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. The play is the basis for the 2006 German-language opera of the same name by Glanert.