Jean-Paul Sartre Drama Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5465

Outside philosophical circles, it is likely that Jean-Paul Sartre’s reputation will ultimately be determined by the success or failure of his theater. His works of literary criticism, impressive though they may be, lie somewhat outside the critical mainstream and are perhaps more profitably read either as essays or as philosophy. With the notable exception of the early Nausea, his novels, although well written and occasionally rewarding, fall far short of the communication established almost without apparent effort in the plays. The best of his plays, although somewhat superseded in fashion during the 1950’s by the antirationalist efforts of Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and the early Arthur Adamov, are still considered among the strongest and most effective dramatic efforts of the twentieth century.

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Unlike most of the philosophers and other thinkers who, over the centuries, have attempted to write for the stage, Sartre was endowed with a basically theatrical imagination, heavily weighted toward the visual and psychological. In the strongest of his plays, the verbal element occurs as if spontaneously and by afterthought, the inevitable and hence quite plausible result of placing particular characters in a given situation. Language, instead of forming the basis of the action, arises from it as dialectic turns to dialogue. No Exit, in particular, was and remains a rousing piece of theater owing mainly to almost preverbal interaction among the ironically matched characters.

Although acquainted with Charles Dullin and other personalities of the Parisian stage from the early 1930’s onward, Sartre did not attempt playwriting until 1940, when, as a prisoner of war, he saw the stage as a suitable vehicle for thinly veiled propaganda directed toward his fellow prisoners. The result was Bariona, ostensibly a Christmas play about historical events surrounding the birth of Christ. Sartre’s captors, predictably sidetracked by Bariona’s Roman characters and setting, allowed the play to be performed as planned.

The Flies

Sartre’s earliest performed play, The Flies, brings forth in memorable, generally clear theatrical terms the distinctions between “essence” and “existence,” en-soi and pour-soi, explained at great length in his contemporary treatise Being and Nothingness. Of all beings, Sartre maintains, only human beings are capable of creating themselves through continuous acts of choice, proceeding beyond mere essence (which humans share, at birth, with stones, plants, and animals) toward uniquely human existence. Those persons who refuse to choose or to accept responsibility for choices that they have already made are guilty of “bad faith” (mauvaise foi) and are indeed renouncing their truly human potential for existence in favor of subhuman, or at least nonhuman, essence or “definability” that is little more preferable than death. Indeed, as the prefigured Hell of No Exit makes even clearer, those who reject the anguish of choice for the comfort of convenient self-definition and labels are in fact already dead, insofar as their lives could be presumed to make a difference. Only after death, contends Sartre, should it be possible to take the measure of a human life; what it then “adds up to” is beyond progress or repair. Until that point, any effort to complete the phrase “I am . . .” with either a predicate adjective or a predicate noun is the mark of a person “in love with death” who has relinquished the privilege of existence. By contrast, those who “exist,” in keeping with Sartre’s apparent ideal, are too busy choosing their lives and are changing too rapidly for labels to be applied by themselves or by anyone else.

The Flies, conceived in part as a rebuttal to Jean Giraudoux’s Électre (pr., pb. 1937; Electra, 1952), presents an Orestes who arrives in Argos quite unaware of his identity, only to choose the life and deeds of Orestes after weighing the evidence of Clytemnestra’s crime against his own intentions. Intended also as a political statement, its topical import, thinly veiled by Sartre’s then conventional use of antique characters and setting, The Flies portrays an Argive people crushed beneath the weight of a collective guilt, imposed on them from without by their self-serving and murderous rulers. Even Electra, perceived as a rebel in most prior retellings of the myth, is portrayed as inauthentic in her behavior: At the moment of crisis, she remains trapped in the acceptance (or perhaps even enjoyment) of an image of herself as seen by the usurpers. Only Orestes, having opted to define himself by choice alone, is capable of meaningful action.

