Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre; drawing by David Levine

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.

Act Two

Imagine that I am a man who eats his dinner daily and that I am in a restaurant, gazing at the menu. If I ask for something not on the carte, chances are I won’t get it, but I’ve no grounds for complaint since I could have gone to La Bête Noire where the bête à laine is always superb, as are each of the other bêtes; however I wanted the fine view of the square one has from Café cul de Sac, and all the girls. I feel the weight of custom, too: not to order soup as a side dish or begin with pie. Some of the entrees are too expensive for me; the chateaubriand is for two; I hate tongue; the last time I was here the stew gave off a pale gray taste like Auschwitz smoke, an experience I’d just as soon not repeat; a newspaper review has described the culotte de boeuf as a gourmet’s delight. All of these factors, in varying degrees, limit and condition my choices. I can decide to impress the waiter, pamper my ulcer, defy my childhood training, overcome my horror of beets, ignore religious taboos, or honor my vow to remain a vegetarian until my first poem is published.

Or I can choose as the kind of man I wish to become would choose, for no matter how loose or straitened my circumstances, there is always an alternative for my future self to select, so when I indicate to the waiter that I shall have escargots and salad with perhaps a half carafe of quiet white, I am arranging my meal as a part of a project (a series of acts with a unifying aim), as a dancer might diet or a weight lifter gorge on meat.

Since the act of ordering is itself a mere snip from a lengthy trajectory, it cannot possibly be the simple sum of my present limitations and my past conditioning, as the bourgeois would prefer to describe it, because my act would then be deprived of both freedom and purpose, and I should be relieved of any responsibility for it. But I do not fly south as blindly as the birds; I choose to be a person of a certain sort: saint or sinner, ruler or servant, philosopher or fool. I can justify my diet on the grounds that I want to be a dancer, but the final self I desire to be is simply chosen—I am free—and there is no rational way to justify picking one long-term project rather than another.

As for myself, well, I’m in training to be the ultimate gentleman, a man of supreme refinement like white sugar, and so I order escargots. I am engaged and mealtimes are a part of my situation; that is, all my surrounding circumstances are seen and weighed and evaluated in the light of my long-range plans. Not for me is life a meaningless scatter. The café gives me another opportunity to discriminate further among garlic butters. It is my projects which bring values into existence. They make my perceptions particular, and it is my particular perceptions which make me. Some projects are plainly less encompassing than others, hence the great advantage in choosing to be a novelist or philosopher: nothing now falls outside my situation.

I am the self I will be, in the mode of not being it,” Sartre explains, rather badly, in Being and Nothingness.11 The paradox of purpose to which he refers is best exemplified by Aristotle’s famous teleological proof for the existence of God. God is that condition of complete actuality or self-absorbed thought toward which the material world is continuously straining, but of course if this is so, as the proof claims, then God’s existence lies ahead, around some bend in Becoming, and all we have presently to consider divine are small as droplets, though one day they’ll be parts of a sacred sea: here or there the whistle of pure thought through a soul, this or that Russell-like mind brooding on the structures of argument and looking for interstices in demonstrations. “The decisive conduct will emanate from a self which I am not yet.”

Although modern biologists have washed purpose out of nature the way we scrub down walls, they have never denied what Aristotle had so carefully observed and documented: that among plants, animals, and men (if not among things), there were very predictable patterns of growth and development: that each growing season carrots pushed themselves like pegs into the ground, onions layered, the dogwood fought its way through the raining air; that flowers did not bloom before bursting into bud and then sow their petals like seeds, sometimes on sand, sometimes on snow, or the maples burn with colors hitherto unseen, and then, having lost their leaves, commence to grow; that human infants became men and women of much the same color and configuration as their parents on a rather regular basis, though with generally discouraging results.

