Early Sartre plays (in reverse chronological order)

I don’t know why I wanted to reread Sartre’s long 1948 play “Dirty Hands.” It’s a lot better than Malaparte’s Kaputt, but that is very faint praise. Though ancient Ilyria was in Yugoslavia at the time, the inspiration of the maneuvering between Nazis and Soviets is more wartime Hungary (with a Regent, Adm. Horthy). The uncompromising though compromised anti-hero, Hugo, holds on to purity again, ready to die, having slain the prematurely pragmatic Hoederer two years earlier. Adapt? Not Hugo. Olga regrets she cannot again harness his idealism for what The Party’s current line (accommodation) is. Some comic relief is provided by the bodyguards, Slick and George, who would not be terribly out of place in a Beckett play.

Simone_de_Beauvoir_&_Jean-Paul_Sartre_in_Beijing_1955 (1).jpg

(Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in Beijing in 1955)

I’m not sure whether I’d read Sartre’s “The Respectable Prostitute” (La putain respectueuse, 1946) before, though I think so. It is set deep in Faulkner country, where I don’t think Sartre ever visited, and certainly had not before writing the play, an existentialist melodrama in which the title character (Lizzie) tries to do the right thing, but is swayed by a honey-tongued senator before returning to defending a Negro who did not rape or otherwise attack her. (Another one who had not even been on the scene is lynched offstage: “They caught a nigger. It wasn’t the right one.  But they lynched him just the same”).


I also reread “No Exit” (Huis clois, 1944), which I found less interesting. The summation – “Hell is other people” — comes late. I’m not sure that has been shown before Joseph Garcin tells the women with who he is locked up for eternity. The lesbian Inès has been the only forthright one, though maddened that Estelle wants the only available man rather than her. (He wants to have nothing to do with either and early on asks that they all remain silent.) Estelle seems to me to see to be objectified. Does she ever see herself as the other two see her? I don’t think so. Garcin is keenly aware that Inès sees him as a coward, and Estelle as the only being around with a penis.


I was not planning on rereading Sartre’s “The Flies” (Les Mouches, 1943) but was drawn in by the first scene and stayed through the long speeches by Orestes, Electra, and Zeus. Clymenestra barely registers (Orestes does not remember her, having been expelled at a youg age), but Aegisthius is a surprisingly complex character. Not really a Nazi, though depressing everyone with his guilt. And the enemy of the freedom that Orestes (and Electra) seize in murdering their father’s murderers (and/or the soul-murderers of the Argos populace). Now I want to read or reread Sartre’s later plays. I like his essays and plays more than his novels—or politics, though he did denounce Castro for persecuting Cuban writers.


The four plays are published in English in No Exit and Other Plays. I think that Sartre’s plays are more interesting than his novels, though his later ones are so long as to be unplayable (bt not unreadable).


©2018, Stephen O. Murray