• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Theatrical Sartre

Sartre on Theater

by Jean-Paul Sartre, compiled and edited by Michel Contat, by Michel Rybalka
Pantheon, 352 pp., $10.95

Enter, Stage Left ….. Exit, Stage Right

Act One

The curtain rises, and Sartre, coming forward to address his audience, says:

The chief source of great tragedy—the tragedy of Aeschylus and Sophocles, of Corneille—is human freedom. Oedipus is free; Antigone and Prometheus are free. The fate we think we find in ancient drama is only the other side of freedom. Passions themselves are freedoms caught in their own trap.

Observe the speech and not the speaker. There is first the round unguarded expression of essence, and the little exemplary list, notable for what it leaves out, then the ritual invocation of freedom (better than patrie, gloire, or god), followed by an outrageous falsehood (Oedipus is free) which is rhetorically removed with one rub of a paradox put epigrammatically. There will be a lot of this.

But what should we expect from a character on the stage? Surely not argument, fairness to fact, or niceness of distinction. Eloquent outcry, rather. Soft soap. Pithy remark. Snappy retort. Short shrift.

Four years earlier, in 1943, Sartre had described his own play, The Files, as a tragedy of freedom composed in direct contrast to the Greek tragedies of fate. Using the same formula, that fate is inverted freedom, Sartre then said of his character, Orestes: “I have shown him as a prey to freedom, just as Oedipus is a prey to his destiny.” Sartre had not yet seen how to liberate Oedipus, but we can follow the maneuver quite easily. Over the years the mind drifts, and by philosophically freeing Orestes in his own play, Sartre came to feel that he had freed Oedipus in the two plays of Sophocles.

For freedom is not some vague abstract ability to soar above the human predicament; it is the most absurd and the most inexorable of commitments. Orestes will go onward, injustifiable, with no excuse and with no right of appeal, alone. Like a hero. Like all of us.

And beneath the weight of such flattery we rise like balloons.

The theater today, Sartre said in 1959, must be philosophical. Philosophy itself? It is dramatic.1 And Sartre has always been theatrical. In this same interview, for example, we find the following stagey sentences: “If literature is not everything, it is worth nothing,” and “what is the literature of an epoch but the epoch appropriated by its literature?” and “You have to aspire to everything to have hopes of doing something,” again “literature finds its initial impulse in silence” or “Any string of words whatsoever…calls everything we have done into question….” He warns us that his long study of Flaubert is a kind of fiction. “It might indeed be called a novel. Only I would like people to say it was a true novel.”2

Our complicity in Sartre’s passions is presumed to be complete. We are embarrassed by psychology in the theater, he tells us. We are unmoved by inevitability. We are pressed into this “we” like the buttocks of a crowd on bleachers. Antigone’s dilemma—the antagonism between family loyalty and civic duty—no longer makes much sense, Sartre insists. It is foreign to the Kennedys, we begin to ask; it was out of place at Watergate? But the act has changed; we don’t want to miss the seals; our objections slip through the seats and disappear among the struts and pros of our support. No indeed, it can’t be the world we’re in. It must be the theater.

In any case the formula is familiar enough: the duty of any drama is to unify its audience by depicting human beings in extreme existential situations: extreme because one outcome can be death; existential because choice, though limited, is unconditioned and unconditional; and situational because it is the context of challenge which counts, not the character or the character’s fossilized past.

This is a dramatic disjunction indeed. We are compelled to wonder whether Macbeth, as he allows his lady to stiffen his resolve, is choosing what he will become or expressing what he is. He is not permitted to do both.

Immerse men in these universal and extreme situations which leave them only a couple of ways out, arrange things so that in choosing the way out they choose themselves, and you’ve won—the play is good.3

As easy as talking on the phone. And so this performance begins.

Sartre on Theater is a beautifully edited collection of all the bits and pieces of opinion which Sartre has left behind in this place or that while he’s had his show on the road: a sanatorium at Bouffémont or the main hall of the Sorbonne, a reel of tape here, another there, as though he had forgotten his coat in Tokyo or lost his left shoe in New York—feuilletons, fusillades, conversations, interviews, debates, book blurb, a bit of letter, record liner, squib, a casual talk, a few formal lectures—now raked together the way Isis gathered the body of her brother, and restored not to Sartre exactly but to us; for we might not have recognized the first time that these aperçus and appraisals were gifts, we might have naïvely thought they were merely left shoes.

