The Flies, the first play by Jean-Paul Sartre to be presented to the public, was well received when it was staged in occupied Paris. If one bears in mind that the play is concerned with the problem of liberty, and that many of its references must have been pointedly topical in 1943, the interest it aroused is scarcely surprising. On the other hand, although The Flies has lost some of the immediacy of its appeal, the problem of liberty is not, of course, exclusive to any particular time period, and this play is still popular and frequently staged.
For Sartre, it is nonsense to speak of a universal human nature; only the situations in which human beings may find themselves can be universal. Indeed, all of his theater involves a character moving toward a choice or decision in relation or in opposition to a given situation. The success of Sartre’s theater resides, at least in part, in his leaving his principal character or characters a considerable amount of freedom to develop in the course of the action. Moreover, he has successfully created situations that audiences often find familiar.
If his philosophical writings, such as L’Être et le néant(1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956), are difficult to understand, Sartre was nevertheless able to bring a wide audience to espouse the philosophical theory of existentialism. He accomplished this through striking statements and illustrations of his philosophy in both fiction, as seen in La Nausée(1938; Nausea, 1949), and theater. The Flies contends, through the hero’s own discoveries, that existence and freedom, along with the need to act, constitute the existence of an individual.
The story of Orestes and Electra has been told many times in the theater, from different points of view. The Homeric myth of Orestes, driven by the Delphic oracle and by his sister, Electra, to avenge the murder of their father by killing their mother and her lover, is found in stylized form in the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Sartre, like other modern dramatists, draws variously on all three by freely adapting the myth to suit his purposes.
The Flies represents a moment of crisis and decision, since the central conflict consists of different ethical positions. In view of the fact that an existentialist situation must offer individuals the opportunity to make meaningful choices that will determine their acts, the problem of action is not merely the problem of what happens and why it happens, but the problem of commitment to a choice.
In the original myth, Orestes’ actions are divinely ordered or forbidden, hence his dilemma as a thinking man confronted by religious power and arbitrariness as he tries to reconcile his relationship with the gods and to arrive at a possible meaning for human existence. The atheist Sartre, however, transforms these plays of fatality into a drama of choice that negates Judeo-Christian beliefs. No oracle is present to predict destiny, and no divine hand guides human events.
Before returning to Argos, Orestes led a life devoid of interest, devoid of purpose. Existentialism, however, posits that one’s past has no influence on one’s future because there is no cosmic time. The present is important,...
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