Aristotle tried to explain these interesting but he thought innocuous phenomena by supposing that living things could be more than merely described (which is all Sartre seems ready to allow is possible for persons); they could be defined. There was a discoverable list of interrelated characteristics which earned any individual its place in a species, and Aristotle quite reasonably believed that some of these characteristics were developmental, so that the essence of a human infant included not only the baby it was but the adult it would become.

In a sentence with considerable Germanic presumption, Sartre tells us how he wants that relationship (of present to future self) understood:

Thus the self which I am depends on the self which I am not yet to the exact extent that the self which I am not yet does not depend on the self which I am. [Being and Nothingness]

To display the relation in other words: I shall love you only if you do not love me…an odd but not unheard of arrangement, one which exists so long as it is not symmetrical. But that is odd indeed, because the relationship constitutes and sustains itself. Fatherhood is asymmetrical too, but I am not the father of my children precisely to the extent that they are not a parent of mine.

My table in the restaurant seats me in the center of a real situation because the entire meal is eaten in a context of significant action, action which will in part alter the world and move me closer to the fulfillment of my project—the realization of a value. Sartre sometimes writes as if one’s project involved the wholesale rejection of the present, but this is clearly not so. One sometimes acts to slow change, or to employ the present the way one uses a library, reaffirming values while bringing about others.

In all this my essence is hardly my enemy, although Sartre acts as if essence were some dark blot on the family past which ought to be kept secret. In fact, Aristotle’s definition of man limits his behavior about as much as a mesh fence around the solar system, and the ends ascribed to any class are so general I should never think to mention them if someone were to question me, for the purposes of my species are rarely mine. I do not exist to breed, but from the point of view of biology what else am I fit for?

Camus’s Caligula chooses to be a tyrant, Macbeth chooses to become a murderer and usurper, I choose to become a connoisseur. In effect, to choose one’s destiny is to choose not to be free, even if Sartre would dislike this formulation. It is either to create a character and then to insist on acting within it (that’s the way I am and the way I intend to remain), or it is to set in motion causes whose consequences increasingly compress the future into a narrow channel, as one who robs or kidnaps quickly finds the rituals of chase and capture, courts and confinement, close around him like fingers in a fist.

To choose a destiny, however, as Sartre insists, is not to obtain one, because I must continuously will my future. I can have them clear the snails away and bring me franks and beans. You must call yourself a saint again tomorrow and suffer another nail. The intellectual’s position is both easier and more perilous than most because writing effects little (Sartre sometimes says),12 and is normally accompanied by fewer risks, while crimes and coups can box you in. At the same time, a blow struck today may require another be struck tomorrow. The violent man will always find public support for his conception of himself. But opinions do nothing but implant in others the expectation that their owner will continue to cherish them like children. In short, every free act imperils its own base by creating conditions that encourage its repetition, a trap which Sartre has so far managed to avoid. Yet if I am to carry out my project, what else can I do? The existentialist wants to will himself…no…the existentialist wills to want to will himself: choose to be such and such a sort”; but he hates it when others say of him: “Oh, he’s such and such a sort”; because he knows it is his will which daily denies the flesh, and my will which impels me from escargots to Dobosch Torte, whereas others see him as a fearful neurotic and myself as a gluttonous gourmet, a slave to the snobbery of my stomach.

Aristotle had argued that virtue ought to be a habit; that honesty was second nature to the honest man (who thus has, after all, a created essence), but Sartre prefers the Christian position: that virtue consists of a continuous self-conscious triumph over temptation; and it would appear that in order to prove that the temptation is there, it is periodically necessary to succumb to it. How will les autres know I’m free, if my behavior is consistent?

There is no such thing as an isolated freedom—any circumstance will contain the intersection of my projects with others—and the new religious theater of the folk which Sartre speaks about will give us agons—conflicts of right in the form of reenacted clashes of passion; because only by means of passion can we portray the whole man. In 1944 Sartre was saying that “anyone performing an act is convinced that he has a right to perform it.” In 1960 he is making this claim about the passions: “passion is a way of finding oneself in the right, of referring to a whole social world of claims and values to justify the fact that one wishes to keep, take, destroy, or construct something.” I happen to agree with Sartre that feelings are cognitions (though frequently faulty) and that values are fundamental ingredients of them, but Sartre draws a thick line between feelings and passions and rolls with characteristic unconcern over an entire series of faulty implications like a train over a bad track.

