where the writers are
Reporting back on the Camus play revival


In the production of Albert Camus’s play The Misunderstanding that is now playing in downtown New York, the audience sits so close to the stage that it could be peering in the window of the grim little country inn in Bohemia in which the action takes place.  A lineup of white teacups on a rafter and a railing frames the scene, a reference to the poison tea that the innkeeper and her daughter, in their habitual way, offer a rich wayfarer before robbing and killing him.  On discovering that the guest, who had registered under a pseudonym, is in fact their long lost son and brother returning home, the mother and daughter throw themselves into the river.  Like the narrative, the set of the play is all black, although the prodigal son is dressed in white.  This is a not a crime story, Camus said, but a tragedy, with a morale about sincerity.

I was excited to find The Misunderstanding back on the boards, particularly in English, because it is another sign of the active interest in Camus these days.  Camus, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957, shortly before his death in a car crash at the age of 46, is least known as a man of the theatre, which was his passion.  The Misunderstanding (Le Malentendu) was his first produced play, which gives it a certain historical resonance, just as the fact that it originally opened in the spring of 1943, when Paris was under German occupation, gives it a moral subtext. (It had a tumultuous and mixed reception – perhaps because the audience was full of German officers and French collaborators and Camus was a well-known anti-Nazi, perhaps because the play as designed by Camus was monotonous and inescapably pessimistic.)

 The current rendition of The Misunderstanding, as presented by the Horizon Repertory Theatre downstairs at the Flea Theatre in Tribeca, is an earnest revival of a play from Camus’s early years that is a companion piece to his famous first novel The Stranger.   The echoes of that novel are almost haunting.  The references to strangers are frequent.   “It takes time to change a stranger into a son.”  The existential situation of an insoluble conflict is basic to the story.   The notion of the Absurd is there, also the wages of exile and the yearning for humanity and salvation.  There are lots of familiar messages and stirring lines, and Camus’s love for classic Greek theatre is clear.  Raphael De Mussa, Horizon’s artistic director, who also plays the part of Jan, the doomed son, recognizes that there is more exposition than action and more ideas than resolution in this play, which he accepts as typically French.  But he also has a personal as well as a professional interest in Camus, whom he finds supremely relevant to a time when society is increasingly secular and its morality is in question.  The acting in The Misunderstanding may be uneven and the histrionics of despair are sometimes shrill, but the fact that the play is around is reassuring.  Camus was not a great playwright, but he was an engaged and passionate one.  His thoughts remain important.