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No Exit (Huis Clos), is a one-act, four-character play written by Jean-Paul Sartre, French philosopher, writer, literary critic, social and political activist and leader (with Albert Camus) of the existential movement based in Paris.
No Exit, first produced one month before D-Day in 1944, was the second of Sartre's many plays. Translated literally, Huis Clos, means "closed doors."
This play represents a tight conflict of characters who need one another and, at the same time, desperately want to get away from one another, yet cannot leave. There is no other modern play that offers such a profound metaphor for the human condition. One would have to go back to Doctor Faustus or The Bacchae to encounter such a metaphor, and in the present day, only Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest can rival No Exit in its existential metaphor of the human condition.
In No Exit, three characters are doomed to spend eternity together in a Second Empire drawing room; Sartre's metaphorical hell. This room is devoid of mirrors, windows and books. There is no means of extinguishing the lights and the characters have even lost their eyelids. They have nothing left but one another and the hell (or heaven) they choose to create.
The three characters who come to inhabit the room are Joseph Garcin, a war defector and wife abuser; Inez Serrano, a working-class Spanish woman, who is slowly revealed to be a lesbian; and Estelle Rigault, a member of the French upper class. Sartre brilliantly gives the characters dual reasons for their eternal damnation: first, each committed abominable acts while alive, and second, and perhaps more importantly, each failed to live his or her life in an authentic manner.
As each character is brought into the room by the valet, each begins to develop an entangled, triangular relationship with the other two. All three slowly come to the realization that each is the others' eternal torturer. Each character wants something from another that the other cannot, or will not, surrender. Thus, all three are doomed to a perpetual stalemate of torture.
Sartre's philosophical tenets in Being and Nothingness (L'Etre et le Néant), are beautifully interwoven into the fabric of No Exit. Through dialogue and action, Sartre transforms his philosophical assertions into dialectic form, pitting Inez against both Garcin and Estelle in an eternal battle of ideologies. The characters come to embody Sartre's tenets, and as they interact, the author's ideas come to life. The tenuous balance the characters face between needing the others to define themselves, and the desire to preserve their own freedom is developed throughout the play, but is never resolved.
No Exit would have been far less meaningful, metaphorically, if the one locked door had not swung open at the end of the play, showing us that the continuation of any state of existence is as much a matter of choice as it is anything else.
The biggest question No Exit seems to leave unanswered is whether the misery we cause one another is meant to be or if it is simply chance and the decisions we make that cause that misery. Furthermore, is there anything we can do about it, or is our nature so constructed so that we have no choice in the matter?
The character of Inez realizes the only positive message in the play when she 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." Inez realizes that we have, in each moment, everything we need to be happy, yet we insist on searching for the things that make us miserable.
With the production of No Exit, Sartre made his paradoxical existentialist philosophy accessible to a much larger audience. More than a "thesis" play, No Exit is both engaging and valuable as a piece of dramatic literature in its own right.
As testament to its lasting message is the fact that it is still produced internationally today. No Exit is an extraordinary play, filled with complexities and philosophical premises that are as relevant today as they were when Sartre first illuminated them.