By Madhu Singh
Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre became friends in Paris during the German Occupation of France and grew closer after the World War II, having lived through difficult times. They often went to have dinner at Brasserie Lipp on the boulevard St. Germaine in the heart of Paris before going down to have a drink at Rhumerie down the block. After Camus published his essay The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt in 1951, they had a major ideological rift in their friendship – which became a media sensation – because of their differing ideas of freedom and justice. Yet, Camus and Sartre had many things in common: both were intellectual stars, both were Nobel Prize winners, and both preferred the company of women to men. Interestingly, both chose a widespread epidemic as a setting for their works with an existential framework – Camus for his 1947 novel The Plague and Sartre for his playscript Typhus, penned during the war years 1943-44. The Plague tells the story from the point of view of an unknown narrator of a plague sweeping the French-Algerian city of Oran, while Typhus is probably set in the 1920s or 30s in a typhus-infected British Malaya. Whereas The Plague became a bestseller in Corona crisis across the globe with publishers rushing reprints, not much is known about Sartre’s Typhus French playscript which was published in 2007 having vanished from sight for almost sixty years. It is said that the readers familiar with French literature of the period will find it difficult to ignore the fascinating parallels between The Plague and Typhus.
In 2010, Typhus was translated into English by Chris Turner and published by Seagull Books. In the ‘Introduction’, A. Elkaim-Sartre writes that the screenwriter Nino Frank was assigned to Sartre to work with him on the playscript of Typhus. With his suggestions, Sartre reshaped his 70-page prototype, presumably in narrative form, into “broad sequences with precise visual and auditory directions that speak of the imagination.” The script in a quasi-professional form was published in 2007 following the manuscript held at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.
The outbreak of WW II in September 1939 and the Occupation of France by Nazi Germany in June 1940 brought commercial film-making to a standstill. Many prominent filmmakers left France before the Germans took over. The Nazis, however, understood that it was important for France to continue making its own films so the studios were reopened for business. However, by mid-1943, as A Elkaim–Sartre observes, the Pathé filmmakers had realized that as the liberation of France was perhaps imminent, it was possible to envisage new projects, free of restrictions. Meetings were held with novelists, dramatists and young film directors, which centred on the following question: what would appeal to the public as it emerged from the disastrous years of Occupation? Sartre believed that “the cinema should make people think, at the same time as it entertained and moved them… It was necessary ‘to speak to crowds of crowds’. ‘They too have their passions, their hopes and disillusionments, their heroism or their cruelty, their tragic infatuations’. This does not mean that cinema must defy itself romantic dramas or conflict between individuals…”
In 1943, Sartre was commissioned by the Pathé to write screen plays. By then, he had already written his first novel Nausea (1938), his philosophical treatise Being and Nothingness (1943) and a play, The Flies (1943). Among the synopses Sartre submitted to the film director, Jean Dellanoy between 1943-44, Les jeus sont faits (The Chips are Down) and Typhus were of interest among others such as The End of the World, The False Noses and In the Mesh. Les jeus sont faits was published in English in 1948, translated by Louise Varèse and titled The Chips Are Down. The movie’s script was adapted by Sartre’s friend Jacques-Laurent Bost and Jean Delannoy, who also directed the film. In a 1944-interview, Sartre said that the scripts of The Chips are Down and Typhus were those of “committed films, reflecting life’s eternal problems and the complexity of human relationships.”
Curiously, the script of Typhus was never produced though it came to be the obvious inspiration for another French film Les Orgueilleux/ Los Orgullosos (The Proud Ones), produced by Yves Allégret, a prominent French film maker known for his work in the ‘film noir’ genre popular in the late 1940s. Starring Michele Morgan and Gerard Philipe, it is a story of an aristocratic French woman who falls for a drunken French doctor with a dark secret – both stranded during a heat wave in a decaying Mexican coastal town. The plot “no longer involved a singer whose career was on the slide nor, more significantly, an epidemic in the colonies. Allégret’s film came out in 1953, with Sartre resolutely denying paternity.” It was nominated for an Oscar and won the Bronze Lion in the 1953 Venice Film festival. In 1957, it was released in the US as The Proud and the Beautiful and was nominated for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story for the 1957 Academy Awards. Interestingly, it was said that the film was based on Sartre’s novel, L’amour Redempteur, which he never wrote! Later, when the French and English scripts were published by Gallimard in 2007 and Seagull in 2010 respectively, the Times Literary Supplement noted: “Now that Typhus has been published in French and in English translation, it is clear that the movie industry made a miscalculation in parting company with Sartre.”
