Jean-Paul Sartre

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Jean-Paul Sartre Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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 The best of his plays, although somewhat superseded in fashion during the 1950’s by the antirationalist efforts of Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and the early Arthur Adamov, are still considered among the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.

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...

(The entire section is 5,465 words.)