Props, Scenery, and Punishment in Sartre’s No Exit
While in the play No Exit hell is famously defined as “other people”, it is the setting of hell which will ultimately create the hostile and volatile conditions that the characters find themselves in. Sartre places his characters in his existentialist hell in order for them to learn through their punishments, a strategy by which he intends to expose their inner, self-conscious nature until they accept both who and where they are. Ultimately, through the Second Empire drawing room, the buzzer, and peculiarities like the bronze ornament and letter opener, Sartre is able to force his characters to collide, judge, and mentally torture each other, until they accept their place in his existentialist hell.
When the Valet tells Garcin that the bell is working “capriciously”, Sartre uses a playful form of dramatic irony, as the audiences knows that the bell will not work. It then appears that this is all the bell and locked door are intended for: to trap the characters together and remind them they have no escape or communication outside their imprisonment. However, Sartre uses the door towards the end of the play to expose Garcin’s cowardly nature. When facing judgement from Inez, Estelle remarks that she wants to leave, to which Garcin says; “Go if you can. Personally, I ask for nothing better. Unfortunately, the door’s locked.” Yet when the door flies open towards the end of the play, he is adamant that he “shall not go” despite demanding to be let out. This serves to expose Garcin’s cowardly nature to the extent that he is too scared to leave the company of others and leave his hell. Moreover, “the management” (a sinister and ambiguous term) of hell is so certain of his cowardly nature that this group does not refuse to open the door, as it is clear that Garcin will not leave the room.
Likewise, the sofas are more than just amenities designed to fit in with the Second Empire drawing room style. Sartre initially uses the sofas to show the existential flaws of Estelle. She states, “It’s those sofas. They’re so hideous.” When Inez offers Estelle her sofa, Estelle takes the perfect existentialist point of view, asking, “What’s the good of worrying now anyhow? We’ve got to take what comes to us.” She raises the point that Sartre is trying to have these characters see: there is no point worrying about one’s appearance or any vanities, especially not in hell. Estelle fails to stick to this idea immediately and switches to Garcin’s sofa: “The only one that might do a pinch, is that gentleman’s,” a statement that shows the audience why she is placed in Sartre’s existentialist hell. Also, the sofas force the characters to sit facing each other, which clearly disturbs Estelle and Garcin, as shown by the remark “You will always see me?” from Garcin. Here we see the success of the sofas as an existentialist punishment. Garcin wishes to hide from the judgment of Inez, and ultimately from the truth that he is a coward, thus acting more cowardly. Inez points out this reality: “Oh you coward, you weakling, running to women to console you!” However, the punishment of being constantly watched proves too much for Garcin, and he succumbs to the pressure and judgement of Inez, further proving why Sartre places him in hell.
Due to the confined nature of his hell, Sartre often has his setting overlap and combine to inflict further punishment on the characters. A good example of this tactic is how the lack of blinking and mirrors combine with the sofas. Garcin beautifully exemplifies just how relentless life could be without blinking: “You can’t imagine how restful, refreshing, it (blinking) is. Four thousand little rests per hour.” This idea is reflected by the sofas in that the characters cannot escape into themselves and their own thoughts and so are forced to engage with one another. If there were mirrors, these would symbolise the reflection of the flaws of the characters within each other, but, “since there are no mirrors… the characters become a mirror of the actions and thoughts of each other.” Estelle, the vainest of the three characters, says “When I can’t see myself I begin to wonder if I really and truly exist.” This statement tells us that Estelle accepts her identity through her appearance. Therefore, we can see how Sartre tries to force Estelle out of her narrow-minded ways and into a more existentialist way of thinking. However, Estelle resists throughout the play and seeks approval constantly, whether by trying to see her reflection in the ornament and Inez’s eyes, or by clinging for Garcin to make love to her. She pleads, “Look at me. Please look. Touch me. Touch me.” to try to distract herself with Garcin, but she will ultimately be left with no one to support her. At the end of the play, Estelle attempts to stab Inez with the letter opener and escape the existentialist punishment of being alone, but it is at this point that she falls victim to Sartre’s existentialist punishment.
