Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit

No ExitNo Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m not usually the classics contrarian—all those people on Twitter who think they’ve uttered a bold and forbidden new truth by being the billionth person to remark that they hate The Great Gatsby or whatever—but this really is a silly, gimmicky play. Some hard-boiled types out of a ’30s American noir novel the midcentury French loved so much (the lesbian sadist is a nice touch) arrive in an afterlife ironically modeled on a Second Empire drawing-room, which Sartre would have regarded as emblematic of bourgeois fat and delusion. There they force one another to confess to the sins that landed them in hell (spousal abuse, adultery, desertion, infanticide, suicide, and so on), and it becomes obvious that they will see one another as their worst selves for eternity. Since this hellish drawing-room contains no mirrors, they cannot see themselves except as others see them; since the damned are relieved of their eyelids, they can neither evade the gaze of others nor, more symbolically, can they close their eyes and turn their gaze inward. The moral of the story: when you can only perceive yourself through other people’s perceptions, you reduce yourself to the reductions they apply to you. Hence, in the play’s most famous line, “Hell is—other people!” As an economical symbolic description of a paranoid and morally compromised collective, whether Vichy France (tragedy) or the aforementioned Twitter (farce), No Exit undoubtedly works, but that doesn’t excuse the snidely melodramatic wrangling of the stereotypes. Once you’ve heard the concept, you’ve as good as read the play. Slogging through the period dialogue (“What a lovely pair you make! If you could see his big paw splayed out on your back” etc.) adds little to the premise, the thin realization of which makes the play seem little more than an extended literary trick, whatever its value as a philosopher’s thought experiment.

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