Set in Malaya during the British protectorate, Sartre’s Typhus centres on the “improbable couple” formed by the disgraced former doctor George, “who has sunk to the lowest depths of a highly stratified colonial society” and Nellie, “a down-at-heel nightclub singer, whose partner succumbs to the typhus sweeping the country.” Typhus is both a “turbulent love story” and “an existentialist tale of moral redemption.” In fact, parallels can be drawn with Albert Camus’s novel The Plague and Sartre’s Typhus.
Why Sartre chose the British Malaya as the setting, though inconsequential, makes one curious to know for he had never visited the place. One can only presume that he may have read about the prevalence and spread of such diseases in the tropical/oriental climes. The British Malaya was a very unhealthy place in the early years of the twentieth century. According to J. Norman Parmer (1989), “… Malaria, Ancylostomiasis or hookworms, venereal diseases, Tuberculosis, Dysentery, Pneumonia, Beriberi, Cholera and still other diseases accounted for thousands of deaths annually in the 1920s” (49). The Malaya ports and plantations were ‘nodal points’ of colonialism because of the concentration of mercantile financial legislative and administrative authority and the activities of both capital and the state emanated from it (Manderson 1996: 96-97). These public spaces within the colonial towns acted “a constant reinforcement of the idea of the ‘pathogenic city’ which characterised much of the medical thinking of the time.” If these colonial spaces were centres of diseases, they were to also “become centres of colonial medicine and the promotion of public health was one of the perceived duties of colonial government.”
Medical reports on the spread of typhoid fever in the British Malaya were published in the pre-independence medical journal, The Malayan Medical Journal 1927, vol. 2, no. 1, which reported an unusual case of typhoid fever on Nov 8, 1926, and a case of tropical typhus fever on Nov 11, 1926 in Singapore. A few years later in 1935, the journal published Dr J M A Lowson’s analysis of ninety cases of typhoid fever occurring from June 1933-June 1934 at the General Hospital, Singapore. Out of those 90 cases, there were 73 Chinese, 6 Tamils, 4 Eurasians, 1 Sikh, 2 Bengalis, 1 English, 1 Jew and 1 Malay. The Malayan Medical Journal 1933, vol. 8 no. 4 carried a ‘Typhoid diet’ prescribed by Dr C E Smith, LMS, which was “a liberal diet of high calorie value” consisting majorly of milk and other items such as cream, junket, chocolate and other easily digestible items, considered an essential part in the treatment of enteric fever. The report noted, “Unfortunately besides being expensive, this diet is not liked by the lower class of the Chinese who form the majority of typhoid patients.” A cheaper diet used at the Tan Tock Seng’s Hospital, Singapore, for eight months was found satisfactory to be replicated at other places. This included milk, tea/coffee with condensed milk and sugar, boiled and mashed potatoes mixed with margarine, milk and sugar or mixed with lard and soya-bean sauce, boiled and mashed sweet potato with lard, milk and sugar, and egg flip. These reports help us in locating the timeframe of the playscript although it may be said that typhus did not acquire the magnitude of a pandemic there. However, the British Malaya did experience a short episode of influenza or ‘Spanish Flu’ in 1918.
The central themes of freedom and choice in Typhus come from Sartre’s doctrine that “existence precedes essence.” Sartre emphasises that human beings are the choices they make, that they choose to be good or bad and with this freedom of choice comes the absolute responsibility for one’s action. In Sartrean existentialism, there is no predetermined path that takes human beings to salvation – people have to invent their own path. And after inventing it, they are free, responsible and have no excuses; all hope is therefore within them. “Human existence is synonymous with freedom; we are free because we are. There is, therefore, no distance between our being and our freedom” (Boulé and McCaffrey 2011:3).
Typhus is set in the colonial towns of Santareya and Shantytown in the British Malaya. As the story unfolds, the camera pans over a deserted street in the town of Santareya, on its low mud-built houses, reed covered marketplace with fruit strewn everywhere and a dead skinned sheep hanging upside down at a butcher’s deserted stall, while deathly silence is spread all over. Only dogs bark at a distance, a cat prowls among the refuse, and some hungry skinny dogs try to get the dead sheep at the butcher’s but fail to do so. In a single shot, the camera moves on to the shuttered shops on a new European style street, tram rails, piles of pottery, heaps of empty tins closes up on a dead Malaya’s head, his eyes staring blankly, his mouth half-open and then stops at the bus that waits outside a European hotel. Passengers inside the bus are restless, waiting for the last two passengers. Finally, the couple Tom Skeener and Nellie Dixmier arrive breathless with running. They have a bird cage with a canary, Kiki. Sullen passengers don’t respond to Tom’s salutation. Instead there are whispers down the bus as they are recognized as third-rate performers at the local Canary Club.
