Caligula (play)

Caligula is a play written by Albert Camus, begun in 1938 (the date of the first manuscript 1939) and published for the first time in May 1944 by Éditions Gallimard. The play was later the subject of numerous revisions. It was part of what the author called the "Cycle of the Absurd", with the novel The Stranger (1942) and the essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). A number of critics have reported the piece to be existentialist; however, Camus always denied belonging to this philosophy. Its plot revolves around the historical figure of Caligula, a Roman Emperor famed for his cruelty and seemingly insane behavior.


The play shows Caligula, Roman Emperor, torn by the death of Drusilla, his sister and lover. In Camus' version of events, Caligula eventually deliberately manipulates his own assassination. (Historically, this event took place January 24, AD 41.)

Here is the theme of the play presented by the author himself (in the U.S. edition of Theater in 1957):

"Caligula, a relatively kind prince so far, realizes on the death of Drusilla, his sister and his mistress, that "men die and they are not happy." Therefore, obsessed by the quest for the Absolute and poisoned by contempt and horror, he tries to exercise, through murder and systematic perversion of all values, a freedom which he discovers in the end is no good. He rejects friendship and love, simple human solidarity, good and evil. He takes the word of those around him, he forces them to logic, he levels all around him by force of his refusal and by the rage of destruction which drives his passion for life.

But if his truth is to rebel against fate, his error is to deny men. One cannot destroy without destroying oneself. This is why Caligula depopulates the world around him and, true to his logic, makes arrangements to arm those who will eventually kill him. Caligula is the story of a superior suicide. It is the story of the most human and the most tragic of errors. Unfaithful to man, loyal to himself, Caligula consents to die for having understood that no one can save himself all alone and that one cannot be free in opposition to other men."

Versions of Caligula

The final version is the four-act version of 1944, first published jointly with The Misunderstanding then published alone in the same year. There is a three-act version of 1941, re-published in 1984, in the compilation Cahiers Albert Camus. The changes between the versions show the effect of World War II on Camus.


Often staged in France and abroad, Caligula is one of Camus's most successful stage works. An opera by Detlev Glanert based on the play was first performed in 2006.

The premiere of Caligula in 1945 introduced Gérard Philipe. On 26 March 1955, Camus himself read the play at the theater Noctambules. The 1941 version was also staged, for example by the author at the Festival d'Angers in June 1984.

Some major worldwide productions of Caligula:

Haiti - In Edwidge Danticat's essay "Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work" (from her 2010 book of the same title, pp. 5-10), she describes how in 1964 Haitian artists staged performances in French of Caligula because they saw a likeness between Haitian dictator "Papa Doc" Duvalier and Camus' portrait of the death-obsessed Caligula. In Camus' interpretation, the mad emperor first kills as many others as he can to see if he can achieve a "freedom" from all human rules, and then when that doesn't satisfy him in despair he arranges for his own murder. Danticat translates into English some of the lines from the play that affected Haitians the strongest, for they eloquently portrayed the twisted logic of a dictator's madness: "Execution relieves and liberates. It is a universal tonic, just in precept and in practice. A man dies because he is guilty. A man is guilty because he is one of Caligula's subjects. Ergo all men are guilty and shall die" (8). It was safer to perform such a play than it was to criticize Duvalier directly, since on the surface the play appeared to be merely a history play about ancient Rome. But the Haitian audience immediately understood the subversive relevance of Camus' dictator to their own situation, even though Camus' play was written almost two decades before Duvalier's rise to power. Danticat relates that the 1964 performances of Caligula took place (ironically) at a government-sponsored community center in Bel Air, a neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. They were staged by amateurs in a reading group sponsored by the Alliance Française that was called Le Club de Bonne Humeur, the Good Humor Club.

Persepolis, Iran - Directed by Arby Ovanessian based on a Persian translation by Shurangiz Farrokh and adapted for Ovanessian's staging by Mahin Tajadod, Caligula was performed in the Achaemenid ruins of Persepolis at the eighth Shiraz Arts Festival in Iran in 1974 to high critical acclaim. Ovanessian and his City Actors Group of the Theater Workshop (Kargah-e Nemayesh) went on to give eleven performances of Caligula at the Open-Air Theatres festival (FETA) and other venues in Poland in 1975.

London - A new translation by David Greig, directed by Michael Grandage, was performed to great acclaim at the Donmar Warehouse in London, starring Michael Sheen, and won several Olivier Awards.

Dublin, Ireland - The same translation was later performed at the Project Cube Theatre in Dublin, Ireland, directed by Conor Hanratty, where it was also nominated for several awards. This latter production was revived in October 2008 as part of Dublin's International Theatre Festival.

Edinburgh - The KCS Theatre company are due to perform their rendition of Caligula at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2011, Directed by Adam Cross, who has done notable productions such as Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd"

India - Caligula was translated into Hindi by Dr. Sharad Chandra and directed by Arvind Gaur (1993, 21 shows) for Asmita theatre with Jaimini kr. Srivastava and Deepak Ochani. Arun Kukreja also performed it with well-known actor V.M. Badola. Prachyo Theatre group of Kolkata produced "Caligula"in the year 2013, directed by Biplab Bandyopadhyay and acted by Goutam Halder.

Bangladesh - FAME School of Dance,Drama and Music, a theater troupe from Chittagong, Bangladesh bring Caligula on stage in the year 2015, with the adaptation of Sabyasachi Deb and directed by Ashim Das, an alumnus of NSD.

France - In early 2006, Charles Berling directed and interpreted Caligula at the Workshop Theater in Paris.

Hungary - The play has recently been performed by the Radnóti Színház in Budapest.

Greece - By the National Theatre of Greece in Athens

Japan - Directed by Yukio Ninagawa, starring Shun Oguri, at the Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon in Tokyo.

Philippines - In 1981, Caligula was translated into Filipino, directed and roled by Rolando S. Tinio, Philippine National Artist as one of the productions of Teatro Pilipino at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in Manila.

Brazil - Directed by Rui Xavier with Daniel Sommerfeld in the main role in 2009 for The Year of France in Brazil.

Additionally, the play has begun to attract the attention of collegiate and community theaters, being produced at universities such as:

Yale University

The College of William & Mary (Mystic Theatre)

St. Edwards University, Austin, Texas, in 1975, starring Leonard Nimoy

New York University

Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid, U.P.M. (2010, CAIN Theater Group)

University of Siegen, (2012 tollMut Theater Group)

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