Nina Cooper

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2198

[Striking] similarities between the two ultimately very different existentialist theatres [of Gabriel Marcel and Jean-Paul Sartre] do exist. (p. 98)

Sartre has developed a popular theatre, treating his audiences partly as clients whom he must satisfy in order to use the dramatic form as a vehicle for his philosophy, sometimes...

(The entire section contains 2198 words.)

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[Striking] similarities between the two ultimately very different existentialist theatres [of Gabriel Marcel and Jean-Paul Sartre] do exist. (p. 98)

Sartre has developed a popular theatre, treating his audiences partly as clients whom he must satisfy in order to use the dramatic form as a vehicle for his philosophy, sometimes watering down his philosophy to the detriment of his reputation as a philosopher. He has, even so, created a theatre which will stand even if one refuses his philosophy. Marcel, on the other hand, has insisted throughout his career that his philosophic writings and his theatre are inextricably intertwined, neither to be fully understood without the other. Marcel's philosophy has perhaps benefited, the play allowing him a form in which to situate and work out abstract ideas. His dramatic work has not…. [His theatre] has always had a limited audience …, [and] his thought has become more and more difficult of access.

Marcel's and Sartre's theoretical views could frequently be interchanged. Both believe in a theatre of situation not of character, both believe that the theatre should be didactic, both believe in a realistic portrayal of character, at least on the primary level. Theory made practice, however, produces widely divergent conclusions, even if, for both, the function of the twentieth-century dramatist and the problems which confront him are primarily metaphysical. Metaphysics is not, as Sartre has pointed out, a sterile discussion about abstract notions divorced from reality and experience. It is instead an attempt to embrace from within the human condition in its entirety. For Sartre the problem of the writer is to create a literature which unites and reconciles the metaphysical absolute and the relativity of the historical moment. For Marcel it is to clarify the position of modern man in relation to eternity.

To Marcel, the theatre's influence is ultimately based on the mystery of communion and participation between the author and the protagonists. Through the intermediary of the characters created, the drama has a religious function, uniting the dramatist and the spectator in the rite of communion. Sartre's ideas are, to a point, quite similar. He says, "To us, a play should not seem too familiar. Its greatness derives from its social and, in a sense, religious functions: it must remain a rite; even as it speaks to the spectators of themselves it must do it in a tone and with a constant reserve of manner which, far from breeding familiarity, will increase the distance between play and audience." The goal, therefore, is not communion but the increasing of the distance separating the audience and the work…. (pp. 98-9)

Like Sartre's characters, Marcel's protagonists are caught up at the decisive point of their lives. The state of crisis slowly formed in their existence is at its culmination. Marcel's theatre up to L'Iconoclaste (1923) presents characters en situation, not in relation to history, but in relation to eternity. Having come like Sartrean heroes to the point where a decision or an act is demanded of them, they too are aware of their solitude and their inauthenticity. Communication and communion are impossible. Baudelairean themes, angoisse, spleen, exil, solitude, predominate. (p. 99)

Jacqueline of La Grâce, Clarisse of Le Palais de sable, Jean of Le Mort de demain, Mireille of La Chapelle ardente, Rose of Le Coeur des autres, and Claude of Un Homme de Dieu suffer the same kind of metaphysical anguish as Sartre's heroes when finally faced with self-realization and the meaninglessness of their lives past and present. Inès, Estelle, and Garcin, having acted in bad faith in life, are left in their Second Empire drawing room hell to continue eternally to re-enact their sordid melodrama. Marcel's characters in his first seven plays are left in their dreary real-life bourgeois existence, refusing the opportunity to create a valid existence for themselves, refusing to take the chances that their decisions would entail. Like Clarisse's in Le Palais de sable, their hell will be acted out on earth, since they have proved themselves too low to live in God, yet too high to live among men. (p. 100)

The problem Marcel's hero faces changes little throughout his neo-socratic theatre, but the solution varies depending upon whether the play was written before or after Marcel's conversion to Roman Catholicism (1929). In the first plays, those up to L'Horizon (1928), the characters refuse to, or cannot, act and the situation is similar to that of [Sartre's] Huis Clos. In most of the plays after L'Horizon the hero chooses not only to recognize the absurdity and meaninglessness of his position in the universe but to accept himself for what he has discovered himself to be. He recognizes and welcomes the fact that the only way out of his situation is through the intervention of the forces of the transcendent, or la grâce…. The heroes of Marcel's later theatre, the plays [Joseph Chenu] calls pièces lumineuses as opposed to the earlier pièces sombres, evolve one step beyond the earlier ones, who never go beyond avoir and who, even after their moment of self-realization, remain inauthentic because of their choice. In accepting the intervention of the transcendent, the heroes of the later plays choose être instead of avoir and thereby create an authentic identity for themselves and a valid relationship between themselves and other characters. Faire, the essential element of Sartre's theatre, is present in Marcel's as an interior effective transformation in the protagonists. Whereas Sartre's hero achieves only his own salvation by overt and violent acts, Marcel's brings about that of those nearest him as well, or at least makes such salvation possible.

