CHEREA: He was too fond of bad poetry.
LUCIUS: That’s typical …
CHEREA: Of his age, perhaps, but not of his rank. An emperor with artistic and intellectual inclinations is a contradiction in terms.
LUCIUS: We’ve had one or two, of course. But there’s misfits in every family. The others had the sense to remain good bureaucrats.
When I watch the shaky camera-phone videos of Col. Qaddafi’s violent death that made the rounds last week, I think of Albert Camus’s play Caligula. First performed in 1941 in Angers, France (as Camus was writing The Stranger), the historical play presents the legendary Roman emperor as a Dionysian monster, a prisoner of his own charisma and success.
Many historical dramas (for instance, Shakespeare’s) emphasize the struggle for power. Camus’s Caligula presents a dictator who has achieved complete power, who has reduced every single one of his fellow countrymen to submissive disgrace. With nobody able to challenge or destroy him, his only remaining goal can be to destroy himself.
The play presents Caligula’s last days, after the death of his lover and sister has cast him into a final existential swoon. Bored and sickened by the insipid timidity of the senators who surround him, he gathers a council to torture the members for sport. He forces a senator to hand over his beloved wife, and proclaims idly to the group that they will all be killed in order to “reform our economic system”:
CALIGULA: The wills are to be signed by residents in the capital this evening; within a month at the latest by persons in the provinces. Now, you don’t have time to waste.
INTENDANT: Caesar, you don’t seem to realize . . .
CALIGULA: Listen carefully, idiot. If a balanced budget has paramount importance, human life has none. That is self-evident. You of all people should admit the logic of my plan. Since money is the only thing that counts, you must cease to set any value on your life. I have resolved to be logical, and inasmuch as I have the power, you will see what logic will cost you! I shall eliminate contradictions and contradictors. If necessary, I’ll begin with you.
INTENDANT: Caesar, my good will can be relied on, that I swear.
CALIGULA: And I can guarantee mine too. Just see how ready I am to adopt your point of view, and consider the Treasury as an object of capital importance. You should be grateful to me for playing your game and with your own cards. In any case, there is a touch of genius — or should I say, common sense — in the simplicity of my plan, which clinches the matter. I give you three seconds in which to make yourself invisible. One …
INTENDANT: But —
CALIGULA: Two … (the Indendant hurries out.)
CAESONIA: Is this really you, Caligula? Was that supposed to be some kind of a joke?
CALIGULA: Not exactly, Caesonia. Let’s say it was a seminar in public administration.
SCIPIO: But this isn’t possible, Caligula.
CALIGULA: That’s the point!
SCIPIO: What do you mean?
CALIGULA: I mean, I’m concerned with the impossible, or rather with making possible the impossible.
SCIPIO: That’s nothing more than the pastime of a lunatic.
CALIGULA: No, Scipio. It’s the vocation of an emperor. (He lets himself sit down, wearily) I’ve finally understood the uses of power. It gives the impossible a chance. From now on my freedom will not be limited by convention.
CAESONIA: (sadly) I doubt if this discovery of yours will make us any happier.
CALIGULA: Perhaps not. But it might make us more profound.
Bored to tears by his own infinite power, Caligula searches for new ways to glorify himself, eventually settling only for the aesthetic thrill that comes from humiliating his friends and enemies. Perhaps this Caligula was once an idealist and an altruist (as Qaddafi once was; his Green Book glows with conviction), but he cannot handle absolute power without turning into a sadist, and this condition has now overpowered and doomed every humane idea he may ever have had.
In the end, Camus’s Caligula escalates his crisis of boredom to the point that even his weak countrymen finally assassinate him. He appears to relish his fate:
CALIGULA: Everything seems so complicated. Yet everything is quite simple. If I’d had the moon, if love were enough, all would be changed. But where can I quench this thirst? What heart, what god would be as deep and pure for me as a great lake? Neither this world nor the other world has a place for me. Yet I know, and you know that all I needed was for the impossible to be. The impossible! I’ve searched the confines of the world, along all my secret frontiers. I stretched out my hands. See, I still stretch out my hands, but I always find you confronting me, and I’ve come to loathe you. Helicon! Nothing, nothing yet. Helicon! Oh, this night is heavy, heavy as all of human suffering. Helicon will not come. We shall be guilty forever.
(The shadows turn into Caligula’s killers. The patricians watch, but hold their coats over their faces while others surround Caligula and repeatedly stab him. Caligula chokes and laughs as if embracing death.)
CALIGULA: In history, Caligula! In history!
(Caligula’s body drops and the killers move triumphantly, but he pulls himself up to his knees)
CALIGULA: I’m still alive!
(He dies, but the killers begin to strike at his body again until he turns into a bloody mass, blending into the red gloom)