What is the historical context of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit?

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During the time that Sartre wrote No Exit, there were strict censorship laws imposed by the Nazis (who still occupied France at the time). A classic piece of existentialism, No Exit met little criticism by the censors; even with overt themes of existentialism and resistance, the play originally premiered...

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During the time that Sartre wrote No Exit, there were strict censorship laws imposed by the Nazis (who still occupied France at the time). A classic piece of existentialism, No Exit met little criticism by the censors; even with overt themes of existentialism and resistance, the play originally premiered without a skip, and Sartre even considered the strict curfews when writing the play as a shorter single act.

In other terms of historical context, No Exit was one of the very first (and most recognizable) instances of existentialism in theater or literature. What would later erupt in the 50s and 60s in France began here with No Exit. Samuel Beckett would later create a similarly famous existentialist play with Waiting For Godot; both of these plays would later serve as a significant influence on the enfants terribles who would pioneer the cinematic French New Wave. With filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer using Sartre's play as a sort of springboard for their own intellectual films, existentialism became a largely French artistic philosophy.

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In 1944 Paris, where No Exit was first performed in May, the city was under Nazi occupation, and had been since June of 1940. The country's (Vichy) government was under the control of the German military and hand-picked French officials. Curfews determined when people could leave their homes, and Jews were persecuted and ultimately sent to concentration camps. Hundreds of thousands of Parisians left the city because of the occupation; food was scarce, and all media was controlled to disseminate Nazi propaganda.

The Resistance movement coexisted with the occupiers, and its operatives came from all walks of French life to undermine the Germans in many ways, including acts of sabotage, spying, armed conflict, and helping Allied forces. Resistance members reviled the Vichy collaborators as disloyal cowards. It has been said that the occupation presented an existential threat to France itself as a nation and the French identity.

Jean-Paul Sartre was not especially active in the Resistance. His play opened during the occupation, and Nazi officials attended the premiere; it was not censored by German officials. Though some saw the play as a metaphor for the occupation of Paris, Sartre remained quiet on that subject until after the Liberation of Paris in August of 1944. Though he cannot accurately be called a collaborator, it would be an overstatement to describe him as a risk-taking Resistance member who pushed the envelope with the play.

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Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit was performed in Paris in 1944 during the Nazi Occupation of World War II.  Because there were curfews imposed by the Germans, Sartre wrote his play in one act so that Parisians could meet this curfew.  Before the play could be performed, however, it had to meet the approval of the German censors who approved and then disapproved several times as they watched rehearsals.  Nevertheless, Sartre inserted subtle messages of resistance in his play that the Parisians greatly appreciated. However, critics were divided in their reviews, probably in order to prevent arousing suspicion by the Nazis.

No Exit became symbolic of the Resistance, an underground organization formed by the exiled general Charles de Gaulle who was in Great Britain. Members of the Resistance of occupied France aided Great Britain with military intelligence and by helping British pilots who were shot down escape France.  Those who worked with the Germans under the newly formed Vichy government were known as Collaborators; these are the pacifists to which Garcin alludes in the play.  Another element in Sartre's play that relates to the Nazi occupation is the ironic comments about the abundance of heat and light in the hellish room that Garcin, Estelle, and Inez occupy. Of course, the philosophy of Existentialism that is thematic to No Exit also appealed to the members of the Resistance in its emphasis on the necessity and responsibility of the individual's creating his own essence. 

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