The inclusion of the letter opener puzzles both the characters and the audience. As Garcin points out “… what’s the use of this?” It comes into use when Estelle attempts to kill Inez, as she “stabs her several times.” Clearly, Estelle is utterly oblivious to the fact that the characters are all dead, as shown by the numerous stabs directed at Inez. Moreover, her determination and belief that she can get rid of Inez are shown by the declaration, “Right!…I’ll stop her watching.” This is proof that Estelle is trapped in her self-centered bubble and does not acknowledge hat she is really in hell. Inez bursts the bubble in her response: “… what do you think you’re doing? You know quite well I’m dead.” Estelle can only reply with “dead?” We know from earlier on in the play Estelle has refused to come to terms with her state, as she demands the characters call themselves “absentees” rather than dead. It is easy to picture the look of realization which comes across Estelle’s face as she fully accepts where and who she is. Using the knife, Sartre manages to offer Estelle false hope in her narrow-minded state, before it is gone; through the shock, she accepts herself in an existentialist hell forever.
Finally, like the letter, there is another prop which has seemingly no reason to be in hell. The bronze ornament is described as “awful,” “A bronze atrocity,” and doesn’t fit into Second Empire décor. Thus there has been much debate about why Sartre includes it. By introducing the ornament with the quote, “I suppose there will be times where I stare my eyes out at it. Stare my eyes out…” Sartre implies a disturbing relationship between the ornament and Garcin. The repetition of “stare my eyes out” is used cleverly to show the peculiarity of the effect that this ornament has on Garcin, much like the peculiarity of the ornament in Sartre’s hell. This sense of oddity is further emphasized with, “He goes to the bronze ornament and strokes it reflectively.” For the audience to see this rational man act in a completely irrational way, under the influence of the inanimate bronze, is extremely chilling. The bronze ornament’s next mention will be its final, and one of the most important of the script: “This bronze… I’m looking at this thing on the mantelpiece, and I understand that I’m in hell…They knew I’d stand at the fireplace stroking this thing of bronze.” By returning to the image of Garcin stroking the bronze, Sartre shows the strength of the bond between the two to last the length of the play. Moreover, using the phrase “They knew” shows that Sartre has successfully planted “This bronze” to affect Garcin until he states “I understand that I’m in hell.” While it has been speculated that the ornament is used to represent the lack of purpose the characters have now in hell, I would go even beyond the view offered by Walter Redfern: “It helps drive home that (they) are inescapably in Hell.” The ornament is there to frustrate the characters in their lack of explanation for it, as it represents that they can no longer alter the structure of their reality.
Halfway through the play Inez states that “…they’ve thought it all out. Down to the last detail. Nothing was left to chance. This room was all set for us.” Sartre uses detailed props in an intricate and specific way to ensure that the characters suffer his existentialist punishments. Through details such as the position and color of the sofas and the intriguing and remarkable bronze ornament, he is able to clearly map out to the audience the characters’ existentialist flaws and weaknesses, as well as to show how those flaws and weaknesses are amended. The effects that the setting and props have on the characters are plain to see, until eventually, after Sartre has had his stage affect all the characters, they are left with an acceptance of their place in hell.
