The Theme of Cowardice in Satre's Play

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Last Updated on May 17, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1499

The three characters that are condemned to the hell in No Exit all have one thing in common: each of them displays cowardice. Cowardice means they lack courage. Joseph Garcin, the pacifist newspaper reporter, and Estelle, the young socialite, both lacked courage in their lives, and in hell, they cannot face the truth about themselves. Inez is at once a more complex yet more simple character. She believes she is a sadist, and her actions more than prove that. But a sadist needs others to torture, and Inez cowers from aloneness. No matter what their differences, all three of them share one act of cowardice at a key moment in the play. The door to the drawing room opens, offering an unknown opportunity, but none of them is brave enough to leave. In understanding each character, and what hell does for them as a whole, the reason why they make that decision becomes clearer.

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Garcin's cowardice is the most obvious of the three and takes several forms. When he was alive, he was an editor at a newspaper in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Garcin was a pacifist, and he was put to death for his convictions. These are the first two facts Garcin presents about himself to the women in hell. Garcin agrees with Estelle at first; they do not know why they wound up in hell. He thinks it's a fluke. Garcin asks at one point early in the play, "do you think it's a crime to stand by your principles?'' But Garcin is ultimately forced to admit the truth about himself. He was cruel to his wife, going as far to bring another woman into their home and sleeping with her while his wife was upstairs. To make matters worse, his wife served Garcin and his lover coffee in bed.

The other truth about Garcin is his most literal cowardice. Though Garcin was indeed a pacifist, he acted on his beliefs in a spineless manner. Instead of staying and exclaiming his pacifist beliefs in Brazil, Garcin jumped on a train to Mexico, where he intended to start a pacifist paper. He was caught by officials near the border, imprisoned and shot by a firing squad for trying to run away from military service. But even in his cell while he awaited his fate, Garcin rationalized that "If I face death courageously, I'll prove I am no coward.'' Inez asks him how he faced it, and Garcin admits, ‘‘Miserably. Rottenly.’’ This is compounded by the fact that from hell, Garcin can hear his colleagues at the paper talking about him and calling him a coward. Garcin did not have enough time in life to correct this image of himself, and he regrets it.

Estelle's cowardice takes on similar forms. In her life, she married a rich older man because she was poor and needed help taking care of her younger brother. Roger, an impoverished young man, became enamored with her, and she fell in love with him. They carried on an affair, and Roger wanted to have children with Estelle. She became pregnant by him and delivered a baby without her husband's knowledge. But Estelle did not want the baby, so in one cowardly act, she murdered the infant in front of its father. Roger was so distraught that he committed suicide. Estelle cannot admit her cowardice had a suicidal effect on him. She claimed "It was absurd of him, really, my husband never suspected anything.’’ Instead of facing her crime, she chose to be superficial and cowardly. She eventually died from an unrelated illness, pneumonia.

Even more than Garcin, Estelle is in denial about her reasons for being in hell. She even cowers from the word "dead," insisting on the phrase "absentee." She thinks there has been some sort of clerical error that led to her being in this room with the others. ‘‘Just think of the number of people who—who become absentees every day ... probably they're sorted out by—by understrappers, you know what I mean. Stupid employees who don't know their job. So they're bound to make mistakes sometimes.’’ She does not have the courage to face truth in either life or death but is forced to by Garcin and Inez. This is reinforced by Estelle's vision of her friend Olga, who is still alive. Olga tells Peter, another young man who admired Estelle in life, about Estelle's indiscretions.

Inez does not show cowardice in the same way as the other two. From the first, she accepts her fate in hell. She believes that she deserves to be there. She says that she was not human, even when she was alive. When Garcin asks for her aid in defeating "their devilish tricks'' by helping him, she replies, ‘‘Human feeling. That's beyond my range. I'm rotten to the core.'' In life, Inez was a self-described sadist. She lived with her cousin and his wife, with whom she began a lesbian affair. The cousin was distraught and eventually died in a tram accident. Inez tortured Florence by telling her that they killed him together. Florence eventually killed both herself and Inez by turning on the gas stove during the night.

Inez's sadism is the core of her cowardice. She needs someone else to torture to be sadistic. Though she despises Garcin and desires Estelle, she needs both of them to be recipients of her sadism. Inez wants to control Estelle as she did Florence, and use her to punish Garcin. Garcin puts himself at the mercy of Inez, wanting her confirmation that he is not a coward. Inez needs these kinds of relationships. She engineers them in the course of the play. Though it is never explicitly stated, Inez is afraid to be alone. Without others, she cannot exist. This comes into focus late in the play when Garcin and Estelle try to ignore Inez and kiss. Inez squeals in agony, saying anything to break them up, just so she can be part of the action. She does not have to be at its center, but she must control it in some way.

