Dirty Hands by Jean-Paul Sartre (1948)

How you cling to your purity, young man! How afraid you are to soil your hands! All right, stay pure! What good will it do? Why did you join us? Purity is an idea for a yogi or a monk. You intellectuals and bourgeois anarchists use it as a pretext for doing nothing. To do nothing, to remain motionless, arms at your sides, wearing kid gloves. Well, I have dirty hands. Right up to the elbows. I’ve plunged them in filth and blood. But what do you hope? Do you think you can govern innocently? (Act V)

This is by far the longest of the four plays in the Vintage collection of Sartre’s plays – Huis Clos is one continuous act of forty pages; The Respectful Prostitute is even shorter at 30 pages – whereas Les Mains Sales has seven acts and is 120 pages long! And I think it’s also the most enjoyable because the characters have time to breathe and expand and become believable.

The plot

It is 1944 in the fictional East European country of Illyria and the Russian Army is coming closer. Olga is in a flat used by the Illyrian communist party. Hugo arrives. He has just been released from prison. He is young, handsome, talkative. He has just served two years for the murder of the communist leader, Hoederer. A knock at the door and he hides. Olga opens the door to representatives of the Party, tough guys with guns. They’ve come to kill Hugo, they’ve trailed him here, he’s a liability, a loose cannon, he must be liquidated. Olga pleads for his life and says, ‘Give me till midnight to find out what really happened.’ The tough guys grudgingly relent and leave.

Hugo comes out the bedroom where he’d been hiding. Olga explains he must tell her everything; maybe she can protect him, persuade the others he is trustworthy after all. ‘Tell me everything, right from the start.’ The stage darkens and now begins the majority of the play, which is told as a long flashback detailing the events leading up to the assassination of Hoederer.

(Setting up the threat of Hugo’s ‘liquidation’ in the present is a Hitchcock-like trick, like seeing the bomb being placed on the bus: everything that happens subsequently is charged with menace and suspense. Simple but effective.)

So the rest of the play shows in detail the build-up to the assassination and explores the very mixed motives of young Hugo the assassin.

Act II

It is 1942, Hugo has broken with his rich bourgeois family to join the People’s Party. As a callow young intellectual, he has been given the task of editing the party paper and is horribly intimidated by the ‘real men’ of action who surround him.

After a turbulent meeting of the party heads Louis explains to him and Olga that the party’s general secretary, Hoederer, is planning to sell the party out. He is persuading the central committee to go into an alliance with the Fascists and the bourgeois party after the war to create a government of national unity.

Olga and Hugo can’t believe he is a sell-out. Louis hesitates then lets them in on a plan to assassinate Hoederer. Hugo will get a job as Hoederer’s personal secretary. On a night to be arranged he will open the door to the assassins. Hugo bridles: he wants to be a man of action. Let him assassinate Hoederer. Louis hesitates but Olga speaks up for Hugo: let him. OK, says Louis. Pack your bags and take your new young wife, Jessica, with you (oh, he’s married, we realise). Move into Hoederer’s house. Become his secretary. Await orders.

The next few acts introduce us to the shrewd watchful Hoederer, surrounded by tough guy bodyguards (George, Slick and Leon). But by far the most interesting character is Jessica, Hugo’s attractive flighty nineteen-year-old wife. She and Hugo play baby games, play act, role play and neither are sure when the game is over or when they’re playing. This could have been a tiresome embodiment of Sartre’s ideas about people playing roles for others’ consumption, but in fact their young married flirting and flyting is done with a surprisingly light touch and I found very believable. It is Huis Clos but in a comic mode. When Hugo swears Jessica to secrecy then whispers that he’s here to assassinate Hoederer, Jessica bursts out laughing. Hugo’s plight is that no-one will take him seriously. He can’t even take himself seriously.

HUGO: Tell it to me now.
JESSICA: What?
HUGO: That you love me.
JESSICA: I love you.
HUGO: But mean it.
JESSICA: I love you.
HUGO: But you don’t really mean it.
JESSICA: What’s got into you? Are you playing?
HUGO: No, I’m not playing.
JESSICA: Then why did you ask me that? That’s not like you.
HUGO: I don’t know. I need to think that you love me. I have a right to that. Come on, say it.
Say it as if you meant it.
JESSICA: I love you. I love you. No: I love you. Oh, go to the devil! Let’s hear you say it.
HUGO: I love you.
JESSICA: You see, you don’t say it any better than I do. (Act III, p.156)

The next scene is set in Hoederer’s office, the representatives of the two other parties arrive, the Fascists and the Liberals. There is some interesting political analysis as Hoederer points out to the other two that, with the USSR on the horizon, the Proletariat Party, though numerically in a minority, will soon be supported by the conquering Reds: so they’d better do a deal now. At which point Hugo jumps to his feet, outraged that Hoederer is prepared to do a deal with the bourgeois he so despises, with the bourgeois party leader (Karsky) who actually knows Hugo’s own father and made a point of mentioning it to Hugo on the way in.

The bomb

Hugo is on the verge of pulling out his revolver and shooting Hoederer then and there, when a bomb goes off in the garden, shattering the window, throwing the characters to the floor. The political leaders are ushered into a safe room, leaving Hugo, the bodyguards and a terrified Jessica. There is now some dramatic irony because Hugo had blurted out ‘the dirty bastards’ just as the bomb went off. He was describing the cynical politicians making this stitch-up, as he worked himself up to shooting, but now has to pretend to Hoederer’s suspicious bodyguards that he was referring to the ‘dirty bastards’ who threw the bomb. In fact Hoederer had already (unwisely) given Hugo a few drinks before the politicians arrived, and now he has a few more to recover from the shock with the result that he gets hammered and starts drunkenly skirting round the fact that it is he who has been sent as an assassin.

They’re not particularly subtle, but these scenes where the callow Hugo teeters on the brink of giving himself away, unhappily revealing himself to be precisely the over-talkative intellectual he’s trying to stop being, while his quick-witted wife covers for him, are more dramatically complex and satisfying than anything in Sartre’s previous plays, whose characters have tended to be schematic and one-dimensional.

In particular, Jessica’s innocent quick-wittedness is a joy to behold. In an earlier scene, when Hoederer’s goons had insisted on searching the new arrivals’ room, Jessica had quick-wittedly hidden Hugo’s revolver in her dress and brazenly invited one of the bodyguards to search her who was, as a result, so red-faced that he only did a cursory job, not finding the gun.

Now Jessica quickly interprets Hugo’s drunken babblings as anger against the ‘dirty bastards’ who threw the bomb and devises other ways of masking what Hugo’s saying. In fact she encourages him to drink more, lots more, until he passes out and Slick and George just laugh at him, thanking their lucky stars they didn’t have a rich privileged upbringing.

Olga in the summerhouse

Cut to the summerhouse which is Jessica and Hugo’s quarters, and Olga is tending the unconscious Hugo, when Jessica returns to the room with a cold compress for his head. The two women confront each other over Hugo’s unconscious body – the scheming, hard, political woman versus the politically naive but sensuous and sharp woman. They wake a groggy Hugo and Olga tells him it was she who threw the bomb. The party’s getting impatient. It’s been ten days and Hoederer’s still alive. She came to finish the job off but botched it. Hugo’s got till tomorrow, then they’ll come en masse. Anyway, whatever happens, the party thinks Hugo’s sold out – he is in big trouble. Being blown up by the bomb would have done him a favour. Olga leaves, climbing over the wall and escaping.

Jessica confronts Hugo with the reality of what he’s promised. For the first time they’re not playing. Hugo admits he can’t believe it, can’t believe he’s a killer, can’t believe that Hoederer’s bright quick eyes will go dull, that blood will seep into his suit, all because he, Hugo, has pulled a trigger. He is over-thinking and over-imagining the deed. But Jessica is no Lady MacBeth; the opposite, she begs Hugo to reconsider and, instead of just murdering Hoederer, discuss the issues, arguing him out of whatever it is that Hugo so vehemently opposes.

At which moment there’s a knock on the door and Hoederer himself enters, to check up on his secretary. The goons told him he’s drunk himself unconscious: is he alright? Having made certain, Hoederer makes as if to leave but Jessica jumps up before him. Now, now is the time for Hugo to do it? For a moment we the audience and Hugo are flabbergasted: what? shoot Hoederer now? No, Jessica means now is the time for the two men to talk, to thrash out their differences, for Hugo to find out if it’s really necessary to kill Hoederer (Jessica obviously doesn’t say this out loud, but we know from the previous dialogue with Hugo that’s this is what she means).

Hoederer explains Realpolitik to Hugo

And this is the lead-in to a very enjoyable scene where Hoederer a) explains the political situation in Illyria b) explains why a political deal with the other parties is necessary c) taunts Hugo with his naive intellectual purity. He’s more interested in principles than men, Hoederer taunts. He doesn’t want to get his pretty little bourgeois hands dirty. Well, Hoederer’s hands are dirty all right, covered in blood and filth.

This works very well as drama; it is written really effectively with Hoederer’s arguments battering Hugo’s feeble denials. When Hoederer has left, even Jessica can see that his arguments were right and, worse, that Hugo knows it, despite all his denials, despite his intention to stay true to his original mission, Hoederer converted him.

