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
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