Sartre and Camus Give Dramatic Voice to Existential Philosophy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Existential philosophy gained a powerful voice and became more prominent in twentieth century intellectual history once it was dramatized in the plays of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The philosophy, emphasizing the concrete over the abstract, was better suited to dramatization than to conceptual discussion in philosophical texts.

Summary of Event

In the late 1940’s, the new philosophy of existentialism captured the imagination of Europe and America. Though the roots of existentialism had preceded this period, the movement became a self-conscious philosophy in its own right only after World War II. Unlike both earlier and later philosophies, however, existentialism was not a coherent and dogmatic system but a mood—an outlook that embraced a related set of themes from a variety of perspectives. There were atheistic existentialists and religious ones, optimists and pessimists. Moreover, there were many artists and writers who, though not existentialists per se, were influenced by existentialism. All shared a concern with problems of the human condition. Existentialism;drama Theater;existentialism Philosophy;existentialism [kw]Sartre and Camus Give Dramatic Voice to Existential Philosophy (1944-1960) [kw]Camus Give Dramatic Voice to Existential Philosophy, Sartre and (1944-1960) [kw]Existential Philosophy, Sartre and Camus Give Dramatic Voice to (1944-1960) [kw]Philosophy, Sartre and Camus Give Dramatic Voice to Existential (1944-1960) [kw]Dramatic Voice to Existential Philosophy, Sartre and Camus Give (1944-1960) Existentialism;drama Theater;existentialism Philosophy;existentialism [g]Europe;1944-1960: Sartre and Camus Give Dramatic Voice to Existential Philosophy[01090] [g]North America;1944-1960: Sartre and Camus Give Dramatic Voice to Existential Philosophy[01090] [g]France;1944-1960: Sartre and Camus Give Dramatic Voice to Existential Philosophy[01090] [g]United States;1944-1960: Sartre and Camus Give Dramatic Voice to Existential Philosophy[01090] [c]Literature;1944-1960: Sartre and Camus Give Dramatic Voice to Existential Philosophy[01090] [c]Theater;1944-1960: Sartre and Camus Give Dramatic Voice to Existential Philosophy[01090] [c]Philosophy;1944-1960: Sartre and Camus Give Dramatic Voice to Existential Philosophy[01090] Sartre, Jean-Paul Camus, Albert

What gave the existentialists a common ground was a similarity of outlook and a common approach to the problems of human existence. Despite the diversity of emphasis among existentialist writers and philosophers, all shared a belief that, as Jean-Paul Sartre asserted in 1947, “existence precedes essence”—that is, the concrete problems of human existence, as experienced by the unique individual thrown into a problematic world of unique situations, take precedence over abstract, fixed views of life. Human beings were seen as conscious subjects in flux rather than as abstract essences or objects.

Existentialists approached the whole person as a unity of thought and action and asserted that humans must define their own nature. They emphasized that men and women must courageously define their existence and then take the responsibility for making their own choices. In this view, humans are what they do. Despite the absence of a fixed view of human nature, the existentialists seemed to agree on the major problems that concerned human beings. These concerns centered on the uniqueness of individuals and their situations, on a preoccupation with anxiety, absurdity, crisis situations, value definition, and choice-making.

It is no coincidence that Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, the two greatest French existentialists, joined the French Resistance movement during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. The unprecedented horrors of the war heightened the emphasis on people in extreme situations and raised vital questions about moral commitment to fighting radical evil.

Unlike other philosophies, existentialism lent itself perfectly to literary and dramatic expression. The graphic and powerful imagery and dialogue of the novel and the drama could portray the range of existential problems more effectively than abstract philosophical discourse. Thus, Camus and Sartre became famous largely because of their plays. The dramatic voice they gave to the ideas of existentialism and the absurd disseminated those ideas far more effectively than could more straightforward treatises.

Albert Camus became a towering moral philosopher and writer. Born in Algeria in 1913, he settled in Paris and studied philosophy and literature. Before writing his great philosophical works, he began to explore the nature of the absurd in the theater. In 1935, he helped found a theater company in which he acted, wrote, and produced.

Camus’s most famous and greatest play, Caligula Caligula (Camus) (wr. 1938-1939, pb. 1944, pr. 1945; English translation, 1948), was written when Camus was twenty-five. The play depicted the story of Caligula, a mad Roman emperor who, devastated by the death of his beloved sister, deals with his discovery of absurdity by creating an absurd world, turning his kingdom upside down in an orgy of sex and violence. Caligula grasps for the impossible, but he exceeds all limits, and he is assassinated by a few noble Romans. The play was produced in Paris in 1945 and later in the United States to great acclaim.