For what is passion? Does a jealous man, for instance, emptying a revolver into his rival, kill for passion? No, he kills because he believes he has a right to kill.…jealousy implies a right; if you have no right over the person with you, you may be very unhappy because she does not like you any more, because she is deceiving you; but there will be no passion. [“Epic Theatre and Dramatic Theatre”]

Let us take a case and see what we can discriminate within it.

I am furious because this nigger’s dog has just shit on my lawn. I strike him smartly across his sassy black face with a length of sprinkler hose. Then it turns out that it was not his dog but a neighbor’s. Man…am I mad at that nigger now.

First, when I strike anyone, I usually strike those whom I dare to strike. Second, those whom I dare to strike are rarely the ones whom I should like to strike. So I frequently strike substitutes. Do my feelings claim the right to do that? Or I mistake my enemy and call the wrong dog to a duel. Do my feelings claim the right to revenge myself in the wrong way, at the wrong time and place, toward the wrong person and with respect to the wrong things? Third, even when it is really the person who has wronged me whom I’ve struck, and even if I feel I have then a right to my anger, does it follow that I have a right to the blow? If, frustrated, tired, and angry, I beat my baby, will I want to claim my feelings claimed a right? Anger often arises from the recognition that one is in the wrong, and it is the wronged one I blame and beat. This person has been the instrument of my mistake, so I hate him the more. He has made me look bad.

What Sartre’s language unwittingly suggests is this: I come home unexpectedly and find my wife in bed with the black man I had beaten with the hose. As soon as I assess the scene, I realize no jury will convict. I have a right to kill my rival. So naturally I do so. Of course this is a travesty of Sartre’s intention. When he says that the jealous man kills “because he has a right” he means that the man is free of moral scruples.

Observe not the speaker or the speech then, but the techniques. Sartre first locates something that may sometimes be true of some feelings (and perhaps ought to be true of them all). This is universalized. Then objectified. We may begin with a claim, but we end with an implication. The ontological proof got along on less. Finally, if someone produces a case where there is a feeling but clearly no right, let alone a claim of one, as in the case of the mother who beats her child, he points out that he was not speaking of mere feelings, but of passions (which always do claim a right). In short, he turns his statement into a definition and begs the question.13

The point I am belaboring is essential to Sartre’s theory of the theater: it is an arena in which we perceive ultimate projects on collision, these represented to us through the display of passions which claim a right to the acts which express them. These actions, furthermore, are irreversible and must be ridden like a bobsled to the end, becoming more and more radical, picking up speed. Language must be seen as a kind of action, too. Its function is not to describe conditions or reveal character, but in effect to do battle.

We are once again confronted by an emotional definition like still another snake on the trail. “A real action is irreversible,” he says. Then the following are not real actions: (1) I write “phooey” in the margin of a book and then decide the word is too adolescent so I erase it; (2) I buy a TV but return it to the store when I find that it’s defective; (3) I sign your death warrant but countermand the order before the soldiers reach your cell; (4) I swallow rather too many sleeping pills but help is at hand and they pump out my stomach in time. Of course there is a trivial sense in which nothing done can be wholly undone, and there are always varying degrees of doing and undoing, but that is not what Sartre has in mind.

I think we can detect in Sartre’s attitude here, as elsewhere, the need to push a thought toward an extreme formulation, and to hurtle every obstacle, logical or otherwise, which may lie in the path of that push. The free act may be irreversible, but the theatrical act must be irrevocable; the free man can always stop, abandon his project, change direction, for actions do not stay up to party after their agents have gone to bed, but Sartre is perfectly aware that an aborted tragic action will not look well on the stage; that we cannot have Macbeth decide he’s had enough of the usurpation business and refuse to murder Banquo, who, after all, is a fine brave fellow. The theatrical act, as he says, “wipes out the characters who were there at the beginning” in its demand to express itself. Yet this dramatic necessity gives us a Macbeth who is overpowered by his passions, who is weaker than his wife, who is increasingly constrained by circumstances, who is ridden by the actions he once rode.

