Sartre and Camus Give Dramatic Voice to Existential Philosophy, 1940-1950

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Date: 2012
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Event overview
Length: 1,583 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1150L

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Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus dramatized existentialist issues in their plays, by which they succeeded in spreading their philosophy to a wide audience, inspiring further interpretive work by the creators of the theater of the absurd

Key Figures

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), a prominent French existentialist philosopher, novelist, and dramatist.

Albert Camus (1913-1960), a French philosopher, novelist, and dramatist, who explored existentialist and absurdist questions.

Summary of Event

A nascent philosophy of existentialism slowly took root in Europe and America in the years preceding World War II. In the late 1940s, existentialism finally became a full-blown movement and a philosophy in its own right.

Existentialism concerns itself with the essential problems of the human condition. Jean-Paul Sartre, in 1947, encapsulated one of the fundamental beliefs of existentialists in his expression "existence precedes essence." In other words, the real-life, concrete problems of human existence take precedence over abstract outlooks on life. A person is not an abstract essence or object but rather a conscious individual in a state of flux, who is challenged throughout his or her lifetime by a range of problems and unique situations.

Existentialism cannot be neatly classified as a coherent and dogmatic approach. It is closer in nature to a perspective on life, an outlook on the existential problems of the human condition. Existentialists may be atheist or religious, optimists or pessimists. There is considerable diversity between existentialist writers and philosophers; however they all share the view that a person should be considered as an indivisible unit of thought and action. One of the basic tenets of existentialism is that humans are responsible for defining their own nature and must accomplish this by taking action and making their own choices. In this way, they actively define their own nature.

Although existentialists do not necessarily share a single outlook on human nature, they do agree on the essential challenges faced in every person's life. These challenges are related to the uniqueness of individuals and their life trajectories as well as anxiety, absurdity, crises, decision-making, and value definition.

It is not surprising that the two most influential French existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, were members of the French Resistance movement during World War II. The unprecedented atrocities committed against innocent people stimulated important questions regarding the moral imperative to fight against evil.

Existentialism is unique among philosophies in the ease in which it can be expressed in literature and drama. In fact, these media are best-suited for expressing the range of existential problems. Novels and plays can use powerful and convincing imagery and dialogue. Ideas of existentialism and the absurd can be better understood by an audience when presented dramatically in a novel or on the stage than in the dry didactic form of a lecture or treatise. Both Camus and Sartre achieved fame mostly due to their plays.

Albert Camus was born in Algeria in 1913 and studied philosophy and literature in Paris In 1935, he helped to set up a theater company for which he wrote and produced numerous plays. He also acted in some of them.

Camus' most famous play, Caligula, was written in 1938 when he was twenty-five. It was produced in 1944 in both Paris and the United States and received rave reviews. Caligula tells the story of a mad Roman emperor named Caligula. When his beloved sister dies, he is grief-stricken and causes chaos in his kingdom with violent acts and sexual orgies. He creates an absurd world and is finally assassinated by Roman nobles.

In the beautifully-written essay, Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942; The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Stories, 1955), Camus explained his attitude regarding the absurdity of the human condition. Camus claimed that all humans are alienated strangers-- homeless and doomed to live a life of futility. Nevertheless, they should not indulge in aimless pleasure, faithless religions, or suicide. Instead, he explained, people must accept the absurdities of life and learn to love life.

In Camus' essay on revolution, L'Homme révolté (1951; The Rebel, 1956), he asserted that one must fight against evil and absurdity but without engaging in fanaticism and murder. The balance between individual freedom and reasonable limitations is a dominant theme in Camus' works.

Le Malentendu (1944; The Misunderstanding, 1948) was a play ostensibly about mistaken identity. A prodigal son returns home and assumes his mother and sister will recognize him. They don't and the ensuing misunderstanding results in death. The play is really about the triumph of absurdity and the value of authenticity.

Camus' great novel, La Peste (1947; The Plague, 1948) is about a city threatened by the plague. The plague adopts a malevolent character, and a cynical city bureaucrat, Nada, symbolizes nihilism. A few courageous town people stand up to fight. Camus wrote an allegorical counterpart to the novel, which was called L'État du siège (1948; State of Siege, 1958).

