Non Fiction

Being and Theater

Jean Paul Sartre wrote his theatrical masterpiece, No Exit as a play representing his philosophical work up to that point, and as a reflection of his renowned treatise released just a year earlier, entitled Being and Nothingness. The most famous line of the play, “hell is other people,” has often been mistakenly taken as the primary existential theme in and of itself, but to contemptuously describe such an explanation as superficial (which the theater critic Leah Frank does in a review of No Exit) belies Sartre’s purposes in writing the play (“Sartre’s Version of Hell”). This is because the famous phrase was only meant to hint at Sartre’s idea of human existence on a whole, not explain his ideology in and of itself. Sartre exposed this sentiment in an interview with a colleague’s son, John Gerassi, by stating that generalized ideas can seem arbitrary when not paired with the feelings that humans endure, “which is why I must test them [his philosophical ideas] in concrete situations, hence my plays and novels. Gerassi: So I don’t need to read Being and Nothingness if I read or go see No Exit? Sartre: In a way that’s true” (Talking with Sartre). Not only did this reflect Sartre’s view on the importance of theater as an expose of human emotion, but also it revealed his main intention in writing No Exit. This was not only to express the angst in interacting with other people, but it showed why Sartre believed other people are hell, in that their reactions and general presence bring out the kind of self-loathing that would not be actualized without other humans present.
Martin Heidegger, with his monumental philosophical work Being and Time, had an obvious affect on Sartre’s way of thinking, made apparent by the similarity in Sartre naming his most important book Being and Nothingness. The focus on the word being had to do with how modern philosophers previously overlooked the question of human existence. Heidegger called for modernists to stop making the assumption that the question of existence was minimal in relation to more seemingly complex philosophical questions. Sartre took this a step further in the opening page of Being and Nothingness by disregarding Descartes’ famous statement “ I think therefore I am” as inconsequential in a single paragraph. Sartre capitalized on this philosophical capital offense in No Exit by showing that the difference between existence and nothingness was not merely in the act of thinking, but in creating and living according to one’s own set of values. No Exit argued this groundbreaking idea brilliantly by gradually unveiling why each character: Garcin, Inez, and Estelle, were in hell, which was because they lived hypocritical lives contradicting the values they intended to live by or by not having any at all.
Garcin indeed contradicted the values he had created for himself and was constantly seeking reassurance that he was justified in his self-proclamation of being pacifist. Although instead of taking responsibility for his actions, he hypocritically treated his wife with malicious disregard by openly being unfaithful toward her, even forcing her to serve him and his mistress coffee while in bed. Garcin openly admitted his cruelty without remorse while conversing with Inez, stating, “I’m here because I treated my wife abominably” (No Exit). Garcin was doomed to be confined to hell because all he wanted was for others to think favorably of him instead of being true to himself. This was why he was constantly visioning what his co-workers at the office were saying (or not saying) about him, and also why he needed a feminine character such as his mistress in life and Estelle in death for self-validation. Margot Bonel Morgan, in his essay on modernist drama, dedicated a section to Sartre’s theatrical writing, and described the philosophical intentions in Garcin’s character, saying that Sartre’s view of true freedom “means living with the uncertainty that comes from having to make choices and stand by those choices without the security of a final judgment” (The Decline of Political Theatre in 20th Century Europe). Garcin could not live with making choices and standing by them, which was why other people were hell to him, since he only wanted those around him to show him respect without first respecting himself.
