Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 552
Jean-Paul Sartre, professor, philosopher, and author, was internationally known as an existential writer and thinker. His many works explore how the individual is free to act and how such freedom of choice, in an otherwise meaningless universe, can be overwhelming and frightening. In France, Sartre was a leading novelist, having written La Nausée (1938; Nausea, 1949) and L’Âge de raison (1945; The Age of Reason, 1947), and a playwright, with such credits as Les Mouches (pr., pb. 1943; The Flies, 1946) and La Putain respecteuse (pr., pb. 1946; The Respectful Prostitute, 1947). He also wrote a number of philosophical works devoted to existentialism; his most famous book on the subject, L’Être et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956), was published one year before No Exit made its stage debut. In 1964, Sartre’s scorn for elitism led him to refuse a Nobel Prize in Literature.
No Exit was written and first produced late in World War II, when France was occupied by Germany. The play therefore had to pass the Nazi censors, who read all scripts that were performed in the private theaters of Paris during the Occupation. Although there is nothing in the play that explicitly challenges German rule, audiences in 1944 regarded No Exit as subtly subversive.
For example, Garcin makes references to prewar pacifists, who at the time would have been thought of as collaborators. The three condemned souls repeatedly speak of whoever is in charge of Hell using the pronoun “they,” which the French used to refer to the Germans. Moreover, life in Paris during the Occupation, like life in Sartre’s drawing-room Hell, was at a standstill. Beyond these, there are perhaps other minor, less conscious references that audiences, rather than the playwright, discovered. Philosopher-writer Simone de Beauvoir recounted that in the novel, when the Valet ushers Garcin into the room, he tells the new arrival that they have all the electricity and heat they want; this passage made wartime audiences, faced with all kinds of shortages, laugh loudly. No Exit, like its author, was identified with the anti-German Resistance and was so successful that after Paris was liberated, the play continued running through the next season.
In part because its author was associated with the Resistance, No Exit initially received mixed reviews. Theater critics who collaborated or sympathized with the Germans complained that it was an immoral piece of writing. The crimes committed by Garcin, Inez, and Estelle are serious. During the Occupation, many were outraged by Sartre’s frank depiction of such criminal acts. Moreover, Inez’s lesbian identity was extremely controversial. Although many collaborationist critics condemned No Exit and called for its removal from the stage, some reviewers who disagreed with Sartre’s political views could not help but praise the brilliance of his concept.
The play has also been viewed as a dramatization of Sartre’s existentialist views. Hell for these three people is not a place where torture is assigned them; rather, it is embodied in their inability to alter their lives through choice. As the name of the play implies, there is no exit from the claustrophobic world in which they have been entombed. Nothing will ever change for them, and nothing they can do can ever make things better. This utter lack of freedom, Sartre implies, is for human beings the ultimate dead end—an existential Hell.