The Life of the Artist: A Mimodrama in Two Parts
Translated by Ryan Bloom
First published in February 1953
A small painter’s studio. Three walls, one of which is, perhaps, made of glass. These panels must be mobile. The studio is shabby but contains some attractive objects: an antique, a beautiful pitcher, some drawings, an old copper vase, two or three pieces of old furniture with dirty, but handsomely made, wood. Above all, the light.
As the curtain rises, the painter and his wife. He paints, she poses. They are shabbily, but tastefully, dressed. She shivers. He looks at her. He stops painting, goes to load up the stove. While he’s doing this, she gets up and goes over to hug him. He keeps her against him a moment, then takes her back to the pedestal on which she poses. She makes angry faces. They laugh. She returns to posing. He works.
Behind the painter, a friend enters. He waves to the wife, showing her the bottle of wine and the pâté he brings. She stands and hurries over to him. The painter gets angry, but notices his friend and laughs. The friend lays the food out on the table and the three of them surround it. Clearly, they are hungry and they laugh. But as they are about to sit the painter stops them, runs to grab a piece of heavy paper, and begins to sketch still-lifes of the food. The others protest and grab the pâté. They clink glasses and begin to eat. The painter, glass in hand, goes off to gaze at the picture in progress and to mull it over. The others look at him, smiling. He puts down his glass and returns to the painting, no longer concerned with them. Quietly, the painter’s wife settles back onto the pedestal without him even noticing. When he raises his eyes and sees her, he stares at her in silence, then, suddenly, goes to hug her.
There are a lot more canvases in the studio, another piece of furniture, and a small rug. The wife folds laundry in a corner of the studio. A crib can be seen. The painter works. The friend enters with a dealer, who has an air of contemptuous self-importance about him. He looks at a canvas, turns it in all directions, ruminates, blows his nose, and offers two coins. The painter is about to accept when the friend signals to him. He refuses and then receives three coins. The dealer is led out. The door closed, the painter does a few jubilant somersaults and turns on the rug, while the friend juggles the coins, and the wife sings without being heard.
Sequence of blackouts punctuated by a spotlight on the painter working, each time on a new canvas. Light. He is surrounded by canvases. Two or three dealers are discussing. Some gaze at the canvases on the other side of the easel. On the table, a variety of food has been brought: fine fruit, elegant flasks. Slowly, the wall panels begin to move. The studio gets larger. Furniture is brought in. Dealers empty their pockets into some sort of purse near the easel and begin to gather up the canvases. One discusses the price of a picture with the painter, pays him, immediately sells it to a second dealer, who resells it, for a nice profit, to a third. The painter stretches, sits down, and laughs. His wife hurries over with a little boy, who is already getting big, and places a clearly opulent bathrobe over her husband’s shoulders.
Blackouts and lights on the painter at work. Light. The studio has gotten even bigger. Furniture, rugs, crystals, and other refined provisions continue to be brought. He works but his canvas already has a frame. His wife is in a corner with a young man and a little girl. Some benefactors enter, one an aesthete with two Afghan hounds. They look at the paintings with a lorgnette. Some colleagues come to talk to the painter, interrupting him. They bring him art books, prints, etc., which he leafs through with one hand while he paints with the other. An elegant woman enters and asks to have her portrait done. He interrupts his work, poses her, and begins to paint her. Another woman, exactly the same as the first, enters. Same game. He paints her. Then a third, and he is working on three pictures at the same time.
Some students and disciples arrive, set up their easels as in a workshop, and, from time to time, come over to place their sketches between the painter and his painting. He advises them, having to hold one of his students’ hands while he erases part of his own picture. His wife brings him a third child, who sits between his legs.
Enter suppliers, some men and women, academics, military personnel, boxers, actors. Tea is served. The painter is constantly bothered. A fashionable designer also enters. She adorns the wife and daughter with yards of fabric, which the painter tangles his feet in while the dogs get mixed up in everything. A jeweller brings jewelry boxes. As the painter is about to make a brushstroke, someone hands him a cup of tea. A woman slips her hand between the painting and him so that he may kiss it. He kisses, drinks his tea, paints, speaks to the models, to the students, praises his wife, waves, from afar, to his friend, who is kept away by the masses, and who remains alone, in a corner, pushed more and more toward the door through which he eventually disappears. Two characters come by, calmly prattling in the painter’s ears.1
He smiles, smiles again; the studio, which has been enlarged as much as possible, is nonetheless more and more crowded. He paints only here and there, around the people. He wobbles.
Light quickly illuminates the same scene with the same characters. Music. Two officials enter in a display of pageantry. Ceremonial greetings. One presents him with a small medal to wear around his neck. Music. The other presents him a bigger medal, so on and so forth, until he is covered in decorations. At that moment, someone adorns his head with a laurel wreath. Then someone gives him some paintbrushes. Encumbered, he cannot move and is stuck in this pose. Then an official painter, who paints his portrait, arrives, then a second painter, who paints a portrait of the first painter painting the hero, then a third, and so on. Everyone chatters in the light, the ribbons, the dogs, the easels. With great pageantry, somebody brings the painter a mirror so that he may gaze at himself.
Sudden and total silence.
He looks at himself and sees what he’s become.
Suddenly, he overturns the mirror, tears off his medals, chases out the dogs, the women, the painters, and, with his paintbrushes, makes a furious fencing motion toward the students, half strangles an official with the cord of his medal and drags him out. Returning to the empty stage, his wife and children cowering in a corner, he takes all of the paintings and tears them up, gashes them, tramples them, overturns furniture, runs toward his wife to strip her of her fashionable glory, and then, returning to center stage like a crazy man, alone in the middle of disaster, he weeps bitterly.