Trading on a current vogue for Greek myth on the French stage, Sartre in The Flies managed both forceful anti-Nazi polemic and a reasonably effective presentation of his developing existentialist theories. Over the years since the play was first performed, even critics friendly to Sartre and to existentialism have perceived major flaws in the play that appear to have escaped notice for at least the first decade of its performed and published life; still, The Flies remains deservedly among the best-known and most frequently revived French plays.

No small part of the play’s effectiveness derives from Sartre’s confident use of imagery and language bordering frequently on crudity. The central image of predatory insects reflected in the play’s title reverberates often throughout the dialogue, supported by complementary allusions to garbage, filth, and tender, vulnerable flesh. Taking as his real object of scorn the collective guilt that had haunted the French people since the fall of France in 1940, and the subsequent establishment of a collaborationist government at Vichy, Sartre in The Flies effectively exploits the murder of Agamemnon and the tyrannical rule of Aegistheus to draw parallels between the Argives and the French. In Sartre’s version, Aegistheus and Clytemnestra have consolidated their rule by imposing on their subjects a collective guilt symbolized in a national tradition of mourning. At the start of the play, each subject, encouraged by the rulers, believes himself or herself to be vicariously guilty of Agamemnon’s murder, having willed the event in advance; annually, on the anniversary of Agamemnon’s death, ruled and rulers join in an act of ritual penance, groveling and fawning in gestures made vividly real by Sartre’s pungent imagery and language. Such is the scene beheld by the young and callow Orestes, who arrives in Argos as the foreign student Philebus, accompanied by his tutor. It remains therefore for the disinterested, detached Philebus voluntarily to choose his identity as Orestes, delivering the Argive people from their collective guilt with two additional assassinations for which he alone will bear the blame and guilt.

Although managed perhaps as effectively as possible within the limits of legend, Sartre’s portrayal of Orestes’ choice constitutes one of the play’s more fundamental and abiding weaknesses. Much as Sartre would have the audience accept Orestes as the archetypal existential hero, choosing his own existence above the comforting eventuality of essence, what remains at the play’s end, even in “existential” terms, is the sum of his deeds, precisely those deeds attributed to Orestes by several thousand years of legend and theatrical experience. Considerably more effective is Sartre’s presentation of Electra, a truly archetypal Sartrean coward who, at the moment of crisis, disastrously lacks the courage of her frequently spoken convictions. Long identified as a rebellious child who hates her mother and stepfather, Electra prefers the comfort of collective guilt to individual responsibility for their assassination. Almost equally effective is Sartre’s evocation of Jupiter, a suitably decadent Roman deity who materializes in response to Orestes’ repeated appeals for help from the Greek god Zeus. Displaying all the bonhomie of a corrupt political manipulator, Jupiter shows off his superhumanity with impressive parlor tricks, only to admit after Orestes’ deeds that the gods are in fact inventions of mankind, powerless against truly free men.

At the very end of The Flies, Sartre’s mixed metaphors run somewhat out of control as Orestes leaves Argos pursued by a horde of buzzing flies, defining himself by his current behavior as a curious blend of the Paraclete and the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Claiming that he has expiated the guilt of the Argives by taking the full burden on himself, he still refuses the additional burden of government. Self-defined as “a King with neither land nor subjects,” Orestes then trudges, as it were, off into the sunset, leaving each of his putative subjects free to create his or her own destiny. Perhaps impressive as polemic, the ending of The Flies proves a bit too weak, on reflection, to carry the full burden of Sartre’s existentialist exposition. No doubt confined within the restrictions of his chosen material, Sartre in The Flies still fails to provide the convincing illustration of human freedom that he appears to have had in mind. Notwithstanding, The Flies remains a perennially rousing and thought-provoking play, even when divorced from the historical context of its conception.