But I was also fascinated by Hoederer’s analysis of the situation in this fictional East European country because it closely parallels the analyses of the post-war communist takeover of Europe I have just read in Anne Applebaum’s brilliant history, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56. Hoederer argues that:

  • The Proletariat Party cannot take power by itself; the proletariat only make up 20% of the population and not even all of them support the party. Hugo naively says, ‘Let’s seize power’. Hoederer replies that if they seized power, they would quickly be suppressed by the Peasants Party which represents 55% of the population, in alliance with the Fascists who control the army and police.
  • Hence the need to enter power peaceably in a national coalition.
  • Hoederer has suggested to the leaders of the Fascists and Bourgeois parties that they set up a national government with six on the fulling council and the Proletariat Party will have three of those delegates. He even – and this chimes exactly with Applebaum’s description – wouldn’t want most of the ministries, just two: the interior and defence, because those are the only two that matter.
  • But, Hugo says, the Red Army will be across our borders in weeks: why don’t we ride their coat-tails to power? Because, my naive friend, replies Hoederer, they will still have to fight their way across the country and many will be killed; the Soviets will be blamed. Because they Party will forever after be thought to have been imposed by a foreign power rather than rising up to represent the people. Because, even for the national unity government, the country will be a wasteland when peace finally comes, difficult decisions about law and order will have to be taken; the Party can represent itself as a natural outgrowth of the nation and people, and can present itself as opposing these unpopular policies from within government. With control of key industries it can slowly isolate the leaders of the other parties and wait till the time is right to stage a coup.

Hugo hates all this because it is messy and unprincipled and yuk. Hoederer laughs at his naivety and bourgeois prissiness.

Act VI

Next day, the day of the deadline Olga told Hugo he must act or else. Before the working day begins Jessica comes into Hoederer’s office and after a little flirting reveals that Hugo has a gun, and has been tasked with assassinating him. Hoederer knew it all along. Hugo knocks at the door, Jessica exits through the window (reminding me of all the ins and outs through windows in The Respectful Prostitute).

Now Hoederer toys with Hugo, continuing the discussion over whether Hugo has it in him to be an assassin or whether he is too much of an intellectual. Because assassins don’t think at all, have no imagination, just kill. Whereas Hugo has too much imagination, can not only picture the dead body and the blood, but has grasped the political consequences, the cause of the Party set back, no single leader to greet the Red Army, its chance for power maybe irrevocably lost. He deliberately turns his back and fixes a cup of coffee, while Hugo gets the gun out his pocket and holds it trembling, very obviously struggling with himself. Hoederer turns, faces him, says ‘Give me the gun’ and takes it. Hugo collapses, virtually in tears, and says, ‘You despise me.’

Hoederer says he remembers being a naive principled young man. He can help Hugo to maturity, guide him, mentor him. Hugo is almost in tears. But he won’t give up his opposition to the political pact. Don’t worry, says Hoederer: he’ll go to town tomorrow and square it all with Louis (the guy who sent Hugo in the first place). Go back to writing, it’s what you do best; and he dismisses Hugo.

Re-enter Jessica who’s been perched on the window ledge all this time (!) She heard everything. She thinks Hoederer is noble. In fact, she’s realised she’s not in love with her silly immature husband, she realises she wants a ‘real man’ (p.232). Oh dear. The 21st century reader’s heart sinks a little. They look at each other in silence. She’s never thrilled to a man’s touch, sex with her husband makes her giggle. ‘Are you frigid?’ Hoederer asks. ‘I don’t know,’ Jessica replies. ‘Let’s find out,’ says Hoederer and embraces and kisses her.

At just this moment Hugo re-enters the office. Oops. Incensed, he accuses Hoederer of lying to him and stringing him along and sparing him and promising to make him a man because all along he’s just wanted his wife. Hugo springs for the desk where the revolver was left, seizes it, Jessica screams, Hugo fires three shots at Hoederer who crumples in his chair. Enter the bodyguards, George and Slick with guns aimed at Hugo but Hoederer with his dying breath tells them to spare him, it was a crime of passion, that he – Hoederer – was sleeping with Hugo’s wife. And dies.

Act VII

Lights go up on the setting of the first act, as Hugo finishes pouring his heart out to Olga. She keeps asking, ‘So did you assassinate him because of our orders,’ and Hugo honestly doesn’t know. In a typically Sartrean way, Hugo isn’t even sure that he did it: or was Chance the key agent? If he’d opened the door two minutes later or earlier, it wouldn’t have happened. In fact, he was coming back to ask for Hoederer’s help.

It was an assassination without an assassin. (p.234)

Hugo is crushed by a characteristically Sartrean sense of his own unreality. But Olga is pleased. She thinks she can fend off the men who want to kill him. And here comes the punchline, the cynical climax of the play. For Olga explains:

The party line has changed. When they despatched Hugo to murder Hoederer communications with Moscow were poor. Later they discovered that Moscow did, in fact, want the party to go into a government of national unity with the Fascists and bourgeois parties. It would mean saving many lives among the Illyrian army (which would immediately lay down its arms). It would save Moscow embarrassment with the Allies (Britain and the US). The new plan is for the party to join a 6-man government, and the party to have 3 delegates. Hugo is amazed and then bursts out laughing. This is exactly what Hoederer intended, what we saw him proposing to Hugo just a few moment (two years) ago down to the last detail.

Yes, Olga explains, but Hoederer was ‘premature’ in his policy. Meanwhile, another man, now dead, has been officially blamed for Hoederer’s assassination. Now Hoederer has been rehabilitated and… Hugo joins in, ‘You’re going to put up statues to him after the war. You’re going to make him a hero of the party?’ Hugo collapses into helpless tear-filled laughter of despair.

Olga tells him to snap out of it, the Party killers are about to arrive. She is ready to tell them he is a new man, rehabilitated, he will go along with the party line, he will lie about Hoederer’s assassination, he will forget all about and never mention to anyone that he did it. He will live a life of deceit and lies for the greater good.

But Hugo refuses. The only thing that kept him going in prison was that he fired – maybe for personal reasons – but in accordance with the party line. To learn that the line has changed and the act become completely meaningless is too much to bear. He thought that killing someone would make him feel real, give him weight and substance – but he carried on feeling horribly unreal and contingent. Now, now he has the chance to stand up, to act for himself, to make himself real. Olga begs him to stop but as the killer’s car draws up outside, Hugo stands up and walks to the door. He will proclaim his guilt and force them to kill him. It will be his final, defining acte.


Reactions

Apparently the big and powerful Communist Party of France disliked the play. You can see why.

In purely political terms, this was the decade when Moscow’s concept of Socialist Realism came to be enforced all across the Eastern Bloc. Art, music, literature, all had to be high-minded and inspiring, showing happy workers exceeding their quotas and merrily bringing in the harvest. It’s hard to imagine a more nihilistic, defeatist, cynical and plain anti-communist narrative than Les Mains Sales, hard to imagine anything more completely contrary to the spirit of Socialist Realism, focusing as it does on the amoral political manoeuvring, the lying to its membership, the cynical alliances with its class enemies, and the pointless infighting and murders of the communist party.

Politics aside, the communist party of Illyria comes over as a mob of gangsters, little different in terms of threat and violence from Al Capone and Chicago gangsters of Prohibition. Time and again I am reminded that Sartre and Camus were writing their intense, man-holding-gun fictions during not only the rather obvious violence of the Second World War, but also during the heyday of Hollywood films noirs which they both hugely enjoyed. Camus cultivated a Humphrey Bogart look with his collar turned up and a Gitanes cigarette permanently smouldering in his mouth. The romance, the glamour of being the dude with the shooter, calling the shots. Specially if you yourself are mostly the chap in the library with the pipe and the thick glasses.

As a specimen of intellectual French film noir, as a dissection of the worldview of communist politics in 1947 and 1948, and as pure entertainment, I think les Mains Sales is by far the best of these four plays.

Jessica and sexism

All the male characters utter contemptuously sexist comments either about Jessica in her absence, or to her face, which would get you locked up nowadays. They casually refer to her political naivety, her inability to do anything significant for the Revolution and her liability as distracting ‘bait’  for all the male characters. This was, after all, 25 years or so before the birth of Women’s Lib.

It is, for example, offensive to modern readers when the bodyguards make remarks about Jessica’s attractiveness in the first scene in the big house, and Hoederer is no better, dismissing her as a distraction, saying why doesn’t she ‘scratch her itch’ with Slick or George.

More to the point, there is something sexist about the entire conception of the play which sets the world of passive sensuality (Jessica) against the ‘active’ network of male politics and action (Hugo and Hoederer). With crashing stereotyping the main woman character represents Sex, anti-Politics (although, to be fair, she is balanced by clever calculating Olga, who is smart enough to try and save Hugo, and who, after all, throws a bomb in the middle of the play.)

But despite what we nowadays would describe as the #everydaysexism of the text, Jessica is, by and large, the most attractive character in the play. She is the least hoodwinked, the least deceived. She knows nothing about politics but she knows more about life than her over-intellectual husband, tricks the bodyguards with her nimble-wittedness and is quite a match for Hoederer. She is the only one who sees through the men with all their high-handed rhetoric to ask the real questions, specifically; why does Hugo want to murder a man he respects and, by the end of the play, has come to love? Why? Fool!

Although it’s ostensibly a play about tough guy men politicking and conspiring, Jessica is – for me – the star of the show.

The movie

Despite being ‘the philosopher of the century’ it’s damn difficult to get hold of the movie versions of Sartre’s plays. The Respectful Prostitute seems impossible to track down in any shape or form. Here’s a print of the film version of Les Mains Sales, made in France in 1951. There are no sub-titles and the sound is out of synch for a lot of it, but it gives a stark sense of how stagey the story is. And how French.

Apparently, the French Communist Party carried on being so angry about it, that they tried to organise a boycott of cinemas where the film was showing.


