The Roman emperor Nero supposedly played a fiddle while Rome burned. That legend became an allegory for wildly indifferent or distracted leadership. But Nero wasn't even close to being Rome's most notorious leader. Caligula claims that mantle.
Caligula is remembered as a mad-man, though some of the wildest exploits attributed to him may have been embellished or fabricated after his reign. He canceled some taxes and opened the treasury to throw grand chariot races and other spectacles for the masses. He loathed the patricians and tried to make his horse a senator. He decreed he be treated as a god. He may have had incestuous relationships with his sisters (according to Suetonius). He was known to be cruel and had people killed. He ordered the Roman army to collect sea shells and issued grandiose and absurd decrees on a whim.
With history's vision of him as a monster, Caligula doesn't seem like the easiest character to put onstage for anything other than horrific, darkly comic reasons (or pornographic ones, in the case of Bob Guccione's 1979 film). But French existentialist writer and playwright Albert Camus did. Cripple Creek Theatre Company presents the drama Caligula at Castillo Blanco Art Studios Aug. 11-27.
"The play positions Caligula as a mad outlier to a mad society," says Cripple Creek founder Andrew Vaught. "He does some popular things. There's an antagonism Caligula shows to a broken establishment."
The play opens days after the death of Caligula's sister Drusilla, and the emperor is distraught (and strangely so, it is suggested). He wanders the streets of Rome and the surrounding countryside for days. The patricians worry whether he'll return and are hesitant to act in the event he does.
Caligula does return, muddy and disheveled. He's had a good look at the people and state of his empire, and he thinks change is necessary. The patricians are accustomed to his autocratic ways, but his latest order catches them by surprise.
The patricians are concerned with the depleted treasury. Caligula decrees that citizens must write wills bequeathing their wealth to the republic. He tells the patricians the government will execute people as money is needed.
"Camus started writing (Caligula) in 1939 and finished it in 1944, as he was in Paris, while it was occupied by the Nazis," says director Emilie Whelan. "He's looking at a Greek form, a Greek narrative, the classic Aristotelian hero's journey, and flipping it on its head. There are opportunities for Caligula to get taken down, and nobody does. The question he's asking is, 'Are we capable of taking down tyrannical power?'"
Cripple Creek previously delved into French absurdist drama with Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, which the company staged during Carnival over the last few years. Its main character is a violent king, depicted as vulgar, gluttonous, stupid and infantile in his view of the world. (The first play provoked a riot in the theater when it premiered in 1896.)
While those works' obscene premises and plotlines were perfect for Carnival audiences, Caligula is not a farce or comedy. Cripple Creek has added a familiar rock tune and a few original songs and choral music by Tucker Fuller. There's some nudity in the show.
"Anarchy lives behind the whole show," Whelan says. "How far does our leader have to flip the table for us to do something? If we say, 'Oh my God, it's getting so much worse,' how can we do something?"