Sartre, Jean-Paul – No Exit and Three Other Plays, trans.Stuart Gilbert, Vintage International Edition, 1989Adrian Van Den Hoven – Sartre’s Conception Of Theater: Theory And Practice; Sartre Studies International;2012, Vol. 18 Issue 2 Best, Victoria – An Introduction to Twentieth-Century French Literature, Duckworth, London, 2002Leavitt,Walter – Sartre’s Theatre, Yale French Studies, No.1, Existentialism (1948)Redfern, Walter – Sartre, Huis Clos and Les Sequestres d’Altona, p.11, Grant & Culter Ltd, 1995
Existentialist Philosophy in Sartre’s “No Exit”
Though brief and comedic, Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit” offers great insight into the basic ideas of his existentialist philosophy. The commonplace setting of the work and the diversity of the basic character types allude to the applicability of the themes to reality. The main principles behind Sartre’s philosophy are detailed through the three main characters and the transitions that they undergo as the play progresses. The setting seems purposely ambiguous in the exposition of the play, allowing Sartre to establish an atmosphere and relate to his audience before delving into his main ideas. The entire play takes place in a single room, which is initially described as “a drawing-room in Second Empire style,” with “a massive bronze ornament stand[ing] on the mantelpiece” (3). In the opening, the main character, Garcin, walks in “accompanied by the room-valet,” and begins to make casual small talk with him about the style of the furniture and where his “toothbrush” might be (3-4). If it were not for Garcin’s abrupt inquiry about the location of “the racks and red-hot pincers and all the other paraphernalia,” the audience would assume that the setting is merely a drawing room in a normal upper- or middle-class household (4). The audience is eventually informed that the room is a representation of hell, with the Valet presumably exemplifying the devil. However, exposing the audience to the ordinary room before revealing its significance allows Sartre to create a relatable, earthly, and casual atmosphere, suggesting that “hell” can be present in real life. His setting also directs attention to the exchanges between the characters because the room is so normal, further implying that “hell” can be found within the minds and relationships of human beings. Garcin’s statement at the end of play that “hell is – other people” is in line with this view (61). The atmosphere is maintained throughout the rest of the play, with references to common items like the “sofa” and “the fireplace” (18, 60). In addition, the main characters – a frank older man, a middle-aged, ostentatious woman, and a lower-class lesbian – are diverse in many of their outward character traits, possibly implying that the situation portrayed could just as easily happen to any of the audience members. According to existentialist philosophy, for human beings “existence precedes essence.” Certain objects (like inanimate objects) are defined simply because they exist as a particular item; for instance, a table is defined as a table. Sartre called an object defined in this way as a “being in itself.” On the other hand, human beings must be defined in two ways – first, as an object that simply exists (a human being), and then as the essence that they decide upon. Sartre called an object defined in this way as a “being for itself.” This idea is the central concept behind Sartre’s play. As this second category of beings, the characters in the play are initially defined as existing simply because they are objects that are present on the stage. It is the formation of each character’s essence that establishes the conflict in the work. Left in a simple drawing room, without the presence of continuous action and cultural expectations, the characters must find a way to define their essences to one another and to themselves. Garcin, a pacifist who is in hell for having run from military duty, has trouble defining his essence because he has not assumed the responsibility for doing so. Instead, he lets others define his essence through their subjective characterizations of him. For Sartre, this is an example of “bad faith” – self-deception and lack of personal responsibility for one’s essence. Garcin’s reliance upon others is foreshadowed in the very beginning of the play. When the valet states that he is leaving the room, stage directions say that “Garcin makes a gesture to detain him” (9). When the valet actually does leave, Garcin instantly becomes frantic, pressing the call button for the valet and even “beat[ing] the door with his fists” (9). After the second character, Inez, arrives, Garcin looks around the room and proclaims: “How beastly of them! They’ve removed everything in the least resembling a glass” (11). Thus, it is apparent that Garcin is lost without a third-person view with which to define himself, either in the form of another person or a mirror. The lack of mirrors in the room reinforces the idea that the characters will only have each other and their own consciousnesses to define their essences. Though Garcin sometimes makes statements suggesting that he desires more personal responsibility for his persona, he is never able to act upon it. He at first tries to ignore the women in