144 of 152 people found the following review helpful
on July 5, 2000
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.
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2004
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)
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on May 11, 1999
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.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on October 13, 2005
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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.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on November 26, 2006
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.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) is extremely difficult to approach, for his reputation rests heavily upon the work BEING AND NOTHINGNESS: AN ESSAY ON PHENOMENOLOGICAL ONTOLOGY--an extremely complex work that many regard as the single greatest work of 20th Century philosophy and which is largely beyond the grasp of everyone but the most gifted philosophers themselves. Fortunately for the rest of us, Sartre translated his vision of the world into more accessible forms. Although his novel NAUSEA is widely known, he is more likely to be known for his plays--and for one in particular, the celebrated NO EXIT. This collection includes that play (in French titled HUIS CLOS), THE FLIES (LES MOUCHES), DIRTY HANDS (LES MAINS SALES) and THE RESPECTFUL PROSTITUTE (LA PUTAIN RESPECTUEUSE.) Each of these plays in some way revolve around ideas of self-determination, freedom of choice, and responsibility to one's self, addressing issues that are at the heart of French existentialism.
Unlike many European dramatists of his era, Sartre was not an absurdist author per se, and while his plays sometimes make use of an unexpected premise, they are generally naturalistic in tone. NO EXIT, first played in 1944, is easily the most famous: a man and two women, none of them of any great moral or intellectual worth, are led into a small room. It gradually transpires that they are dead--and that they are completely incompatible. This is hell: humans determined to impose their wills and ideas and visions upon unwilling others, working without ceasing to undercut each other in a vain effort to gain individual advantage. Written in a single act and requiring about ninety minutes to perform, it is easily one of the most intense plays ever seen on stage, a combination of intellectual and emotional ferocity beyond easy description. It is truly one of the great masterpieces of western drama.
The other titles are less well known to English-speaking audiences. Of them THE FLIES is the most widely performed. Pre-dating NO EXIT by a year, it is a full-length drama based on the ancient Greek ORESTIA, in which Orestes returns to his home--but unlike the original he has no intention of avenging his father's murder until he realizes that he can freely elect to do so as long as he freely embraces the consequences of his actions. As in most of Sartre's works, much of the play revolves around the necessity of the individual to define himself for himself, and often in rejection of the manipulative status quo, and the play possesses tremendous theatrical sweep. The characters are elegantly and powerfully redrawn from the Greek revenge tragedy, and the overall play itself has the power of its ritualistic orgins.
DIRTY HANDS debuted in 1948 and proved extremely controversial, albeit for reasons that Sartre himself may not have foreseen. In general terms, it is the story of a World War II communist party worker who, on party orders, commits murder and who is afterward shocked to find how utterly meaningless his act has been--ideas and issues that are very typical of Sartre's work. But the play's story pitted one faction of the communist party against another, questioned how effectively any person could define themselves within a political system, and in doing so thoroughly outraged half the nation. Almost three decades had to pass before it was once more performed in France. This said, it is easily the most problematic of the four plays; it seems unduly long, unduly dry, a bit awkward in construction, and very obvious in its statements.
Like NO EXIT, THE 1946 THE RESPECTFUL PROSTITUTE is a one act, and although it does not rise to same artistic level as NO EXIT or THE FLIES it has unique sting nonetheless. The play, somewhat surprisingly, is set in a small town in the deep south of the United States, where a newly arrived prostitute finds herself caught up a drunken murder that gives rise to a double killing calculated to cover up the first crime. Again, issues of self-determination arise, but on this occasion with an unexpected twist: the central character, the prostitute, is a woman of no particular intelligence. She is just smart enough to know that she has been duped and manipulated, but not smart enough to sort out the implications and ramifications of her situation as it unfolds. The play has an undeniable power, but Sartre is writing outside his direct knowledge here, and although technically accurate, his portrait of southern racism does not ring entirely true.
Whenever I review plays I like to note that plays are not really written to be read. They are intended to be seen and heard on the stage, and many readers find it difficult to envision how a particular script will play out before an audience. The fact that each of these four plays has considerable philosophical depth may add to the difficulties involved. NO EXIT is a masterpiece, no doubt about it, and I think most people will find it highly readable--and I think most people will find THE FLIES not far behind. THE RESPECTFUL PROSTITUTE is flawed, and it may leave some readers wondering at the point, but it is short and worth the effort. DIRTY HANDS is probably best left to those who are more interested in Sartre's overall work than those who just want to read a good play. Recommended overall, and given five stars on the basis of NO EXIT and THE FLIES, with RESPECTFUL PROSTITUTE rated at four stars and DIRTY HANDS at three.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on June 17, 2004
No Exit is a tautly written that works on both the dramatic and philosophical levels. With only one act, four characters, and no set other than a sofa and chairs, this play takes minimalism to its extreme. The tension is palpable throughout. Sartre creates a perfectly unworkable triangle of personalities in Garcin, Inez, and Estelle, and within this triangle the dramatic tension steadily builds.
