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.