the room, saying that they all will “work out [their] salvation” by “looking into [theirselves], never raising [their] heads” (23). However, Garcin is unable to do so, and he instead listens to conversations about him on earth. Garcin later states that by his absence he has “left [his] fate in their hands,” again demonstrating how he lets others define him completely (52). Throughout a large portion of the play, Garcin attempts to convince Estelle (the third main character) and Inez that he is not a coward for having abandoned his civic duty to enlist in the military. He tells Estelle: “If there’s someone, just one person, to say quite positively I did not run away…that I’m brave and decent and the rest of it – well, that one person’s faith would save me” (53). Thus, it is apparent that he is reliant upon the faith of others rather than himself. When he realizes that Estelle does not really understand what he is asking, he turns to the more experienced Inez for confirmation of his character, telling her: “It’s you who matter; you who hate me. If you’ll have faith in me I’m saved” (57). Garcin’s anachronistic references to salvation further suggest that he has not accepted responsibility for his own character and the consequences (like condemnation) that have resulted from it. In addition, like Garcin’s statement that his acquaintances on Earth now have his “fate,” it represents a bit of Sartre’s opinion of determinism – that it is a form of bad faith, because it denies individuals the freedom of taking responsibility for their own actions. Estelle represents a character that similarly has bad faith and relies upon external things to verify her essence and existence. Like Garcin, she initially lies to both herself and the others about why she is in hell, demonstrating a lack of responsibility for herself and her actions. She is particularly alarmed at the absence of mirrors, saying: “When I can’t see myself I begin to wonder if I really and truly exist” (25). She further states: “When I talked to people I always made sure there was one near by in which I could see myself. I watched myself talking. And somehow it kept me alert, seeing myself as the others saw me” (25). Estelle’s dependence upon a third-person view of herself, like Garcin’s, reveals that she has not learned to define her own essence and is consumed by her reliance upon others; she has “bad faith.” Inez capitalizes on Estelle’s need for a mirror, offering her eyes as Estelle’s mirror. Estelle looks into Inez’s eyes and exclaims: “Oh, I’m there! But so tiny I can’t see myself properly,” to which Inez replies: “But I can. Every inch of you” (26). The references to views of Estelle’s physical appearance symbolize the responsibility for her consciousness: Estelle is unable to define herself and instead lets others – in this case Inez – define her. On the other hand, Inez represents a character that depends upon her own judgment for the formation of her essence. While the others lie about why they are in hell, Inez is honest and bluntly states: “What’s the point in play-acting, trying to throw dust in each other’s eyes? We’re all tarred with the same brush” (21). Thus, it is hinted at early in the play that Inez sees through the self-deception and favors honesty and responsibility for one’s past. When Estelle wonders about her existence in the absence of a mirror, Inez replies: “I’m always conscious of myself – in my mind. Painfully conscious” (25). Inez’s essence therefore does not come from outside of her own consciousness. When Garcin attempts to sit quietly and ignore the others, Inez exclaims: “To forget about the others? How utterly absurd! I feel you there, in every pore…you can’t prevent your being there” (29). Angry about Garcin’s ignorance of her and Estelle’s attention to Garcin rather than to herself, Inez continues: “I prefer to choose my hell; I prefer to look you in the eyes and fight it out face to face” (30). A statement made by Inez later helps tie these exclamations to Inez’s internal struggle. She tells the others: “I can’t get on without making people suffer. Like a live coal. A live coal in others’ hearts. When I’m alone I flicker out” (34). Garcin and Estelle’s weaknesses lie in their subjectivity to the judgment of others, whereas Inez is the one who must judge and affect other people. When the others ignore her, Inez becomes just as frantic as when Garcin was left by himself. In the same way that Estelle feels she doesn’t exist without a mirror, Inez feels she doesn’t exist when she can’t control and prey upon other people. Inez has taken responsibility for her actions and the formation of her essence. Unfortunately, Sartre seems to be warning his audience that assuming responsibility for one’s essence may lead to realizations about oneself that cause suffering, such as Inez’s frustration with her own reliance upon torturing other people. “No Exit” is ultimately a play about the struggles that individuals face with regards to assuming responsibility for their own essence. As a “being for itself,” human beings have the freedom to choose their own personality traits. This requires dependence upon one’s own judgment rather than that of third parties. However, it may also lead to realizations about one’s weaknesses that cause suffering.