Jean-Paul Sartre is known as the great French Existentialist philosopher, writer, and political activist. While Existentialism is hard to define, Wikipedia provides a helpful article. To quote them:
"A central proposition of Existentialism is that existence precedes essence, which means that the most important consideration for individuals is the fact that they are an individual—an independently acting and responsible conscious being ('existence")—rather than what labels, roles, stereotypes, definitions, or other preconceived categories the individual fits ("essence"). The actual life of the individual is what constitutes what could be called their "true essence" instead of there being an arbitrarily attributed essence others use to define them. Thus, human beings, through their own consciousness, create their own values and determine a meaning to their life."
The movement is believed to be founded by Søren Kierkegaard. Other important writers in this movement are Fyodor
Dostoyevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche. Sartre was born in 1905 and died in 1980.
No Exit was first performed in Paris in May, 1944. It is a short play in one act, with only four actors, and is the playwright's depiction of Hell. It begins as the Valet escorts Joseph Garcin into a room decorated in Second Empire style. Of course, Garcin expects torturers and the usual scenario one would find in Hell, but all he has is the room with a bell and some furniture, but is told the bell usually does not work. Soon he is joined by two women, Inez, then Estelle. At first they claim innocence, though accepting their fate, but little by little, the truth comes out about each of their immoral behaviors that have landed them in their predicament. Estelle murdered her unwanted child, causing the father (not her husband) to commit suicide. Inez, a lesbian, had seduced her cousin's wife. He was killed by a tram, then one night, the wife turned up the gas before she crawled into bed with Inez. Garcin treated his wife abusively, sleeping with another woman in the same house. He also ran away to Mexico to avoid fighting in the war, and was shot twelve times.
As they are telling their stories, they are seeing what is going on back in life—they can hear what the living are saying about them, but then gradually it goes dark as they lose contact all together. But the thing is, they are put together for a reason, and that is their torture. They really do not like each other, but cannot escape. In the end Garcin exclaims:
"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!"
The Flies is a modern reworking of the Electra story, with an Existential twist, written in 1943. We meet Orestes and his tutor as they enter Argos. The townspeople shun them, except for the village idiot, and there are huge flies swarming everywhere. The tutor comments:
"These flies in Argos are much more sociable than its townsfolk. Just look at them! [Points to the idiot boy.] These must be a round dozen pumping away at each of his eyes, and yet he's smiling quite contentedly; probably he likes having his eyes sucked. That's not surprising; look at that yellow muck oozing out of them."
The towns people are all dressed in mourning, as it is the fifteenth anniversary of the slaying of King Agamemnon by his cheating wife Clytemnestra and her lover, now king, Ægistheus. It is also the fifteenth anniversary of Orestes being whisked away as a baby to prevent his murder. This is the first he has returned, and is traveling under the name Philebus. He meets his sister Electra, who is being used as a slave, rather than reigning as princess. He learns that she has been awaiting his return all these years to revenge their father's death. They also realize they are being followed by a bearded man—in fact he has been following them long before they reached Argos. He calls himself Demetrios, but he is in fact Zeus, the "god of death and flies." The town is in an eternal state of self-punishment for their king's murder. They meet an old woman and Zeus confronts her:
Zeus: Yes, you're quite old enough to have heard those huge cries that echoed and re-echoed for a whole morning in the city streets. What did you do about it?
Old Woman: My good man was in the fields, at work. What could I do, a woman alone? I bolted my door.
Zeus: Yes, but you left your window not quite closed, so as to hear the better, and, while you peeped behind the curtains and held your breath, you felt a little tingling itch between your loins, and didn't you enjoy it!
Old Woman: Oh, please stop, sir!
Zeus: And when you went to bed that night, you had a grand time with your man. A real gala night.
This is also the one day of the year when the dead souls are released to roam the town and torment the people who wronged
them. Ægistheus rolls away the stone to the cave and they escape for twenty-four hours. The people are obliged to accommodate them.
It is here in the second act where Sartre really breaks with the Greek versions of this story. But, oh my, it gets complicated, because there are three different Greek versions, by Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus. Keep in mind, that Sartre's version is an Existentialist interpretation, so he exaggerates different aspects of the story as compared to the Greeks. The Euripides version is very different from any of the others. In the Aeschylus version, Orestes is tortured by the furies, as in Sartre's. The version linked above is by Sophocles, and where it ends, neither Orestes or Electra feel guilt or remorse for the murder. So. . .let us continue with Sartre.
Zeus, who (I believe) is not included in any of the Greek versions, plays a big part here, as a sort of instigator, trouble-maker, and one who delights in his people wallowing in their sinfulness. When the boulder is rolled away, Electra shows up in a white dress, dancing and smiling, angering Ægistheus and Zeus. She point out to the crowd that they are being made to suffer for the murder committed by her mother and lover, which is the whole purpose of the yearly ritual of the dead. But she claims that she has no guilt, and is not afraid of the dead, because she loves her murdered father. The crowd begins to wake up and realize how they have been used. But Zeus stops her.
It is here that she finally learns that Philebus is her brother, Orestes, thought she expected him to be strong and muscular, when instead he is more sweet and boyish. Unlike in the Sophocles version, he did not return to Argos for the purpose of revenge, but Electra convinces him that they must murder their father's killers. Orestes suddenly agrees, so they hide and await the return of Ægistheus. Zeus, however, forewarns him of his impending murder:
Zeus: . . .and you and I harbor the same dark secret in our hearts.
Ægistheus: I have no secret.
Zeus: You have. The same as mine. The bane of gods and kings. The bitterness of knowing men are free. Yes, Ægistheus, they are free. But your subjects do not know it and you do.
Ægistheus: Why yes. If they knew it, they'd send my palace up in flames. For fifteen years I've been playing a part to mask their power from them.
Ægistheus allows Orestes to kill him without a struggle. But now Electra has second thoughts, and refuses to accompany
Orestes to kill their mother.
In the last act, we see Orestes and Electra taking refuge in the temple of Apollo, where they are safe from the furies who surround them ready to torture. Or at least Electra, because she feels guilt, and allows them to work her. Orestes does not. He says he alone takes responsibility for his act, and the furies leave him alone. He tells Electra it is her weakness that gives them strength.
These four plays are well-worth reading. They all deal with deep soul-searching for truth, feelings
of guilt and justifying actions; the dualities of right/wrong, good/evil, and humanity's freedom to make choices and live with their consequences. Though
written in a much different style, Sartre's writings have a similar emotional and spiritual intensity as Dostoyevsky's.
The other two plays included here are Dirty Hands, the longest of the four, which is about a politically planned assassination, but more so, about the assassin's struggle with his true motives for the killing and his disillusionment with the party's honesty and integrity.The Respectful Prostitute is about racism in America. The copy I have of this collection is very old, but the book is still available from Amazon, and online at openlibrary.org.
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