion of Camus's 'failure' as a dramatist [see above], it is very difficult for the audience to estabish contact on any sort of human level with the hero. The problem is … that of communicating to an audience the real experience of the absurd, one of the effects of which is the impossibility of communicating anything to anyone. The task is feasible à la rigueur in the novel or cinema, but not in the theatre, as Martin Esslin has argued, unless the dramatist adopts a radically 'anti-cartesian' approach to dialogue, characterization and dramatic structure. Although … Camus appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough with the character of 'le Vieux', the problem is one which he did not make any consistent attempt to solve. The highly experimental (and brilliantly successful) prose style of L'Étranger has no counterpart in the plays. Split asunder by this gulf between form and theme, Camus's theatre constitutes one of the greatest paradoxes of the transitional decade 1940–50. (pp. 155-56)
The time has now come to make a résumé of the main aspects of Camus's dramatic style, making allowance for the difficulty of synthesizing the work of such a highly personal artist who never repeated the exact theme and form of any work, either in the theatre or in any other medium.
Taking theme first, all of Camus's original plays and most of those he adapted or translated are based in some measure on the premiss that our human condition is absurd. Violence and repression are common features. The inevitability of death is a source of unparalleled anguish (Caligula), as is the arrogation of the power of life and death over other people (Les Justes, Requiem pour une nonne). Even when enjoying social and material success, man is haunted by an eternal quest for some physical or metaphysical goal, the exact nature of which is not always clear to him (Le Malentendu). Chance frequently takes what seems to be almost a malevolent course, thwarting all attempts to achieve happiness (Le Malentendu) or arbitrarily destroying that which already exists (Caligula). The protagonists are generally alienated from their physical background and from those human beings one would expect to be closest to them (Le Malentendu, Un Cas intéressant). The fact of the absurd can strike not merely individuals but whole sections of society. Civilized society is then split asunder in a conflict characterized by cowardice and treachery, and nihilistic collaboration with the absurd (L'État de siège, Révolte dans les Asturies, Les Possédés).
All of Camus's plays are based on conflict. The manifestations of the absurd constitute one of the terms—the general condition or existing order, against which the heroes of Camus's plays react, or rebel. The heroes, the antithetical term, are animated by a sense of 'revolt'. In Le Mythe de Sisyphe revolt designated a state of spiritual tension based on a lucid scrutiny of the absurd, and culminated in a curious form of stoic happiness. But in the theatre Camus handles revolt in a much more moralistic manner. Revolt must be creative and relative, not destructive and absolute (revolution). It must be based on a recognition of values, a 'qualitative' ethic, that is to say a scale of ethical priorities involving the totality of mankind. The rebel may not therefore combat the absurd with all the means at his disposal, and must be prepared for the anguish of making value judgments about other people, whose claims to life are no less great than his own. At all times the rebel must be aware of a limit, beyond which he must not pass, on pain of redeeming transgression with his own life. And yet the absurd presents a terrifying paradox. It is in itself a total experience: life is never the same again. People of intelligence and sensitivity are tempted to make a total reaction, since the 'logic' of the absurd in the mind of whoever fully experiences it requires that the whole basis of society be transformed and an awareness of the absurd be universalized. (pp. 156-57)
The form that Camus's plays take is conditioned by these linked themes of the absurd and revolt. At its most profound level of interpretation Camus's theatre is metaphysical tragedy in which a basically noble and sensitive individual is pitted against an invincible and inscrutable order. It is characterized by a state of tension which is frequently independent of what happens during the course of the play. As a representation of human action on the other hand, Camus's theatre is strictly speaking not tragedy in any recognized formal sense so much as melodrama according to his own definition: a simplistic presentation of right and wrong. This explains the heroic and Romantic aura of much of his characterization. Theme dominates form: what the play is saying is more important than the way in which it says it. Camus has no time for theatrical games. He has something to say and he gets on with it. His characteristic plot is therfore linear, situated on the brink of a crisis, and is developed in a straightforward and chronological manner. (p. 157)
In characterization, too, Camus shows the same tendency to stress general rather than particular features. This explains the inescapable impression of rigidity that many of Camus's characters make. Rather than individuals they represent types of social and philosophical positions: revolt (Diego, Pépe, Kaliayev), 'revolution' (Stepan, Caligula, Martha), cynical nihilism (Nada, Skouratov, Hélicon), proletarian indifference (Foka), vile bourgeoisie (the judge, the grocer, the chemist), the eternal feminine (Dora, Maria, Caesonia, Victoria, Pilar), the young idealist making his first contact with reality (Scipion, Voinov), the mature relativist (Cherea, Annenkov) … the list could continue until every character in Camus's theatre is categorized.
Camus's dialogue is consistent with this philosophical conception of character and setting. He regarded language as the main problem in modern tragedy, and sought to create a stylized, neutral idiom which would nevertheless be recognizable as the language of the twentieth century and yet at the same time sufficiently 'distanced' and elevated to create what he considered to be the proper aura of tragedy. With the exception of his immature apprentice-piece, Révolte dans les Asturies, his dialogue is polished, correct, even literary. In his search for modern tragedy Camus had no time for naturalism, and, much though he was affected by Hemingway and Faulkner in the novel, one feels he would have wished to derive nothing at all from their fellow American Arthur Miller in the theatre. (pp. 158-59)
Camus thus tried to harmonize all the elements of form to accord with his metaphysical and somewhat abstract themes. The universal and symbolic implications of his plays are stressed at the expense of the historical and concrete. With their elevated and unified tone, purity of language, minimization of physical detail, and concentration upon theme to the exclusion of superfluous humour, anecdote and scenic ingenuity, Camus's plays are thus much more authentically classical in form than those of his contemporaries. And yet there is always something lacking too. That vital spark of human warmth, of truly theatrical tension when a dramatist who is the complete master of his effects grips his audience exactly as he wishes through his characters, glows sporadically in Le Malentendu and Les Justes and perhaps comes near to being sustained only in Caligula. Despite the fact that, given the right production in the right place, these three plays can and occasionally do work well (and even L'État de siège appears to have had its moments in German translation), it remains true that in the last resort Camus's theatre reads far better than it acts. Thus by the standards the author set himself it is unsatisfactory, not to say a failure. (p. 160)
Incommunicable metaphysics, disparity of form and theme, faulty theatrical judgement, philosophical complexity and abstraction, cloying didacticism and failure to develop a sufficiently personal and artistically appropriate language to bear the weight of the play: these are the principal criticisms of Camus's theatre. Yet it would be quite wrong to regard it as a total failure. (p. 163)
The real merit of Camus's theatre lies in the sphere of theme rather than form, in so far as it is possible to separate the success of one from the failure of the other. Camus's theatre constitutes the most sincere attempt in its genre to create philosophical theatre mirroring the metaphysical anguish of our age. At the same time it combats the nihilism to which such speculation can lead, and in this respect the author follows clearly in the tradition of the great French moralists. Camus's theatre is unequalled for the probity and passion with which it defended human values during a decade in France when they had never been more fragile. (p. 164)
E. Freeman, in his The Theatre of Albert Camus: A Critical Study, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1971, 178 p.