Critical Context

When No Exit first appeared in 1944, Paris was occupied by the Nazis. Jean-Paul Sartre was a young philosophy teacher who had found a measure of fame with his novel La Nausee (1938; Nausea, 1949). He was a veteran of both the French army and a German prisoner-of-war camp. He had just completed a major philosophical text, L’Etre et le neant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956) and had recently seen a successful production of his first professional play, Les Mouches (pr., pb. 1943; The Flies, 1946). He was active in the French Resistance, particularly as a writer of underground pamphlets. His plays also were meant to have a specific political reference.

Under cover of the Greek tragedy of the revenge of Orestes against his mother and her lover for the murder of his father Agamemnon, The Flies presented a drama of the liberating choice of resistance against authority. No Exit, in its turn, affirmed the virtue of action over mere good intentions or acceptance of a defined role. Once again, Sartre used the veil of a mythical setting, a room in Hell, as a means to get a call for resistance past Nazi censors.

The mythical framework also served as a useful formal restraint through which Sartre was able to make his concepts accessible to a wider public than that reached by his philosophical texts. Not all of his plays were so successful. Les Morts sans sepulture (pr., pb. 1946; The Victors, 1948) resembles No Exit in presenting a small group of doomed people, confined to one room and engaged in self-examination. These are French Resistance fighters who face physical torture and must choose the meaning of their own deaths. Audiences, too fresh from the horrors of the Occupation, reacted with shock to scenes of torture. The appeal of the play in other cultures has been limited by its very specific frame of reference. It has never enjoyed the same theatrical success as No Exit. The less limited frame of No Exit has made it more accessible. Its abstract setting and ironic tone give it a timeless appeal, while the clarity of its language and the delineation of its characters make it approachable for a wide audience.