The Political Theatre of
Sartre and Camus
‘I don’t take sides. A good play should pose problems, not resolve them.’1
(Jean-Paul Sartre, Combat, 31 March 1948).
This was an era when, despite cinema and radio, French people still cut the pages of books with keen anticipation. Few writers are pursued by photographers today; we know their appearance only from portrait poses (often out of date) and the occasional prize-giving (out of focus). Yet fifty years ago JeanPaul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir attracted the kind of attention normally reserved for film stars—though Camus later became reclusive. On every issue—the nature of individual consciousness, the meaning of ‘freedom’ and moral choice, the cold war—when Sartre or Camus took up a position it was news. Each had saluted the other’s work before they met at the premiere of Sartre’s play Les Mouches (The Flies) in 1943. The salad days of their friendship lasted until 1946; it was Camus who, as the 32-year-old editor of Combat, dispatched Sartre on his first trip to America early in 1945, before the guns had fallen silent in Europe. The relationship was not definitively broken until Sartre’s outright condemnation of Camus’s L’Homme révolté (The Rebel) in 1952.
Sartre’s productive years as a dramatist extended from 1940 to 1965; as a novelist, from 1931 to 1949; as a biographer, from 1944 to 1972; as an essayist and journalist, from the late 1930s to his death in 1980.
The American impact on France, not least on Paris, was huge immediately after the war. Young Americans brashly knocked on Picasso’s studio door—