The earliest piece dates from 1940, but except for the most recent which consists of a few short selections on “the paradox of the actor” from Sartre’s study of Flaubert, L’Idiot de la famille, these are responses to specific questions or occasions, directed toward particular audiences, the shots of an author zigzagging under fire more than the reflections of a philosopher calmly waiting to be dunked, and in that way they partake of the theater in terms of form, occasion, and delivery, as well as subject.4

So these are the notes of an old campaigner: they focus on present issues as if the present were more than of passing importance; theories are regarded as programs for action; positions are presented with three-line simplicity; slogans are flashed; there is much easy assessment and plenty of name-calling; and it is thought very important that the masses think alike and rightly.

The distance between Sartre’s serious work as a philosopher (in Being and Nothingness, say, or the Critique of Dialectical Reason) and the mainly momentary verbal encounters recorded here is more than customarily enormous. Sartre’s changes of mind are legendary, and he now confesses to being shocked by some of his earlier opinions.

The other day, I re-read a prefatory note of mine to a collection of these plays—Les Mouches, Huis Clos and others—and was truly scandalized. I had written: “Whatever the circumstances, and wherever the site, a man is always free to choose to be a traitor or not….” When I read this, I said to myself: it’s incredible, I actually believed that!5

Sartre will doubtless find some of his current opinions equally extreme, since he likes to look over the edge of an idea like a tourist at a canyon; and his mind has always been both centrifugal and parochially sensitive to the present; so when he uses the word “universal,” it most often means, “generally obtaining at the time.” That’s why the Greeks grow out of date. And why the conflict between clan and city can no longer interest us. That’s why the recurrent word in these interviews and statements on the theater is “now,” though in this volume “now” lasts thirty years; why it made sense to devote a half of What Is Literature? to “The Situation of the Writer in 1947,” and why, in reply to criticisms, Sartre can calmly say: “I wrote L’Etre et Le Néant after the defeat of France, after all…”6 or respond to the suggestion that The Files is perhaps not the best play to perform before Germans because it “bestows a gigantic pardon,” by admitting that the issue turns “on the question how far a play which may have been good in 1943, which was valid at the time, still has the same validity and, in particular, validity in 1948. The play must be accounted for by the circumstances of the time.”7

So throughout these pieces he serenely repeats the collective “we don’t think that way now” when he means that although most of us are always out of step, we ought to keep up, perceive the immediate situation, just as, when existentialism became passé, Sartre nonetheless kept au courant (in 1943 anxiety was a universal sickness of the spirit, but mankind had so recovered by 1947 that the disease was confined to the bourgeoisie), and who can predict what character will follow the letter Mao?

It is this recurrent certainty, this calm acceptance of the nonce, this franchising of fads, which has made his readers morally uneasy. 8 There is in the reduction of ideas to praxis, in a too noisily vibrating intelligence, a not very carefully concealed determinism of circumstances like the song of the wind-harp; just as one might praise or excuse Plato by saying that after all, the Republic was written after the disgrace of Greek democracy, the fall of Athens, and the death of Socrates—facts which no one will dispute, and facts which remain philosophically irrelevant. To suggest that a work is principally a reply to local conditions is to suggest that it is unimportant.9 Ideas have their sordid grounds and conditions, their secret social motives, a private itch they are a public scratch to, but what is exactly central to philosophy is the effort to propose and argue views whose validity will transcend their occasions, and not to manufacture notions which, when squeezed, will simply squirt out causes like a sponge. If that effort cannot succeed (as we know in many cases it does not), then philosophy becomes a form of conceptual fiction, and new determinants of quality, equally harsh and public, must be employed.

As a space, the present has been oversold. It is simply what the future, pushed roughly by the past, falls flat in. That’s rather nice, I think. So shall I say that I believe it?

The moment overwhelms in other ways. The lively force and narcissistic drama of one’s situation, like a passion or a toothache for which the world shuts shop, so only one’s wound is open, only one’s pain is beating, easily leads to the conviction that the rush of lust through the loins, the ache, the ear which won’t stop ringing, are universal conditions of consciousness, and that the utterly personal solutions one has adopted constitute a program of relief and reform.10 What a change being out of love brings; what a blessing silence is, or the departure of pain; and what a rush, then, of opinion in the opposite direction.

