Writer: Albert Camus
Publishing House: Gallimard
Date of Publication: 1944
Rating: 5 stars
‘’A man can’t live without some reason for living.”
It is often the case when I find no particular connection with the novels of highly acclaimed writers but their plays resonate with me and become a point of reference in my collection. Such bright examples are Tolstoy, Gorky, Sartre and Camus. Each one of them has produced some of the most fascinating, world-changing literary works, yet it is their plays that placed them in my heart. When I first read ‘’The Stranger’’, there was very little that surprised me or touched me. Yet, ‘’The Possessed’’ and ‘’Caligula’’ have stayed with me ever since. Watching a recent outstanding Greek production in a beautiful theatre house in Athens, I felt -yet, again- the impact, the sheer joy of the unfolding, living theatre, of the grandeur that only plays can bring to the audience’s hearts. And I was happy to see that there are still satisfying productions being made in the land that gave birth to Theatre but lost its cultural identity through cheap, poorly-made TV…Anyway…
Caligula is one of the most fascinating, infamous and intriguing figures of Roman History. Competing with Nero for the place of the King of Mad Emperors in the mind of the laymen, he is reputed for his cruelty, barbarism, sexual perversion and unlimited resources of finding new ways to entertain himself through violence and whatnot. As with Nero, the majority of recent historians have disputed the credibility of the sources, but this isn’t what concerns us here. Theirs is the attempt to verify what cannot be verified, unless we finally invent the time -travel machine and take a trip to good, old, glorious Rome (and count me in, because I love perverted Roman Emperors and in any case, everyone is better than the politicians that are currently holding the fates of all nations in their filthy hands…) But I digress….
Camus’ Caligula can hardly be seen solely as a ruthless monster. We’re not in Gore Vidal’s territory here, thankfully. Caligula loses the one person he loved most, his sister, and he falls to pieces. Drusilla isn’t with him anymore, therefore the world may rot for all he cares. And perhaps, he’ll feel better if he assists in the speedy procession of this ‘’rotting’’. He feels nothing, desires nothing but absolute control and even this is questionable. He establishes a tyranny of frightening proportions and wants the moon, the impossible, because nothing matters to him in the end. He shines as one of the most memorable protagonists in the context of a historical play to ever grace the stages worldwide. He has this distorted notion of freedom -but is it as distorted as we think, or there are many fragments of truth in his views about what being a ‘’free man’’ really means?- of being alive and in control and yearns for everything he cannot have.
Camus’s writing is modern, contemporary to the time of the play, but never alienated from the context of the character. The words are flowing, the action aims right into the heart and the mind of the reader and the watcher with ruthless precision. The scenes lead to the bitter (?) end. Caligula in the hands of Camus becomes a shuttered, broken man who believes in nothing and desires the impossible. He gives in to his pain and projects his agony to the people around him. But the people around him are his subjects and they make for the most direct and at the same time, dull plaything. What could be more human than that? When we are in deep pain and desperation, the world ceases to exist and the others become scapegoats, easy targets for our rage and wrath. We all have done it in our lives and we are certain to do it again.
Camus creates a figure that couldn’t be a more realistic depiction of the darkest recesses of the human nature. Never mind the myths about the horse that became a Senator, or the complex head-cutting machine or the intercourse with brides and grooms alike. These have nothing to do with the heart of Camus’ play. These belong to ridiculous films for those who desire shock for shock value. It is a sacrilege to even discuss them in the same context with Theatre. In this glorious moment of the finest art the human beings ever created, Caligula holds a mirror that shows the true face of mankind in despair….