Antigone and Creon represent opposing terms of a fundamental political contradiction which rent but also animated Greek society. According to Sartre, the contemporary theater places such conflicts inside the protagonist, and the action of the play arises from and reflects these contradictions. However Sartre immediately slips from the stage into psychology. “A man,” he says, “only acts insofar as internal contradictions are the driving force of his action.” By his action he severs himself from these contradictions (how this happens isn’t clear), escaping them to achieve an end, but the act itself must continue to embody contradictions (whether the same ones or others isn’t clear).

Freud provides, us with many examples of such acts, the inappropriate gift, for instance. You can’t drive, hate every shade of red, all ostentation, and own a house with a dinky garage, so I give you a pink Cadillac. This gift beautifully blends my generosity and my meanness, my knowledge of your likes and my disdain for them, my sense of indebtedness to you and my dislike of that situation. But Sartre’s principal case (Brecht’s Galileo, who both pioneers a new science and abjures it) reveals the contradiction by successive actions, and furthermore the conflict is not truly an inner one. Left to himself, Galileo would have continued to advance science. Left to himself, he would not have abjured his doctrines.

The bourgeois theater tries to persuade people (for its own foul purposes) that all acts are failures, and so the People’s Theater, which Sartre supports, must show that this simply isn’t so. The tragic action achieves success in the radicalization of itself, but it is hard to imagine what the success of inherently contradictory acts would be, for the various aims are likely to inhibit one another, making it impossible for any one to fully express itself—neither my meanness nor my generosity. They are crippled by the conflict which gave rise to them, and of which they are an expression.

Act Three

We may understand what this flummery-mummery on the stage is all about, but what is it for? It is for the good of the Folk, and the reformation of the Bourgeoisie? O dear.

There are two kinds of theater which are satisfactory to Sartre: dramatic theater and epic theater. The difference lies mainly in the relation established between those on the boards and those in the seats. It is characteristic of epic theater to put the audience at an aesthetic distance from the action, as Brecht famously does; to insist that what is being seen is a performance; and to inhibit participation and identification. In dramatic theater the audience is presented with an image of itself which it recognizes and joins, but bourgeois theater also does this, and Sartre begins by rejecting the idea of participation because the bourgeois use it so effectively as a weapon.

The distinction is a general one, and can be drawn between novels with equal ease. I can identify with David Copperfield, regardless of my sex, and participate in his growing up. Dickens certainly does nothing to discourage this identification. In the first place, Copperfield’s life transcribes a successful arc, as I should like mine to, and passes through socially defined and acceptable stages which I have traversed or can expect to. His problems are those which anyone might have. In the second place, Copperfield has only soft or sympathetic vices; evil occupies itself with other people; and there is no ambiguity about values. I can fling myself wholeheartedly into his life, share his joys, his griefs, mistakes too, without danger to my self-esteem.

Humbert Humbert, on the other hand, is clearly a fabrication; he is scarcely nice; he is embarked upon a most dubious sexual adventure; he is subtle, devious, complex; there is no telling what will turn up. Certain sexual titillations may invite my deeper participation, but I cannot trust the style. It is cold and cutting, too careful, intellectually too superior, too self-conscious. It obtrudes itself like a head in the beam of the projector, and my satisfactions are short-lived and uneasy.

