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Albert Camus' The Fall

Theatre Review by James Wilson - October 19, 2022

Ronald Guttman
Photo by Zack DeZon
The Fall, Albert Camus's 1956 novel, is written as a series of confessions in which the narrator grapples with the absurdity of life. True enlightenment, the novel suggests, can only come when we see the meaningless of our day-to-day existence. As the narrator explains, "In certain cases, to continue, to simply keep going, that's what is superhuman." While this philosophy may sound terribly depressing, as evident by Alexis Lloyd's stage adaptation, titled Albert Camus' The Fall and now playing at the Huron Club at SoHo Playhouse, there can be something deeply freeing and life-affirming in attaining this epiphany.

The seventy-minute monologue is set in a dive bar called Mexico City in Amsterdam's Red Light District circa 1956. (Amy Bernard is credited with the set dressing, which includes touches of theatrical flourish and a backdrop image of the notorious canal city. Jay Greenberg provides the technical support, including the moody lighting.) The narrator, Jean-Baptiste Clamence (Ronald Guttman), circulates among and directly addresses the audience members, who are seated at tables.

Clamence provides a few snapshots of his life as a former lawyer in Paris. We learn, for instance, that he was previously wealthy and took personal gratification in his presumed charitableness as a legal defender. After all, he says he specialized in cases involving widows and orphans. Two experiences, however, unsettled his complacency, prompting him to leave the comfort of his Parisian life. The first involved hearing distant laughter (and presumably not at his expense) that forced him to judge his own hypocrisy and moral culpability. And the second had to do with a suicidal woman and his willful inability and unwillingness to save her. Clamence is determined to bring others with him in his descent into subjective futility and paradoxical salvation.

After giving up his law practice, Clamence moved to Amsterdam, which has its share of dissolute people and countless souls in need of saving. Besides, in its urban planning the city resembles, he claims, Dante's Circles of Hell. He has become, as he describes, a "judge-repentant," who censures others as he confesses his own mortal guilt. He says, "The more I accuse myself, the more I can judge you. Even better: the more I accuse myself, the more you judge yourself, which of course lessens my burden." Recognizing that individuals hold the power to pass judgment and confess their wrongdoings rather than some legal authority or higher power can be hugely liberating according to Clamence.

Directed by Didier Flamand, Guttman is convincing as the profligate raconteur, and he suitably conveys the world weariness of the false prophet in exile. As Clamence, he moves back and forth from the stage to the bar, downing copious amounts of Dutch gin and judging the audience as patrons. Yet, it is hard to be moved by the monologue, and this has more to do with the material than with the presentation. Camus's novel is discursive and dense, requiring time for absorption and reflection. A theatrical performance does not afford that luxury. Also, there is little in the way of background information that would make the character, who describes himself as an unreliable narrator, more fully rounded and sympathetic. As a result, the monologue is more philosophical than dramatic, and it did not provoke self-flagellation in me–only ennui.

The novel also has the benefit of being more intimate since there is an audience of one: the reader. There is a certain amount of comfort sitting in a room full of fellow unenlightened people, drawing strength from our shared hypocrisies and self-satisfied guiltlessness. Regrettably, Albert Camus' The Fall demonstrates that one person's existential crisis can be simply a drunken rant to another.

Albert Camus' The Fall
Through November 19, 2022
Huron Club
SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, New York City
Tickets online and current performance schedule: