Albert Camus’ Caligula
When the play Caligula is read in today’s society, it may be hard to understand how influential the play has been. In fact, productions of the play are fairly rare, due to the lack of interest. The lack of interest in today’s society is the reason why Albert Camus’ play is now thought of as absurd, silly, ridiculous, and sometimes disturbing. However, Camus had the interest of the people in mind when he wrote it, and it was very influential throughout the 1940’s. In the play Caligula, Albert Camus’ use of the historical Emperor Caligula influenced a generation of individuals that believed that the world had no meaning, and his play brought life back to these individuals through his themes of absurd characters, inherent natures of man, and existential behaviors.
During the beginning of Camus’ writing and acting career, he had many influences before writing Caligula. He was an actor and producer for the theatrical company L’ Equipe. Camus’ influences in the theatre then inspired him to write a play of his own, and Suetonius’ biography, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, fueled his passion for writing Caligula, which was finished in 1938. In fact, every incident and detail of the play is adapted from Suetonius However, it should be noted Camus’ purpose was only to express his feelings towards society, and therefore, Suetonius’ lack of accuracy and notoriously unreliable history was not a barricade for Camus’ play. Caligula was the product of Camus’ influence and passion for the theatre, and his breakthrough play was very different from the current plays in the 1930’s. Some critics of the time thought it had more life and irony than any of the other plays. Indeed, irony and the concept of life itself make Caligula a very interesting play, even if it doesn’t contain the complexity of a Shakespearean play. However, the play didn’t need to be complex to be influential and different from the plays written before. The play was influential, even if slightly ridiculous, because Camus’ used a vivid rendition of the absurd.
Time was also an essential element for the play. Although the play was finished in 1938, World War II forced Camus to postpone it’s opening until 1945, and the public was finally ready for the issues Caligula presented. Camus soon realized that throughout Europe values were being challenged as no longer relevant. With the resulting feelings of World War II, many people concluded that human existence is pointless. However, contrary to popular belief, Camus did not agree with the people’s point of view, and his play influenced the people to believe that life was not pointless. The play was so influential on the people of Camus’ time because his character Caligula possessed the same perverse logic of political tyranny as Mussolini and Hitler. The people were inspired by this close relationship, and they realized that it was their own responsibility to fight for freedom. Camus’ play also inspired the people to believe that freedom is never impossible, and this is proved when the absurd Emperor Caligula is killed by the Roman citizens that finally stand up to his tyranny. The battle between freedom and tyranny found throughout the themes of Caligula made the play a success and inspired the people of the 1940’s immensely.
Camus’ Caligula was also influential in the way that it brought life and freedom of thought back to the people through Camus’ use of themes. First of all, he used the theme of absurd characters. Caligula’s actions cannot be condemned, even though they may be inherently wrong because the world is absurd and he merely stresses this overwhelming truth. This is true throughout the play because although the audience often hates the senseless death sentences Caligula often puts on his victims, they still realize he has a deep underlying passion to obtain the unreachable goal. The absurdity of Emperor Caligula often brought life to the people of the 1940’s because of the absurd truths Caligula knew about the world. The audiences realized that the tyranny of Caligula should never be accepted, but his passion for the world should still be respected.
The character of Caligula also brings out hatred and sympathy because of the way his insanity and absurdity evolves throughout the play. Caligula first starts to become insane after his sister Drucilla dies. It was commonly known throughout Rome that they were also incestuous lovers, and during the first act of the play, the townspeople conclude that Caligula is merely in a depression. However, Caligula claims not to be depressed at all, and his downward spiral to become an absurd villain begins. Caligula first tries to make himself equal to the Gods. Caligula explains his absurd quest for freedom equal to that of the Gods when he says, “One is always free at someone else’s expense. Absurd perhaps, but so it is”. Caligula’s quest for freedom is somewhat innocent yet brutally honest. The audience could identify and sympathize with Caligula, even if his quest seemed selfish. The audience could also sympathize with him when he was on his absurd quest for the impossible. The second absurd goal of Caligula is for his servant named Helicon to retrieve the moon. This is perhaps Caligula’s most absurd goal, but if accomplished, Caligula believes he will be happy at last. In fact, Caligula cares more about his quest for the moon than he does for his own life, and he states this fact when in a conversation with Helicon. Caligula tells his servant, “All I want, Helicon, is—the moon. For the rest, I’ve always known what will kill me. I haven’t yet exhausted all that is to keep me living. That’s why I want the moon. And you must not return till you have secured her for me”. Unfortunately, Helicon never retrieves the moon for Caligula, and Caligula is forced to remain unhappy. The unhappiness of Caligula drives him even more insane, and it becomes almost impossible for the audience to continue sympathizing for him. His reasoning becomes quite disturbing, and since life is absurd, Caligula reasons, every act is equally senseless. He then proceeds to prove his point by destroying accepted conventions. Caligula’s first senseless act is his quest to start a famine throughout Rome, just so he can prove his power. Caligula states to his people, “Famine begins tomorrow. We all know what famine means—a national catastrophe. Well, tomorrow there will be a catastrophe, and I shall end it when I choose”. It is very hard to sympathize with a ruler that promotes and helps cause a national famine, and this is why Caligula’s character turns into an absurd and hated tyrant by the end of the play. However, Caligula’s national famine is not the only cause for the people’s hatred of him. He is also tyrannical in the way he kills and tortures his victims. His goal was to kill everyone in Rome one at a time, and he often tortures his victims in the process. Caligula says, “Kill him slowly, so that he feels what dying is like,” while one of his many victims is dragged offstage. For the people of Rome, the senseless murders of Caligula are too much too handle, but the murders are the only things that make Caligula happy. Caligula explains how much he enjoys murders to his mistress, Caesonia, when he tells her, “There must be two kinds of happiness, and I’ve chosen the murderous kind. For I am happy”. Even though it was once easy to sympathize with Caligula, his character is too tyrannical and absurd to sympathize with after his senseless murders and ridiculous famine, and his evolved character was used to influence the audience to despise tyrants of all kinds.