Credit

Les Main Sales by Jean-Paul Sartre was first performed in Paris in April 1948. This English translation – Dirty Hands – by Lionel Abel was published in the United States in 1949. All page references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Respectful Prostitute by Jean-Paul Sartre (1946)

A slender play which is hard to take seriously and more a testament to the chronic anti-Americanism of 1950s French intellectuals than any kind of ‘analysis’ of the race issue in America. Like many of Sartre’s plays it presents a plight, a fraught and melodramatic situation, designed to bring out his eternal themes of freedom and responsibility.

The plot

Scene one

It’s a short piece, one act comprising two scenes set in the same rundown front room. Lizzie is a prostitute. There’s a ring at the doorbell. It’s a big black guy in a panic. The lynch mob is coming for him. They’re saying he raped her on the train. ‘Please promise to tell them it ain’t true.’ She promises. He runs off.

Last night’s ‘client’ comes out of the bathroom where he’s been freshening up during all this. He’s a repellently arrogant young white man named ‘Fred’ who treats Lizzie roughly, at one point nearly strangling her, telling her she’s a sinner and the Devil and their bed smells of ‘sin’. That kind of self-hating sex addict. She reminds him that he was kind and loving last night. He violently denies it and contemptuously gives her just ten dollars for her night’s work.

Anyway, this hard-edged conversation reaches a revelation when Fred asks Lizzie if she was raped by the black man on the train last night. His pal, Webster, told him (Fred) that she (Lizzie) was raped. To be precise, Webster told Fred that two black men were raping a white woman when a bunch of white men went to her help, one of the blacks flashed a razor and a white man shot him dead, the other black escaping and jumping off the train. They’ve been chasing him ever since.

Ah. Now we know why the black guy turned up in such a panic at her door just a few minutes ago.

Except that – startled – Lizzie denies this entire story and describes what really happened. Four white guys got on the train pissed as farts, began touching her up, two black guys intervened to protect her, and a drunk white man shot one, the other escaped i.e. the one we just saw knocking on her door.

Fred now asks if that’s the story she’s going to tell (blacks intervening against whites) when she’s brought before the judge tomorrow? Because he – Fred – comes from a famous family, the Clarkes, his Dad is a senator, and he knows the white man accused of the shooting, Thomas, and ‘let me tell you, he is a fahn upstanding member of the community’, and he doesn’t deserve to go to gaol.

Fred offers Lizzie $500 if she’ll tell the judge his version of the story, i.e. lie to incriminate the black man. In fact, he now reveals that he has her testimony to this version of the story already printed out and ready for her to sign. In fact – it now emerges – that’s the main reason he came to visit her last night, to get her to make a false statement. The rest (having sex) was just a, er, distraction.

Lizzie for her part is no angel and fairly racist. She says (in the extremely blunt language of the play) that she doesn’t like blacks (‘I don’t like n******’ p.269) and wouldn’t sleep with no black man. But she insists she can’t lie, she won’t lie, so Fred threatens her some more.

At which point the police knock and enter. They accuse Lizzie of being a prostitute, which is illegal. When she denies it, Fred points to the money on the table which he says he has just paid her i.e. far from meaning all his sweet words of love last night he has utterly used and compromised her in order to blackmail her, and force her to sign the false testimony. And now, we realise, the racist police are in cahoots with him.

Thus the cops swing in behind Fred’s demand that she lie to the judge: they tell her she’ll go to prison for 18 months unless she incriminates the black man before the judge at today’s hearing.

Lizzie still refuses to sign and Fred gives a vile speech asking what value the life of a two-bit whore has in comparison with a ‘fahn upstanding gennelman’ like Thomas? He grabs her and is physically forcing her to her knees to reverence a photograph of fine young Thomas, when his father, Senator Clarke, walks through the door. Intimidated, the cops step aside and Fred lets Lizzie go.

The handsome, soft-voiced Senator then does his spiel, gently reassuring Lizzie that it’s fine, just fine, to tell the truth about what really happened on the train, he admires her, he really does… but maybe she should stop and think, just for a minute, about fine old Mary, his dear old sister, a fine old grey-haired lady, mother of this poor unfortunate boy, Thomas, and how – if Lizzie goes ahead and incriminates him and he gets sent to gaol – well, it’s going to break fine old Mary’s heart.

Furthermore – and at this point the play begins to move from the realm of the extreme into the realms of fantasy – the Senator then does an impersonation of Uncle Sam, speaking kindly to little ole Lizzie and asking her, as with the voice of America itself:

“Here are two men I have raised in my bosom, young Lizzie – a fine upstanding white boy who comes from one of our oldest families, went to Harvard and owns a factory which employs 2,000 workers, ‘a leader, a firm bulwark against the Communists, labour unions and the Jews’ (p.264).

And on the other hand, here is a black man who chisels and dawdles, sings and ‘wears pink and green suits’. Now, which of these should we save, which one is the better American?”

Bamboozled and confused by the Senator’s gentle but grand and domineering manner, by his fine noble appearance and his stirrin’ patriotic tones, Lizzie finds herself in a daze signing the fake testimony — at which point the Senator, Fred and the cops drop all pretense of kindness and concern and simply sweep out. At the last moment Lizzie repents and runs to the door… but it’s too cotton-picking late!

Scene two

The much shorter second scene is set in the same dingy living room, 12 hours later, the evening of the same day.

The Senator returns to say that Thomas was let off and has been reunited with his dear old mother who has kindly sent her a letter. Lizzie opens the ‘letter’ to find a hundred dollar bill enclosed – not even the $500 which Fred had at one stage promised her – and not even a note of thanks. She is crushed by the contempt, the ingratitude.

The Senator is not fazed by her visible scorn and marches respectably out. Next moment the desperate black guy from scene one climbs in through the window. (I know it’s meant to be dead serious, but all these panic-stricken entrances and exits kept reminding me of the Keystone Kops.) A lynch mob is closing in on him. Just in case we don’t know what that means Sartre spells it out. the lynch mob will tie him up, whip him across the eyes to blind him, then pour gasoline over him and set him on fire (p.269). Maybe castrate him first, you can never be sure.

Lizzie gingerly admits to the black guy that she did reluctantly sign the false testimony confirming that he raped her — but she bitterly regrets it now and she promises to hide him from the mob. She offers him a revolver so he can shoot his way out, but he repeatedly refuses to take it. ‘Ah can’t shoot white folks,’ he repeats, piteously. ‘Hide in the bathroom,’ she tells him.

A couple of lynchers knock on the door and demand to search the place, until Lizzie reveals, to their surprise, that she is the woman who was raped and is the pretext for the hue and cry.

Sartre twists the knife by giving stage instructions that the lynchers are not only shocked, but look at her with fascination and desire, too. Filthy white American hypocrites! Daunted by her claim, they run off to search the rest of the building but kindly promise to come fetch her when they catch the varmint so she can watch them torture him to death.

The black guy comes out of hiding in the bathroom and there’s a brief dialogue. Lizzie is overwhelmed: the whole town, all the men she’s met, the police, the senator and Uncle Sam, the entire country is saying he’s guilty and that she was raped, so insistently that she’s beginning to doubt her own experience. And the black guy, too, admits that he’s feeling guilty, despite having done nothing. Why? Because, as he puts it, ‘they’re white folks’. Thus he is shown as being not just a physical victim, but – worse – a psychological victim of white racism, which uses every institution and implement in its power to convince him he is inferior and guilty.

There’s another knock on the door and the terrified black guy runs back into the bathroom. Enter Fred who excitedly tells Lizzie that they’ve caught and lynched and burned to death a black guy. Admittedly, it was the wrong guy, but hell, all black people are guilty of something, right? Anyway, the point is that watching a black guy being burned alive has made Fred feel horny as hell. He’s run all the way over here not knowing whether he’s going to murder Lizzie or rape her, but now he’s here he’s got a good idea which, and he grabs her and she starts to scream.

In response the black guy comes running out the bathroom. Fred draws a revolver but the black guy pushes him out the way and runs out of the door. Fred runs after him and we hear two gunshots. Lizzie takes the revolver she tried to give to the black guy earlier on, and hides it behind her back as Fred re-enters. She points the gun at him, threatening him. Convinced she’ll do it, the cowardly Fred starts begging for his life.

There then happens a frankly astonishing thing. You might expect a man faced with a gun held by an angry woman to beg for his life or try to coax her round. Instead, Fred gives a long speech pointing out that she can’t shoot him because the Clarke family he comes from are the embodiment of American history and American values!

The first Clarke cleared the forest hereabouts and killed all the Indians. His son was friends with George Washington and built this town and died fighting for American Independence. His great-grandfather saved a bunch of people during the great fire of San Francisco. His granddaddy came back to town and built the Mississippi Canal and was elected Governor. His daddy is Senator and Fred aims to become Senator, too.

In other words, Sartre makes this vile, hypocritical, bullying, psychopathic racist into a proud epitome of American history and culture, placing his disgusting personality at the centre of the American narrative.

You can’t do it, Fred says. ‘A girl like you can’t shoot a man like me’ (p.275) and, in fact… she can’t.

Fred walks up to Lizzie and takes the gun out of her hands. He tells her that in fact he missed the black guy with those two gunshots she heard, but, what the hell, here’s what he’s going to do for her. He’s going to set her up in a nice place of her own, with plenty of black servants and more money than she ever dreamed of and he’ll come and ‘visit’ her three times a week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and the weekend. Will she be happy with that? A happy little ole girl?

And, come on now baby, tell papa the truth – Did he really give her a thrill last night when they were making love? ‘Yes,’ she meekly replies. ‘That’s my girl,’ he says patting her cheek.