Respect was irrelevant for Inez, as her pessimistic attitude was prevalent in that she refused to live by any values. This was not out of ignorance, but because of an aversion to other human beings resulting in a nihilistic outlook of the world and other people. Inez was bound to nihilism as a result of her fear of people treating her as an outcast because of her sexual orientation. This amounted to Inez feeling the need to preemptively make other people suffer. When Garcin implored her to see reason in working together in order to avoid giving in to the torture devices that were themselves, Inez claimed that no effort for compassion could be mustered on her part. “Human feeling. That’s beyond my range. I’m rotten to the core” (No Exit).   Sartre was commenting on the pitfalls of nihilism through Inez by characterizing her with contempt for other people that was toxic and would result in nothing other than a self-condemnation to perpetual torture. Inez’s personality was a device used by Sartre in order to represent the presence of nihilistic solipsism in people.  In Being and Nothingness, Sartre asserted nothingness as being for itself, as opposed to being in itself, in that the former can be described as to nihilate, or to choose to believe that the Other is non-being, or only a representation. Inez could not see consciousness in other humans, her mode of thinking, thus, completely disregarded compassion and caused her to see others as beneath her, as if they were only non-sentient animals. “If animals are machines, [or, void of consciousness, hence, being] why shouldn’t the man whom I see pass in the street be one? What I apprehend on this face is nothing but the effect of certain muscular contractions, and they in turn are only the effect of a nervous impulse of which I know the course” (Being and Nothingness). Inez was attracted to Estelle partly for this reason, because Estelle’s superficial beauty played on Inez’s objectification of human beings. In this light, Inez’s attitude toward Estelle proved that the former’s solipsist perception of the world amounted to her being a misogynistic feminist.
Estelle’s personality was relatable to Inez in that the way that the latter hated men unjustifiably; the former was drawn to them for seemingly no reason. Estelle needed a man in the way that Inez needed a woman in order to fill the void inside them. When Estelle rejects Inez’s attempts at seducing her, she turns to Garcin, only because she witnessed her lover move on with her best friend in a vision of the living world. However, Garcin sees through her and knows that Estelle responds to him saying that she needed him, not just any man only in order to fool herself into playing the part of a lover. “No humbug now. Any man would do your business. As I happen to be here, you want me” (No Exit). Unlike Inez who has selfish values, Estelle has none at all, because of her shallowness. This was the reason why Estelle suffered in hell, in that she would forever be unsatisfied with those around her, which was why she ended up killing the baby she had birthed, because of her lover. Other people were hell for Estelle because she had no values, she was not interested in any, she only wanted to live in a fake world, which resulted in her causing her choices in life to be sordid.
Immorality was essential in Sartre’s meaning of the term hell is other people, but it was only one facet of how the phrase could be applied to existential thought. Sartre could not extensively elucidate his theoretical concepts on phenomenological questions of being within the confines of dramatic dialogue. Stating that a shortened aphorism such as hell is other people (like Leah Frank) would be completely missing the point, because Sartre’s intentions were the opposite, in that he desired to create a theatrical representation through No Exit of the complex philosophical ideas he had expressed a year prior in Being and Nothingness. Morgan’s essay elaborated on Sartre’s connection of philosophy and theater by agreeing that the philosopher was interested in using No Exit as a dramatic form of Being and Nothingness in order to express his concepts in a more simple and clear manner. “The role of drama, like the role of philosophy, is to elucidate the material constraints and moral dilemmas that shape an individual’s choices, and to interrogate his actions” (The Decline of Political Theatre in 20th Century Europe).
Morgan focused on Sartre implementing his own distinct expression of existential thought in his theatrical writing pointing out that Sartre called a theater of situations. The progression of the situation in No Exit mirrors Being and Nothingness in terms of characterizing each character into different forms of being. Garcin, Inez, and Estelle suffered each other’s torments because they chose to do so in life and in death. Garcin and Inez realized that this was the case quickly because they were aware of the Other, but they couldn’t do anything to better their situation because their values were misplaced. Estelle had no values, and thus was in self-denial about her situation, even after she finally confessed infanticide. It was apparent to Sartre, that theater expressed this kind of existential thought through situation in a more affective way to an audience, and that was why when Gerassi asked if he did not have to read his philosophical work if his play was seen or read in its stead, Sartre answered that in a way that was true. Ultimately, Sartre realized that his philosophical concepts had a more profound effect on a wider audience through theater: hence his use of the short but dynamic existential one-liner, hell is other people.