No Exit

With No Exit, first performed within fifteen months after The Flies, Sartre so far transcended his earlier effort as to prove that prior success to have been no accident. Here, unbound by the constraints of established legend, Sartre exercised his own freedom to bring forth an utterly human interpersonal hell for which physical death is no prerequisite. Although supposedly dead and hence incapable of changing the sum of their lives, the womanizer, lesbian, and nymphomaniac who find themselves locked uneasily together in the eternal torture of interdependence merely replicate the suffering endured, through implied consent, by those who consistently refuse to alter or even question their daily approach to life.

Pursuing the penchant for crude if apt imagery that had transformed Orestes’ Furies into a horde of biting flies, Sartre, in No Exit, went even further to assure himself of an audience through his use of shock tactics, including explicit if still printable speech. Although some observers continue to see in the play a reasonably successful attempt at Camus’s stated goal of “modern tragedy,” Sartre’s most perceptible method is that of melodrama as commonly interpreted, and practiced, by the producers of broadcast serials. No Exit, although often read in literature courses, might well be described as subliterary; on the stage, however, it remains both audacious and compelling.

The French title of No Exit is drawn from legal terminology (of which the British translation, In Camera, is no doubt a more faithful rendering than the American) to denote a trial or hearing conducted behind closed doors. No Exit is in all likelihood Sartre’s one true dramatic masterpiece. Its action necessarily compressed into a single act of a little more than one hour’s playing time, Sartre’s second professional dramatic effort goes considerably further than The Flies toward illustrating the author’s philosophy in memorable theatrical terms. Even without consideration of the ideas involved, No Exit remains one of the most effective and affecting plays to emerge from France in the twentieth century.

Intended as communication rather than as literature, No Exit achieves its remarkable effect at what might well be considered the level of soap opera, thanks in part to the brutal frankness of expression that Sartre had all but perfected in The Flies. Set in an imagined Hell that, by Sartre’s own admission, need not be the afterlife, No Exit portrays the mutual torture of three individuals defined as “dead” by their individual resistance to change or even to self-interrogation. Within the terms of the play, the three principals are portrayed as physically dead as well; yet it is soon clear that such death has merely fixed and confined a reality of long standing. Even Inès, the strongest of the three main characters and the one among them who most clearly speaks for the playwright, remains condemned by her early and unquestioning acceptance of a label applied to her from without, by perceived public opinion.

Significantly, at least two of the three main characters of No Exit are little surprised to find themselves in Hell. Both Garcin and Inès have died violently; moreover, the conduct of their lives has led them to expect the worst. What they have not anticipated, however, is the precise nature of the place; Garcin, first to arrive, is somewhat nonplussed to find a Second Empire drawing room instead of a medieval torture chamber. As Inès will soon observe, however, whoever is in charge has decided to save on staff by having the “clients” torture one another themselves; indeed, the three eternal inhabitants of the overdecorated room have been diabolically well matched. Garcin, formerly a journalist, is a self-styled “tough guy” who believes himself to be in Hell because of the way he treated his long-suffering wife: On at least one occasion, he recalls, he brought his mulatto mistress into their home and had his wife serve them breakfast in bed. Inès, perhaps even tougher, admitted her lesbianism early in life and has since nourished few, if any, illusions. Only the third arrival, an incipient nymphomaniac and would-be socialite named Estelle, appears surprised to find herself in Hell; she is also the only member of the trio to have died from natural causes. Although Estelle has actually committed murder, her presence in Sartre’s Hell derives rather from her passive, shallow, and, above all, unexamined life: Born poor, she married for money and became an unreflective snob. Inès, although sexually attracted to Estelle, despises her because she never had to work for a living; Inès, meanwhile, remains bitterly proud of her own long service as a postal clerk.

As the action progresses, it soon becomes clear that Garcin has the most to hide. As editor of a pacifist journal in Rio de Janeiro, he left for Mexico City as soon as World War II was declared; arrested for desertion, he was subsequently executed by a firing squad. Inès, considerably more honest with herself than Garcin has ever been, loses little time in exploiting Garcin’s inner fears that he has died a coward’s death, thus proving that he has lived a coward’s life as well. Regardless of his hopes or motivations, the line has now been drawn, and his life adds up to nothing more or less than the sum of his proven actions. In the cold light of Inès’ lucidity, Garcin stands all but revealed as a coward; his only hope, as it were, is to persuade Inès that he is a hero.