The second theme Camus uses throughout Caligula is the inherent nature of man, and this theme was also very influential to the audiences of the 1940’s. Throughout the play, Caligula is infamous for challenging the inherent natures of man, and Camus explains this during his preface to the play when he writes, “Caligula challenges friendship and love, common human solidarity, good and evil… He levels everything around him by the strength of his rejection and the destructive fury to which his passion for life leads him”. Caligula also challenges the natures of man by trying to take revenge on the Gods, and he expresses his plans when he states, “I’ve merely realized that there’s only one way of getting even with the Gods. All that’s needed is to be as cruel as they”. His quest to be cruel and murderous god is against the nature of man, and Caligula’s inhuman tyranny helps to express the feelings of the inhuman tyrants of Camus’ time. One can only speculate what thoughts went through the minds of Hitler or Mussolini, but there is a possibility that they were much like Caligula’s thoughts when he says, “How strange! When I don’t kill, I feel alone… I’m at ease only in the company of the dead”. Caligula enjoys being around the dead, and he often claims that he doesn’t fear death. However, he claims to respect fear more than any other emotion, and he expresses his feelings when he states, “Fear… is a noble emotion, pure and simple, self-sufficient, like no other; it draws its patent of nobility straight from the guts”. Believing that fear is a noble emotion is against the inherent natures of man, and fearful men are often thought of as cowardly instead of noble. On the other hand, Caligula respects fear because he is an all-powerful emperor, and he can control all of his subjects’ fears and execution dates. Caligula also changes the nature of fear when he finds out how to turn fear into innocence. When Caligula finds out that his friend, Cherea, is planning to assassinate him, Caligula turns Cherea’s fear into innocence by burning the incriminating evidence. Caligula burns the evidence because he doesn’t fear his own death, but he enjoys challenging the fears of others. Camus expresses how the fear of a guilty person can be easily challenged and morphed into innocence when he has Caligula say, “You see, conspirator! The tablet’s melting, and as it melts a look of innocence is drawing on your face. What a handsome forehead you have, Cherea! And how rare, how beautiful a sight is an innocent man” (54). Throughout the play, Caligula uses his tyranny to challenge the natures and emotions of his subjects, and his actions are used to influence the audiences to protest against any leaders that resemble Caligula.
By this point, Caligula has become a monster, and it becomes obvious that Caligula must die. The necessary upcoming death of Caligula is expressed by Caesonia when she asks him, “Hasn’t it been enough to see you killing others, without my also knowing you’ll be killed yourself?… Day after day I see all that’s human in you dying out, little by little”. Because of the blunt and inherent truth that Caligula’s lover expresses, Caligula slowly begins to realize that he will die, and he understands that he has become an inhuman monster. Caligula finally realizes that it is unnatural for a human to challenge fate, and he finally expresses the truth to his own reflection when he states, “If I’d had the moon, if love were enough, all might have been different… There’s nothing in this world, or in any other, made to my stature. And yet I know, and you too know that all I need is for the impossible to be”. This is known as Caligula’s Existential Moment, and Camus explains this scene even more clearly in the preface when he writes, “If his truth is to rebel against fate, his error lies in negating what binds him to mankind. One cannot destroy everything without destroying oneself”. Therefore, by destroying the fate of the world, Caligula ends up destroying his own fate. Caligula is assassinated by his subjects, and he finally realizes that he can’t control fate or the nature of man.
Caligula’s eventual death concludes Albert Camus’ themes of absurd characters, inherent natures of man, and existential behaviors in the play Caligula, and these themes were very influential for a generation of World War II survivors that believed that life had no meaning. It’s easy to understand how important this play must have been to the public, and it is also easy to compare Emperor Caligula to the infamous tyrants, Hitler and Mussolini. However, the play is less influential on the generations of individuals that did not experience World War II, but it is still very entertaining. It is a very funny, absurd, and entertaining play when read in today’s society, and it still expresses Camus’ existential views towards life. Caligula was one of the most important plays in Europe during the 1940’s, but I, for one, would jump at the chance to see it now in the year 2001.