One is reminded of similar contradictions in Sartre’s great opposite, Bertrand Russell: the careful, profound, and creative logician displaced by a careless and unoriginal historian; the shrewd and sophisticated epistemologist coupled with a naïve social critic and marital adviser—one pictures a unicorn hitched to a beer wagon—so that cautious investigation alternates with a pellmell rush into opinion; the genuine lifelong though abstract concern for humanity unbalanced by an occasional personal indifference and even fickleness and cruelty; the deeply private work and pure reflection which is weakened by the need to embrace popular causes and at great cost fight the good fight when from the public there is nothing to be caught but the clap; the adversary psychology, the small boy who will suddenly dash from ampersand and implication, anguish and en soi, to pee on a bed of pansies (in round: the English dervish and the French hoop); however, it is symptomatic of their profound difference as philosophers that when Russell tells us he has a passion for knowledge, it is easy to believe him, because Russell wanted desperately to discover the real way the world was, while Sartre’s concern has never been for reality as such, but for his own relation to it, and consequently for the quality and character and content of what he would eventually come to think about it.

  1. 1

    This and the quotes which immediately follow are taken from “The Purpose of Writing” in another Sartre collection, Between Existentialism and Marxism (Pantheon, 1975). The volume contains two excellent interviews, some of the customary political rant, an impressive essay on Mallarmé, a little slap-dash stuff on psychoanalysis, and the Tokyo lectures on the situation of the intellectual.

  2. 2

    From “The Itinerary of a Thought,” in Between Existentialism and Marxism.

  3. 3

    For a Theater of Situations,” in Sartre on Theater.

  4. 4

    Commenting on “Forgers of Myths,” one of the essays collected here, after it appeared in 1946, Eric Bentley wrote that it was “the typical Sartre compound: bold to the point of temerity, confident to the point of cocksureness, magnificent to the point of pretentiousness.” Bentley’s paper is reprinted in Sartre: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Edith Kern (Prentice-Hall, 1962).

  5. 5

    The Itinerary of a Thought.” This preface does not appear to have been reprinted in Sartre on Theater.

  6. 6

    There is a wholly minor but amusing indecision about how to print the title of this book—as Hazel Barnes has it in her translation, L’Être et le Néant? or as Danto does it, L’Être et le néant? or Jameson spells it in Marxism and Form, L’Etre et le néant? or finally as L’Etre et Le Néant as it’s done in Between Marxism and Existentialism?

  7. 7

    The problem is placed before Sartre by Professor Steiniger following a performance of The Files in Berlin in 1948. Recorded in Sartre on Theater.

  8. 8

    John Weightman, who is favorably disposed toward Sartre, recently wrote (in The Times Literary Supplement for June 25, 1976): “If I have a reservation about him…it is that he is always so imperturbably sure that he is now in the right, even after changing his mind so many times. All the criticism levelled against him runs off him like water off a duck’s back. …what they [critics] say, or have said, has no relevance to Sartre’s intimate conviction that the only relative truth is represented by his own ideas, as they can be formulated at the moment…he is a changeable dogmatist, and an ideological authoritarian who does not really accept le dialogue.” Etc.

  9. 9

    Many of Sartre’s current commentators understand this, so they are busy establishing continuities between the master’s early, early middle, middle middle, late middle, and early late periods. Fredric Jameson rereads L’Être et le néant through the enlarging lens of the Critique de la raison dialectique in Marxism and Form (Princeton, 1971), and does so brilliantly, while Mark Poster argues that “Being and Nothingness does provide a concept of freedom adequate for a renewed Marxism…” in Existential Marxism in Postwar France (Princeton, 1975). Unfortunately some critics, most of them Marxists, measure everything in terms of Sartre’s approach to or departure from their own jargon-draped dogmas, which is like measuring the extent of a flood by how close the water comes to your foot.

  10. 10

    A beautiful example of the way personal exigencies can be given the dignity of radical purpose is furnished by Simone de Beauvoir, who remarked, after she and Sartre had established a ménage à trois with Olga Kosakiewicz, “we thought that human relations are to be perpetually invented, that a priori no form is privileged, none impossible….” Poster quotes this (p. 76) and then says, with a naïveté I had thought gone from the world: “Although these arrangements cannot be identified with socialist politics, at least they indicate a self-conscious refusal of conventional mores.” The refusal took a solidly bourgeois form. If Olga had been Fred Kosak, sandhog, however….

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print