Inès, although no doubt the most exemplary of the three characters portrayed in No Exit, proves deserving of her fate because, although lucid, she has accepted without question the condemnation of society. Trading on the French expression femme damnée (literally, “damned woman”) to denote a lesbian, Sartre here presents a woman who has allowed society’s negative judgment of her sexual preference not only to dominate her life but also to define it. Most of Inès’ life has indeed been spent living up (or down) to her bad name—disrupting marriages and causing suicides. Apparently, it has never occurred to her to choose any identity or existence other than that chosen for her by perceived public opinion.

Of the three characters, Estelle is deliberately portrayed as the least interesting, the object of mildly political satire insofar as she is a mindless, useless member of the bourgeoisie. For Estelle, the greatest torture to be found in Hell is the absence of mirrors, on which she has come to depend for confirmation of her essence. In one of the play’s most effective conceits, Inès is able to manipulate Estelle completely by telling her that her lipstick is off-center or that she has a pimple on her chin. Only gradually does Estelle, a woman overfond of euphemisms, come to admit that she was guilty of drowning her love child, born of a relatively poor man who later committed suicide.

Outspoken not only in her preference for women but also in her parallel antipathy toward men, Inès provides the play with most of its perceptible action. As the most lucid of the trio, she is also the most emotional and the most articulate. Garcin’s inept, halfhearted efforts to make love to Estelle elicit from Inès shrill cries of envy and denunciation. Estelle, meanwhile, proves resistant to Inès’s amorous advances so long as there is a man in the room. Garcin, although attracted to Estelle, insists on her reassurance that he is not a coward, but Estelle remains too flighty and shallow to care whether he is a coward, “so long as he kisses well.” When the door pops open unexpectedly, however, none of the characters leaves; each has by then become too dependent on the purely negative tensions that bind them together. Garcin, for example, “needs” Inès because she alone can understand him, her judgment an immovable object against which he must continually try his supposedly irresistible force.

Although, as Sartre concedes, the principals of No Exit need not be physically dead, the assumption of their demise allows for the inclusion of certain theatrical tricks that enhance the play’s effectiveness. Being dead, the characters therefore cannot kill one another. As the conversation continues, moreover, it becomes increasingly evident that time in Hell has been somehow compressed (or perhaps stretched). Soon after their arrival, still somewhat attached to their lives, the characters can still see their erstwhile friends and surroundings; with time, however, their vision grows dimmer, and it soon becomes clear that each minute of their conversation is equivalent to several weeks on earth. At one point, for example, Garcin observes that his widow, alive at the start of the play, has been dead for about six months. By then, however, such details are quite without importance, as all three are well settled into the hell of mutual incomprehension that they have long since chosen through their actions.

Perennially popular with both professional and amateur theater groups, No Exit remains quite probably the most widely disseminated of Sartre’s plays, its few flaws generally well concealed by the tightness and efficiency of its construction. Never again would Sartre the playwright express himself with such unerring aptness and economy, although at least two of his subsequent plays also give convincing dramatic form to his ideas.

Having discovered, with No Exit, the apparent secret of reaching and keeping an audience, Sartre continued to direct the remainder of his plays toward the same real or imagined public, with varying degrees of success. His next two plays, produced on a double bill in 1946, are deemed by most to have been failures and are seldom read or revived: The Victors, dealing with captured Resistance fighters during World War II, is an unconvincing blend of near-tragedy and melodrama; The Respectful Prostitute, incongruously set in an America that Sartre had not yet seen and based on the Scottsboro race trials of the 1930’s, falls considerably short of Sartre’s apparent intention of social satire with comic overtones. In both plays, however, Sartre’s expressed thought remains consistent with his earlier and more successful dramatic efforts, stressing the difference between authentic and inauthentic behavior as exemplified in the individual character’s perception between ends and means.

