Although Caligula presents a clear philosophical theme, it is also consummately theatrical. Indeed, some observers have asserted that effective drama was Camus’s primary concern, and it would not be at all surprising if that were true. Camus founded the Theatre du Travail (Workers’ Theater) in his native Algeria (which was then a French colony) and helped organize a touring company in which he participated as actor, screen designer, and director. It is quite likely that Camus originally planned to play the role of Caligula himself.
Caligula owes its effectiveness as drama to its deftness of characterization, rapid pace, high level of suspense, and striking visual imagery. The most formidable character of the play is Caligula himself. Originally played to excellent reviews by the prominent Gerard Phillipe, the character of Caligula is both immediately riveting and deeply complex. From the ominous foreboding coloring the dialogue preceding his first appearance, Caligula grips the audience’s attention. His fascination with his reflection in the mirror, his rapid shifts of emotion, and his unpredictable behavior all produce the sense of anticipation or expectancy that creates good tense theater. Further, Caligula is no simple oppressor. The audience is made to feel the anguish which fuels his cruelty, so the character of Caligula achieves universality while remaining highly personal—and even somewhat sympathetic.
The subsidiary characters of Caligula are less flamboyant but serve a clear purpose in forwarding the play. Helicon’s detachment is a wry commentary on the urgent passions of the other characters. Caesonia’s unwillingness to accept the true depths of Caligula’s despair helps to drive home its poignancy. Scipio’s deep attachment to Caligula indicates the special relation of artists to the absurd, while his participation in Caligula’s assassination symbolizes a triumph of happiness over tragic sensibilities. Cherea’s instinctive understanding of what is truly at stake enables Camus to articulate his philosophical theme without interrupting or overburdening his plot. All these characters, in fact, help Camus to dramatize the play’s message without having to insert it artificially in the form of lengthy speeches.
Camus endowed Caligula with a rapid pace, one which allows the audience to grasp what is occurring without ever having to wait long for some new development. This keeps the play suspenseful; although the audience suspects what will happen ultimately, it does not know quite how. Finally, Caligula offers its audience an abundance of the sort of visual images that make a theatrical experience memorable. The play within a play, Caligula’s poisoning of the patrician, and his assassination at the play’s close are scenes that linger in the mind long after an audience has seen them.
Sources for Further Study
Camus, Albert. “The Myth of Sisyphus” and Other Essays. New York: Knopf, 1955.
Freeman, E. The Theatre of Albert Camus: A Critical Study. London: Methuen, 1971.
Lebesque, Morran. Portrait of Camus. New York: Herder and Herder, 1971.
Lottman, Herbert R. Albert Camus: A Biography. Corte Madera, Calif.: Gingko Press, 1997.
Masters, Brian. Camus: A Study. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1974.
Thody, Phillip. Albert Camus: A Study of His Work. New York: Grove Press, 1959.
Wilhoite, Fred H., Jr. Beyond Nihilism: Albert Camus’s Contribution to Political Thought. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968.