The intellectual stature of Albert Camus in post-war France as well as the imagined connections between Caligula and familar 20th century tyrants, ensured that Caligula would get a run for its money in French theatres during Camus' lifetime: 1945 (Theatre Hebertot), 1950 (Theatre Hebertot), 1957 (Festival d'Angers) and 1958 (Petit Theatre de Paris). The play was also performed professionally in England and the United States while Camus was still alive: in 1949 (London's Embassy Theatre) and in 1960 (New York's 45th Street Theatre). Only the first of these productions received rave reviews from the critics, however, and Time Magazine's review of the 1960 Broadway version probably sums up the lukewarm appreciation of mainstream audiences once the initial glow of Camus' cultural star had faded:

"Cleanly translated by Justin O'Brien, strikingly directed by Sidney Lumet, and with Kenneth Haigh giving an unstinting, unflinching performance in the title role, and Philip Bourneuf and others lending helpful support, Caligula yet falls short of the mark and too often goes slack. This is in part because, for being so unfettered, Caligula's dream grows oddly one dimensional. It is in part because a dehumanized hero is, in morality-play fashion, surrounded by flatly allegorical types who seldom seem human either; in part because, where talk does not resemble oratory, it resembles soliloquy. Mixing theatricality with intellectualism, Caligula is at once too much a mere stage piece -- and too little." (February 9, 1960, p.55)

This kind of response cannot be casually dismissed. In general, Camus' plays are weaker than his novels and philosophical essays, and while Caligula clearly has dramatic strengths, it has not had a history of long runs. How good a play is Caligula, then?

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The lead role is without a doubt a wonderful vehicle for a young actor, and, as the Time review suggested, audiences usually appreciate this acting even in a naturalistic production of the play. In an intriguing discussion of the relationship between Pirandello's Henry IV and Caligula, however, Edward Savage argues any sort of naturalism contradicts the play's highly stylized, non-representational qualities. Caligula's most striking characteristic, for instance, is his totally uninhibited, Dionysian capacity for self-dramatization. If he is played as a ham actor aware of his self-parody more than a stereotypical existentialist "romantic," then his histrionics do not function merely as an entertaining diversion for Anglo-American audiences who would prefer the momentum and tightness of a "well made play." Rather they are one of the stylized means by which Camus unfolds his dramatic "myth of the absurd." In other words, each of the roles Caligula takes on provokes the other characters into a performance which partially reveals his identity and the truth he embodies: not just the ever-present prop or stage-piece nor the ubiquitous imagery of reflecting and masking in the dialogue, but the whole spectrum of supporting actors functions as a mirror in which the audience sees the Caligula "monster."

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Over the past few years several productions seem to have succeeded precisely by highlighting the "mythical" character of Caligula. In April 1993, for example, Montreal saw a kind of Camus mini-festival with a production of Le Malentendu (Theatre Denise-Pelletier) and Caligula (Theatre du Nouveau Monde). The critics reconfirmed the consensus that Caligula was a superior play, but they also suggested that the fresh set of production values heightened the appeal of its "philosophical debates" and underlying humanism appealing to a younger audience and not just the usual theatre-going crowd. Although it received mixed reviews, a Toronto company (The Actors's Lab) won several awards for its highly physical production, but England's Kaos Theatre have taken this idea to the limit in Xavier Levert's adaptation of Caligula into a total performance which won critical acclaim at 1996's Edinburgh Festival. In some sense, of course, the Kaos Caligula is a new play. Nevertheless, it does force the director of any company interested in performing Camus' Caligula to think seriously about the question of what kind of play this is or ought to be.
 

 

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