Cross Purpose, also known as The Misunderstanding, was the first of Albert Camus’ plays to be performed. It opened on 24th August 1944 at the Theatre des Mathurins. Marcel Herrand directed and played Jan, Maria Casares played Martha. On 7th November, in London, at The King’s Head Theatre in Islington, Cross Purpose will be performed again. Stephen Whitson is directing, David Lomax will play Jan and Jamie Birkett has the role of Martha.
Cross Purpose, Camus’ darkest play, reverses the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son. Jan returns to his native Czechoslovakia a rich man intending on sharing his wealth with the mother (Christina Thornton) and sister (Jamie Birkett) he left behind. However instead of a feast of fatted calf all that awaits him is a cup of tea, laced with poison. Jan plans on arriving incognito and only making his true identity known after staying the night in the family owned hotel, a bleak establishment with a dark secret. His wife, Maria (Melissanthi Mahut) begs him not to play games but what she doesn’t know and what her husband can not know is that Jan’s mother and sister occasionally supplement their incomes by murdering their loneliest guests and stealing their money.
After failing to persuade Jan to come clean and tell the hoteliers who he really is Maria leaves her husband alone with the two women and their elderly manservant (Leonard Fenton). In John's Gospel Martha says to Jesus "If you had been here my brother would not have died" [11:21] but Jesus was there and Lazarus is not dead. Camus' Cross Purpose is set in the world in which God is absent, will Martha's brother live or die?
Cross Purpose is mired in the absurd, what is the absurd? In short it is the clash between the yearning for meaning we discover in ourselves and the meaningless universe we find ourselves in. One consequence of the awareness of the absurd is a strong sense of strangeness in the world around us. We are part of nature but at the same time feel alienated and estranged from it. Nature and the world seem strange and hostile to our need to belong and feel at home. The characters in the play are either searching for a home or have given up looking. Jan, left Czechoslovakia but has returned in search of happiness. His wife, Maria, wants a happy home with her husband. Martha, his sister, desperately wants to leave her bleak home in the hotel and move somewhere warm. The Mother is tired and has given up on life. The enigmatic Manservant keeps his thoughts to himself.
In a meaningless universe there can be no values. As Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov claims, if God is dead then all is permitted, if the world is meaningless then how are moral standards, ethics, possible? In the face of the absurd the values we previously staked our lives on appear to be without foundation. How are we to live, must we simply create whatever ethical rules suit us best? Cross Purpose is a powerful illustration of a world of extreme individualism. None of the characters ever truly understand each other and talk at cross purposes with deadly consequences. Camus' play is bleak but it is not nihilistic what we see in Cross Purpose are hints at a way out of the problem of the absurd with the discovery of values in our darkest moments.