Dirty Hands

In 1948, Sartre undertook to combine the best of his approaches to theater with such existing conventions as the political thriller and the murder mystery. The result was Dirty Hands (also known as Red Gloves), later successfully filmed, an inversion of traditional procedure in that both victim and assassin are identified from the start. Consistent with Sartre’s philosophy and general outlook, the suspense—and it can be considerable, provided that the play is competently directed—resides not in the identity but rather in the motive of the murderer, who himself participates in searching for the truth. A reluctant assassin at the very least, Hugo Barine must decide to his own satisfaction whether the shooting for which he has served time in prison was motivated by simple passion or by politics. Unsparing in its satire of expediency in leftist politics or indeed in any politics, Dirty Hands was interpreted by many contemporary observers, no doubt inaccurately, as Sartre’s “anti-Communist” play. In fact, Dirty Hands is both less and more than that, a philosophical play with strong psychological overtones, which, in a sense, simply happens to be about politics. Although perhaps excessive in length, Dirty Hands has proved over the years to be both less topical and more durable than was at first supposed, a powerful and memorable character study evoking the thin line between the psychological and social dimensions of the individual, here exemplified by the indulged, immature, and irresolute Hugo.

Dirty Hands remains one of Sartre’s more noteworthy and satisfying efforts, a vigorous melodrama with undertones of both the comic and the tragic. Psychological rather than political in substance, Dirty Hands offers as its central character a considerably less-than-tragic hero, one who has committed murder without quite knowing why. Based in part on the known facts surrounding the assassination of Leon Trotsky in 1940, the murder of Hoederer was planned long in advance as a political act by members of his own party; the problem, however, derives from the party’s ironic choice of an assassin. Hugo Barine, a pampered rich boy with strong radical leanings no doubt motivated by guilt, finds in the gruff, avuncular Hoederer a surrogate father figure to exceed his wildest dreams. For the longest time he cannot bring himself to kill the man, even as the party regulars grow increasingly impatient with his hesitation and plan an assault of their own. When at last Hugo does bring himself to kill Hoederer, his motives lie concealed beneath a tangled web of conflicting emotions, not the least of which is cuckoldry. In order to live with himself, however, Hugo must try to disentangle the web even after serving time in prison for the murder. By the time that Hugo regains his freedom, matters are complicated still further by the fact that Hoederer has been posthumously rehabilitated by the same political forces that engineered his death.

Exposed largely through flashbacks, the action of Dirty Hands involves a large cast of varied and interesting characters, ranging from the radical Olga (who probably loves Hugo but will not intervene to save his life) to the two inadvertently humorous hired thugs assigned to Hoederer as bodyguards. It is Hoederer himself, however, who emerges somewhat incongruously as the true hero of the play, one of the few truly decent and admirable characters in all of Sartre’s theater. True to his character, he has done nearly all in his power to avoid romantic involvement with Hugo’s wife, Jessica, who, without his knowledge, has volunteered to commit the murder herself so long as her husband refuses to do so.

With the possible exception of Hugo, Jessica is in all likelihood the most complex and fascinating character in Dirty Hands, although she often appears to have been cast by Sartre in the wrong play: Although her flirtatious and enigmatic behavior will provide one of the possible motivations for Hugo’s act of murder, Jessica more often appears extraneous to the action, included more for her intrinsic interest than for her importance to the plot. Perhaps a borderline psychotic, Jessica is able to relate to her husband only during scenes of childish game playing that closely resemble folies à deux; such scenes, although they cast some doubt on Hugo’s sanity, shed little light on his possible motivations.

