Jean-Paul Sartre

Drama Review: No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre

“Hell-is other people!” Garcin exclaimed. To be trapped it a room until the day-after-the –end-of-eternity with the three characters from No Exit, it would be. In this iconoclastic play, Jean-Paul Sartre constructed a complex paradigm for eternal damnation. His version lacked the expected fire, brimstone and horned guy with a pitchfork. Inez observed: “We’ll serve as torturers for each other.” (Page 17) How’s that for perdition?

“A drawing room in the Second Empire style” comprised this “hell”. (Page 3) It contained three sofas, a “massive bronze ornament” on the mantelpiece, and a door with a bell. Sometimes the latter worked, other times it didn’t. I applaud Sartre for coming up with a unique take. Most authors and playwrights would’ve “borrowed” Dante’s version from The Inferno.  This dramatist brilliantly exercised his imagination. (Let this be a lesson to the rest of us authors out there.)

The depth of the characters impressed me. The playwright didn’t resort to clichés or banalities, here. Each one entailed a great deal of intricacy and thought. In life Garcin ran a pacifist newspaper. Inez’s lesbian sexual orientation no doubt shocked audiences when the play premiered in 1944. Estelle showed her vanity upon realizing the room lacked a mirror. The drama developed as these characters attempted to discover why they ended up in Hell. I really liked the layers the playwright added to their stories. I thought the development outstanding, also. I didn’t read any bland exposition in the text.

I don’t like to give away spoilers, but I really enjoyed Garcin’s painful moment of self-discovery. I might be guilty of some schadenfreude here. I take solace in the fact I experienced it because of a fictional character.

Garcin: Can one possibly be a coward when one’s deliberately courted danger at every turn? And can one judge a life by a single action?

Inez: Why not? For thirty years you dreamt you were a hero, and condoned a thousand petty lapses—because a hero, of course, can do no wrong. An easy method, obviously. The a day came when you were up against it, the red light of real danger—and you took the train to Mexico. (Page 43)

Ouch! That was raw; but, then again, this was Hell.

I also enjoyed the interesting plot twist near the final curtain. Throughout the play the characters couldn’t open the door. This added to the theme that each couldn’t escape each other’s company. Near the end of the drama the door opened. None of the characters chose to leave. It made me wonder if the playwright included a “Hell is ourselves” subtext.

I did have one issue with No Exit.  Several times characters referred to the bronze ornament on the mantelpiece. At no point did anyone describe it. My curiosity piqued as to what it was, exactly. I’m not sure if Sartre left it vague so the show’s directors had some leeway with it. At any rate, based on the distinct personality types the characters showed, I would’ve liked a vivid depiction of the bronze ornament.

No Exit is just as inimitable today as it was when it premiered in 1944. I’d encourage those interested in either drama or literature to experience it. After all: unlike the characters, readers have the option of leaving the room should they find it too unpleasant.