Arts & Events

L’État de siège by Albert Camus in Berkeley

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday November 03, 2017 - 07:20:00 PM

Written in 1948 during Franco’s Fascist regime in Spain, Albert Camus’s L’État de siège (State of Siege) may have gained a new relevancy in Trump’s America. Brought to our shores by Théàtre de la Ville-Paris, State of Siege was performed October 21-2 under the auspices of Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall. Director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota calls State of Siege “a grand allegory,” one that may help us face “the horrific perils such as we are now experiencing.” Though this play has clear albeit oblique references to both Fascist Spain and Nazi Germany, Camus’s State of Siege has eerie resonance in today’s world of Trump’s megalomania. Though nominally set in Cadiz, Spain, State of Siege offers a Kafkaesque view of totalitarian government everywhere it rears its ugly head. In some ways, this play reminded me of George Orwell’s 1984, for here too the meanings of words are turned on their heads. When a vote is scheduled in this play, one totalitarian functionary explains to another that the electorate is free. If they vote for the existing totalitarian government, he says, it proves they are free. If they vote against the oppressive regime, he says, it proves they are misled by sentimentality and are therefore not free. Such is the logic of dictators. I can imagine Trump saying this. 

When State of Siege opens, a comet dramatically roars overhead, frightening the locals, who superstitiously construe it as an ill omen. However, a local nihilist, appropriately named Nada, declaims to anyone who will listen that they are already in deep shit and don’t need a comet to bury them deeper in excrement. Nada, a frizzy-haired maverick played with great panache by Philippe Demarle, eagerly climbs a scaffolding to harangue the locals with his nihilism. Initially, Nada’s rant against superstitious fear of the comet and his assertion that he believes in nothing, strike a somewhat sympathetic note. Later, however, when the existing “do-nothing” government is overthrown by a usurper known as The Plague, we begin to see Nada’s nihilism in a different light. In fact, it is soon seen as fitting right in with the totalitarian regime instituted by The Plague. When the Plague’s secretary, an avatar of death played as a glamorous blonde bombshell by Valérie Dashwood, listens to Nada’s nihilist assertions, she says, “This one seems to be the kind that believes in nothing, and that kind always proved very useful to us.” As for The Plague himself, as played by Serge Maggiani, he speaks in a soft, oily voice, and, with a twinkle in his eye, he almost beguiles the locals into believing he has their interest at heart. The populace thus colludes in its own oppression. The plague is both a physical or medical epidemic and a psychological one, based on fear. If the populace fears becoming infected, they will blindly do whatever they are ordered to do by the authorities. The man called The Plague is the cruel embodiment of this regime based on fear. 

As staged by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, State of Siege is a profound experience of ‘total theatre’. Two years ago, Demarcy-Mota brought to Cal Performances his wonderfully provocative production of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of An Author. State of Siege is an even more provocatively physical production: it assaults our sensibilities with noise, movement, special effects, music, and even dance. (At one point, snatches of the instrumental opening bars of the aria “Casta diva” from Bellini’s opera Norma are heard, though why is an open question. Is it because The Secretary is about to proclaim all love-making prohibited? The words “Casta diva” mean “chaste goddess.) The Secretary also proclaims that everyone must obtain a Certificate of Existence, and to do so they must first obtain a Certificate of Health. When a citizen complains that he couldn’t get a Certificate of Health until being issued a Certificate of Existence, the totalitarian world-order takes on a distinctly Kafkaesque double-bind.  

Meanwhile, a pair of young lovers, Victoria and Diego, passionately plight their troth and initially obtain the permission to marry from Victoria’s father, the Judge. However, under the regime of The Plague, The Judge, played by Alain Libolt, does an about-face and rescinds his permission for them to marry. “The law is the law,” he states. Love is now outlawed, he sententiously points out. Victoria, played by Hannah Levin Seidermen, and Diego, played by Matthieu Dessertine, go back and forth over how to combat this regime that threatens to suppress their love. In the end, Diego joins up with a group of rebels who have fled Cadiz by moving to a ship offshore. There, on the open sea, beneath an open sky, they breathe the air of freedom denied by the “law of the land” in totalitarian Cadiz. For Camus, the sea and the sky allegorically present an infinite horizon of freedom. State of Siege can be seen as a cri de coeur for all rebels to return to nature for inspiration in their resistance to oppression.  

At Victoria’s urging, Diego overcomes his fear of being infected, and he realizes that the love he shares with Victoria is the root of everything that is morally right in this world. Thus, he must fight any totalitarian regime that seeks to deny love. Overcoming even the fear of death, Diego refuses to accept a compromise offered by The Plague and The Secretary. Holding Victoria hostage, they offer to release Victoria and spare Diego’s life only if Diego promises that he and his beloved will flee Cadiz and cease their rebellion, thus handing over Cadiz to the totalitarian authorities. Diego refuses this compromise, asserting that some causes are worth dying for. Realizing that their game is up, The Plague and The Secretary abdicate their rule over Cadiz, though they kill Diego in a parting shot even as they move on. As The Secretary says, “As long as I can remember, it has always been enough for a man to overcome his fear for the machine to start to go wrong.” The ‘machine’, as she calls it, is the plague of totalitarian rule. However, for Camus, the plague has no power over the man who claims his own freedom and the freedom of his fellow men.