Dreaming Camus’ Stranger

by Joseph Pearson

27 October 2016

In the rehearsal space of Albert Camus’ »The Stranger«, there is a working table where the director, actors, and crew have been discussing. It looks like there’s been a late-night study session; it is covered with snacks: piles of chocolate-covered rice cakes, orange peels, raw carrots, candy, half-empty bags of almonds. Multiple copies of Camus – the »Myth of Sisyphus« (1942), »The Stranger« (1942), and his diaries (from 1935-51) – lie about, dog-eared, folded open.

Now, the seats around the table are empty. The actors are instead on-stage, making tangible the product of their deliberations. Felix Römer, Bernardo Arias Porras, and Iris Becher stand against the stark stage set. It appears like a cage, illuminated by LED lights. Between them, they pass around the role of Meursault, the accused. The voice of the man facing trial, »for not crying at his mother’s funeral«, becomes a chorus. Listening is like overhearing a conversation, perhaps like one they had at the working table. Or one that the author might have had with himself, imagining his protagonist.

Austrian director Philipp Preuss – with his mop of apostle hair and knack for repartee – tells me: »The actors compose different parts of Meursault’s identity. Camus writes in his diaries that he imagined Meursault as a combination of two men and a woman, and one of the men is himself. I like to place myself in a situation like the author’s – with these three actors on stage – to invent as if in his mind. Camus was inventing, at a table, and on the stage we can do the same.«

Perhaps the actors are presenting the author »dreaming his own book«, I suggest.

Preuss tells me he likes the idea, »It suggests freedom for invention«.

During the rehearsal, Preuss sits very close to the stage. He interacts with the actors, replying to their lines, with monosyllable interrogations – a »Yes!« or a »What?« – as if he too is performing, as if his responses are scripted. He tells me: »I am like the echo, providing feedback«. Then over the course of the rehearsals – as the characters take control of their lines – Preuss moves farther and farther from the stage, the echo growing distant, until he finds himself in the last row for the night of the premiere.

I listen to the audio in the background: a heartbeat growing in intensity. Preuss conducts its beat with one hand. It is, he tells me, the »language of a dream«; he even uses subliminal techniques in his sound design. The heartbeat too points to the visceral side of Camus’ protagonist.

Meursault is a man of simple means in French Colonial Algeria, who loses his mother, and fails to express even a publically acceptable modicum of regret for her passing. This failure at her funeral is noted at his trial, when he is condemned for gunning down an Arab man on a beach. In the racist tribunal, a white Frenchman might have pleaded extenuating circumstances. But witnesses give a character testimony that Meursault is »heartless«.

»He wouldn’t be sentenced to death if he had had a bad conscience«, Preuss tell me, »or if he had believed in God. The court requires his confession so that he can become part of the system. But he says no«.

One is tempted today to be clinical with Meursault, diagnosing him with an Asperger’s-like developmental disorder; he might simply be incapable of showing empathy or remorse. But, as I discuss with Preuss, if Meurseult resembles anything, it is an animal. He is affected more by visceral elements such as sun or heat or noise or hunger or sex or fatigue than moral concerns and religious propriety.

Preuss tells me, »The absurd thing is that we have to die, and we do not know why, no one can explain that to you. And so we have inventions like religion, art, or the afterlife to explain death. The absurd thing is to live with these inventions when you understand that we are in a cold universe and there’s no reason for life. And when you live without these inventions of mankind – what is left?«

»The real discovery for me about existentialism was to understand that Camus is life-affirming. People always think it’s cold and apathetic, but Camus describes a life that is lived only in the moment, like the French situationists. It is one where there is no ideology, no politics, religion, and even no morality. Meursault reacts to situations like an animal. And to an animal – well, we don’t know what animals are thinking – there is perhaps no idea of death. Meursault instead reacts: he wants to go swimming, to meet his girl, to eat, to enjoy life. He is not apathetic, but he doesn’t sell his emotions as ideology: as marriage, love, and morality«.

Preuss goes on to speak about the connection with Lacanian psychoanalysis: »with the Real, one feels death, and that is the connection with existentialism«.

I ask, »Where does the Real present itself in Camus’s novel?«

And Preuss replies, »It is the sun: because it is hot, and when you are on the beach, and it is 40 degrees, you cannot think. You only feel nature, but as something abstract. It is the Real, the terror«.

»The Stranger« was written during the Second World War. Perhaps this is why Camus spoke of his nation as being the French language, not France or Algeria. As Preuss remarks: »Camus was against nations«. But what then does it mean to read »The Stranger« in the 21st century? The protagonist’s victim has a clear ethnic identity, which is today especially politicised. He is an Arab, the colonised, and no remorse is shown for his death. (This colonial problematic has been investigated in the 2015 Goncourt prize-winning book Meursault, Contre-Enquête, by Kamel Daoud. It looks at the crime from the victim’s family’s perspective).

Preuss tells me: »It is amazing that Meursault expresses no pity towards his victim, that he is not interested in him. But, perhaps, to be the »stranger«, he has to stay strange. If he acquires a name, an identity, then he is no longer the stranger. In that case, Meursault might become a more politically satisfying figure. But maybe it wouldn’t be that honest, and wouldn’t pose the question: what is it that we are afraid of in people who are strange?«

Meursault’s character is rendered so adeptly through his simple observations and small acts in the novel. I ask Preuss if it is difficult to put on stage a piece that is so much about interiority.

He replies that some scenes are inherently dramatic: the funeral scene, the courtroom. They turn the audience into the mourners or the courtroom spectators. But to create tension, Preuss decided to change the novel’s order, quoting Godard who said, »A story always has a beginning, middle and ending, but not in this order«.

»Speaking of the end«, I tell Preuss, »I find the last lines, and most famous lines of the novel, paradoxical«.

Meursault is on death row, and has understood, in the confines of his prison cell, that the world is not driven by a metaphysical moral authority. The character contemplates: »In that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself – so like a brother, really – I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again«. The »consummation« of this indifference is, ultimately, one desire: »I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate« (trans. M. Ward).

But why should he care about the judgement of the mob, if he has truly embraced the world’s indifference? Or has Meursault become an anti-prophet of sorts – the link between the neutral stars and society’s hypocrisy?

Preuss replies to my thoughts, »The question is: does he need an audience at the end? We should remember it is the most intensive moment to die when people hate you. He needs a good last moment, an intense moment«.

I ask, »A theatrical moment?«

»When he is sentenced to death, Meursault says that society finally respects him. It’s absurd. He is more alive than ever at precisely the moment when people say to him: now you are human, because you have been sentenced to death. Now, we respect you.«

The Stranger

by Albert Camus
Direction: Philipp Preuss

Premiered on 13 November 2016