Albert Camus and Les Justes (The Just)
Albert Camus (1913-1960) is a French novelist, essayist, and playwright. Some of his novels include The Stranger (1942), The Plague (1947), The Fall (1956), and A Happy Death (Published posthumously in 1971). Les Justes (Titled The Just by some English translators, while others prefer to use The Just Assassins) is a play written in 1949. Camus also devoted his writings to leftist causes. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.
We are nearing the birth centenary of Albert Camus (1913-1960). Recently, half a century after the death of Camus, Giovanni Catelli, an Italian scholar, claimed that the car accident that killed Camus was planned by KGB by puncturing the tire. There was no such rumor when Camus died. Interestingly, Camus had said, “Death can occur at any moment, even or perhaps especially in cars. The feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.” According to Camus, death is not absurd or meaningless because it results from chance or a mishap, but instead because we refuse to accept the very possibility of senselessness.
Les Justes is a play about the ethics and morality of a group of people that believes in socialist utopia by terror tactics. The play is based on the true story of assassination of Grand Duke Sergei Romanov in 1905, by Russian Socialist Revolutionaries. Duke Sergei was the uncle of Tsar Nicholas II. Ivan Kaliayev, the 23-year old murderer is the protagonist of the play.
In the play, Camus explores the moral issues associated with murder and terrorism. Camus is also idealized as the friendly existentialist and certainly so, compared to Sartre. English translator of Les Justes, Suzanne M. Saunders writes, “The play moved me to tears when I first read it; the only other literary work to accomplish that was Romeo and Juliet. It's so beautiful in French, but I never could find an English translation that did it justice.”
In the author notes, Camus writes "...The Just is (not) a historical play. But all the characters did actually exist, and behaved as I have written. I only tried to make realistic the things which really happened."
Since we witness political assassinations and high profile murders, every now and then, in our modern world, we can easily assimilate Camus’ play with our time. Stepan and Kaliayev are interesting characters in Les Justes. The destination is same for these two men but they want to tread different paths. “Liberty is still a prison as long as there is still anyone in chains on earth,” says Stepan (Act I). It is surprising, Kaliayev, who is going to hurl bomb at Grand Duke can say “Beauty exists, joy exists!” But he is a poet who muses, "In the tranquil places where my heart wishes you..." in a place where they are planning a murder.
End justifies the means is a famous aphorism by Mao tse Tung, loved by revolutionaries around the world. And Stepan says, “When we decide to forget about children, that day we'll be masters of the world and the revolution will triumph.”
Kaliayev says, in reaction to Stepan violent idea of revolution, “...make me into an assassin when I am trying to be a maker of justice” (Act II).
Let’s look into another conversation in Act II.
Stepan: We are murderers and we have chosen to be.
Kaliayev: No. I've chosen to die so that murder will not triumph. I have chosen to be innocent.
Quite true, we can now understand the minds of assassins, even though we may not approve murders in the name of politics and revolution. The play explores the idea of rightful violence, and the characters believe it is right to kill people who inflict violence.
Kathmandu International Theatre Festival, 2012
The productions stills, photographed by Deependra Dajracharya, are from the play Les Justes produced and performed by Aarohan-Gurukul, Nepal.
Currently, Aarohan-Gurukul is working for third installment of Kathmandu International Theatre Festival, 2012
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Les Justes in Nepal
Les Justes has also been translated in Nepali and published in a book 2011 by Gurukul, School of Theater. Gurukul is sister organization of Aarohan Theatre Group, Nepal. The play was first performed in 15th December, 1949 in Paris, while in Nepal it was performed for the first time in 1991 in Kathmandu. Since then, Les Justes has been performed at least 40 times in Nepali stage, and most of the performances were staged by Aarohan-Gurukul. The Nepali translator of Les Justes, Kalpana Ghimire, uses Nayapremi, The Justice Lover, as the title of the play. Sunil Pokheral, director of Aarohan-Gurukul is also the conceptualizer and director of the Nepali version of the play.
Ghimire, the Nepali translator of Les Justes writes, “When the play was performed in 1991, it touched the heart of Nepali audience, even though the theme was quite irrelevant in that time. Political assassinations were quite unknown to us and we did not know the sentiments associated with it. But now such situations and language associated with it have become familiar to us.”
When the Les Justes (Nayapremi) was performed in Nepal, in 2007, it became instant hit, not only because the Nepali people had become spectators of political killings during the decade of bloodshed due to “People’s War,” Nepali version of Chinese Communism, but also because of the actors. Sanjeev Uprety and Dil Bhushan Pathak, who were quite unknown to the theatre audiences, became the talk of the town. Uprety is the Professor of English Literature and Pathak is well known media person.
A well known playwright John Osborne has said, "I want to make people feel. They can think afterwards." It is this emotional content in Les Justes that largely helps to sustain audience interest from start to finish. Our emotions vary from one episode to another as the play progress - from involvement to concern to anxiety.