The three characters' cowardices come to a head during a moment of crisis for Garcin. He decides to accept Estelle's advances towards him, but only if she has faith in him that he is not really a coward. Inez forces Estelle to admit that she likes him simply because he is a man. She cannot assure him he is not a coward, because she does not understand what he wants from her. Garcin is appalled and starts banging on the door to escape from the two women. While Inez tries again to seduce Estelle, Estelle says she will leave with Garcin. All of a sudden, the door flings open and Garcin nearly falls into the passageway. Garcin and Estelle hesitate, but then do not leave. Inez finds the situation outrageously funny, and starts to laugh. Estelle tries to push Inez out, and Inez cries, ‘‘Estelle! I beg you let me stay. I won't go, I won't go! Not into the passage.'' Garcin says that he is staying in the room for Inez's approval, and shuts the door.

This exchange shows how each of the characters cowers from the unknown. Garcin needs Inez to confirm he is not a coward. Estelle will not leave without Garcin. And Inez resists going out into the passageway where there might not be anyone for her to torture. They would rather be in a small, stuffy, overheated room with people they do not like or trust than to be caught in the passageways of hell. There is more certainty in a room that is always alight, where they can never blink or rest, than in the unknown of the hallway. They accept at that moment that their eternal fates are linked together. They can face the truth about themselves, but they cannot face the unknown. Their cowardice has a new dimension.

For most of the play, the threesome come to grips with who they are and why they are in hell. They learn that they can only face the truth with each other. Their fates, as Inez points out, are intertwined. There are no mirrors in which to see themselves. They can see who they are only through the eyes of another. Such self-realization combined with the circle of tension will occupy them for eternity because they can do nothing about their crimes. Growth is impossible because they are already dead. Inez says, "One always dies too soon—or too late. And yet one's whole life is complete at that moment, with a line drawn neatly under it, ready for the summing up. You are your life, and nothing else." Their punishment is to see their lives and their crimes judged by the others forever. To live the life of a coward is bad enough, but to "live'' as one for eternity is even worse.

Source: A. Petrusso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.

The Beautiful and the Damned

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Last Updated on May 17, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1524

As if the contemporary world were not reason enough, there is also No Exit, a new play by Jean-Paul Sartre, to make hell highly topical as a subject just now. M. Sartre's hell is quite a different place either from the hell to which life of recent years has exposed people everywhere, or that to which literature and the drama have accustomed us.

Tantalus, old and withered, standing in a pool up to his chin, and in his terrible thirst lapping at the water which disappears eternally just as he is about to moisten his parched lips. Sisyphus, his body arched everlastingly against a rock which he must push up a hill, only to find at the crest that it rolls down again and he must recommence his labors. Tityos, stretched on the earth, his giant hands powerless to move, as vultures on either side of him plunge their beaks into his flesh and pluck at his liver. These are among the classic images of the punishments of the damned. Ever since Odysseus looked upon them, they or their kind have haunted men's minds.

Dante added to these images his own longer catalogue of horrors in ‘‘The Divine Comedy.’’ What is more, most of us are brought up even now to picture a Christian hell in terms of variations of these themes. Stoke the furnaces of Gehenna; add demons, pitchforks, and brimstone; but, above all, let the flames roar and include the agonies of eternal roasting, and you have some approximation of that hell of physical suffering in describing which hosts of ministers have not only exercised but demonstrated their fictional talents.

Why fictional talents? Because, as we are tempted to forget, the hell which the Thunderers of the Sawdust Trail have always loved to depict in every lurid detail as if they were travelers just returned from there, is hard to find in the Bible. Apparently as a notion, fearsome and corrective, it shared one, and only one, trait with Topsy. It ‘‘jes' growed.’’

It grew out of man's natural fears, out of his knowledge of pain, out of his conviction that Satan in his great power must exceed even man's inventiveness at cruelty. It came as an inheritance from, and an extension of, mythology. It blossomed by association, because Gehenna was a valley near Jerusalem used for the disposal of garbage.

To prevent disease, this refuse was burned, and constant flames flared there. The intellectual step connecting the disposal of garbage with the disposal of humans who, so to speak, were also refuse, was a simple one. The belief in purification through fire must be as old as fire itself. Hence the nostril-choking flames of Gehenna became almost inevitably for the imaginative the sulphurous flames of hell. But hell as it is usually pictured—hell as many people envisage it—is apocryphal. One of the most terrible reflections on man's nature is the torture he has been able to imagine in God's name.

