Caligula by Albert Camus (1938)

This purity of heart you talk of – every man acquires it, in his own way. Mine has been to follow the essential to the end… Still, that needn’t prevent me from putting you to death. [Laughs.] (Caligula p.58)

Camus began writing a play about Caligula in 1938, completed a three-act version by 1941, and a four-act version was published in 1944. It was part of what the author called the ‘Cycle of the Absurd’, along with the novel The Stranger (1942) and the essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942).

Theatre of ideas

Theatre in France has always been more philosophical and intense than in England. The tragedies of Jean Racine (1639-1699) have a purity and a terror with no match in English literature. Like much modern French theatre, Caligula is a play of ideas, or maybe one idea, in which the characters mostly exist as types or foils for psychological and philosophical debate.

The plot

Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus was the third emperor of the Roman Emperor. ‘Caligula’ means ‘little boots’, a nickname given him by Roman soldiers when he was on campaign as a boy. Caligula succeeded his adoptive grandfather, Tiberius, in 37 AD. For the first eight months of his reign he ruled wisely. But after his sister, Drusilla, dies, the 24-year-old Caligula abruptly changed character, becoming, in the words of the Roman historian, Suetonius, ‘a monster’. He instituted a reign of terror, having leading patricians murdered, their sons killed and their daughters forced to work in public brothels.

So much for the historical record. In Camus’s hands Caligula becomes a demented philosopher-emperor who pushes the philosophical themes of Camus’s day to the limit, espousing

a philosophy that’s logical from start to finish. (p.19)

Take the theme of ‘freedom’ – Caligula realises that, by having complete power over every human in the Roman Empire, he has become ‘the only free man in the world’. Or the idea of ‘power’ – the only point of having power is to abuse it i.e. to have the power to use power senselessly and in the face of all rational limits or protest.

Take Camus’s preoccupation of the 1930s, the Absurd. By carrying his wishes to their logical conclusion, Caligula demonstrates the absurdity of human wishes; or the absurdity of having exorbitant and extreme wishes which the real world cannot deliver. Right at the start he says he wants the moon, he wants to possess the moon. Why can’t he have the moon? setting the tone of the impossibility of his desires.

Hence the texture of the play isn’t much concerned with character, let alone with touches of humanity or humour. Everyone talks as if they’ve just swallowed a philosophy textbook.

I wish men to live by the light of truth. And I’ve the power to make them do so.

All that’s needed is to be logical right through, at all costs. (p.7)

This world has no importance. Once a man recognises that, he wins his freedom… You see in me the one free man in the whole Roman Empire. (p.12)

A man can’t live without some reason for living. (p.19)

One is always free at someone else’s expense. (p.25)

I’ve merely realised that there’s only one way to get even with the gods. All that’s needed is to be as cruel as they. (p.37)

There’s no understanding Fate; therefore I choose to play the part of Fate. (p.38)

Logic, Caligula; follow where logic leads. Power to the uttermost; wilfulness without end. (p.43)

What I want it to live, and to be happy. Neither, to my mind, is possible if one pushes the absurd to its logical conclusions. (p.45)

Other artists create to compensate for their lack of power. I don’t need to make a work of art; I live it. (p.56)

Or is overcome by the same near-hysteria which characterises Racine’s tragedies:

I want to drown the sky in the sea, to infuse ugliness with beauty, to wring a laugh from pain. (p.14)

Ah, if only in this loneliness, this ghoul-haunted wilderness of mine, I could know, but for a moment, real solitude, real silence… (p.32)

Not many laughs here (although Caligula’s cynical brutality occasionally amuses him). Instead a kind of elevated tone of continuous hysteria, reflecting the subject matter.

The play really amounts to a sequence of scenes parading examples of Caligula’s insanity i.e. his realisation that he can do anything he wishes, humiliating the patricians who live in a state of terror, are forced to entertain him to dinner, whose wives he screws, whose sons he murders, and who he poisons or has executed on a whim.

For Caligula, with absurdist logic, points out that all men die, it is only a question of time, therefore it doesn’t much matter whether it’s now, or tomorrow, or in ten years’ time. This is an example of him pushing human logic right to its limits and exposing its absurd consequences.

Gérard Philipe was just 20 years old when he starred as Caligula in the successful 1945 production of the play

Gérard Philipe was just 20 years old when he starred as Caligula in the 1945 production of the play

Having tortured, executed, debauched and manipulated as many men and women as he can, Caligula discovers that the Total Freedom he sought is in fact empty. In finally carrying the logic of his tyranny to its conclusion he discovers the plot to kill him but chooses to ignore it. Right at the very end he murders Caesonia, the only women who ever loved him, strangling her despite her pleas of love, and then allows himself to be stabbed to death by the conspirators.

The play portrays the absurdist logic of the tyrant, pushed to its ultimate, inhuman limit. Assessing the play amounts to assessing whether the dramatisation, the showing-forth of Caligula’s madness is adequate to the topic.

Many of the scenes are powerful, there is no shortage of cynical cruelty and occasional black humour but – despite much intense melodrama – the play is actually not very dramatic. There are no reversals or surprises, Caligula just sets out on a quest to be a monster – and succeeds.

All that said, Caligula was a great success when first staged in 1945 with the 20 year-old actor Gérard Philipe making his name in the title role. The success or failure of plays is much more complex than poems or novels; it is dependent on innumerable contingent factors like the staging, costumes, lighting, music, on the ability of the actors, and on the often intangible spirit of the times. Philipe was the fashionable new thing, the grotesqueness of the scenes matched the post-war mood of excess and absurdity – and so it was a hit.


Caligula by Albert Camus was published in France in 1944. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948. Caligula was brought together along with Cross PurposeThe Just and The Possessed in a Penguin edition in 1984. All quotes & references are to this Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

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