Albert Camus and His Thoughts on Tragedy in Theatre

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Camus and his meditations on Tragedy in Theatre

by – Dipanvita Sehgal, Vol.II, Issue.XXII, November 2016

Introduction to the Author:

Dipanvita Sehgal is a research scholar with many National and International publications to her name. She has commendable experience in editing that she honed as Editor in Chief at Sri Venkateswara College, Delhi University. She has co-authored the book, Personality Development and Communication Skills – I : From Pure Linguistics to Applied Linguistics. She is a common figure at most National Conferences where she presents papers on the subaltern and Feminist issues in particular. She has presented a paper at Harvard University, USA this year. Her first novel, A Feminist in the Making is due for release soon.

Camus argues that tragedy in theatre is representative of transition and change and evolution both in thought and religion in civilization. I will argue the same and demonstrate that by using the rise of the atomic age and the corresponding fall of the British Empire.

This Lecture was presented in 1955/56. Camus argues that tragedy represents the change that civilization is undergoing. Essentially, he was making a statement that a new age of tragedy is coming not because of anything in theatre but because of transition in Civilization. He discussed the transition from the dark ages to the Renaissance and in that he talks about Shakespeare in Vega and some other contemporary authors. He also talks about Pre- Socratic thought and the transition into the Socratic Era by examination of Euripides. So, for him the atomic age represents another major transition and of the human civilization going from the colonial to the post colonial.

The year is 1955.  The Second World War has come to a bloody conclusion.  Change is afoot, but conflict continues to rage.  The United States is embroiled in the Korean Conflict.  Their mission?  To, stop the spread of Communism in a world yearning for freedom and for liberty to have a chance at success. Not only is their tension on the geopolitical stage, but change is taking place across all domains of human civilization.  At the forefront of and representative to this change is the world of art and drama.

In Athens, 1955, the French dramatists are meeting to discuss changes in their professional realm, and one man who is presenting a keynote is the thinker and artist Albert Camus.  His speech is titled “On The Future of Tragedy”.  Briefly, the lecture can be divided into three main parts.  The first part is historical.  In the first section, Camus discusses what tragedy is and how it is defined.  The second part could be described as the present.  Camus takes careful note of such things as the dropping of the Atomic Bomb by the Americans on Imperial Japan, as well as other actions on the world stage representative of conflict and war.  Finally, the last section deals with what the future may look like.

In his words, the overarching question is, “is modern tragedy possible”.  Camus will argue in the affirmative.  He will argue that the conditions in 1955 “favor tragic modes of expression”.  He argues that French drama and art are leading the way, beginning in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.  He further argues that tragedy is both good and bad, and that it must inspire men to greater and higher things.  Freedom comes at the cost of the death of the old, Camus will argue, simply put.

The definition put forth by Camus is simple, for tragedy to take place, human civilization must be transitioning or evolving from one, older form of civilization into a newer evolution of civilization.  In 1955 this can clearly be seen to be taking place.  Two critical events clearly demonstrate Camus’ definition, the rise of the Atomic Age and the fall of the British Empire.

With the advent of the atomic age, new technologies make way for new ways of waging war and expanding the human horizon.  Nuclear technology will give rise to the USS (United States Ship) Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear powered submarine, and which, in April of 1955 will begin its sea trials and subsequent voyage under the Arctic Sea.  Just three years later,, President Kennedy will make his now famous statement, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”, and in that same speech declare the intention of the United States to put a man on the moon inside a decade.  Beginning with the Mercury program, following with the Gemini and finally the Apollo Programs, the United States, along with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the USSR, would launch the Space Age, which relied heavily on technology and scientific advances from the Atom Bomb and Manhattan Project of the 1940’s and early 1950’s.

But why do we make mention of these advancements?  Because civilization as a whole had begun a rapid transformation.  Just ten years earlier, the biggest fears the world had involved massive armies marching lockstep across nations, raping, slaughtering, and pillaging.  Now, a Nuclear Missile commander sitting at his silo in Minot, North Dakota, under a direct command from a computer deep inside the fortified mountain in Colorado where NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) has its home, would turn a key, and launch an intercontinental ballistic missile, an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile), and within an hour, millions would die an instant death under a mushroom cloud of something around 160 kilotons.

American SAC (Strategic Air Command) operationally launched its first B-52 Stratofortress nuclear bomber in 1955, and the world would live on a hair trigger for decades to come.  The BUFF (Big, Ugly, Fat, Fucker), as it would come to be known by the men who flew it, is capable of carrying up to two dozen nuclear tipped bombs, or something around a million megatons of atomic destruction.  Thus, the Atomic Age, while bringing advances in exploration, such as space and under the sea, would also put the world on the edge of its seat.  Tragedy is absolutely as defined by Camus in his essay because indeed, human civilization would undergo a paradigm shift in art, philosophy, (cat on a hot tin roof by Tenesse Williams, a dramatization of the diary of Anne frank and the picture by Eugene Ionesco.) and life in general.  The major themes of films at the time involved the theme of nuclear destruction at the hands of a computer.  The 1964 film starring Henry Fonda, “Fail safe”, poignantly expresses just such a change.

But the nuclear and space age is not the only thing that lends support to Camus.  A second event that makes his argument even more compelling is the death of Imperialism as evidenced by the dramatic fall of the British Empire after the Allied success in the Second World War.  Simply put, the war saw British assets in the Pacific and Asian Theaters regain their national identity and government.  From India to the Phillipines, indigenous peoples were freed of Westminster’s overt control.  London now had to face threat of Communist invasion primarily to the Home Islands and relinquish control and dominance of vast swaths of territory.  True, Hong Kong would not see its Independence until almost the 21st Century, but nonetheless, London would learn to refocus on London.  The United States would also see its Imperialist desires brought to a halt in places such as the Phillipines and Cuba.  Domination for the major powers would now come in the form of conflicts to “stop the spread of communism”, or in the world of finances and banking, such as the United States positioning the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, and establishing the UN Headquarters in New York City.

Finally, Camus argues, that in order for tragedy to be taking place, the world must also be reintroducing the language of the sacred.  This, of course, will be expressed in its theaters and art and drama, but will also be found in the population at large.  Indeed, the 1950’s saw a resurgence in interest of religious affections.  From the Christian Revivals that swept through the Southern United States, to the New Age Movement that began in the East and moved through to the West, religion did come to forefront of the minds and hearts of the people.

Camus made a definition for tragedy, which, can be easily demonstrated. The Atomic Age, brought with it the Duck and Cover drills, the fear of instant death, the joy of exploration.  It also saw the death of overt Imperialism in the British Empire, and it gave rise to a plethora of films exploring the question of what would happen in the event of a nuclear war.  Camus, indeed defined modern tragedy, and the events of his contemporary world not only support his definition but show him to be an astute artist and thinker.  It is now time to embrace the next steps and grow from the birth of the modern tragedy and carry it forward into its young adulthood.


Select Readings

  1. McCarthy, Patrick. Camus: The Stranger. 2nd Cambridge University Press, Print. 2002
  2. Camus at Combat: Writings 1944-1947. Ed. Jaqueline Levi-Valenci. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.
  3. Algerian Chronicles. Alice Kaplan. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2013.
  4. The First Man. David Hapgood. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1995.
  5. Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage International, 1995.
  6. The Rebel. Trans. Anthony Bower. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1956.
  7. Lyrical and Critical Essays. Ed. Philip Thody. Trans. Ellen Conroy Kennedy. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1970.
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