I am not very familiar with Jean-Paule Sartre’s philosophy (I’ve never dared to take up Being and Nothingness). Despite that, I found his collection of plays – No Exit, The Flies, Dirty Hands, and The Respectful Prostitute – very striking (I was awake until 2AM last night reading Dirty Hands). Each play is masterfully written, emotionally taut, with whiplash-like searing dialogues, made all the more effective by the way they are parsed out across the play.
In No Exit, a crisp one-act play, three characters die and are transported to Hell. Instead of finding eternal hellfire, they find a comfortable room, with just the three of them to give each other company. As they probe each other like dentists’ scalpels, causing ‘creeping pain that gnaws and fumbles and caresses one and never hurts quite enough‘, they realise that each one is destined to ‘act as the torturer of the two others.’ Each needs a kind of validation that the others are unprepared to give – and the play closes with the memorable line, ‘Hell is – other people.’
The Flies is Sartre’s retelling of the Oresteia. It is not exactly a post-colonial take, like Aime Cesaire’s A Tempest, but nonetheless contains certain important departures from the original. In particular, Sartre uses the plays to explore his ideas about free will and destiny, and the human need to be able to make sense of life. Orestes arrives in Argos, tortured by the unbearable lightness of being, sans memories or associations that can bind him in a meaningful way to the land of his birth; his inevitable murder of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra is as much an act of reclamation as it is an act of vengeance (the latter motivation virtually disappears in Sartre’s retelling); it’s also an act of freedom. In Sartre’s play, Zeus is a constant physical presence, in the form of an old man, who repeatedly tries to put Orestes off. Orestes’ act, ultimately, is a rebellion against ‘destiny’; and by making him taking personal responsibility for the deed, Sartre is, in a sense, writing back against the Greek view of the inevitability of tragedy, and the concept of moral luck.
Dirty Hands – for me, the most gripping of the plays – is set in the imaginary country of Illyria, and follows the fortunes of a Communist party apparatchik (Hugo) as he tries to liquidate a senior leader (Hoederer) deemed a traitor by the Party’s executive. Although he succeeds in the end, inevitably enough, Hoederer is subsequently rehabilitated, and Hugo must then disavow his act, the act that had singularly provided meaning to his life.
The Respectful Prostitute – the last play in the collection – is unlike the other three. It contains no exposition of Sartre’s philosophy; rather, it is a short, visceral, explosive, and brutal take on the violent racial prejudice in the Jim Crow American deep south. A white man rapes (or attempts to rape) a white woman. A black man is blamed for it, and the lynch mob is out. The woman is pressurised to sign a statement affirming that it was, indeed, the black man who had done it. Inevitably, the play ends in complete tragedy.
Keeping aside The Respectful Prostitute, I found some overlapping themes running through the first three plays. The first is – to paraphrase Victor Frankl – the individual’s search for meaning. Previously on this blog, I’ve invoked Carl Jung’s memorable phrase, ‘the terrible ambiguity of an immediate experience‘, which describes perfectly the obsessive desire that we all have to fit our lives into patterns of coherence and meaning, ‘the reassurance of logical systems.’ In No Exit, this is taken to its extreme – sitting in hell, already dead, Garcin says, ‘I was setting my life in order.’ His eternal torture, ultimately, is his need to seek validation for his actions in life, from his co-inmate Inez, which she refuses to give him. In The Flies, this search for meaning is expressed in Orestes’ debilitating feeling of rootlessness. ‘If there were something I could do,’ he laments, ‘… something to give me the freedom of the city; if even by a crime, I could acquire their memories, their hopes and fears, and fill with these the void within me, yes, even if I had to kill my own mother…‘ memory is what binds an individual to a place, and it is that binding that is needed for life to have meaning. And this theme reaches a brilliant apotheosis in Dirty Hands, where the meaning of Hugo’s life is entirely at the mercy of the Party Narrative. His sense of self is inextricably linked to his act of killing, and the symbolic significance of that act changes from the heroic to the useless, taking with it Hugo’s will to live.
Closely connected to this theme is a parallel one – how our need for meaning (or validation) binds us to oppressive systems. In No Exit, Garcin cannot abide the idea that he fled from war-recruitment not out of principle, but out of cowardice. ‘Coward’ and ‘hero’, of course, are social constructions of a particularly oppressive sort. The theme is sharpest in The Flies, where an entire mythos of abnegation and self-flagellation for the citizens of Argos is constructed around an imaginary expiation for Agamemon’s original crime. At one point, while reading the play, I came across an annotation that read “of Grand Inquisitor” (it must have been one of my parents). I was immediately reminded, of course, of the Dostoyevskian parable – the predicable oppressiveness of surrendering to a system is preferably to the uncertain agonies of freedom. In Dirty Hands, the system takes the terrifying – and familiar – form of the Party Narrative. Hugo is comfortable as long as he can believe uncritically in the Party’s view of Hoederer as a traitor; once chinks begin to appear in that flawless system, Hugo’s entire world turns upside down, leading to the inevitable, climactic tragedy.
Despite their very different intellectual settings – Hell, classical Greece, and mid-century communism – the striking continuities offer up a priceless window into Sartre’s thinking (apart from being thrilling reads). Maybe I can do without Being and Nothingness after all!