And that’s the end.

The Wikipedia article says this play ‘explores the theme of racism in the American South in the 1940s’. I’d suggest it doesn’t ‘explore’ anything, it hits you over the head with the crudest characters and bluntest plotline Sartre can conceive in order to ram home the shockingly corrupt, hateful and racist situation in the American Deep South of the 1940s. All it lacks is actually burning a black man to death onstage – and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if modern, digitally-enhanced productions didn’t include old footage of lynchings, where they exist – to ram the point home.

The ‘n’ word

Putting aside the Keystone Kops entrances and exits, and the cartoon racism of all the white characters, in a way the most shocking thing about the play for a modern reader is the extremely frequent use of the ‘n’ word. This makes it problematic to quote and I wonder how it is handled in modern stagings.

If you search the online text you find the ‘n’ word is used 39 times in the text (somehow it seems like much, much more, maybe because of the word’s poisonous power) – but what really comes over is the hatred and contempt the white characters pour into their use of it.

More than the hokey plotline, it’s the virulence of the racist attitudes displayed by absolutely all the white characters which is so hard to take, to read, to cope with.

Anti-American

Apparently, when staged in the States the play produced a backlash among critics and audiences claiming it was anti-American. Well, it is. Massively, deliberately, contemptuously, calculatingly. It chimes with what I’ve been reading in Andy Martin about Sartre’s time in New York i.e he hated America, really profoundly hated everything about it.

And it gives substance to something else I’ve read about Sartre. Although he never actually joined the Communist Party, Sartre became steadily more of a Marxist as the Cold War progressed, supporting revolutionary communist aims and devoting his later writings to trying to integrate orthodox Marxist beliefs with his theory of existentialism.

So the way America treated its black population gave him a permanent argument against any claims for the moral superiority of the West vis-a-vis the communist bloc.

Whenever he was quizzed about the horrifying repressiveness of the communist regime in Russia which it was imposing during this period on all the countries of Eastern Europe – namely Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Yugoslavia – Sartre and his fellow Marxists were always able to respond with examples of the appalling racism, the Jim Crow laws, the discrimination and racist violence in America.

Twenty years later, they would be able to throw in the Vietnam War for good measure.

Intuitively, you’re inclined to think that there’s no comparison between, on the one hand, the communists systematically imposing totalitarian rule over an entire society, giving no-one any freedom of speech, assembly or publication, systematically clamping down on any dissent, sending people to labour camps for speaking out of turn, and so on – and the state of contemporary America where most people were free to assemble, speak, write, sing, publish and perform how they wanted to. During this period plenty of black entertainers got very rich – from jazz performers like Duke Ellington and Count Basie through singers like Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jnr. I.e there was a perfectly liberal, anti-racist cosmopolitan white America which was as appalled by the Deep South as any person of colour, and which campaigned and lobbied against racism.

But then again, maybe this is a hopelessly white point of view. Maybe – although I’ve read about it, seen art exhibitions and documentaries and movies about it – maybe I still can’t properly imagine how appalling it must have been to be a black man or woman, particularly in the systematically racist South, but even in many other places in the States, and subject to almost universal derision, discrimination, humiliation and violence, for most of the twentieth century.

A theatrical production

This trailer to what I think is a modern live stage production gives a sense of how scary and intense a really well-staged production of the play might be – though surely some of the hammy plot devices would have to be eliminated to bring out a real sense of terror.

The clip also gives a sense of the how much better the French language is suited to tragedy, to intense emotion and fear, than English, which is an intrinsically farcical language.

The movie

There’s also a French movie version of the play dating from the 1950s, which looks like it substantially expands the action, starting as it does in a nightclub. Alas, it seems this movie is not available on YouTube or via Amazon and so has, effectively, vanished from the face of the earth. Quel dommage.


Credit

The Respectful Prostitute was first performed in Paris in November 1946. This English translation by Lionel Abel was published in the United States in 1948. All page references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Huis Clos by Jean-Paul Sartre (1944)

There’s a whole nest of pitfalls that we can’t see. Everything here’s a booby-trap… (p.30)

Sartre’s most famous play is just one act and forty pages long. A man is ushered by a perfunctory ‘valet’ into a closed room, tastefully decorated with Second Empire furnishings. Shortly afterwards the valet ushers two more guests in, both women. The door is locked behind them. Polite and embarrassed, slowly the trio realise that they have died and are in hell.

Hesitantly, they reveal their stories.

The characters

Joseph Garcin is a man’s man, big and burly, a journalist in Brazil, who wrote for a pacifist newspaper. He was a brute to his wife, reeling home smelling of wine and women. One time he brought home a girlfriend and made love to her deliberately loudly so that his wife (in the spare bedroom) could hear them. Next morning he had his wife bring them coffee in bed. When war came and he was called up, Garcin fled to Mexico to evade conscription but was caught, brought back, and shot by firing squad for cowardice.

Inèz Serrano is a lesbian. She is arch and manipulative. She admits she seduced a woman (Florence) away from her husband, turning her against him. He was killed in a tram accident and the wife felt so guilty she gassed herself and Inèz in their sleep. ‘I can’t get on without making people suffer’ (p.26).

Estelle Rigault is posh and dim. She married a man three times her age for his money, but then had an affair with a man her own age, Roger. He got her pregnant and she could afford to go on an extended holiday to a hotel in Switzerland to sit out the pregnancy and birth. After she’d borne the child, with her lover watching, she attached the baby to a stone in a pillow and threw it into the lake to drown. Appalled, her lover committed suicide.

The play

So the fun, the entertainment, the interest of the play is how these three characters set about torturing each other, slowly, one by one, forced to relinquish any hopes that their time together might be bearable or redeemable, slowly coming to the awful conclusion that l’enfer, c’est les autres = hell, it’s other people.

Having just read Andy Martins’ book about Sartre. The Boxer and the Goalkeeper, I now know that Sartre thought there were only two ways for humans to relate to each other, as sadists or masochists; and that he confessed to having a sadistic attitude towards his fictional creations. It shows. Over the hour and a bit of the play they combine every possible way of irritating, upsetting and flaying each other, emotionally.

The play can very easily, then, be seen as an example of the Theatre of Cruelty which was popular after the war.

For example, towards the end shallow Estelle offers herself sexually to Garcin: she is only real when she has ensnared a man. This plays to Garcin’s sense of himself as a manly man but he discovers he can’t do it, get it up, unless Estelle really genuinely tells him that she respects him. He needs this because he has become – over the course of the hour – increasingly filled with self-loathing and self-doubt caused by reflecting on his cowardice. But neither of them can really rise to the occasion because it is taking place in front of Inèz, with her sharp tongue and cutting comments. Inèz, by virtue of her lesbianism, is revolted by big hairy Garcin – but can’t have Estelle, who she is strongly attracted to, because she is a dippy dolly bird who only fancies rough tough men.

Ensnared in a cobweb. Caught in a net. If any of them moves the other two are yanked along into further depths of mutual contempt and hatred. It is a terrifying triangle of eternal frustration and torment.

Thoughts

Or at least, it is if you’re French. From Racine in the 1660s, to Les Liaison Dangereuses in the 1780s, to Zola in the 1890s, the French take love, love affairs, affairs of the heart, with a staggering, baroque and ornate seriousness. Setting his play with rather dull modern-day characters is a Sartrean joke on this Grand Tradition but the seriousness with which they take their silly emotions is unmistakably French.

No longer a troubled teenager, and cursed by being English, I wasn’t remotely moved by Huis Clos, I was interested in details and themes.

Catholicism For example, it tends to confirm what I’d observed from Sartre’s novels, that his entire worldview only makes sense against the enormous backdrop of Roman Catholicism. You can only feel abandoned in a godless universe, if you at any time felt at home in a god-filled universe i.e. if you were a believer. Both Camus and Sartre only make sense as rebels against a stifling Catholic orthodoxy. But we Protestant English lack that intense religious background and so miss the intensity of the rebellion against it.

The gaze A more specifically Sartrean trope is the important of ‘the gaze’ and ‘the look’. Again, from the Martin book I know that Sartre was hyper-self-conscious from an early age of his appalling ugliness. Thus the act of looking is central in his fiction and his philosophy. People are engaged in an endless warfare of looking. To some extent people behave as they do because other people are watching: they want to conform to the watchers’ expectations or defy them but they can’t ignore them.

In another way, people watch and observe themselves acting and behaving, especially if there are mirrors around. So, in Huis Clos Estelle needs mirrors to reassure herself that she exists: she has six big mirrors in her house. But here, in the well-furnished room, there are no mirrors at all, not even hand mirrors. In a particular sequence she goes to put her lipstick on but has no way to see her reflection and so has to trust Inèz to tell her she’s doing it correctly. Except that half way through Inèz cruelly asks, what if I’m deceiving you? What if I’m deliberately making you look stupid? Which makes Estelle distraught but also clarifies how horrible life is going to be in hell where she will never be able to see herself. Already she feels herself, somehow, fading away…

[Estelle] When I can’t see myself I begin to wonder if I really and truly exist. I pat myself to make sure, but it doesn’t help much… When I talked to people I always made sure there was [a mirror] nearby in which I could see myself. I watched myself talking. And somehow it kept me alert, seeing myself as others saw me… (p.19)

And then again, people control and intimidate others through their gaze, as Inèz spitefully promises to watch Garcin wherever he goes, whatever he does:

[Inèz] Very well, have it your own way. I’m the weaker party, one against two. But don’t forget I’m here, and watching. I shan’t take my eyes off you, Garcin; when you’re kissing her, you’ll feel them boring into you…

In an interesting twist, that isn’t much reported in the summaries of the play I’ve read, all three characters can continue, for a while at least, to see how their partners and colleagues are continuing to live back on earth. Thus Estelle sees the mourners walking away from her funeral, while Garcin has a particularly vivid vision of all his colleagues at the newspaper lolling around and discussing what a coward he was. This makes him all the more want Estelle to SEE him, to bring him to the present with her gaze, to rescue from his inner consciousness with the power of her look.