The center of the stage is naked. The furniture is pushed to the walls. As the curtain rises, the painter is trying, aided by his wife and kids, to drag in a gigantic canvas, which takes up the entire height of the room and a large part of the width. Once the painting is in place, very little free space is left. In that area, the painter’s family is wedged, anxiously watching the painter, who places ladders and stools in front of the canvas. In his shirtsleeves, he climbs all the way up one of the ladders so that he may work while his wife distributes to the children the remains of the food.
The painter is still working from his ladder. The dealer enters and calls out to him. He doesn’t answer. The wife arrives. She shakes her head and shows the canvas. The dealer takes a ruler from his pocket and attempts to measure the canvas. He shakes his head and leaves. Two other dealers enter. They resell a painting for a clear loss, the reverse of what happened in Part One. They call out to the painter. He doesn’t respond. They shake the ladder. The painter throws at their heads whatever he has on hand. The dealers flee. The wife gets on her knees to beg, but the painter remains deaf.
Series of blackouts and lights on the painter, still, always, working on the same picture. Lights. A creditor with a bill. He doesn’t respond. The wife shakes her head. A succession of creditors. The same game. The bailiff arrives, reads his official statement. One by one, the pieces of furniture are removed. The wall panels come back together, the studio becomes much smaller, the canvas more and more inconvenient. He paints. The fashionable designer arrives, stripping the wife of whatever remains. The jeweller returns to take back the wife and daughter’s jewelry. The girl looks up at her mother and father. She looks at the painting, at her father’s back. She flees behind the jeweller. The wife calls out to the father. He paints.
Series of blackouts and lights on the painter, who is always working. Only the ladder has moved. Light. The room is now emptied of furniture, impoverished. Some colleagues come, look at the canvas, shake their heads, and walk off. The eldest son, given his portion of bread by his mother, refuses it, gives it to his brother, places a bag on his back, hugs his mother, and heads off. The mother calls out to the painter. He paints.
Same effects. Lights. The child is sick. The doctor leaves, returns with some nurses, who take the child. The painter watches him go, looks at his wife without descending the ladder, and shakes his head. He returns to painting. His wife staggers and falls.
The wife is in bed, sick and exhausted. She is delirious. He is always painting. Just then, the friend enters. He hesitates, looks at his comrade, and then goes over to the bed and sits in silence. The painter turns, looks at him without expression, and returns to painting.
He is still, always painting. The friend is standing beside the bed with the doctor. The wife is dying. Just as the painter puts the finishing touch, she dies. The doctor leaves. The painter turns, sees her dead, descends, walks slowly toward her, and with a great, silent cry, suddenly throws himself by the bedside.
At this moment, the neighbors begin to enter and, little by little, fill the studio, moving toward the bed. But suddenly the spotlights flash on over the completed work, the lights dripping in a stream of music. Abruptly, all turn to the work and stand visibly stupefied, while he, oblivious to his work and their shock, cries.
Then he raises his head, notices the others, goes over to them, and gently pushes them toward the exit. He goes to a corner looking for a piece of heavy paper and an easel, and installs himself in front of the bed. The friend looks at him, hesitates, then leaves. The painter kisses his wife, returns to the easel, looks at her again, and, while the curtain slowly falls, begins to paint the dead face.
1. Here, the sound effects should imitate the sounds of a barnyard. For example, a tape can be run in reverse. Similarly, the sounds of high society chattering can be symbolized by the clatter of castanets.
“La Vie d’Artiste,” originally published in a small Algerian journal in February, 1953, was recently collected in the fourth and final volume of the Pléiade edition of Albert Camus’s complete works. The play, now printed as an appendix to the short story collection “Exile and the Kingdom,” stands out as the only of Camus’s works in which the written words were not intended to be seen or heard by an audience. Unlike his other plays, “La Vie d’Artiste” contains no dialogue; the text of the mime, or “mimodrame,” as Camus called it, is made up entirely of actions and directions. Composed in a clipped, elliptical style, and alternating between humor and horror, the play, appearing in English here for the first time, poses the question: How is one to be a pure, authentic artist and live in a world that corrupts and destroys purity?
This question is also at the center of Camus’s later, better-known short story “Jonas, or The Artist at Work,” included in the same collection. While the two pieces have similar themes, “La Vie d’Artiste” is distinctly bleak in a way the later work is not. At the time the mime was written, Camus was suffering from deep personal and professional wounds as a result of a public argument with Jean-Paul Sartre over the political positions taken in Camus’s book “The Rebel.” This quarrel, coupled with his faltering marriage, sent Camus into a spiral of physical illnesses and a yearlong period of creative sterility.
Whereas “Jonas” ends with the artist recovering from a fall, surrounded by his loving wife, his friend, and his children, “La Vie d’Artiste” shows the unnamed artist alone, his wife dead, his friend gone, his children having fled long ago. In the short story, Jonas is granted a reprieve—an escape from his work, however temporary it may be—while the play’s painter is given no such luxury.
Ultimately, “La Vie d’Artiste” is the more immediate, unfiltered response to the anxieties plaguing Camus at that stage in his life, while “Jonas” is the softer version that came to him with time and reflection. The short story concludes with a blank canvas “in the center of which Jonas had merely written, in very small letters, a word that could be made out, but without any certainty as to whether it should be read ‘solitary’ or ‘solidary.’ ” In the play, as the curtain slowly falls, we leave the artist beginning “to paint the dead face” of his wife.
[Ryan Bloom is an English lecturer at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His translation of Albert Camus’s “Notebooks 1951-1959” (Rowman & Littlefield) was nominated for the 2009 French-American and Florence Gould Foundation’s Excellence in Translation award.]
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