Les Justes (1949; The Just Assassins, 1958) was Camus' final play, and in it he wrestles with one of his favorite themes: whether violent means are justified by revolutionary ends. Based on historical events and set in czarist Russia in 1905, the play tells the story of revolutionaries who plan to assassinate the grand duke. The assassins come to realize they have killed a husband and a father. Camus leaves the audience to process the issues.

Jean-Paul Sartre was born in 1905 in Paris. He began writing plays while serving time as a prisoner of war in Germany in 1940. Sartre's dramas mostly depict regular people faced with extreme life challenges. His characters respond either by facing the challenges head-on or by evading responsibility. As a result of Marxism's influence on him, he addresses social problems in many of his plays. Sartre saw it as the duty of the theater to reveal and proclaim the fundamental truths of life.

In his play, Huis-clos (1944; No Exit, 1946), Sartre examined issues of responsibility, identity, and self-esteem. Three characters hide from change and self-discovery and are subjected to torture. Violence frequently plays a part in Sartre's dramas in order to exacerbate extreme situations. His play, Les Mouches (1943; The Flies, 1946), was based on the famous Greek myth in which Orestes avenged his father's honor by killing his mother and her lover. In Les Séquestrés d'Altona (1959; The Condemned of Altona, 1960), the son of a Nazi industrialist has to deal with his father's participation in the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. Sartre examined and condemned the phenomenon of indifference in the face of responsibility.

Impact of Event

Sartre and Camus greatly influenced their audiences in Europe (particularly France) and America. The simplicity of the narratives of their plays coupled with the painful dilemmas faced by the characters made for excellent drama. Both playwrights were skilled in writing beautiful dialogue and creating dramatic effects. Their characters were forced to make difficult choices, and audiences identified with them. Accounts and pictures from World War II-- including images from Auschwitz and Hiroshima-- turned faith in the innate goodness of human nature into pessimism. Smug moral certainty had been destroyed. After the atrocities of the war, people were searching for truth and for a new morality. They found them in the works of Sartre and Camus.

Existentialism lent itself to dramatic highs and lows; therefore, plays were the perfect vehicle for the expression of existential ideas. In this way, Sartre and Camus touched a far greater audience through drama than via their complicated philosophical treatises.

Chaotic events of the twentieth century stimulated the development of existentialism and triggered greater interest in the philosophy. Caligula clearly touched upon the bloody dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin. La Putain respectueuse (1946; The Respectful Prostitute, 1947), written by Sartre, examined racism, corruption, sexism, and the hypocrisy rife in American society. The play--set in the American south--was banned in many American cities. It had 350 performances in New York. The controversy surrounding the play made it even more popular.

In this way, Sartre and Camus joined the leadership of Europe's cultural avant-garde. Sartre continued to write and to be politically active until his death in 1980. Albert Camus received the Nobel Prize in Literature at the tender age of forty-four. He died three years later in an automobile accident.

Works by Sartre and Camus influenced even mainstream playwrights of the 1950s and 1960s, paving the way for the innovative theater of the absurd. Famous American playwright Arthur Miller adopted the existentialist emphasis on morality and decision-making in extreme situations. The theater of the absurd was popular for roughly two decades, from the 1950s to the 1970s. It featured well-known figures such as Max Frisch, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Eugène Ionesco. The theater of the absurd differed from the dramas written by Camus and Sartre in that they simply observed and commented on the absurdity of life rather than investigating dramatic choices in the face of meaningless anxiety. In order to amplify the absurdity and meaningless of life, playwrights sometimes dispensed with normal laws of cause-and-effect, presented passive characters, and at times intentionally created incomprehensible dialogue.

In Samuel Beckett's monumental play, En attendant Godot (1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954), two characters await salvation without investigating issues of choice and commitment. The result is a sense of meaningless and frightening futility.

Apart from the theater of the absurd, which was clearly influenced by the revolutionary works of Sartre and Camus, many other artists and writers, albeit not flag-bearing existentialists, were touched and changed by existentialist ideas.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2359070311