Perhaps the major weakness of the play is that Hugo, for all his clinical interest as a psychological phenomenon, is simply not sufficiently interesting as a character to involve the spectator’s interest in his possible thoughts as he pulls the trigger. His final, retrospective gesture of heroism—or suicide—thus strikes many audiences as either anticlimactic or gratuitous, robbing Dirty Hands of much of its apparently intended impact. Too particularized, and in a negative way, to be seen as Everyman, yet viewed too closely for Brechtian objectivity, the character of Hugo ultimately fails to bear the burden of exposition placed on his slender shoulders by an author then enamored of psychological case histories.

Heavily cut and adapted almost beyond recognition, Dirty Hands enjoyed a long, successful run in New York during the late 1940’s as Red Gloves, an “anti-communist play by Jean-Paul Sartre.” Sartre, believing his intentions to have been betrayed, protested vigorously, but the play went on to achieve a reputation perhaps ill-deserved. In the original French, Dirty Hands remains a better play than it at first may seem, but it is surely not a political play except to the extent that Sartre, like any effective satirist, casts aspersions on all sides.

The Devil and the Good Lord

Sartre’s subsequent stage effort, The Devil and the Good Lord, is perhaps best remembered as the last play to be mounted by the eminent director Louis Jouvet, who died some two months after the play opened to somewhat mixed reviews. Perhaps overly ambitious both in theme and scope, The Devil and the Good Lord shares the historical setting and characters of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand (pb. 1773; Götz von Berlichingen with the Iron Hand, 1799), which Sartre scrupulously avoided reading in order to guarantee, or prove, the authenticity of his own dramatic statement. Although considered by some critics to be among the author’s finest dramatic efforts, Sartre’s portrayal of Goetz and his uprising has generally failed to withstand the test of time and is seldom read or revived.

Kean

Somewhat more successful is Kean, adapted from Alexandre Dumas, père’s version of the British actor’s life at the request of the French actor Pierre Brasseur, who had appeared in Jouvet’s production of The Devil and the Good Lord. Couched, like the original, within the framework of a play-within-a-play, Sartre’s adaptation successfully transforms the Romantic hero of Dumas into an anguished existentialist in search of his own authenticity. As interpreted by Brasseur, the play was not without its comic dimensions, and Sartre, thus encouraged, went on to attempt an original comedy for the first time since The Respectful Prostitute.

Nekrassov

The result was Nekrassov, a slight but generally successful satire of politics, the press, and the institution of celebrity. The protagonist, a petty criminal and confidence man named Georges de Valéra, endeavors to avoid capture by assuming the identity of one Nekrassov, a high-ranking Soviet politician who has mysteriously dropped out of sight. Abetted by the staff of a highly conservative evening newspaper, the fugitive plays his role of defector with consummate skill, only to find his authenticity compromised by right-wing political interests even after the real Nekrassov is discovered to have been sunning himself in the Crimea on a long-overdue vacation. Given the need for a Nekrassov who has defected to the West, de Valéra finds himself trapped in an unwelcome and increasingly uncomfortable role. For all its merits, Nekrassov nevertheless fell somewhat below the level of enlightened entertainment that audiences and critics alike had come to expect from Sartre, and in what turned out to be his last original play, Sartre appeared determined to offer something more.

The Condemned of Altona

The Condemned of Altona, first performed in 1959, ranks by any standard among Sartre’s more impressive and memorable efforts, treading a thin line between realism and allegory in its evocation of contemporary history. The central character of the play is Franz von Gerlach, an erstwhile Nazi officer who has spent the postwar years in the apparent grip of madness, carefully hidden from view by his wealthy and influential family, while it is assumed by everyone else that he has died in Argentina. Determined to justify at all costs behavior that is now deemed abominable, Franz continually explains himself in taped addresses to the “tribunal of history,” represented by hallucinated crabs on the ceiling that Franz sees as the future inhabitants of Earth. Like Dirty Hands, The Condemned of Altona is perhaps excessively long and somewhat confused in its plotting; yet it amply justifies the reputation that Sartre had earned with his earliest plays.