A Malay, lurking at the street corner, sneaks onto the roof of the bus and refuses to get down. Passengers are aghast, but Nellie is the only one who insists that if the poor man is abandoned he will certainly die. Heated arguments erupt among passengers on the possible contamination by this man. “Typhus is spread by lice, young lady: and this native is bound to be full of lice,” says the old gentleman voicing the typical colonial mindset. The Malay is panicky and breathless. Eventually the driver goes against the passengers’ hue and cry and leaves for its destination with the Malay. Quite evidently, social prejudices have become polarised under the stress of an epidemic that has struck the town.
On the way, the Malay spews blood which flows over the windscreen. “You are a criminal, young lady. A criminal!” says a hysterical old lady. The passengers decide to throw the man off the bus. The driver lowers the lifeless body and Tom who has got down on the road holds it in his arms but drops him quickly in horror and revulsion. They decide, “It’s him or us, isn’t it?” Tom tells Nellie that the Malay was “already cold” but she is hardly convinced. Tom seems to have caught the infection from the Malay as he becomes itchy.
The bus reaches its destination but stops before a hospital. Tom and Nellie are quarantined in separate wards. Tom is cynical that Nellie is not infected. Meanwhile, Tom’s condition has worsened and he realizes he is about to die. He asks the male nurse for the bird cage, takes out the bird and strangles it saying, “This way I won’t die alone.” Nellie is discharged but she is penniless and has nowhere to go. She takes the empty bird cage and leaves the hospital.
The focal character of a derelict doctor, George, is introduced to the readers at this stage at the Ottawee docks where the Malay workers are loading the ship Sao Paolo, while white uniformed supervisors oversee their work. Among them is George, unshaven, bleary-eyed and dressed like a Malay as he dislikes Europeans. He is “expiating his deed as a futile, filthy, good-hearted drunk and buffoon.” A Police Inspector buys him a drink at a seedy bar to extract some information from him about a theft.
George sees Nellie behind Tom’s hearse for the first time and is attracted to her. She finds a job at a night club where she finds the owner Mercutio and his friend Nogaro force George under the whip to do the ‘bear dance’ for a bottle of whiskey. Nellie finds this too humiliating and demeaning for a man. Georges suddenly notices Nellie and is embarrassed and annoyed to be seen in this condition. The next night on her way to the night club, Nellie meets George again on the way to work. At the night club, she throws a glass on a customer who tried to molest her and is sacked. The owner refuses to pay her dues and tries to abuse her but she hits him with a table lamp and escapes. With blood all over her, she runs into the dark and sneaks into a cabin which turns out to be George’s. He is cynical and mocks at her but leaves to clear up the mess she has left behind. Much to Nellie’s relief, George discovers that the owner wasn’t dead but only wounded.
In the meantime, cases of typhoid fever have swelled up in Shantytown. The director of the local hospital informs the Governor that the ‘natives’ are reluctant to be treated, so there could be three times more cases in Shantytown and dock area. A chronic frustration faced by the colonial authorities in the British Malaya was their inability to convince many sections of their colonial subjects to accept and utilize western medicine and institutions. No wonder the Malays pack their belongings and leave quietly. The Police Chief orders that those left behind are to be rounded up and sent back. The entire population was to be vaccinated within next 48 hours, though there was a shortage of vaccine as a big consignment was sent to Santareya the previous month. Vaccinating the Malays is a problem because they may disappear as they did in Santareya. Also, they loathe the vaccine because it is against their religion and “a man’s blood must remain pure” but the doctors think they are also scared of injections. As there is no record of persons and they all have similar names, it’s difficult to know if they have been vaccinated before and the same person may get vaccinated a number of times. It is decided to take army support and organize a systematic round-up of all the natives in the northern and southern districts. All the natives who have ‘received a jab’ would be given a vaccination card but these vaccine certificates were negotiable like the bearer cheques because they carry no names and can be misused.
Finding this loophole, the owner of the night club and Nogaro hatch a plan to buy vaccination certificates from the poor Malays who would “sell their grandmothers for something to eat” and sell them to the rich who would give a lot to avoid vaccination. “Everybody’s happy and we’ll have been nice to everyone.” The plan is risky so they decide to hire someone known to the natives instead of doing it themselves. They think of George who joins the racket to help Nellie settle her bill at the hotel. Thirty-five Malays are ready to sell their cards for $3 each. But, Nellie refuses to accept money earned through this unethical means:
Nellie: Are you totally unaware of what you are doing? I know they’ve only got a little vaccine, the nurse told me. To make four or five dollars, you’re exposing half the population to typhus. And that’s not all. These poor sods who are selling their cards are going to get there or four injections to earn a few pennies. They’re risking their lives.
George: It’s their own free will.
Nellie: But you should know you don’t have any free will when you’re dying of hunger.