11 replies on “Being and Theater”


I enjoyed reading your review and analysis of Sartre’s “No Exit,” and admire your tenacity in posting a lengthy though interesting account. The world in which Sartre expressed his existentialist view no longer exists in the same form, and I think what passes these days for existentialism has evolved in ways that might not be completely agreeable to Sartre.

I particularly noted your contention that:

“…existence in reality requires a recognition of the Other in order to be grounded in an awareness that has meaning.”

Indeed, modern philosophers like Alva Noe, (“Out of Our Heads,”) posit that we could not have achieved our awareness of existing at all, had it not included the physical environment and “the other,” against whom we were able to compare our own existence and verify for ourselves that we, also, in fact, existed.

I also was intrigued by your statement:

“…the mind can be abstract, or unrelated to matter, but not related to something described as a soul.”

I’m not sure if you were using the term “mind” here as a substitute for the word “consciousness,” or if you were actually speaking of the mind as a byproduct of the brain. Clearly, utilizing the physiology of the brain could be said to result in a unified condition we describe as “the mind,” but therefore related to the matter of the brain.

If you meant to infer that the existence of a transcendent consciousness (Kant) could be unrelated to matter and not necessarily have a religious or spiritual connotation, that seems completely reasonable to me. We humans often devise our own unique terminology to refer to what we cannot comprehend fully, and our mythologies and spiritual traditions have taken up this task over the centuries, not always resulting in making any of our conundrums especially more comprehensible.

Your willingness to attend to these intellectual conversations is very encouraging, and I hope to see how your thoughts evolve as you expand your pursuits.

Regards……John H.

A couple of thoughts – ‘existence in reality’ seems to be an important construct here. Do you mean by this a distinction between reality (as an objective thing) and unreality or unawareness of reality?

Yes, I think Sartre was not intending it in the politicized sense – I was reading that back into Sartre. (I must confess – as is probably obvious – it’s been rather a while since I read any Sartre, and even then, I loved Nausea and No Exit, but I’m sure I did not give as much attention to Being and Nothingness as I should. And I’m sure that contributes a great deal to communication difficulties.)

Rather than strictly physical, I think I’m using the term in a more binary sense rather than a qualitative one. There is also a result oriented bias I’m not even wholly consciously aware of. If I start qualifying existence it becomes easier for me to posit the non-existing person – and that may result in altering how I view or even treat that person. As I said – I’m not wholly conscious that that is my resistence, but the notion – the possible result is something I particularly dislike. I am by nature an obligate egalitarian: I tend to view myself the equal of everyone I meet – neither more nor less. I tend to treat people in that way because I see them in that way.

To rationally / fairly / fully consider the idea, I have to set aside my preference – which, as you know, can only be done with limited success. I think you’re absolutely right that a distinction exists between being and existence. It is perhaps a linguistic trick – but I need to get past the prejudice in my thinking. The question we’re considering is a legitimate topic – what does being consist in, perhaps? In which case, things like awareness of the other, creating value and meaning, even compassion or empathy would become very important factors.

Thanks for that. For my part, I’m enjoying the conversation. I’m just a little self-conscious because blog comments don’t really lend themselves to that. They’re good for short comments, questions, encouragement – or, I suppose if one were an ass, discouragement. But they don’t communicate tone well, and they’re less than ideal for subtle distinctions.

Thinking, experience, consciousness, feeling, existence, whatever you want to call it, there is a subjectivity to being. And perhaps those words can be used interchangeably in this respect: that existence in reality requires a recognition of the Other in order to be grounded in an awareness that has meaning. The Other has no political connotations in this respect, yes philosophers like Zizek use the psychological/phenomenological term in the political context, but I don’t think Sartre meant it like that.