As Sartre sees it, the advantage of dramatic theater is its greater emotional effect. It fashions an image of my situation. It plays my song. I sing along. Dickens can effectively expose the Victorian exploitation of children, for example; but he can also encourage me to be sentimental about poverty and find the poor in some ways privileged. It is difficult, furthermore, to limit identification. A bourgeois can worm his way into the soul of a militant radical who dies for his cause, because “while he rejects the substance of the play, he will be attracted by the formal design of heroism.” In any case, when I am singing my song, I do not quite hear it, and epic theater forces me to listen as if I were hearing my voice on tape. It is a pedagogically superior technique. That’s how I sound? My god.

Another reason why Sartre waffles on this issue is that he really wants a religious theater. He longs for the interpenetration of values characteristic of the Greek arena. Sartre certainly approves of Brecht’s effort to educate his audiences concerning the social determinations of individual action, but Sartre wants to involve his audience in myth, to touch them at their deepest emotional level, while showing them their common situation (and, in later Sartre, the contradictions which comprise it). He wants to enlist the people’s participation in breaking the chains which the system has fastened around them and which the play has shown are there. Brecht’s theater is not sufficiently kinetic. It informs, it does not energize, its audience. It does not create a true community.

Common interests don’t necessarily unify. If six of us have flu, we have indeed the same disease, but we aren’t sharing an illness like a blanket, and our common desire—to recover—may be quite divisive; thus if I am brought to realize that my interests are the same as yours, I may be recognizing you as an enemy. Diverse and divergent aims often promote peace. Separation and indifference are frequently as benevolent as openness and quiet. The recognition, then, that you and I are in the same boat may please neither of us; common descriptions do not signify common interests; common interests do not necessarily unify; unification is not always desirable.

So the drama cannot rest with revealing a mutual plight, nor is any play able to appeal to human universals of whatever sort (sin and salvation, for example, happiness or entelechy), because for Sartre there aren’t any; therefore the appeal must be to a concept of collective action: the need to hold property in common or to unionize, to seize the utilities or run the railroads. The formula for successful plays of this kind consists first in revelation: this is your situation and here is the enemy mainly responsible for it (early Sartre might have bravely blamed the masses for their own enslavement); second, the individual’s only hope lies in collective action; third, there is value in collective action which transcends utility: cooperation becomes brotherhood. This last part is vital, because in establishing a common cause through a common enemy, one must be careful that the joint venture isn’t nevertheless still held together by self-interest, in which case the collective will dissolve like a team at the end of the season, or incorporate itself and become a business. In this country at present, government, business, and labor are each agents of reaction.

The qualities which make great plays, especially great tragedies, require (exactly contrary to Sartre’s formula) that justice be done every opposition, all aspects, each element. When a pie is cut there is pie on both sides of the knife. Brecht regularly wrote plays which were too artful, too original, too just, to be acceptable to the narrowly political mind which invariably expects the poet to condemn other wars than his, other lies than his, other necessary disciplinary actions, expediencies, confinements, interrogations, tortures, murders, than his—and never wars, lies, secrecy, or tyranny in general.

In play after play, even the most dogmatic and didactic (The Mother or The Measures Taken, for example, The Trial of Lucullus), the text undermines its intended message, and the party growls its displeasure, admonishes and threatens.14 One part of Brecht wanted to sell out to discipline, order, and utility, to replace religion with politics, to take a belief like a Teddy bear to bed; another part wanted to compose great plays and have them properly performed. And while that first half tried to submerge us all in the collective, the other continued rather shrewdly to define the special divided self that was Brecht.

Sartre is himself a sufferer from this saving split of feeling and value. His own play, Dirty Hands, was “misunderstood” because the characters for once escaped the program they were tied to and became problems.15 Sartre, at his deepest point, is anarchistic, playful, ironic, proud, lonely, detached, superior, unique. It is a painful position and it is not surprising that the surface flow of his life and his thinking should run so strongly in the direction of humorless moralizing and the obliteration of the self.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal, writing about Brecht’s play, Baal, in 1926, anticipated the future as he summed up the past:

Our time is unredeemed; and do you know what it wants to be redeemed from?… The individual…. Individuality is an arabesque we have discarded…. I should go so far as to assert that all the ominous events we have been witnessing in the last twelve years are nothing but a very awkward and long-winded way of burying the concept of the European individual in the grave it has dug for itself….16

How can consciousness, that emptiness in Nature of which Sartre has spoken so eloquently and so often, be a curse? Nietzsche warned us of its weight, of the difficulties in being human, of the temptation to throw down the soul like a rucksack to lighten one’s flight. Consciousness is like the shadows cast by bodies on a summer’s day, and such evanescence, such Nothingness (it is poetic to report), is more burdensome than Being itself. “The dark was heavier than Caesar’s foot.”

