The actor is Camus's second example of a life consistent with his absurdist principles. Humans are drawn to the theatre because of the different possibilities achievable in fiction. The absurd man as actor is not content simply to observe and imagine lives different from his own; he insists on living them. The actor compresses the intensity and variety of a great many lives into the span of his career.
Both the life of the actor and the lives of the characters he plays are fleeting. Of all artists, an actor's fame has the shortest life span. Camus is discussing stage actors here, who are not immortalized on film like screen actors: certainly in Camus's day, and even today, it is difficult to record the past performances and successes of stage actors. As a result, their fame and glory is limited to the response of the audience. A novelist can hope to achieve fame after he dies, but an actor knows that his fame is limited to what he enjoys during his career. Similarly, the characters in a play have only three hours to experience the totality of their being.
A great writer's fame might live five hundred years after his death while a great actor's fame will die with him, but an absurd awareness of the immensity of time will negate the significance of posterity. Ten thousand years from now, Camus suggests, no one will know who Goethe (the author) was, and none of his works will survive. There may be some small comfort in the thought that one's name will survive, but in the grand scheme we cannot hope for any kind of immortality or transcendent meaning that will be given to our life posthumously.
Actors live free of the illusion that their achievements might be recognized in the future or after their death. They live with the absurd awareness that nothing they do has any significance beyond the act itself. More than other artists, then, they must live for the present.
Actors are also not overly caught up in a private, inner world. Their job is to make the inner states of the characters they portray understandable to others. There is no value in privacy or in self-restraint; actors are always trying to express themselves and to be understood. Actors have only the tools of their body and voice for elucidating inner states. This same body and voice will portray many characters over a career, so the same tools will be used to elucidate many different inner states. Because the actor leaves nothing unexpressed, and because inner states are elucidated by means of the body, the distinction between mind and body, the barrier between inner and outer, is broken down.
The church has naturally opposed acting, because actors place an emphasis on living many lives and living them in the present, whereas the church emphasizes the unity of a single life/soul and the importance of living for the future—for life after death. Actors are interested in the quantity of different experiences, not quality, and value a long life rather than an eternal life.
Camus is no stranger to the theatre. Before the Second World War he split his time between journalism and the avant-garde theatre troupe that he had founded. His first play, Caligula, appeared in 1939, and deals with the theme of the absurd that Camus discusses in this essay.
The idea of playing a role is central to Camus's ideal of the absurd man, so we should not be surprised that he takes the life of the actor as one of his examples. The absurd man is aware that his life is meaningless and that nothing that he does will have any cosmic significance (at least none that he can be sure of). This awareness, coupled with a desire that things should be otherwise, make it impossible for the absurd man to take himself seriously. He cannot commit himself fully to any activity; he must always remain aware that his actions are ultimately futile. For instance, an absurd man cannot lose himself completely in love. He will always remain aware that he and his lover are just lowly animals following instinctive sexual impulses over which they have little control. He cannot take the concept of romance fully seriously, and yet he must behave "as if" he cared in order to sustain any kind of human contact (to some extent he does care, but he also recognizes the ultimate insignificance of his emotions). The absurd man can be compassionate and loving, but he must also always retain an ironic self- awareness that keeps him from losing himself in affection. Because he must always maintain a higher awareness that prevents him from being too absorbed by any particular perspective, he is to some extent "acting" rather than fully living when he plays out particular emotions.
In this sense, the actor fits the description of the absurd man perfectly. Actors are constantly adopting new roles, playing life to the hilt, and yet remaining aware that this isn't them, that ultimately they are only pretending. They are aware that there is something unreal and faked about all their great passions. Nothing that any character suffers or experiences will have any significance outside of the short three-hour span in which his destiny is played out.
James Wood notes that The Myth of Sisyphus is often weighed down by its own use of metaphor. He asks if Camus ever really manages to describe a way of life that goes beyond the figurative. It seems that, to a large extent, the absurd life is a matter of self-consciously playing a role. Camus wants to convince us that living the absurd life is the only way that we can truly live, but this life often is simply a matter of pretending, of mimicking the lives and passions of people who, by Camus's analysis, are not truly living.
We recall that Camus defines the absurd life as being characterized by revolt, freedom, and passion. We can see all three in evidence in the life of the actor. The contradiction between our desire for unity and clarity on the one hand and the meaninglessness of the universe on the other hand is what defines the absurd, and the struggle against that contradiction defines the revolt of the absurd man. The absurd man wants unity and clarity above all, and will struggle to achieve it even though he knows that it is a doomed enterprise. On one hand, he is aware that each role he plays is as limited and as empty as every other one, but on the other hand, he plays out these various roles in a constant search for meaning and clarity. He wants to live as many lives as possible because he wants to find life, he wants to be able to live free of the irony that tells him he is always only playing a role.
An actor is also aware of his freedom of thought and action. Because he plays many roles throughout his life, his actions are not determined by any particular role that he sees himself as playing. Most of us play only one role—ourselves—through our life, and unconsciously allow our actions to be determined by an attempt to realize the image we create of ourselves. An actor has the freedom of playing many different roles, and is also more aware than most of us are of the way self-image can inform decisions and actions.
The passion of the absurd man is a matter of living in the present and of valuing the intensity of experience. An actor plays out the great passions of hundreds of different lives, and so compresses an enormous wealth of experience into a very short span of time.