Caligula

By Andrew Andrews

Caligula is one of the lesser-noted works of Albert Camus, the twentieth century, Nobel winning, absurdist philosopher best known for his novel The Stranger.

It’s an engaging story, although difficult to judge its historical accuracy. We know that Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, a.k.a. Caligula, was assassinated by conspirators that were close to him, supposedly for becoming a cruel tyrant before reaching the age of thirty. And we know that he suffered greatly from the loss of his favorite sister, Julia Drusilla, with whom he might have been sleeping.

But everything else, at this point, is just hearsay.

Maybe his cruelty was the result of insanity, which may, in turn, have been the result of an illness from which he never fully recovered. Or maybe he wasn’t insane at all—just an ineffective ruler, too young to know how to properly manage the state coffers, desperate to prove himself worthy of his title in a world full of adversaries who were all too eager to bring him down.

But Camus paints him differently.

In Camus’ story, Caligula is wise beyond his years and eager to prove a point—that belief and worship of an illogical and unjust God is equally illogical and utterly unjustifiable. And he’s willing to make that point even if it kills him to do so—in fact, it would seem that Caligula enjoys the idea of his unjust cruelty leading to his own demise.

Aside from Caligula’s logic and sanity, much of Camus’ version of the young emperor’s reign rings true with historical accounts. It’s those accounts themselves that are of questionable accuracy. Much the same way we might paint any modern politician as insane if we disagree with his or her actions, Caligula might or might not have been as terrible as the surviving reports have made him out to be.

As Churchill said, history is written by the victors, and Caligula, clearly, was not on the winning team.

Historical accuracy aside, we totally enjoyed Medicine Show Theatre’s rendition of Camus’ version, recently translated by Chris Brandt. Essentially a black-box production, with props and costumes that spoke more to modern day than two millennia ago, and with almost nothing of a set, the cast, under the direction of Mark J. Dempsey, kept things moving with a passion for their work and an obvious desire to entertain, never letting the situation get too dark, or too serious, or for that matter, too humorous.

And despite Camus’ tendency to use his main character as a sounding board for a monologue of his own philosophy, we never found Caligula (Richard Keyser) to be too preachy, or too didactic, or too monotonous. On the contrary: Medicine Show’s rendition really prompted us to think for ourselves, long after the show was over—and not only about the performance, but about life, the universe, and everything.

Camus would surely be pleased.

How about you? Have you seen Caligula yet? What did you think? And what are you thinking, now that the show is over? Let us know! Your reviews help others decide whether Caligula is worth the stroll down West 52nd Street, and your ratings help us help you find future performances you’ll love!

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Andrew Andrews attended Caligula at Medicine Show Theatre in New York on Saturday, September 29, 2018 @ 8:00pm to write this review.

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