[Garcin] Come here, Estelle. Look at me. I want to feel someone looking at me while they’re talking about me on earth… (p.38)

Women as slimy It’s a small detail, really, but having read the four novels of The Roads to Freedom involved reading lots of descriptions of slime and mucus and vomit. Sartre wants to debunk the smoothness of the traditional ‘bourgeois’ novel by including lots of bodily functions, but also just likes being revolting. So it’s a small but telltale moment when Garcin, in despair, makes for the bell by the door (which doesn’t work), Estelle goes to hug him and tell him everything’s OK, and Garcin pushes her away with:

[Garcin] Go away. You’re even fouler than she. I won’t let myself get bogged in your eyes. You’re soft and slimy. Ugh! Like an octopus. Like a quagmire. (p.41)

Andy Martin, in his book on Camus and Sartre, says the threatening symbol of the octopus appears in a number of Sartre’s writings as the terrifying threat of being sucked in, absorbed and digested by other life forms, part of Sartre’s ‘biophobic tendency’. Like the tree whose boley roots almost give Roquentin a nervous breakdown in Nausea. Like women who threaten to drown and swallow men in their gloop.

The BBC TV adaptation

In which the staggering thing, almost impossible to overcome, is the breath-taking poshness of the actors, in particular the ludicrously upper-class voice of renowned playwright Harold Pinter, here playing Garcin. To some extent many of the moments, the phrasing, the thoughts and the similes only really make sense when voiced by essentially very restrained middle-class characters. My kids watch Breaking Bad and The Wire. I showed them a snippet of this and they fell about laughing.

Academics have to continue solemnly judging that this kind of thing is ‘a searing tragedy of the human condition’ and so on – while the rest of us, who live in normal-people-land, can actually relax and admit that the whole thing is pompously ridiculous.


Credit

Huis Clos was first performed in Paris in May 1944. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published in Britain in 1946. All references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Flies by Jean-Paul Sartre (1943)

Sartre had been interned in a German prisoner of war camp (Stalag 12D) immediately after the fall of France, in the summer of 1940. There he wrote and staged a play (with a surprisingly Christian theme, set on Christmas Eve and titled Bariona, or the son of thunder).

After nine months he was released in April 1941 and returned to his job in Paris, teaching philosophy while also writing fiction and essays, but he had caught the theatre bug. More precisely, he had seen how theatre could dramatise a plight shared by the author and audience. However, no play which even remotely criticised the German occupation could get past the censors, so he had to look for a subject which would be officially acceptable, but still provide a vehicle for his sentiments.

Historical subjects were safe, the classics even more so. Sartre settled on the ancient Greek legend of Orestes, the centre of a cycle of stories which had been dealt with in plays by the famous ancient Greek playwrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

The original myth

The Trojan prince Paris is asked to judge which of the three great goddesses is most beautiful. Hera (goddess of power) promises him kingdoms and empire, Athena (goddess of wisdom) promises him wisdom and Aphrodite (goddess of beauty) offers him the most beautiful woman in the world.

He gives the award to Aphrodite who then helps him undertake a friendly tour of the Greek kingdoms. In In Sparta he is entertained by the city’s king, Menelaus, whose wife, Helen, just happens to be the most beautiful woman in the world. That night Paris, with Aphrodite’s divine aid, steals Helen down to the ship and he and his comrades sail back to Troy.

Next morning Menelaus is outraged and contacts his brother, Agamemnon, chief among Greek kings. Agamemnon calls for an alliance of all the Greeks to sail 1,000 ships to Troy and besiege it till the Trojans return Helen.

The entire fleet is assembled and ready to sail but there is no wind. A soothsayer tells Agamemnon he must sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia, to please the gods and so – shockingly – Agamemnon does, a wind arises and the fleet sails to Troy, which they besiege for ten long years.

The Greeks eventually win the war due to Odysseus’s clever ruse of the Trojan Horse and Agamemnon returns to Mycenae. But his wife, Clytemnestra has never forgiven the murder of her daughter and so, along with the lover she has taken in Agamemnon’s absence – Aegistheus – she murders Agamemnon.

Before he left for the war, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra had had three children. Iphigenia was, as we saw, sacrificed. Electra has stayed with her mother. But their son, Orestes, by now a young man, was not present in Mycenae for the murder of his father. When Orestes does return some years later, he avenges his father by killing his mother and Aegistheus. He is then pursued by the Furies, who hound all evil-doers.

In the last of the trilogy of plays on the subject by Aeschylus, the goddess Athena intervenes between Orestes and the Furies to institute the first ever trial, in which Orestes is spared. It is a fascinating text in which the playwright uses the story to examine and defend the social structures of his day.

Sartre’s play

The outline of the plot is the same. Orestes turns up in the city ruled by Aegistheus and Clytemnestra 15 years to the day after Agamemnon’s murder. He quickly bumps into his sister, Electra, who is fed up with being forced to skivvy for the raddled and haunted queen. After initial hesitations Orestes proceeds to kill Aegistheus and Clytemnestra, then flees with Electra to seek sanctuary in the temple of Apollo.

There are two key differences: the city has been plagued by an infestation of flies ever since the murder; and Aegistheus has instituted a religious festival, the Day of the Dead, in which the town’s dead are meant to rise from their graves and haunt the living for 24 hours. This encourages the living to fall on their knees and acknowledge all their crimes and sins. Act two takes place at the mouth of the cave where these dead ghosts appear, in a ceremony overseen by king Aegistheus in his pomp, to which a reluctant Electra has to be dragged.

That’s the action, but the play actually consists of a lot of dialogue and discussion between the characters, thus:

  • Zeus king of the gods is a leading character (unlike the ancient versions) who introduces himself as ‘Demetrios’ to both Orestes and Aegistheus, before dropping his disguise and speaking openly about the nature of kingship and rule.
  • Orestes’ slave is also his tutor, meaning the pair can be left alone to have philosophical dialogues, allowing Orestes to speak his thoughts out loud – the same function as Horatio to the prince in Hamlet.
  • Electra is initially reluctant to acknowledge Orestes as her brother, then becomes keen to kill the king and queen, then suffers fierce remorse, ageing overnight.
  • In the final and third act the Furies appear and speak, as in the original plays, explaining their role and the punishments they have in store for the errant children.

Issues

There’s a lot of words about murder, killing, justice, revenge, retribution and so on, which could keep moralists talking for days.

But the central ‘existentialist’ message seems relatively straightforward. Orestes ‘develops’, ‘evolves’, ‘changes’ from a hesitant and curious visitor to his home town, to a man reluctant (in conversation with Zeus or Electra) to intervene, into his final position of a free man who Strikes For Justice.

In a pivotal scene between Zeus and Aegistheus, the god explains what they both know, that the great secret of kingship is that men are free but are frightened of their freedom. This is just as well as he and Aegistheus both like Order. It explains why Aegistheus has instituted the utterly bogus Day of the Dead – it helps weight people down with their guilt, it makes them look backward, it makes them feel in thrall to their past actions and incapable of breaking free.

Zeus also offers another vision of unfree human nature to Orestes when he paints himself as the god of Nature and Good. Orestes defies him, in a sequence of speeches which, I think, we can be confident are the Author’s Message:

Neither slave nor master. I am my freedom.

Suddenly, out of the blue, freedom crashed down on me and swept me off my feet. Nature sprang back, my youth went with the wind, and I knew myself alone, utterly alone in the midst of this well-meaning universe of yours. I was like a man who’s lost his shadow. And there was nothing left in heaven, no right or wrong, nor anyone to give me orders.

Zeus tempts him: come back to me, believe in me, I will give you peace and forgetfulness. But Orestes is having none of it.

Outside nature, against nature, without excuse, beyond remedy, except what remedy I find within myself. But I shall not return under your law; I am doomed to have no other law but mine. Nor shall I come back to nature, the nature you found good; in it are a thousand beaten paths all leading up to you – but I must blaze my trail. For I, Zeus, am a man, and every man must find out his own way. (p.119)

That’s the existentialist message: man is hopelessly, irredeemably, unavoidably free. He has no excuses but bears full responsibility for all his actions. Full acceptance of  this crushing weight is the only authenticity.

Zeus says, ‘tut tut I won’t give up without a fight,’ and exits. Electra is distraught at the plight her brother has thrown her into, and runs after Zeus begging his forgiveness i.e. she gives in to religious belief.

The slave enters to tell Orestes that the mob is at the door baying for his blood. Orestes heroically declares that he murdered Clytemnestra and Aegistheus to set them free, to abolish silly superstitions like the Day of the Dead which are meant only to keep them in their place. Orestes confronts the mob and says he will willingly, consciously bear the responsibility and the guilt of the deaths and take away the punishment, the ghosts and the flies. And so Orestes exits pursued by the Furies.

That’s the end, so we never find out what the reaction of the puzzled populace is.

You can see how, not far at all beneath the superficial classical storyline, is the narrative of a man who freely and fully accepts the responsibility for committing murder in order to free his people.

On a philosophical level, it is about a man who rejects all the consolations of false beliefs and ‘bad faith’ in order to act out his freedom.