The key concept again, as in all of Sartre, is freedom; but there are as many freedoms as there are threatening pairs—like frying pan and fire. Do we avoid essence only to fall victim to accidents? And in our escape from sufficient reason will we wind up in the arms of chance? Is our freedom going to be metaphysical, physical, psychological, economic, or political? Sartre has bounced the same word off each of them like a yodel from a mountain. These echoes don’t sing harmony.

Metaphysical determinism, like the will of Allah or Calvin’s God’s forechoosing, maintains that what will be will be, but only well after it has been. Psychological laws do not limit acts, only our motives for them, so if Hobbes says we always act to preserve our lives, then even if we sacrifice ourselves for others like a lamb who loves the knife, it is probably a life everlasting we’re after rather than this brief, miserable, and threatened one; or if Epicurus claims we are always on our knees to lap up pleasure, then even if we lacerate ourselves, we shall find our flesh in happy tatters.

It is obvious, however, that if I am macerated by the NKVD or any other malicious alphabetical agency of police, I am as unfree as a canary, sing as I must and they please, and it’s that determinism I don’t like: the determination of outsiders that my determinants shall not be permitted to determine me; for freedom does not begin—is not an applicable idea—until all the necessaries are out of the way. One does not wonder whether the clam is free to be a bee. Why did Aristotle labor to show that change can only take place along a specific line of march (what’s white cannot become musical, he said), if not to instruct posterity?

So shall we deny the hindrance of the genes? Are we ready to defy the fact that human seeds make babies? And when we survey the range of human accomplishment, what has destiny deprived man of, or nature held him back from, which he wishes were in his reach?…besides omnipotence and immortality. Such views of man as Aristotle had, or Hume, or Hobbes, such laws as Spinoza laid upon him, or Kant or Marx, are not designed to limit behavior but to enable and explain it.

Sartre’s examples inform us that is the determinism of the family and the state that troubles him most: character and government—the clash of classes—the constraints on man placed there by man himself, not selfish cells or designs depicted in the stars; yet he has made his objection to social and political coercion into a freedom from human physis as mythological as the Moirai themselves. Against Ananke not even the gods fight, Simonides says, and it makes desperate good sense to distinguish between physical necessities and social constraints, and to kick against the pricks and not against the laws which enable us, as Aristotle says, to be an ensouled body rather than an unarticulated boneless ham or silent pitted stone.

Freedom is a wonderful dream, but Sartre’s defense of human freedom has been too strongly asserted, too badly stated, too weakly reasoned, too plainly caused, and by now the freedom he speaks of has been reduced to a blind Lucretian swerve within a steady rain of atoms.

This is the limit I would today accord to freedom: the small movement which makes of a totally conditioned social being someone who does not render back completely what his conditioning has given him. Which makes Genet a poet when he had been rigorously conditioned to be a thief.17

Yet Genet could become a poet because he possessed his enormous talent from the beginning. The fact is that social and political categories of this kind (God and His Dominions and His Powers) don’t adapt well to the rarefications of metaphysics…unless Denmark’s a prison, of course, and the world’s one.

Sartre explains that Beckett’s plays are admired by the bourgeois because the bourgeois enjoy being told that man is a depraved lost vicious lonely bored but frightened meaningless creature. Such a view will justify the severe social order they favor: the cage man is to be safely kept in. Yet the bourgeois do not like Beckett. The vast mass of the middle class like The Sound of Music. Those few self-selected members of the class who respond to Waiting for Godot are hardly characteristic of the whole. They are, furthermore, the same intelligentsia who provide Sartre with his audience and readers. It was a collection of clercs who nearly made existentialism commercial.

