An interesting revival yesterday afternoon–in a new, free translation- of Albert Camus’s ‘Les Justes’ (translated as ‘The Just’), at the White Bear Pub Theatre, Kennington. Howls of despair rising from the bar next door (Lewis Hamilton’s quest for the F1 title seemed to be going in the same direction as our rugby team in Paris on Saturday) mingled with cries of anguish on-stage, as we follow a cell of Socialist Revolutionary terrorists planning for –and assuming the consequences of –the assassination of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovitch (uncle of Tsar Nicholas II) in Moscow in 1905. The play was first staged in Paris in 1949 at the Théâtre Hébertot, and in London in May 1956 at the Tower Theatre, Canonbury.
By my count, this is the second Camus to be staged in London in as many months, and it follows from the excellent- and acutely relevant- ‘Morts sans sépulture’ (‘Men without Shadows’, by Sartre, first performed in Paris in 1946, and in the UK a year later) at the Finborough in June. Could it be that the surge of politically committed, realist post-WWII French plays – of which J-PS and Camus are the epitome- were not swept away for good – as once supposed- by the overwhelming (and contradictory) currents of the absurdist and Brechtian models?
Well, yes, most of them in fact were. Very few of the writers who packed French theatres in the 40s and 50s are still performed, or even discussed, in France, let alone in England. For sure, the odd survivor clings on: The Gate produced another excellent revival of ‘Les Justes’ in 2001, David Greig’s version of ‘Caligula’ found favour with audiences and Evening Standard judges at the Donmar in 2003, and Richard Eyre’s first project after leaving the NT was ‘Les Mains Sales’ (translated by Eyre as ‘The Novice’, aka ‘Dirty Hands’ or ‘Crime Passionel’) at the Almeida. But many others have been less fortunate. J-PS is rarely performed, ‘Huis Clos’ excepted, much of Camus remains forgotten, as does work of many once in-demand writers such as Armand Salacrou. Last year I translated a play by the Communist writer Georges Soria, placing his ‘La Peur’ (‘Fear and Silence’, 1954) in the context of (then) contemporary films such as ‘Good Night & Good Luck’, of the unquestioning conformity being demanded by the Bush administration in the name of ‘Patriotism’ as part of the War on Terror, and its recycling of redundant images and arguments from the Cold War. I may have gone a bit far in making claims for Soria as the French Arthur Miller (a concept as silly as imagining there could ever be, say, an American Sacha Guitry); but in working on the play, I found the force of its arguments still compelling, even if the means of its expression now seems naive.
Soria is a fine example of a writer whose theatrical aesthetic was seen to have lagged behind his philosophical and political assumptions (assuming such a distinction can be conceived). Already, in the mid-1950s, critic Morvan Lebesque bemoaned the fact that:
Although a revolutionary author politically, Georges Soria is a bourgeois from the artistic point-of-view (artistiquement parlant un bourgeois)
The unimaginative, conservative nature of Soria’s ‘théâtre dialogué’, the classical tautness and austerity of Camus’s ‘clash of wills’, began to seem irrelevant in an age of Ionesco and Brecht, and their aesthetic was flattened, -along, perhaps, with their political ambition –by the sound and the fury of the charge of Ionesco’s rhinos.
Time does funny things for accepted chronologies and idées reccues. Today, the Royal Court’s ‘Rhinoceros’ sits happily in the London theatre schedules next to the White Bear’s ‘The Just’, both in any case squeezed by the latest innovations in commercial musicals, Ronan Keating in a musical setting of ‘The Sorrow and the Pity’, or whatever the latest star vehicle is. Both speak forcefully to questions of conformity and action in extreme situations, and both provide scope for memorable theatrical set-pieces (the heavy, blank stares of the rhinos; Dora’s dehumanized determination to throw the next bomb). But I’m not sure that Camus’s exploration of limits in oppositional action, his claim for of essential truths in what seem like extreme existential situations, don’t in fact speak more clearly to the current contesting of questions of freedom, resistance, terror…just as J-PS’s depiction of torturing occupying powers in ‘Men without Shadows’ rang uncomfortably true at the Finborough. (Incidentally, on this question of relevance, I’m not sure how Camus’s thesis in ‘The Just’ of a life given for a life taken sits in the age of the suicide bomber). And, regarding Camus’s supposed un-theatricality, can anyone think of a more dynamic and dramatically fruitful core opposition than the construction: Antigone is right, but Creon isn’t wrong?
Finally, the White Bear’s ‘The Just’ is billed as a world premiere of a new translation of the play, one which takes an uninhibited approach to the original text. I noted some differences, especially the absence of one character, Foka, and his demotic idiom and proletarian social reality- though it seems this was less the text, than the back injury suffered by the actor playing the role (the off-Fringe is not the land of understudies). But some editing and rearrangement of the text had clearly taken place to heighten the contemporary implications, and –thanks to the British Library’s invaluable collection of Modern Playscripts - a record of every play performed post-1968 (the year of the demise of the Lord Chamberlain), I look forward to comparing my original, battered, Gallimard text with this new version.