Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Albert Camus: The Possessed: a play in three parts

Albert Camus
The Possessed: a play in three acts

Camus is not one of my favorite writers, though I have read several of his novels.  They seem much too bleak and dispirited to me.  But, I ran across this one while browsing.  Normally I would have moved on, but the title intrigued me--it reminded me of Dostoyevsky's novel of the same name.  So, I opened it and found that it was a play and that it was based on Dostoyevsky's novel.  I just couldn't pass this one by.


Shortly after beginning the play, I realized what Camus's strategy was to be.  He was going to focus on the Nihilist thread which featured  Nikolai Stavrogin and  Pyotr Verkhovensky.   The satiric aspect, Dostoyevsky's attack on the Westernizers and Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, got a brief mention at best.  A number of characters and subplots also were eliminated.  I realized this had to be done to make it possible to put on the play in one evening.


This is where I found the most problems.  First, it seemed rushed to me.  It was if Camus suddenly realized that he had to provide certain events to make the plot line intelligible, so he squeezed them in at the end.  As it was, certain parts were removed from the acting script when it was first produced, presumably to shorten the running time.

A second question arose because some of the incidents didn't seem familiar to me.  Now this didn't happen in the first two parts.  Another problem is the body count.  It seemed high to me.  More people died in the last part than in Hamlet.  In Camus' version, three people were murdered, one was killed by a mob, two committed suicide, and one died from pneumonia.  There may have been an eighth death, another one killed by that mob.  I remember that four died, but I'm not certain about the others.  I guess it's time to pull out the novel for another reread. 

Overall Commentary:
First, one must realize that I was reading an English translation of a play written in French which was adapted from a novel written in Russian.  Yet, in spite of this, I felt throughout most of the play that this was Dostoyevsky.  This speaks much for the strength of Dostoyevsky's writing, for Camus' ability to capture him in French, and for the skill of the English translator.  

The most serious problem is that faced by anyone who attempts to adapt a novel, especially a long, complex novel, to a shorter art form--a play or a film.  Something has to go, and others have to be changed.  It is also possible that I might have had a different reaction if I had watched it performed.  .

It may be an easy way into the novel: fewer characters, fewer incidents, a simplified plot structure, and shorter. 


  1. I think you've put your finger on the important point: the experience of seeing a play in production is not the same as reading a play (with "closet drama" being the exception). In almost all plays, unlike prose fiction, there is no narrator; other differences are too numerous to briefly mention. Moreover, the director(s), designers(s), performers, technical aspects, and the people in the audience make a play a singular literary experience. But, of course, I'm partial: B.A. in theatre.

    1. R.T., agreed--the physical presence of the actors takes the place of that narrator, especially when the narrative is focused on dialogue and characterization, or so it seems to me.
      And of course, there's the stage setting and lighting.

  2. it's an unusual choice for a post, Fred, but i see why you chose it: problems of translation and enclosure and how the authors dealt with them... i've read some Camus, in the early days of wine and roses, but i don't recall being very impressed with his work... as you indicated: an exercise in communication?..

    1. Mudpuddle. . .Yes, as I said, I was surprised at the way Dostoyevsky's novel had gone through two translations and still the flavor of his work came through. Part I think is that Dostoyevsky has such a unique style and part because of the skill of the translators.