The real beauty of this play is that its message can be interpreted in many different ways. It's not entirely clear what Sartre is trying to say about human nature here. I've heard some people argue that the main point is that the company of other people can be a form of hell. I think this is way to simplistic. If anything, Sartre might be trying to say that hell is a self-fulfilling prophecy - that these people, realizing that they were in hell, created among themselves a set of circumstances that was hellish. The logical converse of that idea would therefore be that by exercising their free will, they could have chosen otherwise. Then there is also the interesting question of why these people are in hell in the first place. Here Sartre makes a strong argument that people have a moral responsibility to act in the best interest of humanity as a whole - something that none of these characters can claim to have done.
While existentialism as a movement has long since been abandoned by most philosophers, this play has lived on, and rightly so. It's well worth the hour that it takes to read it.
37 of 52 people found the following review helpful
on September 19, 2001
Judging on literary merits alone, these plays are outstanding. The translation is wonderful. I cannot imagine anyone disliking the read. I am not surprised that Sartre was offered the Noble Prize for Literature (which he declined). His plays are more fun to read than his nonfiction. Sartre introduces and manipulates difficult and important ideas with remarkable facility and poignancy. The substance of the plays is more controversial.
Sartre's characters are inhuman. Some of them are cruel to the point of sadism. It is through them--through his characters' words and actions--that he dismisses human friendship and the need for companionship as a private Hell ("No Exit"); through them he indicts human guilt and social order ("The Flies"); through them he slams his intellectual anger against the troublesome reality that politics is about power and compromise, rather than pure ideas and motives ("Dirty Hands"); and finally, it is through his characters that Sartre flings his indignation at the American South of the early twentieth century, its white people, and its communal atmosphere.
The plays are a product of Europe of the 1940s, and more specifically, of the German-occupied France of World War II. They were written either during, or very soon after, the German occupation. Sartre's attitude is pessimistic. The flavor of the catastrophic defeat and collaboration still clings to the plays. But one cannot get by just upon such pessimism. When Sartre's dark existentialsim, such as we find in these plays, was no longer psychologically satisfying, when the hurt, anger, and frustration subsided--Sartre turned to Marxism, which is a much more optimistic world view. Unlike the existenitailism of these four plays, it offers hope, it gives promises, it instills a sense of community, it does not allow to give up on other human beings. And in Sartre's own ideological shift, one can read a certain psychological and practical inadequacy of the attitude that breathes through the pages of these plays. For in them, Sartre passes the dysfunctional and the cruel for the normal. He offers no alternative except to "become free," to will freedom through one's own actions. What does this mean in practice? I don't know.
If Sartre means that to become free is to become like Orestes who denies guilt and moral obligations, I do not want this kind of freedom. Besides, I think that a society of Oresteses would degenarate into a rule of thugs with big sticks. And this is what Orestes is, in my opinion--a teenage thug with a sword. To think that many young people are trying to go to college for years, work hard and try to improve themselves, suffer setbacks and frustration, when all they have to do is to become Orestes ans say, like he did: "I am doomed to have no other law but mine. For I... am a man, and every man must find out his own way." Very grand indeed! And just as hollow.
I do not think that Hell is other people and, as Sartre undoubtedly wanted to make it commutative, that other people are Hell. Sartre finds the dark and the scandalous in the human condition, imbues his characters with it, forces them on his delicate sensibilities--and then feels he is in Hell. Very exquisite. "Dirty Hands" is also an excellent play that no reviewer here has specifically addressed. It has good insights into the nature of politics and the character of politicians. I just think that Hugo did the wrong thing, when he completed his assignment for the party, and a truly hideous, stupid thing was the one that he did at the very end. Ay, was Sartre trying to hurt himself again through his hero? "The Respectful Prostitute" is a powerful play. But remember that it is much easier to condemn and preach than to address real policy issues. Oh, sure, depict racism in all its brutality from a comfortable university in Paris, drag "Uncle Sam" and American politicians into it, while Americans are dying to liberate your country from the Germans; and, while you are at it, portray white Southerners as underhanded, street-smart brutes, whose purposes in life are limited to sex and grusome killings of black people.
The author of these plays portrays the world and its people from a point of view of a broken and defeated man who once believed in what was good about them--and who still intellectually comprehends that good, if only as symbols and gestures, if not realities--but a bitter man nevertheless, a man who holds something against people, a man who knows resentment. For all their clumsy, stupid, brutal (and, alas, inevitable) ways have violated and scarred his sensitive nature.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2000
I think most people miss the point of No Exit. It's not that it would be unpleasant to be stuck in a room with a couple of obnoxious people, it's that we make our own hell by seeing other people only in terms of our own desires.
But my favorite is The Flies, a hilarious sendup of Oedipus at Colonus filtered through Nietzsche. This play is more relevant than ever, now that so many are parading their miseries on television. Only now, rather than reveling in guilt, they find the meaning of their lives in how greatly they were wronged.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on April 8, 1998
I picked this book up and read it, on a whim, and suddenly realized that I was entranced and couldn't put it down! I was hypnotized by No Exit (Huis Clos), and was thrilled and jarred by it. After I finished it, it really affected me. It is an unforgettable play! Each of the characters were so complex, and so real. The structure was infinitely ingenious, and infused with a brilliance that only Sartre could give. Usually, I don't like existentialism, but this is one play that no one should pass up. After I read it, I have been talking about it to all of my friends, raving and ranting, because it insuperable good. A great read, if you want to be transported to another world.