No punishments known to Hades or ‘‘The Inferno,'' or dear to the traditionalists of the "Old-time Religion,'' are worse than the tortures to which the lost souls in M. Sartre's No Exit are condemned. M. Sartre's is a very special, post-Freudian, post-Briffault hell. In its choice of inmates and range of torments, it is French. It is French in its flavor, too; French in its intellectual agility; French because even in such sulphurous surroundings neither the eternal triangle nor ‘‘La Garconne’’ has been forgotten. They have merely gone underground.

Yet Gallic as it is, it is more than that. It casts its oblique light on the thinking of a Europe wearied and ravaged by these past years. For this very reason it is comparable in its interest to a book so dubious in its detail, though evidently so valid in its general tone, as Curzio Malaparte's "Kaputt."

"The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven,’’ says Milton's Satan. M. Sartre's hell is free of active physical cruelties. It gets along without scourges, flames, or furnaces. No devils intrude, pitchforking the damned into the gaping bicuspids of a smoking "Hell-Mouth'' as they did in the old Mystery plays. They do not have to. Beelzebub is already in full possession of the brains of the three lost souls in this intellectual guignol. The punishments with which M. Sartre appalls and intrigues us are all mental, a fact which does not lessen their pain.

The first misery suffered in his House of the Dead is claustrophobia. Hell, says one of his characters, is other people. It is also ourselves, because, in spite of what M. Sartre may preach as an Existentialist, as a dramatist he holds individuals accountable for their own doom. His hell is likewise the fearsome fate of being compelled to live with two other unbearable persons in a small windowless room. Not only this, but also of seeking help in vain from these companions, and then being engulfed all over again in the same pattern of repeated meannesses.

The room into which M. Sartre's condemned are led by a satanic bellboy is a forbidding place. Had the devil been a stage designer, he could not have done a better job at exercising his spell than Frederick Kiesler has done for him. Mr. Kiesler's setting is an interior, ugly and out of joint. Yet it is more than this. Palpably it is meant to make self-destruction impossible. Though it is not one, it has the feeling of a padded cell and is as constricting as a straitjacket.

It is a tawdry living room seen in nightmarish terms. But it is also a dungeon, made the more unendurable because its furnishings do not confess its function. In spite of being lighted, there is in it something of that ‘‘darkness visible’’ which was seen after the Fall by Milton's Satan. This makes itself felt terribly, for example, at the moment when we learn that behind the curtains which promise a window, a view, and even some hope of escape, there are only imprisoning bricks where there should be glass.

The three people M. Sartre sentences to torturing one another with their obsessions and their memories are not a pretty trio. One of them is a Lesbian because of whom a girl has committed suicide. The second is an American nymphomaniac who has betrayed her husband and her lover. The third is not only a collaborationist, at one moment swaggering, at the next sniveling, but a sadist who has brought misery to his wife. What they undergo for an hour and a half in their shifting antagonisms and relationships is an anguish macabre and terrible, though nonetheless absorbing.

George Jean Nathan has wisely pointed out how much half-baked Wedekind and Strindberg there is in M. Sartre's script. Almost everyone who has seen No Exit has realized that during the last ten minutes the play drags and the attention wanders. Certainly, M. Sartre's play is not all it might and should be as a drama. For me, at least, it suffers, in addition to its own insufficiencies, because of the intermittent colloquialisms of Paul Bowles's translation.

Even so, I found No Exit one of the most interesting of the season's offerings. I, for one, would rather sit before it than a monthful of such shopworn fables as "The Fatal Weakness,'" 'Happy Birthday,’’ or ‘‘Present Laughter.’’ At least it abandons the familiar stencils and grapples with an unusual idea. A mind is at work in it; a mind, alert, audacious and original, which has been touched by the agony of the modern world.

The evening No Exit affords is not designed for those whose only demand of the theatre is that it take over where the soap operas leave off; that it bolt its doors on the unpleasant; or that it function as a public nursery where adult kiddies can be left untroubled for an hour or so to play with toys which cannot hurt them. In spite of what is too special in them for the play's good, the sinners in No Exit can claim one radiant virtue. They shatter the ordinary formula. They supply playgoers with escape from escape, rather than escape itself. In the words of a man who, though royal, was not a Prince of Darkness, this is ‘‘a consummation devoutly to be wish'd."