And, on a political level, about a man who is a Resistance fighter prepared to accept the guilt of murder in order to free his people from the plague of flies i.e. the German occupation.

The diagrammatic nature of Sartre’s intent explains his changes to the traditional story, the most obvious of which is the downplaying of Clytemnestra’s role; in the myths she is the prime mover for the murder of Agamemnon and it is her murder – the terrible crime of matricide – which triggers the advent of the Furies to torment Orestes. But Sartre has no interest in the ‘crime’ of matricide which carries with it a huge freight of basic emotional, let alone Freudian, overtones.

He is more interested in political philosophy and so Aegistheus – a shadowy figure in the myths – is much more prominent in this play: as the figure of the (Nazi) tyrant, as the figure of the man imposing a spurious superstition on the people (the Day of the Dead), as the king Zeus debates the arts of kingship with, and then as the representative of all the repressive forces in the play (and occupied France) which Orestes must slay.

Thus Orestes kills Aegistheus onstage and it takes several blows with a sword during which they continue to have a philosophical dialogue; whereas Clytemnestra is slain off-stage: we only hear her piercing screams while Electra gives us a running commentary on her own feelings.

I’m no feminist but Sartre’s play is much more masculine that the original. In the Aeschylus plays, Clytemnestra, the Furies and the goddess Athena all play key roles in a text which explores femininity, law and society. Two and a half thousand years later, for Sartre, justice and freedom are essentially men’s talk.

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Clytemnestra [having just murdered Agamemnon] (1882) by John Collier. Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London


Credit

Les Mouches was first performed in Paris in 1943. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published in Britain in 1946. All references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Just by Albert Camus (1949)

It is 1949. War-torn Europe lies in ruins. Across Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe communist regimes are intimidating and executing their way to power. The Cold War between America and Russia is well-entrenched, epitomised by the Berlin Airlift, which began in June 1948.

Which side should you choose to be on? American capitalism exploiting its workers, repressing its Black population at home and spreading its neo-imperialism abroad? Or the worldwide communist movement which, despite much evidence to the contrary, at least holds out the possibility of a fairer world, where workers are liberated from an exploitative system and the vast populations of the imperial colonies are freed?

But joining the communist movement means accepting the need to get your hands dirty, to join in with its culture of conspiracy, revolution and political murder. Is this acceptable?

In the late 1940s Camus was working through these issues in the long philosophical essay which would be published as L’Homme révolté in 1951. This book addresses head-on what Camus regarded as the big issue of the day, namely — Is it morally justifiable to commit political murder for what you regard as a just cause? Does the hope of achieving freedom for an entire society in some hypothetical future justify killing a handful of actual people in the here-and-now? To use the phrase so many intellectuals used throughout the communist period – Do the ends (the workers’ state, complete human freedom, utopia) justify the means (conspiracy, terror, murder)?

Alongside the politico-philosophical approach of L’Homme révolté, Camus set out to dramatise these questions in this five-act play. Its title can be translated as The Just, The Just Assassins or, maybe, The Righteous.

The play follows the activities and impassioned arguments of a small group of revolutionary socialists in Russia, in 1905, who are planning to assassinate the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the fifth son of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. All but one of the characters are real historical personages and the events really took place as described. Camus based the play on Memoirs of a Terrorist by one of the group, Boris Savinkov. (In fact, Camus devotes several pages of L’Homme révolté to Savinkov’s book, giving thumbnail portraits of the group and quoting their reported conversations – a passage which sheds light on the play, and certainly on Camus’s fascination with this brand of ‘fastidious assassins’, as he calls them.)

Plot & characters

At the first attempt to throw a bomb in the Grand Duke’s carriage the would-be assassin Kaliayev at the last minute backs down, because he sees that there are children in the carriage (this is historical fact). On returning to the group and making the excuse that he wants to kill the ‘guilty’, but not the ‘innocent’, Kaliayev is rebuked by the unflinching revolutionary Stepan:

Not until the day comes when we stop being sentimental about children, will the revolution triumph and we be masters of the world. (p.136)

The only woman in the group is Dora who is as unbendingly revolutionary as the rest of them. In the middle of the play her role changes, though, as we see her developing ‘feelings’ for Kaliayev, until, in a central scene, she surprised me by suddenly dropping the revolutionary jargon and turning into a fully-fledged ‘love interest’, telling Kaliayev that she wants to be loved as a woman, asking whether he loves her, and asking why all of the group can’t they choose human happiness over murder? Possibly we are meant to be moved by this, although I saw it as just part of Camus’s programme of wringing every possible permutation of argument, moral, political and psychological, from his situation.

But Kaliayev ignores her please and summons up the determination, two days later, to be back in the street when the Arch Duke is on another carriage drive, and to throw a bomb which blows the old man to smithereens. (All this happens off stage; we only hear the sound effects and see the excited faces of the characters looking out a window onto the scene of the murder in the street below.)

In the final acts the play becomes increasingly schematic. Kaliayev was captured by the police after he threw the bomb and is now in prison. He has a brief, ironic dialogue with a fellow prisoner, who, it turns out, is actually the prison hangman and will be killing him.

And then in a long, excruciatingly pretentious scene, Kaliayev is confronted by the Grand Duchess, the wife of the man he blew to smithereens. She is, with heavy predictability, a devout Christian and she wants, of course, to forgive him, and for him to join her in prayer to the Lord of All.

This meeting of murderer and victim’s wife allows Camus to write a long Dostoyevskian dialogue contrasting divine love and earthly love, divine justice and human justice, sin and forgiveness, and so on.

KALIAYEV: When they’ve pronounced the sentence, and they’re all ready for the execution… then… at the foot of the scaffold… I shall turn away from you and this vile world… And at last my heart will be filled with love!… Can you understand?
GRAND DUCHESS: There is no love except with God.
KALIAYEV: Yes, there is… Love for people… Love for mankind! (p.161)

With every fresh text of Camus’s that I read I become more convinced that Christian theology was central to his worldview, in particular the Christian dichotomy of crime and punishment, sin and salvation, damnation and salvation, repentance and forgiveness. Although the play contains much rhetoric about revolutionary ‘freedom’, it is the fundamentally Christian dynamic of sin and forgiveness which underpins the text.

After Kaliayev has spurned the Grand Duchess’s offer of praying for forgiveness and she has left, the sleek Chief of Police Skouratov tries to blackmail Kaliayev. Skouratov says he will put it about that Kaliayev begged to see the Grand Duchess, begged for her forgiveness and renounced his revolutionary views – i.e. he will discredit him, unless Kaliayev admits the whereabouts of his fellow conspirators. End of act four.

In the last act we are back with the conspirators in their shabby apartment, setting of the first three acts. As in a Greek tragedy, a messenger/eye-witness arrives to describe Kaliayev’s last moments as he stepped up to the scaffold to be hanged. This is  how we learn that he rejected Skouratov’s offer to betray his comrades, he didn’t flicker in the face of death, and so on. A stern Roman virtue.

Then follows the climax of the play as Dora, Kaliayev’s lover, half-weeping, half-shrieking, announces that she wants to be reunited in sacrifice with her man and insists – against the group’s sexist code that no woman can actually take part in an act of terrorism – that she will be the one to throw the next bomb. Shamed by her ‘revolutionary’ intensity and ideological fervour, her colleagues acquiesce.

And so the torch is handed on. There will be more assassinations, more murders. The cycle will never end.

Schematic

What is most striking about the play is the starkly simplistic attitudes of the characters. They are like diagrams or caricatures. One is a poet who hates lies but is forced to lie in order to be a conspirator, and justifies it because once he has thrown his bomb ‘all lies will end’. One thinks they are ‘killing to build a world where there will be no more killing’. One thinks you can’t just talk about the revolution, you must be part of it. One thinks no individual can be free until all people in the world are free.

The turns of event mainly exist not to provide drama in the broad sense, but to introduce new topics of debate. Thus Kaliayev’s refusal to throw a bomb into a carriage containing the Arch Duke’s children introduces the issue: ‘Should you – are you permitted – to murder a few young innocents in order to bring about a Just Society in which all innocents will be protected?’

The trouble with such a schematic approach is that it sacrifices psychological depth or emotional plausibility. Thus Kaliayev’s ‘temptation’ by the head of the police to betray his comrades is a) very brief, amounting to a page or less of dialogue b) doesn’t lead anywhere at all – I was expecting it to have some kind of dramatic consequence in the final act but it is forgotten, eclipsed by the eye witness account of Kaliayev’s execution.

Compare and contrast its throwaway brevity with the searing psychological intensity of the interrogation scenes in Nineteen Eighty-Four or the prolonged breaking down of Rubashov in Darkness at Noon. Camus isn’t in the same league.

The heavy-handedness of the ‘debate’ with the Grand Duchess about God in Act Four alienated me from the play by its predictability and its superficiality; and when Dora, in Act Five, becomes the focus of the action with her distraught alternation between tearful love for her man and steely determination to strike the next blow for ‘freedom’, I had switched off.

If you had never thought about these issues before, the play might just about be a good 6th form or maybe undergraduate resource with which to prompt discussions about the morality of revolutionary violence – in the same way that Frankenstein might, at a pinch, be used to trigger discussion about the ethics of genetic engineering or Heart of Darkness about imperialism. But it’s neither a serious in-depth analysis, nor an emotionally believable one.

Terrorists may be at work all over Europe as I write, but I don’t think the guys we have to worry about think or talk like this nowadays.