The idea of radical, perpetual, and frequently agonizing freedom of choice or free will wherein an individual is “condemned to be free” ties in strongly with Sartre’s writings on the subject.
As the story progresses, Nellie’s undeclared love for him brings about a radical change and an emotional evolution in his life. George opts out of a crime ‘filthier than murder’ and warns them of stopping their dealings. But the crooks are smarter and make directly a deal with the natives. He also stops working as a police informer. In an unusual move, he joins the medical staff to help other doctors and to foil the scam of buying and selling of vaccination tickets as he could recognise the natives and pick them out from those who were not vaccinated.
In retaliation, gangsters are hired to bump George off. In the meantime, Nellie discovers a white navy uniform of George from a drawer in his cupboard and his ‘dark secret’ is revealed. George tells her that he hated his younger self who committed the cowardly act of deserting the sick when he worked as a doctor in Colombo. He was “just paying for the breakages” of the crime. But, he realizes his folly: “No, that’s not true. He’s me. We’re one and the same person. It was me: I did everything. Me here now. Me that I hate. Me, the same spineless, cowardly man as before.” One is not born a hero or a coward but one chooses to be a hero or a coward, and this choice can always be questioned and changed.
George expects his killers anytime but he tells Nellie that he would go on a journey with his friends. Nellie accuses him of deserting her after taking away her nightclub job. The killers arrive and shoot the dog, tie Nellie up and thrash George badly. Demoralized and hateful of the state he is in, George wants Nellie to leave him. He is too proud to accept her pity and care.
Soon, the European areas also get contaminated and cases among the natives increase day by day. One of the doctors also catch the infection, so the other doctor quits. Nellie can’t go to Europe as the town is under quarantine and she is penniless. She goes to the nightclub to ask for her job again and gets insulted. She is ready to compromise but George, who is at the club, chastises her for falling so low, pulls her out of this mess and takes her home. George will now save her from ‘ending up in gutter.’ In a heated argument with Nellie, the police round him off along with the natives to the hospital for vaccination, where the doctor recognises him and asks his help with the patients.
Nellie declares her love for him and decides to stay on. She knows that George has never been able to accept himself for one wrong decision of his life and helps him see the truth:
You’re a soul in torment…a walking bundle of wounded pride. And what pride! It’s all extremes with you: it’s either the heights or the depths. You didn’t reach the top, so you make every effort to get everyone to despise you. That didn’t work with me. I don’t despise you George. I respect you, because you’re the most demanding man.
George: Who are you to respect me, poor old Nellie? I don’t respect you. And you won’t be the one to restore my pride.
Dr Thomas convinces George to help him in the dock area of Shantytown which has more than a hundred typhus patients now. George meets the doctor who is deserting and tries to convince him to stay by giving his own example without any success. But this incident is an eye-opener to him and he decides to resume his medical practice. Nellie tries to dissuade him saying that he should have started again, patiently, modestly, little by little instead of preferring “a week of heroism with death at the end.” But, George decides to go ahead for this is the only way he can heal his tormented soul. Perhaps, the protagonist realizes the meaninglessness of his existence but decides to assume responsibility for his acts and thus defines himself by his decision.
At the conclusion of Typhus, Dr George Astor devotes himself to treat the patients. When his assistant nurse shows up with the symptoms of the disease he asks for a quick replacement and the nurse who arrives is none other than Nellie. The story ends as the lovers unite while typhus continues to claim more lives. Though Sartre formulated an existentialist philosophy which could easily be translated into a dramatic situation, the narrative has a romantic, happy but clichéd ending. Consequently, Camus’ The Plague concludes with the Dr Rieux defeating the outbreak of the disease but he knows there will always be others, it could not be ‘a definitive victory’.
Boulé, Jean-Pierre and Enda McCaffrey. Existentialism and Contemporary Cinema: A Sartrean Perspective, Berghahn Books, 2011.
Camus, Albert. The Plague. Penguin Books, 2002.
Klinowski, Jacek and Adam Garbicz. Cinema, the Magic Vehicle: Volume Two 1951-1963 A Comprehensive Guide, Planet RGB Ltd, 2016.
Manderson, Lenore. Sickness and the State: Health and Illness in Colonial Malaya (1870-1940). Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Parmer, J. Norman. “History and Health Services in British Malaya in the 1920s”. Modern Asian Studies. 23.1 (1989), 44-71.
The Malayan Medical Journal 1927, vol. 2, no. 1.
The Malayan Medical Journal 1935, vol.10, no. 1
The Malayan Medical Journal 1933 vol. 8 no.4
Sartre, Jean Paul. Typhus. Seagull Books, 2010.
Dr. Madhu Singh is Professor at the Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow, Lucknow, India.
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