Moreover, as adult theatre, M. Sartre's play has been given an adult production here. A certain fear of inviting the baneful siren of the Black Maria may at times inhibit the acting (as apparently it did not either in Paris or London). But the production has been sensitively and, for the most part, unflinchingly directed by John Huston. It is admirably acted by Peter Kass as the bellboy, Claude Dauphin as the collaborationist, and Annabella as the homosexual. As the frenzied American Ruth Ford has her excellent moments, too, though she lacks the fire Tallulah Bankhead would have brought to the part without any stoking.

Source: John Mason Brown, ‘‘The Beautiful and the Damned, in the Saturday Review, Volume 29, no. 52, December 28, 1946, pp. 26-29.

The Worldwide Popularity of Sarte's Play

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Last Updated on May 17, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 908

No Exit (Biltmore Theater) is the English version of a phenomenally successful French play by Jean-Paul Sartre, high priest of existentialism. The scene is hell, the running time only a little over an hour and a quarter, and the total effect that of a rather ingenious shocker of a sort which would not have been out of place on the program at the Grand Guignol a generation ago. Three people—a Lesbian, a male collaborationist, and an American playgirl who murdered her child—find themselves after death shut up together in a hotel room. They enter at once upon a brief cycle of disputation in the course of which each manages to torture the other; then, as the cycle begins to repeat itself exactly, the curtain goes down. The three, it is evident, will pass eternity going over the same painful ground again, and again, and again. Since they will never sleep, hell, as one of them says, is merely life with no time off.

Of existentialism I know only what I read in the papers—including The Nation. It is, I have been told on various occasions, the theology of Kirkegaard with God left out; the conviction that though the world is both evil and without meaning nothing much can be done about it; and, finally, the determination to reject society while acting as an atomic individual. So far as I can see, it neatly combines the disadvantages of religious faith with those of nihilistic atheism. It seems, in other words, to assert moral responsibility while at the same time insisting that virtue has no reward, and it thus enables M. Sartre to revive the ancient proclamation, "There is no God and I am his prophet.'' But if this summary is inadequate, the fact is of no great importance at the moment, since no more—indeed hardly that much—could be deduced from the present play, whose virtues and limitations are obvious enough even to a spectator who has received no previous indoctrination.

Chief among the virtues is a genuinely macabre quality which makes itself felt most effectively during the first fifteen minutes, when the central conception is being presented and the atmosphere of horror being established. The ugly room, furnished in rather expensive bad taste and hideously lit by an unshielded chandelier in the ceiling, is just small enough to generate in the spectator a disconcerting claustrophobia, and as the victims are introduced one after another we share to some real extent both their nervous apprehension and the horror with which they realize the implications of their situation. Baudelaire talked about the frisson nouveau, and though it is no longer exactly new the shiver or thrill can still be provoked. Unfortunately, like most plays based upon a conception which can be effectively stated in a few words, No Exit suffers from the fact that the interest tends to decline steadily from the moment when the conception has been grasped and the playwright begins to try to fill in with sufficient material to stretch the action out beyond playlet length. In the present instance the revelation at the very end that the action is to repeat itself exactly through all eternity does provide an effective curtain, but up to that moment the tension has been going down rather than up, and there is no very good reason why the whole should not have been presented in half the short time now given it.

The popular French actor Claude Dauphin, who has been brought over to undertake the leading male role, gives a very effective if necessarily unpleasant performance as the bad-tempered, cowardly, neurotic, and self-despising collaborationist. Indeed, he seems to feel and transmit the emotions called for to a degree never-approached by Annabella and Ruth Ford, who play competently enough the other two principal parts. But not even the genuineness of his performance can conceal the fact that the main action itself is not very different from that of a sensational triangle play as, let us say, Bourdet or even Bernstein might have written it. It is one thing to say that hell will merely be life lived eternally and without respite. It is another to illustrate that statement by an action not essentially different from one which has been presented many times by dramatists who were saying merely that life is sometimes hell, not—what is really quite different—that hell is life.

To compare the reaction of an American audience with what is said to be the reaction of Parisians is to realize how much the success of the play in France must be the result of the special state of the post-war mind. Here it was being discussed during the one brief intermission merely as a tour de force, a sensational novelty; there it obviously means something to a population whose pessimism has become not so much an intellectual conviction as a neurotic derangement. Existentialism would appear to be less a philosophy than a state of mind, and less a state of mind than a state of nerves. "Hell,'' said Shelley, "is a city much like London,'' but that does not make Shelley an existentialist, for the simple reason that he was neither cold, nor hungry, nor defeated. And the difference makes the artistic as well as philosophical difference between ‘‘Peter Bell, III,’’ and No Exit.

Source: Joseph Wood Krutch, review of No Exit in the Nation, Volume 163, no. 24, December 14, 1946, p. 708.

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No Exit