I think the definition between existence and perception of reality can be explained with
the phrase existence precedes essence. If a person is not recognizing the existence of others, then how are they existing themselves? And I think the problem you are focusing on is the use of the word existence in a purely physical sense. And I don’t mean seeing it in a metaphysical way, because that word is too often interpreted as having to do with the spiritual. But I think that it doesn’t have to be that way, that the mind can be abstract, or unrelated to matter, but not related to something described as a soul.

I agree that creating values for yourself isn’t the only qualification to existing, the word has many meanings. One could be extant without even thinking. But the word being, is a whole different matter. Being and existence are different, I think, and I suppose I was using the word existence a little too freely.

No worries, this is not an argument, we’re just having a discussion. This is a complex issue that cannot be seen in the same light by two different people. Thank you for actually responding with a thoughtful and honest comment. And I’d be more than happy to continue this conversation if you feel so inclined.

Thank you for the thoughtful response. If I understand you rightly, I appreciate the distinction you’re making. Descartes assumes a definition of existence without examining it.

I ask for your patience – my use of words is inescapably colored by where and how I encounter them. I’m not intending to argue – I thought your essay was great. I’m just trying to clarify a couple of things in my own understunding.

“Other” is a word that is often overused in quasi-political contexts. (Maybe philosophy in support of politics? An obviously intended use, but one that lends itself to misrepresentation or confusion between ideas and political ‘goals’.)

I would agree to the desirability of awareness of and compassion for others. The first is an awareness of a reality and the second is a response to or interaction with that reality. The other’s experience of existence is the same qualitatively as my own.

I’m having trouble with how that becomes a definition for existence as opposed to a perception of reality. I’m not saying that was not Sartre’s thought – I clearly don’t know. But it seems to me that awareness of the other and compassion for the other presupposes the existence of the other. Were this not the case, one need only be aware of and have compassion for others that themselves were aware of and had compassion for others.

So it seems to me there is a rather arbitrary line being drawn to qualify existence; sure, this is in response to a lack of qualification and precision. But I’m having trouble with that as a definition beyond preference. Creating value and meaning are essential to existing because I prefer that that should be so.

I think Sartre was attempting to remedy the murky sense of undefined existence that enlightenment philosophes and Descartes represented. Sartre thought that Descartes did not go far enough, that there are different forms of being, not just one categorical state of existence. The one thing that is essential in Sartre’s writing is understanding the concept of the Other. Which can be defined in a plethora of ways, and is sometimes referred to as best being defined by Lacan.

Creating meaning or value is utterly essential to existing because of the Other. Sartre uses the example of solipsist-like thinking to show that people are sometimes so enveloped in themselves, but still think, and so according to Descartes they exist. Although they do not exist in reality, so who is to say that their existence can be measured on the same level of those that do not think that the Other, or any other human being, is not just a representational jabbering nothing. It is this awareness and compassion, I think, that truly defines existence.

Good title. Also very well presented.

I have an unfortunate tendency to read into philosophy (and lit to a degree) my own understandings of the words writers choose for their concepts.

But still, I have to ask – don’t you think Sartre misrepresents Descartes? I mean – I never took Descartes to be defining existence directly AS thinking. I thought existence left rather undefined?

And how might one differentiate between thinking and experience, consciousness, or feeling? I mean – I see what you’re saying about creating meaning and value, but I’m not sure I would call that existence either as much as a seeming moral imperative in lihgt of the nature of existence.

(OK – I butchered that thought. There is a tendency among some existentialists to define being as a type of action / duty involving self-awareness and moral agency. I’m reminded of an Paul Tillich ‘essay’, The Courage to Be. But it has always seemed to me this would lead to a very elitist view – the only people who truly are are people who think like I do …)

I also took hell as other people to be, in part, self-aware irony. A childish excuse, almost. Hell is yourself. And I wondered in the play if it had the element of punishment – though apparently deserved – as much as reflection of existence.

This was a superb treatment on “No Exit.” I must admit that until now, I had I very shallow underatanding of metaphors involved. Happily, I are the work anew, and will be revisiting Sartre soon. Thank you.

Yours in Contemplation,

Share Your Thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s