Sartre’s last original play repays the spectator’s attention with an ingenious, closely reasoned inquiry into the lessons of contemporary history. Although explicitly set in post-Nazi Germany, with strong topical allusions to the French presence in Algeria as well, The Condemned of Altona, like Dirty Hands, deals less with politics than with psychology. Franz von Gerlach, elder son of a wealthy shipbuilder, initially resists the Nazis with both his conscience and his deeds, until he learns to his chagrin that his inherited wealth renders true resistance impossible. Thereafter, he goes to war against the Allies with every expectation of meeting an early death in battle. Instead, he survives just long enough to inflict the torture of two captured Russian partisans and thereafter to become the Butcher of Smolensk, a full-fledged Nazi war criminal. Believed dead, he has in fact spent the better part of fifteen years in the shelter of his family home, protected from the world (in all senses of the term) by an apparent wall of madness. The only member of the family who even sees him in his attic lair is his sister Leni, with whom he has long since conceived an incestuous relationship. Leni, whose personality has by now all but fused with his own, participates willingly in his delirium and nurtures his illusion that the war is still in progress, with Germany losing all its wealth and strength to the Allies. It is the elder von Gerlach’s impending death from cancer that causes a long overdue rent in the antisocial fabric of Franz’s isolation. Determined that he and his elder son should die together, the old man begins hatching desperate schemes to entice Franz out of hiding. In the main, these efforts involve his daughter-in-law Johanna, with whom the crafty old fellow correctly predicts that Franz will fall in love.

As the outside world begins to invade his life in the person of Johanna, it becomes increasingly clear to characters and spectator alike that Franz’s insanity is largely willful, if indeed not totally feigned. As a basically decent man formed in a tradition of Protestant faith and practice, Franz simply cannot bring himself to admit that he has been the Butcher of Smolensk. Instead, he recites the “last messages of a dying Germany” to an imagined audience of crabs on the ceiling, taking care to tape his messages for posterity. Presumably, in Franz’s semilucid consciousness, the inhuman crustaceans represent the future inhabitants of earth, successors to a humankind that is about to bungle its last chance. As in Dirty Hands, exposition occurs largely in vivid flashbacks, evolving toward a crisis in the present as Franz learns that the war is over and Johanna, who has just succeeded in fanning Franz’s last latent spark of humanity, renounces him forever on learning the guilty secret of his past. The double suicide will then take place as old von Gerlach has planned it, with only his own body to be buried with funeral honors. After all, Franz has been “buried” for years under a headstone bearing his name in Argentina.

For all the unwieldiness and implausibility of its plot, The Condemned of Altona is, on balance, a rather more successful and satisfying play than Dirty Hands, owing in part to the generally credible and not-unsympathetic character of Franz. Indeed, the conflict between memory and ideals as one contemplates the unthinkable might well lead to madness, either willful or involuntary. In any event, Franz is a more dimensional and fully realized character than is Hugo Barine of Dirty Hands. Together with Johanna, the spectator, even as he finds Franz ultimately repellent, cannot fail to have found him more than a little fascinating as well. Aided by some of the most compelling dialogue that Sartre had written since No Exit, the play tends to linger in the spectator’s mind, raising questions of guilt and innocence that can never truly be resolved. Indeed, suggests Sartre, the image of humankind in the mid-twentieth century is hardly preferable to that of the crabs on Franz von Gerlach’s ceiling. Whether Sartre intended this play to be his last, it nevertheless closed his playwriting career on an impressive note approximating that of triumph.

The Trojan Women

By 1959, however, Sartre had all but lost interest in the stage as a vehicle for his thought and expression, preferring instead to practice the type of literary criticism that had occupied him earlier in his career. The Trojan Women, his adaptation of Euripides’ Triades (415 b.c.e.; The Trojan Women, 1782), first performed in 1965, contains relatively few personal touches and was, in any case, his last attempt at writing for the stage.

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