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Why I Work in Theatre

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The French philosopher Albert Camus is better known for his works of philosophical absurdism than for his work in the theatre, but according to an essay in the December 1960 issue of Theatre Arts, the theatre was Camus’s foremost love. “Why do I work in the theatre?” he asks in the first line. “[S]imply because the theatre is one of the places in the world in which I am happy.”

Many consumers of Camus’s work would point to 1935 as the origin of his career in the theatre, the year he founded Théâtre du Travail (Worker’s Theatre). Comprised of left-wing intellectuals who flirted with Communism, the troupe was renamed Théâtre de l’Equipe (Theatre of the Team) in 1937. The troupe collectively wrote Révolte dans les Asturies and produced plays by Synge, Gide, Malraux, and Dostoevsky. Their mission was to write and produce plays that promoted socialism.

Camus dismantled the troupe in 1939 due to his worsening tuberculosis and a growing interest in journalism. He spent the 1940s as a teacher and a political advocate for the European Federalist Movement, and later, the Revolutionary Union Movement, which he founded. He made time to write at least three plays during that decade: Le Malentendu (The Misunderstanding), L’État de Siège (The State of Siege), and Les Justes (The Righteous). Le Malentendu experiments with his philosophy of the Absurd, while the latter two betray Camus’s lifelong convictions to oppose totalitarianism and explore the grayer moralities of terrorism.

Marc Cassot, Catherine Sellers and Albert Camus
Albert Camus directing actors Catherine Sellers and Marc Cassot in his stage adaptation of William Faulkner’s novel Requiem for a Nun. Photo by Pintrest. 

In the 1950s, Camus turned to dramatic adaptation. He translated and adapted William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed for the French stage. The latter was a critical and popular success, and an enormous artistic undertaking. The production required thirty-three actors and seven sets and lasted more than four hours. Camus hired Mayo, a friend who had illustrated The Stranger, to design and paint the sets.

Albert Camus on Nihilism
Albert Camus on Nihilism. Photo by  Twitter. 

Camus died in a car accident in January 1960, eleven months before Theatre Arts published his essay “Why I Work in the Theatre.” The essay is a translated excerpt from a television script written by Camus and originally published in le Centre Dramatique de l’Est, Strasbourg’s quarterly magazine. The essay reads much like his philosophical treatises—in turns amusing and thoughtful, and occasionally narcissistic. Throughout it he describes the qualities of theatremaking that continuously drew him to the theatre despite having greater successes as an essayist and novelist.

I like the way the work takes root in a jumble of spotlights, platforms, canvas, and props. I don’t know who said that to be a good director you have ‘to know the weight of the scenery with your arms,’ but it’s a great rule in art.—Albert Camus

Born on November 07, 1913, Camus would have been 102 this weekend. To mark the occasion, here are six reasons Camus described in Theatre Arts for why he works in the theatre. Many of his reasons feel as applicable to life today as they most likely did in 1960.

1.) As a successful writer who eventually won the Nobel Prize in literature, Camus felt bombarded by the amount of media attention he drew daily. The theatre provided a welcome escape from these daily distractions and obligations:

Mail rushes at you; invitations pour in; presumably they must be answered. A large portion of your time is taken up in refusing to waste it. Half your human energy is used thus in saying no, in all sort of ways. [M]eanwhile everybody regards work in the theatre with awe…and all you need do is to announce that you are in rehearsal. Immediately a desert forms around you. And when you have the cunning, as I do, to rehearse all day and part of the night, well, frankly, it’s paradise.

2.) As an essayist and novelist, Camus worked most frequently alone. His solitary endeavors are what earned him his reputation as a writer and intellectual, but Camus preferred the camaraderie and interdependence of the theatre:

The theatre offers the fellowship I need, together with the heavy servitude and the limitations that all men and all minds need. In solitude, the artist reigns—but over a vacuum. In the theatre he cannot reign. What he wants to do depends upon others. The director needs the actor, who needs him. This mutual dependence, when it is recognized with the humility and the good humor that are appropriate to it, forms the solidarity of the profession, and gives a body to its daily fellowship. In it we are all linked together without the loss of anyone’s freedom (or almost so). Isn’t that a good prescription for the society of the future?

