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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.
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Murray Tong (email@example.com)
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These four plays by Sartre are all very different in style if not tone, but they all cut to the bone of meaning in delivering their sobering messages. The best play is also the most famous, No Exit, filled with brilliant language and dramatic fire. The situations and questions posed within aspeak directly to our age. Next, The Respectful Prostitute, which shows how funny existentialists can be, and how gut-wrenching comedy can be both funny and chilling. The Flies is a wonderfully inventive play that one can picture just by reading, with its harsh words, though in the guise of classical language, never missing a stab at the characters--or the audience. The weakest play, Dirty Hands, is still a compelling but rather cliched drama which is a little too ponderous for theatre, but dead on with its analysis of the human condition. Overall, a very worthwhile collection and a great introduction to Sartre, and existentialism.
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I was a bit skeptical going into this one. The premise of the book is fairly simple: three strangers are locked into a single room with minimal furniture and expected to stay there with one another for all eternity. That's it. No violent overthrow of government, no breaking into an elaborate computer mainframe. So why bother reading? C'mon Sartre, show us some plot.
The amazing thing was, I completely enjoyed this play. I gave it a chance and read it through and was not at all disappointed. Think of it: three strangers walk into a room containing three couches, a mantle, an odd mantle decoration, and a door that won't open, and try to make sense of the whole setup.
The female/male ratio is 2 to 1, leaving Garcin to hold his own against Inez, a trouble-making bisexual, and Estelle, a woman who doesn't believe she can function without the support of a man. They realize that the room is their torture chamber, of sorts, in a long corridor of Hell, and their punishment is to be carried out through--are you ready?--annoying one another.
For fear of giving away the plot, or lack thereof, I'll leave you with this: the book is a must-read, if only to discover for yourself the awesome ability of human beings to torture one another using only their personalities. :o)
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Peter M. Ackarey
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This book is an answer to a question many people have been avoiding all their lives. And when you finally develop the ability to ask it to yourself, Sartre provides his suggested answer for you, though it may not be the answer you wanted.
The premise of the main play, "No Exit", is that many people have chosen to exist in misery, even when the exit to that misery presents itself clearly. For these people, there is "no exit". Their existance is defined by their misery. If they make the concious decision to exit, then they have nothing to live for.
All four plays are written in non-pretentious and easy to understand styles, unlike many philisophical writings. They don't require a great deal of effort to read or understand. In fact, they are quite enjoyable and I found myself reading each play many times before moving on to the next one.
Don't expect to feel uplifted about the state of humanity while reading these plays, however. Sartre's message about human existance can be a dismal one. It is quite helpful, though, to come to terms with the fact that many of our fellow humans are just puzzled about their lives, and sharing a social existance with these people can be precarious to your own search for meaning.
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Sartre is sometimes given a reputation that far precedes him, as with many Nobel recipients. These plays are a testament against the skeptic's mindset.
"No Exit" is a modern-day interpretation of the antiquated "fire and brimstone" hell we are so accustomed to hearing about. Sartre adroitly picks up on the small idiosyncracies of human behavior and capitalizes on them with his version of hell. Three incompatible personalities are locked in a hot, stuffy hotel room for eternity, unable to get along with one another or reconcile their personal differences. The lights are always a bit too bright, the furniture a bit too stiff, and the wonder at "what lies down the hall" eats at the occupants for eternity. This is a far cry from biblical interpretations of hell, where an individual can mentally will themselves against pain. Instead, Sartre focuses on the interpersonal nature of unhappiness, and gives his spirits "one of those days" for eternity.
"Dirty Hands" is perhaps my favorite piece of literature. It plants its focus on a young intellectual revolutionary intent on assassinating a corrupt party leader. As he grows closer to Hoederer, the man he is sent to kill, he comes to realize that pure intellectual theories will always become muddied in the waters of reality.
"The Respectful Prostitute" depicts a young woman, a prostitute, who spends the night with a man who turns out to be a politician. The man completes his sordid mission, but the next morning scorns the woman. An lesson in objectivity and the two-faced nature of those who tend to preach loudly.
"The Flies" is set in Ancient Greece, but possesses Sartre's aptitude for human behavior. Just as good as all the others, though not as indicative of how humans behave.
These are all plays, making them quite easy to read. The characters are not hard to keep straight. The ease of reading doesn't detract from their literary quality. These four plays are elegant simplicity at its finest.