Sartre uses violence in all its forms, bringing man face to face with his act, thereby forcing him to recognize his solitude in the universe and question his being. In so doing, he makes obvious the absurdity of the human condition and of established society. But there is an indication that effective action can overcome both of these and give man's life meaning and value. Physical violence is never presented on stage in any Marcellian play. When it occurs, as in the plays written near or during World War II, it is only referred to…. If these scenes are not shown in detail in Marcel's plays, psychological violence is, nevertheless, omnipresent. (pp. 100-01)

For Sartre the character confronted with the necessity for making a decision to act or to commit a usually irreversible and violent deed must decide and act alone. Confronted with such a decision or such an act and the awareness of the consequences, Sartre's characters eventually become aware of their solitude and their despair in face of a hostile universe…. At the moment of facing their act, they are aware of the absurdity of their position before a blind and heedless universe and of the futility of searching for help outside themselves. Sartre's heroes such as Goetz and Orestes accept their position and by their decisive actions give meaning and value to their existence. Others, les damnés, such as Inès, Estelle, and Garcin of Huis Clos, by refusing to accept their acts, create their own hell, from which they refuse to escape.

It is at this point that the two theatres are most dissimilar and, in fact, ultimately irreconcilable. By accepting their acts, Sartre's heroes not only give their lives meaning and create their freedom, but they also accept their solitude and the human condition. (p. 101)

The change in Marcel's plays after his conversion is understandable. He cannot accept Sartre's conclusions. That his characters remain in the state of solitude and angoisse that is common in contemporary literature is incompatible with Marcel's later philosophy in which espérance plays such a great part. Thus, whereas Sartre finds man's salvation in effective action, in despair itself, and in a sort of modern humanism, Marcel finds his hope in a recognition and acceptance of Divine Grace. In the later plays, Divine Grace usually operates through parapsychic phenomena, frequently the effective intervention of the beloved dead who have become présence, as in Le Monde cassé, L'Horizon, and Le Signe de la croix.

Choice of type of heroes further differentiates Marcel's theatre from that of Sartre. To underline the isolation of the hero, Sartre deliberately chooses an exceptional being, frequently a person on the edge of society…. Marcel's characters, on the other hand, while narrowly circumscribed by a particular social milieu, are not exceptional. All come from the cultivated class and have some degree of leisure…. All are surrounded by social and familial obligations. Like St.-Exupéry's heroes, each is pétri de liens. Given these circumstances, Sartre's characters, already outside or at odds with society, are, on the face of it, freer than are Marcel's. Bourgeois family ties, the cadre inside which all Marcellian tragedies unfold, are entirely absent from Sartrean tragedy.

Sartre's heroes are exceptional beings, not only because of their position in society, but also because of their continued struggle towards awareness of and acceptance of their situation. Marcel's heroes in the first seven plays are not exceptional beings in this sense, and this is probably one of the principal reasons that these are pièces sombres. Those in most of the plays after L'Iconoclaste (1923) are exceptional because of their perception of a dimension beyond the awareness of ordinary beings and because they are recipients of and participants in la grâce. (pp. 101-02)

Perhaps the basic difference between a Sartrean and a Marcellian hero is that for the former the assumption of the act which frees him gives him not only knowledge that it is his act, but also a sort of overweening pride in this fact, a sort of hubris for which he not only is not punished but is even set up as an example. The moment of salvation for a Marcellian hero, on the contrary, comes when he, in absolute humility, acknowledges his dependency on an agency and power outside himself. In accepting the aid of forces beyond his comprehension, he not only prepares for his own eventual salvation, but is led back into a harmonious relationship and communion with his fellow men, from whom he had been isolated. Only by means of the transcendent as a mediator is any Marcellian hero able to communicate with his brother. But for a Sartrean hero there is no connection between freedom and hope. His choice and act motivated by despair, the Sartrean hero is doomed inexorably to a sort of Luciferian solitude. L'autre can never be more than a threat to his self-sufficiency and integrity. The Marcellian hero, by accepting transcendent aid, la grâce as Marcel conceives it, is led to recognize the value of the other and is absorbed into a sort of Emersonian friendship, in which he can neither give nor receive, since true friends have all things in common.

The conflict dramatized in the plays of Sartre and Marcel comes about as a result of the position of modern man in a society more and more dominated by science and technology. The assertion that man ought rightfully to occupy the central position in respect to the universe is dominant in the works of both writers. In one of his most recently published books, The Existentialist Background of Human Dignity, an explication and defense of his philosophy by means of an analysis of his plays, Marcel says: "To be man; to continue to remain man. These are the words on which I have concentrated unceasingly for twenty years." Like Sartre, Marcel believes that man has come to the crucial point in his history. Both are concerned with the disintegration of values in life and literature as well as with the de-humanization of the individual which has been brought about by modern technology, almost an assassination of that in man which distinguishes him from the machine. (pp. 102-03)

Marcel rejects Sartre's deification of man by man, replacing it with a desire for "l'assomption par l'homme d'une Grâce qui descendait à sa rencontre." The salvation of the masses, according to Marcel, is impossible, for, considered as a whole, they are beyond redemption. Only the individual is worthy of salvation or capable of accepting it. (p. 103)

Although both Sartre and Marcel began their dramatic work in opposition to trends in the theatre prior to their day, their quarrel was not with the form they inherited but with its content…. The preoccupations of both playwrights are the same: the cancer of words of modern literature and life, violence as an element in contemporary life, the seeming impossibility of communion and communication in day-to-day existence, the pernicious influences of technology. In spite of the different dimensions with which they are concerned, Sartre with the here and now and Marcel with the transcendent, the final purpose of both theatres is the same: the redemption of man. And, though in Marcel's theatre neither freedom nor grace is to be had by the first comer, the solutions begin at the same point. Sartre's hero goes beyond himself and loses himself in his act, choosing thereby not for himself alone but for all mankind. (pp. 103-04)

Nina Cooper, "A Comparison of the Theatres of Gabriel Marcel and Jean-Paul Sartre," in Humanities Association Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, Spring, 1973, pp. 98-104.

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