Jean-Paul Sartre

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Sartre, Jean-Paul (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sartre, Jean-Paul 1905–

Sartre, a French philosopher, novelist, playwright, and critic, is one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century. He has been called "the active conscience of an entire generation," examining every aspect of humanity from his existential point of view. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

[Sartre's] beginnings as a playwright [in a German prison camp in 1940] marked the emergence of his political commitment as well…. Drama became for Sartre his preferred means of expressing une littérature engagée committed to change both man's social condition and his conception of himself. A novel communicates with its readers as individuals, each in his solitude; a play in performance communicates directly with a group. During the war years, Sartre found in the theatre a way of speaking directly to an audience with whom he shared a common situation, the same anguish and the same hope.

Another aspect of theatre attracts Sartre: the need to make an immediate impression on the audience. In the theatre there is no possibility, as there is in a novel, to go back to certain scenes in order to understand them better. Sartre's plays abound in suspense, sudden reversals, and coups de théâtre. (p. 2)

In the theatre, Sartre studies man as the inventor of acts that decide what he is. His plays present characters performing acts that redefine the meaning of both the actor and the action itself.

Against a static theatre of caractères with its image of man as eternally the same, Sartre's plays present the image of man as a being constantly in the process of becoming, because he is what he does. (p. 4)

In the plays, genuine action—action as a means of changing the world—becomes lost in a maze of reflections. With the exception of Hoederer, the acts performed by Sartre's dramatic heroes are first of all attempts to realize a certain desired image; that is, to become absolute objects for themselves and for others.

Sartre uses the ambiguity inherent in theatre—both real event and imaginary representation—as a dominating theme of his plays. Since for Sartre man is what he does, the crux of the typical Sartrean plot concerns the individual in an extreme situation, forced to make a choice of action which calls his whole existence into question. At the same time, since we are in the theatre, these acts are inevitably gestures, performed by actors for an audience. Sartre often dramatizes this ambiguity by means of protagonists who themselves are playing roles, assigned to them by real or imagined spectators. Iris Murdoch makes the important point that "Sartre is interested in man not so much as a 'rational' being but as a 'reflective' being: self-picturing, self-deceiving, and acutely aware of the regard of others." His characters act in order to appropriate or to reject a particular image of themselves that they find in the eyes of others. As a result, they and their acts are constantly threatened with unreality, against which they chose to act in the first place. (pp. 5-6)

In a critique of bourgeois theatre given as a lecture at the Sorbonne in 1960, Sartre contended:

The theatre being an image, gestures are the image of action, and dramatic action is the action of characters…. Action, in the true sense of the word, is that of the character; there are no images in the theatre but the image of the act, and if one seeks the definition of theatre, one must ask what an act is, because the theatre can represent nothing but the act.

This statement is crucial to an understanding of what Sartre is trying to do in the theatre. The word "gesture" as Sartre uses it means what an actor in the theatre does; an act becomes a gesture when it is committed not in order to accomplish a particular objective, but rather, in order to be seen and consecrated as image. The relation between an act and its image is central in Sartre's thought and finds its most appropriate projection on the stage. In this way, theatre represents for...

(The entire section is 12,530 words.)