Analysis of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit

It is a sort of living death to be surrounded by the ceaseless concern for judgments and action that one does not even desire to change. In fact, since we are alive, I wanted to demonstrate, through the absurd, the importance for us of liberty, i.e. the importance of changing our acts by other acts. Whatever the circle of hell in which we live, I think we are free to break out of it. And if people do not break out, they stay there of their own free will. In this way they choose to live in hell.

—Jean-Paul Sartre, Preface to the Deutsche Gramaphon recording of No Exit

Although drama was only a small part of Jean-Paul Sartre’s remarkable oeuvre that included the central texts of French existentialism—the philosophical movement that he named and spearheaded—in the forms of novels, essays, and an almost continual stream of articles, Sartre is unique among philosophers in illustrating his ideas in literary works. Of his nine plays No Exit is centrally important both as a crucial text applying the philosophical precepts that dominated the post–World War II era and as a formulation of a new kind of drama that significantly influenced the theater in the second half of the 20th century. Scholar Robert Solomon has called No Exit “one of philosophy’s most profound contributions to the theater,” while Irish critic Vivien Mercier has suggested that all of Samuel Beckett’s major plays, and by extension the theater of the absurd, ultimately derive from it. No Exit therefore commands attention as a vehicle for its influential ideas and its dramatic methods that established new possibilities for the drama.


No Exit and the ideas that gave birth to it derived from Sartre’s attempt to make sense of the moral and metaphysical implications of the German occupation of France during World War II. Born in Paris in 1905, Sartre was the only son of a naval officer who died when Sartre was only 15 months old. His mother, a second cousin of the German-born theologian, musicologist, humanitarian, and Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer, raised her son with the help of her grandparents. One of Sartre’s earliest intellectual influences was his grandfather Charles Schweitzer, a professor of German, who educated his grandson and stimulated Sartre’s love of literature and intellectual ambition. The central trauma of Sartre’s childhood came when his mother remarried in 1916 to a man Sartre despised. Sartre would feel both abandoned and dispossessed in his home, feelings that would later figure prominently as the existential anguish of a purposeless life. Sartre attended the École Normale Superieure where he studied philosophy and met fellow philosophy student Simone de Beauvoir, with whom he would maintain a lifelong personal and intellectual relationship. Sartre spent much of the 1930s teaching philosophy and studying the works of German philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, who, along with Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard, anticipated many of the key concepts of existentialism. Sartre’s prewar philosophical writings reflect the influence of Husserl’s phenomenology and focus on the workings and structure of consciousness. Sartre’s first novel, La nausée (1938; Nausea), depicts a man’s reaction to the absurdity of existence, and his story collection Le mur (1939; The Wall) offers various explorations of relationships, sexuality, insanity, and the implication of human action—scenarios that prefigure an analysis of the human condition Sartre would evolve in existentialism.

No Exit Guide

With the outbreak of the war Sartre joined the army, was captured by the Germans, and spent nine months in a prison camp. There he began his career as a playwright, writing, directing, and acting in a Christmas play for his fellow prisoners of war, Bariona, ou Le Fils du tonnerre (Bariona, or The Son of Thunder). The play adapts the nativity story as a context to illustrate the imperatives of human freedom and the necessity of resistance to oppression. Sartre would later insist that his experience as a prisoner of war was a crucial and positive experience in his personal and philosophical evolution, and the play anticipates a new sense of engagement that began to dominate Sartre’s thinking. Released in 1941 Sartre returned to occupied Paris and joined the Resistance. While at work on the fundamental existential treatise L’Etre et le néant (Being and Nothingness) in 1942, Sartre conceived his second play, Les Mouches (The Flies), like his first, on the theme of freedom and resistance but based on a reinterpretation of Aeschylus’s The Libation Bearers. In Sartre’s version the community of Argos, plagued with flies as divine punishment for having permitted the murder of Agamemnon and accepted the tyranny of Aegisthus, is redeemed and liberated by Orestes, who defies supernatural authority and accepts responsibility for his vengeance on his mother and her lover. Sartre would later argue that his interpretation of the Orestes story was intended to provide moral support to Resistance fighters while reflecting a critique of the French moral dilemma under occupation that would provide the key concepts of existentialism. Responding to the sense of helplessness and despair felt by the French under the German occupation, existentialism recognizes that even in the worst circumstances humans still have choices and therefore freedom. Human consciousness, Sartre argues, acquires meaning through choices, and all are responsible to consider the ramifications of choices made or not made and fully accept the consequences. Evasion results in inauthentic action, delusion, or what Sartre calls “bad faith.” An encouragement toward action and responsibility under an oppressive regime that negated both, existentialism as articulated by Sartre and fellow writer Albert Camus, whom Sartre first met at a performance of The Flies, would serve as a compelling response to the horrors of the war that diminished free will and responsibility.

Sartre’s next play, No Exit, is a forceful parable embodying the key concepts of existentialism. In it Sartre made a virtue of the conditions governing French theater under the occupation. Censorship restricted what could be said on stage, and practical considerations, including the curfew and limited resources, constrained how. The actress Gaby Sylvia, who played the role of Estelle in No Exit’s first performance, recalled that the play originated when Camus asked Sartre for a short play for four characters that could be per-formed in the home of friends:

What do you find in any living room? A sofa, a small table, arm chairs, a mantel piece and sometimes a Barbedienne bronze sculpture. So much for the set. There would be no intermission, because of the curfew. Next necessity. There had to be a reason that these four characters are together in a living room and unable to leave it. “Let’s shove them into hell,” Sartre said to himself. And in two weeks at a table at the [Café] Flore he wrote No Exit.