3.) It is perhaps unsurprising that as a lifelong Marxist Camus preferred the material to the abstract. The act of theatremaking, he writes, unlike the act of writing, is grounded in materiality:

The theatre also helps me to flee the abstractness that threatens all writers. Just as in my days as a newspaperman I preferred setting up pages in type to wording those quasi sermons that are called editorials, so too in the theatre I like the way the work takes root in a jumble of spotlights, platforms, canvas, and props. I don’t know who said that to be a good director you have ‘to know the weight of the scenery with your arms,’ but it’s a great rule in art.

Camus offers an example from his own adaptive work to explain how a focus on the material—rather than abstractions—results in more imaginative yet emotionally-tangible theatre:

When my friend Mayo designed the sets for The Possessed, we agreed that we had to begin by thinking in terms of solid settings (an ugly room, furniture—reality, in short), in order to raise the production, little by little, to a more elevated plane, less rooted in matter; finally, we would stylize the décor. The play wound up in a kind of unreal madness, but it started out from a precise place, burdened with matter. Isn’t that the very definition of art? Not reality alone, nor imagination alone, but imagination taking flight from reality.

4.) There’s nothing like the theatre, suggests Camus, to expose the parts of ourselves we’d most like to keep hidden:

I find the theatre a place of truth. To be sure, people generally call it a place of illusion. Don’t you believe it! It is society, above all, that lives among illusions, and you will certainly find fewer hams on the stage than around town.

The theatre seems especially useful in exposing the true identities of the world’s image-obsessed fat cats:

Take, for example, one of those nonprofessional actors who cuts a figure in fashionable circles, or in the administration, or simply at opening nights. Put him on the stage…throw four thousand watts of light on him, and the play will become unbearable. You will see him, in a sense, absolutely naked in the light of truth. Yes, the spotlight’s blaze is merciless, and all the faking in the world will never conceal the true identity of a man or woman on stage, in spite of disguises and costumes.

5.) Unlike novels or other forms of literature, the theatre, says Camus, can reach everyone. It is the most universal of the arts:

To me the theatre is the highest of literary forms, and certainly the most universal…but speaking to everyone is not easy. [But] when an author does succeed in speaking to everybody with simplicity while remaining ambitious about his subject, he serves the true tradition of art; he brings together all classes and all spirits in the audience in a single emotion or a single laugh.

A spirit of art and madness lurks incessantly beneath the balconies and behind the drapes. It cannot die, and it prevents all from being lost.

6.) Camus wrote this essay not long after his work on The Possessed. The work of dramatic adaptation, he writes, is one of the world’s most unified art forms, and for him, the most satisfying to engage in:

When I adapt, it is a case of the director working according to the terms of his concept of the theatre. I believe, in fact, in the total show, conceived, inspired, and produced by the same soul; written and directed by the same man. Such an approach makes possible the attainment of a unity of tone, style and rhythm and comprise the absolute essentials of a show, and which I may pursue perhaps more freely than other who have not been as I have, author, playwright and director.

He then touches briefly upon one of the most interesting questions to arise from discussions today that surrounding the work of adaptation: how important is it to remain faithful to the source text?

In short, I am the servant of the texts…but when they are put in production on a stage, I reserve the right to fashion them in accordance with the needs of direction. I collaborate with myself, in other words, a fact that eliminates the friction between author and director.

He found this unification especially true when working on The Possessed:

“I certainly don’t feel that I deserted my career as a writer when I staged The Possessed; the production is the embodiment of what I actually know and believe about the theater.”

Camus ends the essay on notes of gloom and concern that is perhaps to be expected from a mid-twentieth century French philosopher. The anxiety he expresses about what he sees as the demise of the theatre might feel familiar to many theatremakers today:

Perhaps it won’t be possible to serve what I love in the theatre much longer. The very nobility of this demanding profession is being threatened today. The incessant rise in costs and the bureaucratization of professional companies are pushing the theatre, little by little, toward further commercialism. Too many such commercial managements acquire glitter more through their incompetence than by any other means, and they have no right to imprison that franchise which a mysterious fairy godmother once gave them. And so this place of grandeur may turn into a place of squalor.

His ending isn’t without hope, however. “Is that any reason to give up the fight?” he asks. Decidedly not:

“A spirit of art and madness lurks incessantly beneath the balconies and behind the drapes. It cannot die, and it prevents all from being lost.”

His final call to action echoes the words of dedicated theatremakers around the world, all deeply invested in their art despite financial difficulties, censorship, waning public interest, and other chronic pathologies: “Let’s get to work on the next show.”


Work Cited
Camus, Albert. “Why I Work in the Theatre.” Trans. by Sue Davidson. Theatre Arts (December 1960): 58–59; 70–71.

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