The uselessness of morality

My son the Philosophy A-Level student tells me that, in terms of moral philosophy, I am a ‘consequentialist’. I had to look it up to find out what he meant. It means I don’t believe in grand moral or ethical principles (a position I sometimes provocatively express as, ‘I don’t believe in morality’). I don’t invoke general moral axioms or principles to help me decide whether to act this or that way. I judge by outcomes. I am interested in what works.

For me, there is no particular ‘moral’ principle involved in the question ‘Is political murder ever justified?’ The only criterion is, ‘Does it work?’ And all the historical evidence we have is that almost all political assassinations a) don’t change anything or b) make repression worse.

It doesn’t work, so don’t do it.

Holding this position explains why I found almost everything the characters say in this play superfluous and irrelevant. Their interminable debates over their conflicting moral codes, worrying about their sensitive scruples, their agonised discussion of ethical principles and so on seem to me either adolescent navel-gazing or windy metaphysics. They kill the Duke. They are arrested. There is no revolution. Tyranny is not overthrown. Freedom does not come for every person in Russia. They resolve to carry out another terrorist atrocity. And so on. And they will continue to carry out individualistic assassinations until their entire ‘revolutionary’ ideology is swept away by the grand state terrorism of the Bolsheviks.

In other words – Fail. It is a failed way of thinking.

Only in a declared state of war can killing a clearly-identified enemy be justified, because it stands some chance of success i.e. of winning the war. In all other circumstances, killing is just killing. The Baader-Meinhof group shooting German bankers and industrialists. The IRA blowing up pubs in England or murdering Protestant workers. ETA assassinating Spanish officials. ISIS machine gunning people at a rock concert. Did they achieve their stated aims of overthrowing the system, country or values they detest? No. They failed. In the end they were just killers.

And more often than not they found themselves trapped in the role of terrorists. Committed to a ’cause’ they couldn’t quit because they had already burned their bridges, psychologically and legally. Hard to return from the excitement of clandestine meetings, smuggling arms, and planning atrocities to working 9 to 5 in an office.

Moreover there is an unavoidable inflationary logic to terrorism. As small terrorist acts fail to achieve their ends, many terrorist groups find themselves forced to stage bigger and more destructive ‘spectaculars’ in order a) to get some kind of reaction and b) to justify their ’cause’, their existence, to themselves and their supporters and c) to justify their life decisions to themselves.

And all, in the end, for nothing.

The best explanation I’ve read of the grim logic of modern terrorism is the relevant sections of Gerard DeGroot’s popular history, The Seventies Unplugged.

Historical innocence

Back to the play – by setting it in 1905 Camus’s makes sure Les Justes is largely innocent of the history of bloodshed which followed the Russian Revolution of 1917. The characters exist in a kind of pre-lapsarian phase of political terrorism. Although Russia had had a healthy track record of terrorism for at least a generation previously – the Grand Duke’s father, Tsar Alexander II, survived no fewer than five assassination attempts before himself being blown up in 1881 by terrorists (like father, like son) – the grotesque, continent-wide super-violence of the Great War and its aftermath had not yet occurred. The thirty years of bloodshed, terror and state terrorism sprawling from 1917 to 1947 was undreamed of.

(It is, for example, interesting to learn that the real-life Grand Duchess was murdered in 1918 by revolutionaries during the Russian Civil War – but by that time we were used to mass murders and killing on an industrial scale: she was just one among millions who met a violent end. The play is set in an essentially bourgeois world where individual lives – where the complex moral dilemmas of individuals – still matter.)

Thus, by choosing 1905 Camus has stripped away the contemporary and complex historical context of his own time (1949) and returned to a much simpler, more innocent age, in order to bring out the ‘issues’ with greater clarity.

Maybe this is why Les Justes sometimes feels more like an excerpt from BBC Bitesize or an over-the-top school play than a drama for modern grown-ups. It is full of cardboard characters adopting histrionic and above all, very simple-minded poses. Take a characteristic outburst from the most unflinchingly revolutionary character, Stepan:

For us who don’t believe in God, there is nothing between total justice and utter despair. (p.148)

This is not only childishly, petulantly melodramatic, it is also plain wrong. There is no such thing as total justice or utter despair, these are tiresomely writerly abstractions. In fact there is a whole world of life and love for everyone to enjoy, whether they believe in God or not. Watch The Great British Bake-Off: are these people fussing about their soggy bottoms trapped between total justice and utter despair?

There is absolutely no need to live in this hysterical, Dostoyevskian state of mind unless you want to.

It’s their unrelentingly histrionic simple-mindedness and their wilful neglect of the real, actual world of happy people, which makes the characters in this taut little melodrama difficult to care for and a lot of Camus’s political writings so difficult to read.

Ivan Kalyayev, assassin of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia

Ivan Kalyayev, real life assassin of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, and lead figure in Les Justes

But judging a play from just reading it is a dicey thing to do. Plays are not meant to be read cold on the page, but animated by flesh and blood actors, in real productions in front of live audiences in particular times and places.

All of these factors came together favourably in the first production of Les Justes, which opened in Paris in December 1949, was well received by the critics, and ran for over 400 performances. In that time and place this drama of ideas obviously spoke to a large audience who presumably a) enjoyed the moral debates b) found it dramatically satisfying.


Credit

Les Justes by Albert Camus was published in France in 1950. This translation by Henry Jones was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1965. The Just was brought together with the other plays, Caligula, Cross Purpose 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

Cross Purpose by Albert Camus (1943)

I can’t bear to hear you talking like that, about crime and punishment… (p.105)
[Martha to her mother, Act 3, Le Malentendu]

Apparently, Camus heard the story this play is based on while on a holiday in Czechoslovakia in 1936:

When his father dies a young man, Jan,leaves home to seek his fortune. Years later he returns a rich man determined to surprise his old mother and grown-up sister, Martha, and asks to stay at their wayside inn without telling them who he is (he is so changed in appearance that they don’t recognise him). Little does he know that in the intervening years his mother (reluctantly) and sister (enthusiastically) have adopted the habit of murdering rich travellers who stay with them. Despite umpteen moments when he could have told them who he is, the son continues to conceal his identity and so the women murder him (giving him a sleeping draught in his evening tea, then dumping his comatose body in the river). The next morning, while going through his papers, they discover the truth – that he is their son/brother.

It has the feeling of a folk story, with the grim bitterness of folk wisdom. It certainly makes for a very taut if characteristically diagrammatic play.

In tune with the neo-classicising tendencies of between-the-war France (think the neoclassical works of Cocteau, Stravinsky, Picasso), Camus tries to give the language the clarity and depth of classical tragedy. The more abstract the action, the more allegorical the story becomes, capable of numerous interpretations. The most obvious interpretation is to see it as a demonstration of the ‘Absurdity’ of the world, and the preposterous vanity of human wishes.

Jan’s wife, Maria, has accompanied her husband on his pilgrimage back to his old home and begs him to reveal who he is, her feminine intuition (and the the genre of tragedy) giving her a premonition that something bad will come of keeping silent. But Jan refuses, he wants to get to know his mother and sister again as they naturally are, before revealing his identity, and – after some feverish dialogue – he sends Maria away before checking into the inn.

Above and beyond the schematic nature of the plot, Camus gives the play a kind of structural symmetry by having the daughter of the house, Martha, and the wife, Maria, mirror each other. Martha is motivated to murder rich men in order to fulfil her dream of being able to leave the rainy country behind and go and live in the hot south by the blue sea. Placed in the diagram opposite her is the young man’s wife, Maria. Martha, in her dialogue with Jan, paints rhapsodic pictures of the hot country by the blue sea where they live and which they have left behind on this fool’s errand – so that Jan can carry out what he thinks of as his duty, and share his money with his mother and sister.

One aspires to travel to – the other has come on pilgrimage from – the unnamed hot country.

Outcome

When Martha reads the passport which reveals that she has just murdered her brother, she doesn’t go wailing hysterical but stands numb. She hands it to her mother who breaks down and vows to kill herself. Martha doesn’t stop her mother as she exits the stage to go and throw herself in the self-same river where they disposed of her son’s body.

Then Maria enters asking where her husband is. There is absolutely no shred of psychology or any human touch in the way Camus has Martha tell Maria point blank: ‘He’s dead. We murdered him.’ She sounds like a robot, and the news gives rise to an entirely predictable outbreak of weeping and wailing on the part of Maria. But this doesn’t result in what you could call any believably human behaviour (like Maria attacking Martha, maybe, or smashing up a few things).

Instead, the pair remain more or less fixed in place and, through tears of anguish, discuss the philosophical issues this dreadful misunderstanding has raised. Well, shout about the philosophical issues.

Crime and punishment

Le Malentendu confirms the sense I’ve been developing that Camus’s over-riding concern is more about Justice, about the contrast between divine and human Justice, the (im)possibility of Justice in a godless universe – than about absurdist existentialism as such.

As in Caligula the terminology of crime and punishment dominate the characters’ dialogue – after all the entire play centres (as does his famous novel, The Outsider) on a murder. It is no accident that Dostoyevsky figures in both The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel, nor that Camus’s last work was a labour of love converting Dostoyevsky’s novel The Devils into an elaborate stage production. The more of Camus I read, the more I realise that crime and punishment seen in are his central concerns.