Sartre’s own account, recollected many years after the fact, differs slightly:

When one writes a play, there are always chance circumstances and deep needs. The chance circumstance when I wrote No Exit in 1943 or the beginning of 1944 was the fact that I had three friends for whom I wanted to write a play, without giving any one of them a larger part than the others. In other words, I wanted them to be together on the stage all the time, because I said to myself: “If one of them leaves the stage, he’ll think that the other two have better parts in his absence.” So I wanted to keep them together, and I said to myself: “How can one put three characters together without an exit, and keep them there on stage to the end of the play, as though eternally?” That’s when the idea came to me to put them in hell and make each one of them the torturer of the other two. That’s the circumstantial cause.

Initially called “Les Autres” (The others), about characters trapped in a cellar during a bombardment, Sartre shifted the setting to hell, which resembled the Paris hotel room where the play was first rehearsed. Directed by Camus, who also, initially, played the role of Garcin, No Exit eventually premiered with a different cast and director at the 335-seat Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier on the eve of the Normandy invasion to largely hostile reviews. One critic observed that “The play censors itself because it is so boring,” while others used adjectives such as “scandalous,” “rotten,” “venereal,” and “lugubriously unhealthy” to describe it. After Paris was liberated in August 1944, the play reopened to considerable more appreciation as a challenging drama representative both of the wartime zeitgeist and a new kind of drama.

Sartre would describe this new French drama in a 1946 lecture he delivered in the United States, “Forgers of Myths,” in which he called for the replacing of the 19th-century psychological theater of “caractères” (personalities) by “un théâtre de situations”:

Since the situation is what we care about above all, our theater shows it at the very point where it is about to reach its climax. We do not take time out for learned research, we feel no need of registering the imperceptible evolution of a character or a plot: one does not reach death by degrees, one is suddenly confronted with it—and if one approaches politics or love by slow degrees, then acute problems, arising suddenly, call for no progression. By taking our dramatis personae and precipitating them, in the very first scene, into the highest pitch of their conflicts we turn to the well-known pattern of classical tragedy, which always seizes upon the action at the very moment it is headed for catastrophe.

In what can serve both as an encapsulating description of No Exit and many of the plays that would follow it, Sartre summarizes:

Our plays are violent and brief, centered around one single event; there are few players and the story is compressed within a short space of time, sometimes only a few hours. As a result they obey a kind of “rule of the three unities,” which has been only a little rejuvenated and modified. A single set, a few entrances, a few exits, intense arguments among the characters who defend their individual rights with passions—this is what sets our plays at a great distance from the brilliant fantasies of Broadway.

No Exit opens with the South American journalist Garcin being led by a valet into a windowless, brightly lit drawing room in which three couches are positioned before a mantel with a heavy bronze statue on it. Garcin asks where are the “racks and red-hot pincers,” and it soon becomes clear, despite the respectable furnishings and solicitude of the valet, that this is hell, where Garcin has been consigned for eternity. He is soon joined by Inez, a lesbian, and Estelle, a fashionable socialite. Each takes a seat on one of the sofas and relates the cause of his or her death: Estelle by pneumonia, Inez from the fumes of a gas stove, and Garcin by 12 bullets. To pass the time Garcin suggests that they should speculate why they have been damned. Estelle says that, though married to an older man, she has had an affair, and Garcin, who ran a pacifist newspaper, claims to have been executed for his treasonous views. Inez accuses them both of not telling the full truth, insisting that “We are criminals—murderers—all three of us. We’re in hell, my pets; they never make mistakes, and people aren’t damned for nothing.” Perceptively Inez suggests that they are to be one another’s torment. To counter this possibility Garcin proposes that “each of us stays put in his or her corner and take no notice of the others” and that way “we’ll work out our salvation looking into ourselves.” However, each is forced to an awareness of mutual dependence, though in a triangular relationship that guarantees their suffering. Inez is attracted to Estelle, who has long depended on men to validate her self-worth. Drawn accordingly to the formerly womanizing Garcin, Estelle (and Garcin) will be continually frustrated by the scorned and man-hating Inez. Realizing the futility of their situation and seizing on the opportunity for self-understanding, Garcin proposes that they should earnestly confess why they have been condemned. He admits that he had been abusive to his wife and that he was shot not because of his pacifist principles but because he had tried to save himself by running away; Inez confesses to having betrayed her cousin by seducing his wife and torturing her with his death; Estelle admits that she had a baby with her lover whom she murdered, causing her lover’s suicide.

The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre

Key Theories of Jean-Paul Sartre

Existentialist Movement in Literature

Faced with the shared knowledge of these shocking truths about them-selves, each craves escape and release from the others’ censure, yet when suddenly the drawing room door is opened, they take no action to leave. Garcin declares that he must stay to prove himself to Inez and reverse her judgment on his cowardice: “Only you two remain to give a thought to me. She—she doesn’t count. It’s you who matter; you who hate me. If you’ll have faith in me I’m saved.” Brought to the brink of self-knowledge and undeluded self-acceptance, Garcin manages a shattering understanding that concludes with the most famous line in the play:

So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is—other people!

When validation and identity derives from others, others become hell, a state where torture is not meted out by devils but self-inflicted and inescapable. As Sartre observed, “Relations with other people, encrustration, and freedom . . . are the three themes of the play. I should like you to remember this when you hear that hell is other people.”

No Exit, as an intense and compressed dramatic parable, presents the core existential truth that each individual must ultimately face self-truth and consequence, forced to an inescapable encounter with others who provide the measure for moral judgment. In the enclosed space of the stage that mirrors the enclosed self Sartre presents a modern morality play, while forecasting the themes and methods that emerge from the implications of an absurd universe and a search for new meaning.

Source: Daniel S. Burt The Drama 100 A Ranking of the Greatest Plays of All Time

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literary Criticism, Literature, Philosophy

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