In his eloquent short piece Le Mythe de Sisyphe Myth of Sisyphus, The (Camus) (1942; The Myth of Sisyphus, 1955), Camus spelled out his ideas on the absurd. People, he claimed, are strangers—homeless, alienated, and condemned to futility—but Camus rejected suicide, aimless pleasure, and empty faith. Instead, he said, one must learn to live with the absurd and to love life. In L’Homme révolté Rebel, The (Camus) (1951; The Rebel, 1956), an essay on revolution, Camus asserted that evil and absurdity must be fought, but not at the price of fanaticism and murder. The acceptance of reason and limits and the struggle for individual freedom characterized Camus’s outlook.

Caligula was followed by Le Malentendu Misunderstanding, The (Camus) (pr., pb. 1944; The Misunderstanding, 1948). The Misunderstanding deals with a case of mistaken identity: A son, expecting to be recognized, fails to disclose his identity to his mother and sister, who proceed to rob and murder him. The absurd triumphs in the play, as the tragic recognition of the misunderstanding results in the death of Martha, the mother. It is important that sincere authenticity (another existentialist value) could have saved the son.

L’État du siège State of Siege (Camus) (pr., pb. 1948; State of Siege, 1958) was an allegorical counterpart to Camus’s great novel La Peste Plague, The (Camus) (1947; The Plague, 1948). As the plague threatens to destroy a city, it assumes the face of a malevolent character. “The Plague” is assisted by a cynical bureaucrat, Nada, symbolizing nihilism. Still, some heroic townspeople stand up to evil. Camus’s last original play, Les Justes Just Assassins, The (Camus) (pr. 1949, pb. 1950; The Just Assassins, 1958), set in czarist Russia in 1905 and based on historical incidents, deals with one of Camus’s major themes, whether revolutionary ends justify violent means. Idealistic revolutionaries plot the assassination of the grand duke. Some of the plotters realize they have killed a husband and father in assassinating a symbol of tyranny; Camus lets the spectators decide how to respond to the issues, rather than dictating the proper response.

Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris. He began writing plays as a prisoner of war in Germany in 1940. Sartre’s dramas differed somewhat in content and emphasis from those of Camus; rather than featuring eloquent characters, Sartre’s plays emphasized the depiction of average people in extreme situations and the ways in which those people responded, either by facing up to or by evading their responsibility for making choices. Sartre also turned to Marxism, with a resulting emphasis on social problems. For Sartre, the evocation of great truths was the task of the theater.

Beginning with Huis clos No Exit (Sartre) (pr. 1944, pb. 1945; In Camera, 1946; better known as No Exit, 1947), Sartre explored the problems of responsibility, identity, and self-esteem. No Exit depicts the mutual torture of three characters who resist change and self-discovery. Many of Sartre’s plays were replete with unusual and violent episodes, portraying human behavior in extreme situations. In Les Mouches Flies, The (Sartre) (pr., pb. 1943; The Flies, 1946), based on a Greek myth of revenge, Orestes takes on the responsibility of killing his mother and her lover in defiance of Zeus. Les Séquestrés d’Altona Condemned of Altona, The (Sartre) (pr. 1959, pb. 1960; The Condemned of Altona, 1960) probes the response to atrocity in the twentieth century. The son of a Nazi industrialist faces up to his father’s complicity in the Holocaust. Always the committed existentialist writer, Sartre called attention to the evil of indifference.


The impact of the existentialist plays of Sartre and Camus manifested itself in a variety of ways. What seemed to appeal to the large audiences in Europe and America, as well as to drama critics, were the simple plots, the effectiveness of the dialogue and dramatic effects, and the extreme situations, dilemmas, and painful choices confronting the characters of the plays. The unprecedented horrors of World War II and the images of Auschwitz and Hiroshima had wounded much of the older faith in optimism, progress, and moral certainty. The plays of Sartre and Camus were bound to appeal to a generation searching for moral bearings after the upheavals of war.

Many of these plays were performed frequently in France and the United States. They became the ideal vehicles for the presentation of existential ideas; the depiction of extreme dramatic situations and the expression of the philosophies of the existentialists became inseparable. Thus, the existentialist dramas of Sartre and Camus were able to reach a far wider and more varied audience than their often difficult philosophical works.

Camus and Sartre directed their plays to their own time, the crisis-ridden twentieth century. Caligula was meant and taken as an evocation of the bloody and fanatical dictatorships of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Sartre’s play La Putain respectueuse Respectful Prostitute, The (Sartre) (pr., pb. 1946; The Respectful Prostitute, 1947) was set in the American South: The play dealt with the problems of racism, political corruption, the exploitation of women, and, above all, the hypocrisy of American life. The play ran for 350 performances in New York but was banned in a number of other American cities. The controversy aroused by the plays of Sartre and Camus, though, simply added to their popularity.

