Home > 1940, 20th Century, Camus Albert, French Literature, Theatre > He changes his philosophy into corpses

He changes his philosophy into corpses

Caligula by Albert Camus (1945)

Caligula is Camus’s earlier work of fiction and one he amended several times. He wrote the first version of the play in 1938 and the last one in 1958. I have seen the 1945 version, the one the public saw at the Théâtre Hébertot in Paris, with Gérard Philippe as Caligula. The title of the play sounds like Shakespeare, or for France, like Corneille or Racine. But, forget about references to plays like Julius Caesar or Horace or Britannicus. Think about Hamlet and Ubu Rex by Alfred Jarry, you’ll be closer to the mark.

The play opens on an act where different persons from the court are looking for the Emperor Caligula. He’s been MIA for three days, since his sister and lover Drusilla died. When he finally comes back, he’s haggard and has had an epiphany: Les gens meurent et ils ne sont pas heureux. (People die and they’re not happy). Life is absurd and Caligula turned his existential angst into a new vision of life.

Ce monde, tel qu’il est fait, n’est pas supportable. J’ai donc besoin de la lune, ou du bonheur, ou de l’immortalité, de quelque chose qui soit dément peut-être, mais qui ne soit pas de ce monde. Really, this world of ours, the scheme of things as they call it, is quite intolerable. That’s why I want the moon, or happiness, or eternal life –something, in fact, that may sound crazy, but which isn’t of this world. Translated by Justin O’Brien.

Since he’s an emperor his new philosophy results in a new version of exercising power. He can do whatever he wants to pursue his dream and make all the decisions he judges necessary.

Je viens de comprendre enfin l’utilité du pouvoir. Il donne ses chances à l’impossible. Aujourd’hui, et pour tout ce qui va venir, la liberté n’a plus de frontières. Ah my dears, at last I’ve come to see the uses of supremacy. It gives impossibilities a run. From this day on, so long as life is mine, my freedom has no frontier. Translated by Justin O’Brien.

The first act sets the context and prepares the spectator for the three other acts. In these acts, we are three years later and Caligula has put his ideas into practice. The Patricians are outraged and are plotting to murder Caligula. The emperor stripped them of their possessions, violates their wives, mocks them publicly. He kills people after fallacious reasoning. Meanwhile he’s still depressed and aching. This is where Hamlet and Ubu come into one named Caligula. Mix Hamlet’s angst with Ubu’s hard-liner’s tendencies and you can picture Caligula. There’s is in Caligula a bit of the outrageous comedy you see in Ubu Rex. Caligula’s action are funny sometimes, bordering to farce and it lightens the mood, even if it doesn’t erase the horror of his ways.

Camus_caligulaIn appearance, he’s crazy. The director sang that tune. Caligula yells, gesticulates, laughs like a lunatic sometimes and Drusilla’s ghost visits him. I had read half of the play before going to the theatre and it wasn’t how I had pictured Caligula. For me, he’s not crazy. In appearance, he is but he’s just someone who has the power to put his personal philosophy into practice and at a large scale. Unfortunately, he’s unbalanced and his deadpanned reasoning leads to deaths and disasters. Thinking Caligula is crazy is a way to say he’s irresponsible of his actions. He is not. He knows what he’s doing and he’s playing with other people’s lives. Caligula is a criminal, not a lunatic. The real Caligula had an odd childhood and lived in troubled times. History made of him a cruel and crazy emperor but from what I’ve read, historians tend to balance what Suetonius wrote about him with other sources.

In the old tradition of authors writing in times when freedom of speech was limited, Camus used a character from the Ancient Rome as a device. There are a lot of thought-provoking lines in Caligula. Given the time and the political context of the years it was written, it’s hard not to look for political references in the text. The way Caligula confiscated the Patricians’ wealth recalls communism. Caligula is a dictator of the cruellest kind and the time provided numerous examples. His twisted mind allied to unlimited power led to chaos. That side of the play brings thoughts about power and how to exercise it. The other side of the play is all about the meaning of life. Is it absurd as Camus states it is? Despite his unlimited freedom of mind and action, Caligula never manages to deal with the revelation of the beginning: Les gens meurent et ils ne sont pas heureux.

  1. March 13, 2014 at 11:07 am

    What a coincidence, I’ve just finished a re-reading of L’Etranger, such a great author!

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    • March 13, 2014 at 11:41 pm

      He’s great. I haven’t read L’Etranger since collège (junior high) I should re-read it too.

      Like

  2. Brian Joseph
    March 13, 2014 at 11:29 am

    Interesting how Camus turned Caligula into someone exercising a dark interpretation of the whole absurdity thing.

    I have juts completed my rereading of The Plague and will be posting about it soon.

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    • March 13, 2014 at 11:43 pm

      I’m looking forward to your review of La peste. I’d be curious to read your thoughts about Caligula. You’re better than me at philosophy, I’m sure you’d make more of it than I did.

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  3. March 13, 2014 at 8:03 pm

    I would probably like the stage version. I’ve always meant to watch the old television series of Caligula (not Camus) but somehow never get around to it.

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    • March 13, 2014 at 11:46 pm

      I didn’t agree with the director’s vision of Caligula, I’d like to see another version of this play.
      Caligula (the real one) is a good character for a film but it’s hard to avoid cliches. I have Suetonius on the shelf, I’ve meant to read his Twelve Caesars for a while.

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      • March 15, 2014 at 5:56 pm

        At least it sounds… well… entertaining.

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  4. March 25, 2014 at 8:20 pm

    I saw Martin Sheen play Caligula at London’s Donmar Warehouse theatre. Absolutely superb production.

    There he didn’t come over as crazy, or not solely crazy anyway. He came over as desperately sad, pursuing a logic of lethal futility. The scene where a senator says he’ll give his life for Caligula was particularly chilling, as Caligula takes a figure of speech literally…

    Tremendous play, the production I saw anyway. Martin Sheen though is a remarkable actor. I think you might have liked that production more than the one you saw. Of course there must be madness, nobody sane kills so many, but to make him a lunatic loses something of the horror which drives him. As you say, he can’t deal with the revelation at the beginning, make him too crazy and that logic risks getting lost I’d have thought.

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    • March 26, 2014 at 11:28 pm

      I totally agree with what you write.
      Caligula is not crazy, in a sense of a clinical illness. He’s profoundly unbalanced and he’s in a position to harm other people because his actions have no limits. In other circumstances, he would have been an unbalanced neighbour. In these, he becomes a cruel dictator.

      Have you ever seen Ubu Rex? I wonder what you think about it.

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      • March 27, 2014 at 6:41 pm

        I’ve only heard of it, and then only really the name. What’s the link?

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        • March 28, 2014 at 12:39 am

          Ubu behaves like a crazy man in a very orderly and logical way. He pushes concepts and actions to the absurd. He becomes cruel and is rational beyond the apparent madness. There’s a billet about it somewhere here.

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