No Exit

One of today’s post is about Jean-Paul Satre’s No Exit! This is an existentialist play with references to child murder, contemplation of life after death, and the nature of mankind.

Plot: Three dead people explore the grotesqueness of their selves, each other, and human nature.

Initial thoughts: This play was a quick but difficult read, which I think owes more to the translation than the actual text. Even bearing in mind the difficulties of the translation process, the English reading seems stiff and I wish I had other copies of the play to compare. I’ll be using the names and spellings in the translation I read for consistency, even though I find them inaccurate.

The most disappointing aspect of translation was learning that the shocking line “Hell is – other people!” that I enjoyed so much in context was regrettably manipulated thanks to the failings of translation (45). The title No Exit is translated from the French Huis Clos, which roughly translates to the English idiom in camera. These small translation differences create a big difference in the overall understanding of the play, as the implications of No Exit suggest that these people are damned and to be pitied compared to In Camera, which has political implications free of the moral pity, thus bestowing less sympathy on these characters. (Knowing the full meaning of in camera now, I actually has less pity for the characters.)

There’s a lot more to the play than at the first glance. Performed first in May 1944, No Exit was Satre’s first play performed after the German Nazi invasion of France. Presumably the play was written during the occupation, and the bourgeois flavor of the play potentially critiques French operation under German rule. For example, there is Estelle’s preoccupation with her looks and the Second Empire styling of the room. There’s also important sexual dynamics typical of the time at play, such as Inez’s lesbianism, Estelle’s violent heterosexuality, and Garcin’s abuse of his wife. Depending on what you focus on in the play, you’ll come up for a different meaning of the play.

Itty Bitty Research: There are several things I could focus on, but I’ll keep my attentions on name meanings, Second Empire style, and Barbedienne (5).

As far as name meanings, we have three main characters: the Brazilian Joseph Garcin, (the presumably Italian) Inez Serrano, and the French Estelle Rigault. Joseph is a Biblical name, appearing in both the Old and New Testament. Unlike Joseph-the-father-of-Jesus, Joseph is a coward and flees rather than standing by his beliefs. It’s more apt to presume he’s the favored child of the Old Testament who is sent away and proclaimed dead, as this is what happens when his wife presumes him dead (at least in one of his tellings of his story). It’s also possible he’s a liar and thought it up based on the allusions of his name. Inez comes from the Spanish Agnes, meaning “chaste,” which is certainly alluded to in the play given that the women she desires keep refuting her advances. Estelle’s name means “star,” which could refer to her vanity and the need to be desired as a possession, “my glancing stream, my crystal girl” (32). The site also mentions Estelle Havisham, a famous literary figure reared to break the heart of the main character in Charles Dickinson’s Great Expectations. As we can see, all of these names are intended for socially positive things, but how these characters embody these traits also lead to their damnation. It plays into the existentialist theme that no matter what happens, these characters are damned.

Second Empire style, also called Mansard Style, is named after the style of the Second French Empire popular between the fifteen year period of 1865 and 1880, roughly around Napoleon III’s reign. According to Wentworth Studios, homes built in this style are “generally large and built for the affluent homeowner,” representing the economic critique of society’s appearances and worth. The site also points out how many buildings were reconstructed in this style after the devastation of Paris, which is a close analogue to the reconstruction of Paris after the Nazis. There is also a sense of French nationalism in the style, as it is typical of a time when France was a powerful empire and also because of its influences on other countries, notably architecture in the USA. It is also called Mansard Style because the roofs are in the style of French architect Francois Mansard. No matter what way the style is interpreted, it is undeniably French.

Ferdinand Barbedienne is the only mentioned artist in the play and also French. His metal and bronzework is also typical to the late 1800s references of Second Empire style and the rejection of late Nineteenth Century Realism embodied in the play. It was not until researching Barbedienne that I realized this time period is important because it was also the time of the Franco-Prussian War. Dissolved at the end of World War II, which No Exit responds to, Prussia occupied land that is now considered to be Germany, yet another analogue to the German occupation of France. In fact it was the Franco-Prussian War that interrupted Barbedinne’s otherwise bourgeois domestic metalwork. Barbedinne created a machine that reduces the size of Greco-Roman statues that French people bought for their homes prior to the war.

Rating: 3.5/5

References: Satre, Jean-Paul. No Exit. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. No Exit and Three Other Plays. New York: Vintage International, 1989. 1-46.

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