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No Exit to Portland

Tim Madigan watches a performance of Jean-Paul Sartre’s best-known play, and learns about Anguish.

“I’ll be your mirror/Reflect what you are/In case you don’t know” – The Velvet Underground

For over twenty years now I have been using Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play No Exit in my Introduction to Philosophy classes, and yet in all this time I have never seen the play itself performed. Imagine my surprise then, when on a recent trip to Portland, Oregon I read in the local paper there that the Imago Theatre was putting on a performance of this seminal work of existentialism. I had a moral dilemma – should I go to the academic conference I was in Portland for, or should I play hooky, miss a few sessions and go see No Exit instead? Since we are nothing but our choices, I jumped into a cab and headed for Imago. Jean-Paul would have wanted it that way.

It’s fitting to see No Exit in 2005, the year of Sartre’s centenary. Since his death in 1980 interest in Sartre’s life and work has been on the wane – almost none of my students have heard of him, whereas for previous generations it would have been enough to just draw a pipe, a beret and a glass of wine on the chalkboard to signify this embodiment of existentialism. His 100th anniversary has revived interest in him, though, as a spate of recent articles and books can attest. Still, for a man who put so much emphasis on the power of theater to bring ideas alive, it is nice to know that his plays are still considered worthy of presentation.

No Exit, written during the Nazi occupation of France, is the story of three characters – Garcin, Inez, and Estelle – who find themselves in a strange afterlife. Rather than the pit of hell, which they had all expected to enter, they are in a gaudy hotel room, furnished in 2nd Empire style (an overblown décor which mirrors their own inauthentic selves). They have no idea why they have been thrown together, since in their lives they came from different social classes which meant that their paths had never crossed, and they had no common friends. Garcin, a pacifist newspaper reporter who has been killed by a firing squad, insists that he was not a coward – the executioners had thought he was running away from battle when he really was trying to cross the border to get help. Inez, a postal worker whose lesbian lover had killed them both by turning on the gas in their squalid apartment, insists that she is a pitiless woman with no concern for others. Estelle, a beautiful young woman who had died of pneumonia, insists that she is a carefree, flighty dilettante who only wants to dance and be loved. Quite soon they begin to get on each other’s nerves. A strange, unfulfilled attraction sets in – Estelle wants a relationship with Garcin, primarily because he is the only man around, and despises Inez for being lower class and a lesbian to boot; Inez wants a relationship with Estelle, and despises Garcin for being the object of Estelle’s attention and a coward to boot; Garcin desires the respect of Inez and despises Estelle for being shallow and, it turns out, the murderer of her own child as well as the cause of her lover’s suicide.

It finally dawns on Garcin why this unlikely group is together – they will all be each other’s torturers for eternity. “Hell”, he famously states, “is other people.” This is Sartre’s core notion of the way that conscious beings relate to each other. There are no mirrors in the room – the three characters must be each other’s mirrors. Inez, knowing Estelle’s self-absorption, tells her she has a pimple on her cheek, the news of which causes Estelle to gasp in horror. But Inez too is vulnerable, and admits that she cannot deny the power that Estelle’s beauty has over her. Garcin remarks that the light in the room is always on, and that they are themselves no longer capable of blinking – “4,000 little rests per hour”. There will be no escape from each other. This is life without a break. What could be more horrible?

The title No Exit, though, is an ironic one. Redolent of Dante’s admonition in The Inferno to “Abandon All Hope All Ye Who Enter Here”, it is not clear that in fact there is no exit for the characters. At one point, the door to the room, which they had supposed locked forever, springs open. Garcin, who had been beating on it incessantly, now hesitates to leave, and Inez laughingly says this proves he is a coward. But Estelle then says to Garcin that the two of them should push Inez out and slam the door on her, which brings Inez to her knees begging not to be so ill-treated. They compromise by closing the door and remaining together, seemingly accepting the reality that they will be each other’s torturers forever. But need this be the case? As Sartre emphasized again and again, the point of existentialism is that we are always free, always able to change, always responsible for our actions, indeed even responsible for our passions. Is Garcin a coward? No, not essentially, as there is no human essence. He has acted cowardly, but that does not mean he is incapable of changing. Is Inez necessarily a vicious person? No, she chooses to be so. Must Estelle remain self-centered forever? Only if she wishes to. “Alone”, Garcin says at one point, “none of us can save himself or herself; we’re linked together.” That is the human condition. Like it or not, we’re in this world together, and it’s up to us to make of it what we will. No god will save us – we determine who we are.

Knowing the play so well, I was filled with anticipation to actually see it performed. The Imago actors were uniformly excellent, and the stage setting was quite intriguing. The hotel room set was on rollers and configured in such a way that every time one actor moved, it caused the others to move as well – a nice symbolic touch. I was not so taken by the fact that Inez was played by a man, with the insinuation that she was once herself a man who’d undergone a sex-change operation – this added more complexity to Sartre’s schemata than was strictly necessary. My main objection, though, was to the direction. The actors were all encouraged to talk in an exaggerated, overly-enunciated way, and to generally camp it up for laughs. There are laughs in No Exit, but they come from the setting and the overall absurdity of the situation, not from broad line readings. No wonder Samuel Beckett made it clear no directors should be allowed to tamper with his texts. The worst offender was the actor playing the minor role of the attendant – his performance was based upon the character actor Frank Nelson, famous for drawling out the word “yessssssssssssssssssss” in countless Jack Benny and Lucille Ball shows. All this campiness, and the frequent long pauses (making me think at times I was in a Harold Pinter play by mistake) caused the pacing to drag. I had estimated that the intermission-less play should take about an hour-and-a-half to perform; having consumed a few cups of coffee beforehand, my kidneys started making themselves known as the play continued beyond the two hour point. I grimly held on but I truly understood what existential anguish was all about as I waited for the final lines to be uttered.

Still and all, I am glad that I saw the play, and I congratulate the Imago Theatre for having the courage to revive this important work by one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest writers. Sartre still lives, in the only way an atheistic existentialist can experience immortality – through his works.

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2005

Tim Madigan is a US Editor of Philosophy Now. He teaches Philosophy at St John Fisher College in Rochester, NY.

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