Religion

But they are crime and punishment seen, as in Dostoyevsky, from a religious point of view. Cross Purpose tends to confirm my sense for the centrality of Catholic religion in Camus. On the last page the two women, Martha and her opposite number Maria, reach a crescendo of hysteria, Martha (the murdering sister) yelling at Maria that love is futile and life is pointless, we all end up in the wet mud of the grave eaten by worms:

What do they serve, those blind impulses that surge up in us, the yearnings that rack our souls? Why cry out for the sea, or love? What futility! Your husband knows now what the answer is: that charnel house where in the end we shall lie huddled together, side by side. (p.114)

And she yells in contempt at Maria to pray to her useless God. But despite this atheist harangue, pray to God is just what Maria proceeds to do in the final gesture of the play:

Oh God, I cannot live in this desert! It is on you that I must call, and I shall find the words to say. [She sinks on her knees.] I place myself in your hands. Have pity, turn towards me. Hear me and raise me from the dust, oh Heavenly Father! Have pity on those who love each other and are parted. (p.115)

‘Ayez pitié de moi,’ is the cry at the end of Racine’s searing tragedy, Andromache, but Racine’s characters believed in God. Here the very idea of God, or calling on him, is heavily mocked because Maria’s agonised prayer is, apparently, answered by the old serving man. This figure has been absolutely mute throughout the play, shuffling here and there in silence to tidy up the dishes and so on. Now, as Maria, stricken, on her knees, begs for mercy, the door opens and the old man comes in and -for the first time – speaks:

THE OLD MANSERVANT [in a clear, firm tone]: What’s all this noise? Did you call me?
MARIA [gazing at him]: Oh!… I don’t know. But help me, help me, for I need help. Be kind and say that you will help me.
THE OLD MANSERVANT [in the same tone]: No.

These are the last words in the play. I think it is intended to sear your soul with the futility and meaningless of life and to be a really bitter satire on the complete absence of God or divine love from the world – rather the opposite, the ironic presence of mocking humanity. But, as Oscar Wilde said of the death of Little Nell, I think the modern reader would have to have a heart of stone not to burst out laughing at its preposterously pompous self-importance.

The translation

The translation is, frankly, dire. I can’t imagine it being used on a modern stage; to be remotely usable it would have to be comprehensively rewritten.

Unhappily one needs a great deal of money to be able to live in freedom by the sea. (p.68)

Do please let us take the chance of someone’s coming and my telling who you are. (p.71)

On such occasions one says, ‘It’s I,’ and then it’s all plain sailing… There are situations in which the normal way of acting is obviously the best. If one wants to be recognised, one starts by telling one’s name; that’s common sense. Otherwise, by pretending to be what one is not, one simply muddles everything. (p.72)

I have not been given my rights and I am smarting at the injustice done to me… Let every door be shut against me; all I wish is to be left in peace with my anger, my very rightful anger. (p.108)

Algeria

It is of passing interest that the hot southern land which Martha longs for and which Jan and Maria come from is pretty obviously Algeria. Camus was effectively exiled in mainland France during the Second World War, when he wrote Le Malentendu, and he pined for his hot homeland and also for his wife, who had stayed there to pursue her career as a teacher.

Martha imagines her hot sun-bleached paradise, and Jan describes to her the sound of the waves and the colourful flowers of spring, and his wife Maria laments having to leave the blue skies of home – all of them quite obviously describing Camus’s Algeria,

that southern land, guarded by the sea, to which one can escape, where one can breathe freely, press one’s body to another body, rolling in the waves… (p.108)

But having processed this fact – Algeria = sunny paradise, Europe = rainy prison – it doesn’t really add much to your appreciation of the play except to make it seem even more schematic.

And having recently read Edward Said’s post-colonial critique of Camus makes the informed reader notice that in all three characters’ fantasies of this hot country there are no people, certainly no dirty impoverished Arabs to clutter up the scenery. As in L’Etranger and La Peste Algeria is a depopulated allegory of a country rather than a historic place.


Credit

Cross Purpose by Albert Camus was written in 1943 in occupied France, and performed and published in liberated Paris in 1944. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948. Cross Purpose was brought together with CaligulaThe 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

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.’ [Caligula laughs.]
(Caligula p.58)

Camus began writing a play about Caligula in 1938, completing a three-act version by 1941, and a final, four-act version was published in 1944. The play was part of what the author called the ‘Cycle of the Absurd’, along with the short novel The Stranger (1942) and the long 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 of one idea, in which the characters mostly exist as types or foils for the psychological and philosophical debate.

The character of Caligula

Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus was the third emperor of the Roman Emperor. ‘Caligula’ means ‘little boots’ and was a nickname given him by Roman soldiers when he was on campaign as a boy.

Caligula succeeded his adoptive grandfather, the emperor Tiberius, in 37 AD. For the first eight months of his reign he ruled wisely. But after his sister, Drusilla, died in 38, 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 takes most of the leading philosophical themes of Camus’s time and pushes them to extremes. He seeks:

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

but in seeking it, time after time reveals the absurdity at the core of human hopes and ambitions.

Take the theme of freedom – Caligula realises that, by having complete power over every human in the Roman Empire, he has in effect become ‘the only free man in the world’.

Or the idea of ‘power’ – for Caligula 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.

Or take Camus’s central preoccupation of the 1930s, the Absurd. By carrying his wishes to their logical conclusion, Caligula demonstrates at some points the absurdity of human wishes; at others, the absurdity of having wishes which the real world cannot deliver. Right at the start of the play he says he wants the moon, he wants to possess the moon, why can’t he have the moon? — establishing the absurdity of his romantic longings, the impossibility of his desires.

So the play isn’t much concerned with character, let alone incidental touches of humanity or humour. Everyone talks as if they’ve just swallowed a philosophy textbook, and almost everything Caligula says seems designed to be quoted in a textbook about existentialism.

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)

The only variation from the sweeping generalisations about life and the universe, fate and freedom, is when Caligula’s soliloquies rise to a pitch of hysteria reminiscent of 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 the play sustains an exhausting tone of continuous hysteria, reflecting the subject matter.

Structure of the play

The play doesn’t so much have a plot as consists of a sequence of scenes each one designed to give examples of Caligula’s insanity i.e. his realisation that he can do anything he wishes. Thus we have scenes where he humiliates the patricians (the ruling class of Rome) who live in a constant state of terror; he forces them to invite him to dinner, forces them to let him sleep with their wives. If he feels like it he has their sense murdered, and, when he’s bored, he has them poisoned or executed on a whim.

For Caligula, with absurdist logic, points out that, since all men must die, it is only a question of when not if and 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. But it is also – when you step away from the play and ponder his speeches and actions along these lines – very immature. Sure, all men must die. But that makes life all the more precious, all the more worth saving, all the more worth living well. To point out that all men must die and then burst into tears about it or howl against the injustice of fate are both essentially immature, almost childish, responses.

The message of Shakespeare’s tragedies – that it’s the readiness, the ripeness, the preparedness to die, without hysteria or melodrama, which counts – is the philosophy of a much more worldly-wise and mature man.

Camus, born in 1913, was only 25 when the first draft was completed, much the same age as Caligula, who achieved all the mayhem which made him notorious for all time, before he was finally assassinated by his own bodyguard at the age of 28.

The play’s climax

Having tortured, executed, debauched and manipulated as many men and women as he can, Caligula discovers that the Total Freedom he sought is empty, brings him no joy or release.

And so, when he discovers there is a plot to kill him, he carries his Absurdist logic – his repeated theme that life is meaningless – to its logical conclusion and chooses to ignore it.

Right at the very end of the play 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.

Assessment

The play works examines, dramatises and takes to the limit the absurdist logic inherent in the figure of ‘the tyrant’ – the human who has complete power of life and death over everyone else in his society.

Assessing the play amounts to assessing whether the dramatisation, the showing-forth of Caligula’s madness in the series of short scenes which Camus has assembled, is adequate to the theme.

Well, there’s no doubting that 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.

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

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

There are no reversals or surprises, Caligula just sets out on a quest to become a monster – and succeeds. He starts off spouting high romantic ambitions to conquer the moon and outface fate and achieve his freedom, and the play never departs from this high, airless, often hysterical tone.

Which makes it all the more surprising to learn that 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, above all, on whether the production captures the often intangible spirit of the times.

Theatrical history is littered with plays which were smash-hit sell-outs in one season or year and which, only a few years later, seemed dated, badly made, creakily plotted or over-written, their one-time success now inexplicable.

Philipe was a talented new face, that probably helped, theatre has its own fashions and rising stars. But it also seems reasonable to guess that the play’s absurdity matched the post-war mood, as people tried to rebuild lives (and cities and countries) devastated by years of was, and as the broader culture caught up with the mood of black nihilism unleashed by the terrible revelation of the Nazi death camps, and almost immediately afterwards the revelation that humanity had created new, atomic weapons which could potentially wipe us off the face of the earth. Not to mention, of course, the lingering memory of the last days of the Nazi regime and the mad rantings of the megalomaniac at the heart of it.

All these factors maybe explain why what appears to us, now, 70 years later, such an extended exercise in shrill adolescent hysteria, at the time perfectly caught the mood of a culture and a continent in ruins.


Credit

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 translations of 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

The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar (1706) @ the Donmar Warehouse

22 February 2012

To the Donmar Warehouse to see The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar, written in 1706.

The Donmar is an intimate theatre, here lit by candles, with a live band which played 17th century music on fife and drums and violin.

the play is a romping comedy starring Mark Gatiss from ‘The League of Gentlemen and Mackenzie Crook from The Office and Pirates of the Caribbean. Quite a lot was laugh-out-loud funny but you could also hear hundreds of lines designed to touch 18th century funny bones which sailed over our heads. And the final scene where the soldiers exited the stage one by one, to the tune of ‘Over the hills and far away’, as they went off to serve Queen (Anne) and country, was a deliberate, poignant comment on our own (still) wartorn times.

The Donmar Warehouse

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