Thus, Sartre and Camus became two of the most popular figures of the cultural avant-garde of Europe. The versatile Sartre continued his prolific creativity and his political and social activism until his death in 1980. Camus received the Nobel Prize in Literature Nobel Prize in Literature;Albert Camus[Camus] in 1957 at the unprecedented age of forty-four. His death in an automobile accident in 1960 seemed only to add to his stature.

The plays of Sartre and Camus also influenced the mainstream drama of the 1950’s and 1960’s and set the stage for the innovative works of the Theater of the Absurd Theater of the Absurd . Outstanding dramatists of the period such as the American playwright Arthur Miller were influenced by the existentialists, particularly their emphasis on moral choice-making in extreme situations. The Theater of the Absurd, which began in the 1950’s and lasted into the 1970’s, featured such notable figures as Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Max Frisch, and Harold Pinter. The Theater of the Absurd took as its point of departure the problems posed by Camus and Sartre. Rather than posing human problems of meaninglessness and anxiety and presenting dramatic and often tragic responses to these issues, as Camus and Sartre did, the dramatists of the absurd simply explored absurd situations for their own sake.

The dramas of the absurd tended to eliminate the coherent cause-and-effect of incidents and situations, created passive characters, and sometimes used incoherent language to heighten the atmosphere of meaninglessness and absurdity. For example, Samuel Beckett’s most famous play, En attendant Godot (pb. 1952, pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954), concerns two characters waiting for salvation and providing no real existentialist responses of choice and commitment. The waiting is terrifying and never ends. The Theater of the Absurd would not have been possible without the work of Sartre and Camus. The existentialist dramas of Sartre and Camus created and re-created tragic themes in a twentieth century context. In so doing, they created a theater of ideas that remains a permanently influential body of work. Existentialism;drama Theater;existentialism Philosophy;existentialism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aronson, Ronald. Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Charts the relationship, both personal and philosophical, between the two most influential French existentialists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brosman, Catherine Savage. Jean-Paul Sartre. Boston: Twayne, 1983. A well-balanced study with excellent chapters on Sartre’s drama. Shows how Sartre’s plays emphasize that a person’s position in the world derives from a collision between the struggle for freedom and the obstacles presented by fate. Characterizes Sartre’s plays as dramas of extreme situations and judges Sartre as more pessimistic than Camus.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cruickshank, John. Albert Camus and the Literature of Revolt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959. Well-reasoned study showing how Camus evolved from a passive acceptance of the absurd in The Myth of Sisyphus to a measured revolt against the absurd in The Rebel. Views Camus as a major tragedian of the twentieth century and the characters of his plays as eloquent spokesmen for his “theater of ideas.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. Rev. ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1969. The best single general work on the topic. Surveys the work of twenty-five dramatists in America and Europe, including Eastern Europe. Contains an intelligent evaluation of the influence of Sartre and Camus on the new drama while maintaining that the Theater of the Absurd departed from existentialism by emphasizing the absurd for its own sake.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guicharnaud, Jacques. Modern French Theatre: From Giraudoux to Genet. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1967. Excellent survey, with fine chapters on Sartre and Camus and good bibliographies. Maintains that Sartre and Camus were in the traditions of the French moralists and both continued and departed from the traditions of classical tragedy. Concludes that Camus and Sartre succeeded admirably in fusing their dramatic talent with their ideas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guignon, Charles, ed. The Existentialists: Critical Essays on Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. Collection of essays by renowned scholars on the central figures of existentialism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaufmann, Walter A., ed. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. Rev. ed. New York: New American Library, 1975. One of the best comprehensive introductions to the existentialists. Contains an excellent introduction and well-chosen excerpts with fine prefaces.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sagi, Avi. Albert Camus and the Philosophy of the Absurd. Translated by Batya Stein. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002. Discusses the philosophy of the absurd, its relationship to existentialism, and the role of Camus’s drama in defining his philosophy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sartre, Jean-Paul. Sartre on Theater. Edited by Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka. Translated by Frank Jellinek. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976. Invaluable collection of wide-ranging essays, interviews, and comments on his own plays by Sartre. Sartre stresses the importance of theater as a way of distancing the spectator and thus enabling the audience to grasp the truth. Also explores the theater’s ability to dramatize basic “myths” (for example, the Hell of No Exit) to this end. Sartre argues that theater serves a social function by evoking collective truths.

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