The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

As the curtain rises on No Exit, Garcin and the Valet enter a French Second Empire-style drawing room. Gradually it appears that Garcin is dead and this room is in Hell. He laughs with the bellboy over his medieval expectations of physical torture, but begs for a toothbrush. The Valet explains the rules. The light is constant, with no day or night. Eyelids do not function; there is no sleep. There is no outside, only more corridors, stairs, and rooms. There are no mirrors. The statuette on the mantel is too heavy to move. The capricious room-service bell usually will not ring. Garcin laments that he will not be able to blink and enjoy a break in consciousness, but he asserts his courage. The bellboy leaves him alone.

Garcin tries the bell, calls out, and beats on the door, but there is no response. As he calms down, the bellboy returns with Inez and leaves. Inez supposes Garcin to be her tormentor. He laughs, but he is worried that she can see fear on his face. He covers his face, and they wait in silence. The bellboy then enters with the beautiful Estelle. She mistakes Garcin for another man whose face has been shot away. After the bellboy leaves, Estelle introduces herself as in a social setting. The characters can “see” scenes in the world they have left. Estelle describes her own funeral as it is being performed. They specify the means of their deaths: Estelle died from pneumonia, while Inez was killed by gas from a stove and Garcin by twelve bullets in the chest. Estelle is shocked by Garcin’s bluntness; she prefers the euphemism “absent” to “dead.” Inez is rude and hostile, but Estelle insists on social appearances. She also insists on occupying the one sofa that harmonizes with her dress, and Garcin must abandon it. He wants to remove his coat; Estelle refuses permission. She thinks that men in shirtsleeves are disgusting.

It is clear that the three are incompatible. They come from different social circles. Garcin longs for the masculine atmosphere of his newspaper offices, Estelle for her own boudoir. Inez stands between them, a man-hating lesbian attracted to Estelle. Estelle blames an administrative error for their juxtaposition, Garcin a fluke of timing in their deaths. Inez mocks the other two, insisting that nothing has happened by chance. She suggests that they tell their reasons for being in Hell. Estelle and Garcin tell and accept alibis of self-sacrifice and heroism. Inez pushes for more. Estelle objects, Garcin threatens, and Inez realizes that they are meant to be each other’s torturers. Garcin...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The most successful of Jean-Paul Sartre’s plays, No Exit can be said to follow the classical French rule of the three unities of time, place, and action. All the action takes place in a single room, in a time corresponding exactly to that of the presentation. Only one problem is broached; there are no extraneous actions, or extra characters. Everything is concentrated on the exposition of Sartre’s ideas with an elegant economy of language and dramatic resources. Each object on stage has its role in the action as it unfolds. The bronze on the mantelpiece has its weight as a symbol of its stylistic period, but also as a representation of the futility of escape. It is too heavy to be used to smash the ever-shining electric light. The seemingly useless paper knife beside it on the mantel serves as a weapon and thus as the instrument that reveals the finality of the hellish situation. The color of the furniture is predetermined in relation to the development of the characters.

There is no recourse to special effects. When the characters “see” the living world, their visions are presented in words. The wartime necessities of the play’s first composition and production precluded any extravagance of costume or set design, but Sartre believed that dramatic illusion functioned best when recognized as illusion, without great attention to props.

Sartre wrote No Exit in two weeks. The play was conceived as a vehicle for three of his friends (Garcin was to be fellow existentialist writer Albert Camus). When presented with the problem of giving each role equal value, Sartre imagined a confinement in the same space and time, a situation elaborated into the Hell of No Exit. Each of the characters embodies a certain kind of bad faith, but the role of Inez is most often used in forcing realization of unpleasant facts on her fellows and the audience. It is she who renders explicit the hellish nature of the details of setting and personality.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Hell. As the play opens, a man is being ushered into an ordinary-looking room by a valet. It appears at first to be a hotel or the guest room of some country mansion. The man notices that the furniture is French Second Empire, an elaborately decorative pastiche of earlier styles, which makes the furniture appear to transcend history. There are three sofas: one claret red, another vivid green, and the third a more neutral color. The guest, Garcin, also notices a bronze statuette by Ferdinand Barbedienne, known for his copies of famous originals. Again, this implies that nothing in the room is authentic or real. Garcin also remarks on the absence of mirrors and observes that the only domestic tool in the room is a letter opener. He inquires of the valet about its purpose and is assured that its purpose will soon be revealed. As the valet exits, he indicates that the door will be locked behind him and that the servants’ bell does not always function.

Two women are then let into the room by the valet. After some intense conflicts and confessions, it becomes obvious to the three people that they are in Hell, locked together for eternity. They pound on the door to no avail. Committing suicide with the letter opener only intensifies their agony since they are already dead. They are their own devils. There are some intense exchanges between the characters in this tiny room, and it becomes clear that this torture will last forever. The setting, a room in Hell, is Jean-Paul Sartre’s metaphor for his belief in existentialism, the philosophy that states that outside circumstances have no power to affect human beings’ lives. Humans are responsible for their own destiny and cannot escape that responsibility.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Occupation of France Influences Philosophy
World War II engulfed Europe beginning in 1939. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler took power...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

No Exit can be called an existentialist play and a philosophical drama. The action takes place in hell, which is...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1944: In occupied France, German censors must approve plays before they are allowed to be performed.

Today: A...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research Sartre's philosophy of existentialism. Discuss No Exit in terms of this theory.

Explore the history of the time...

(The entire section is 105 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

No Exit was filmed in French as Huis Clos in 1954. It starred Arletty, Nicole Courcel, Louis De Furies, and Jean Debucourt....

(The entire section is 39 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Being and Nothingness, a nonfiction book published by Sartre in 1956 in translation, explicates his early theories on existentialism....

(The entire section is 165 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Gibb, Wolcott. ‘‘Dream Boy,’’ The New Yorker, December 7, 1946, pp. 61-64.


(The entire section is 171 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Bradby, David. Modern French Drama 1940-1990. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Looks at Sartre’s career and locates No Exit as part of Sartre’s early period. Presents a significant view of how the dramatist came to regard his own work later in his life.

Champigny, Robert. Sartre and Drama. Birmingham, Ala.: French Literature Publications, 1982. An evaluation of Sartre’s role as a dramatist that takes the beginnings and end of his career into account. An interesting and comprehensive discussion that features an expansive examination of No Exit.

Cohn, Ruby. From Desire to Godot: Pocket Theater of Postwar Paris. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. An illuminating look at the original production of No Exit and how critics and audiences during the German occupation of France responded. A lively, fascinating interpretation emerges, complete with important details of subsequent productions.

McCall, Dorothy. The Theatre of Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969. Although somewhat dated, this analysis of how the playwright’s works relate to his views on theater still makes for highly informative reading.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Sartre on Theater. Edited by Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka. Translated by Frank Jellinek. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976. In this collection of the playwright’s own writings on his own play, the editors compile some pieces that deal directly with No Exit and several others that discuss Sartre’s views on drama and theater during the time the play was composed and performed.