It is the word “bourgeois” which Sartre brings down like a club on most of his traditional opposition. Wouldn’t we all like to have such a weapon? All right. Some time ago there separated from the mass of men like cream in a bottle a group I have chosen to call (after consultation with Dr. Seuss) the Snerls. A snerl is a real or fancied aristocrat who repudiates his origins to play Papa to the masses. (There are a few Mama snerls now, but for a long time the group was almost exclusively male. This did not threaten its existence.) Not all snerls are literary men, though many are: Yeats reaching out through myth to the peasants; Tolstoy, as a young man, shutting himself in his room after witnessing the whipping of an erring coachman, and resolving, so he tells us, to change the world so he would not have to see such unpleasant things again; Mailer running for mayor; and Sartre’s many games of principle and conscience, pronouncement and cancellation, where, quite contrary to Russell’s case, the price is usually paid by others.

Yeats grew peevish with the peasants. From the seat of the righteous, Tolstoy hurled thunderbolts at Baudelaire. Dos Passos crossed nothing to reach the other side. And Mailer’s cock flaps both right wings now when it crows. Sartre is far more subtle. The writers with whom he has had some of his most remarkable differences (Baudelaire, Genet, Flaubert, Mallarmé), he surrounds with his own words like a swelling around a wound, and one of the aims of all this inflammation is to make it impossible their texts should reach us without passing, on their way, through his; although, of course, he also wishes to prove that Flaubert, for instance, was politically engagé, that he hadn’t that purity of aesthetic purpose frequently pinned on him like a medal (all true); yet none of this changes the fact that Flaubert could accept his loathing of the middle class (and himself) only if it were contained in the most rigorously articulated and profoundly beautiful forms. Flaubert was not a snerl (nor in the long run was Yeats). He was a crabby aristocrat.

Sartre insists that “you always have a right to speak evil of the bourgeois as man, but not as bourgeois,” but I should have thought that no one spoke well of the bourgeois…not under that rubric. Of course everyone has his own bourgeois (Sartre his, I mine, you yours), but to prefer content to form—what could be more bourgeois? to think of art in terms of social utility—what could be more bourgeois? to be an intellectual good Samaritan—what could be more bourgeois? to dislike plays that are too gloomy and pessimistic—what could be more bourgeois? to believe that the artist holds some sort of mirror up to nature, or like Taine that a successful work must be in harmony with its era—what could be more bourgeois? and then to feel that plays ought to do you good, that the aim of theater should be “telling the truth”—what could be more bourgeois? to hector, to teach, to drag morality into everything like the worst Victorian Pa—what could be more bourgeois? above all to put on plays which will be eaten like ice creams at intermissions (and for new times there will be new plays, new plans, new truths, and new demands)—what could be more bourgeois, or more in keeping with our consumer society where long novels burn like cigarettes, poems don’t outlast their speaking, paintings fade into the walls they hang on as though the sun were their only patron, and sculpture is made to look as if it had already been thrown away? to use up the whole of the present and dispose of it in history like trash thrown in a can—what could be more bourgeois, more vulgarly commercial, more nightschool, more USA.

Sartre admits that a revolutionary movement needs a reactionary aesthetic, and it is perfectly true that if Sartre entered stage left, he is leaving stage right, for he has managed to forsake every aesthetic norm in favor of a praxis about as effective (though no doubt immensely satisfying) as split on a wall. The editors inform us in their introduction that Sartre has given up writing plays because “the time for individual creation is over and…the dramatist’s new role is to share in a theatrical company’s collective work.” One can readily imagine the excitement of working in the company of gifted and committed people toward a cause which confusion allows everyone to believe is common. Once perhaps men were more like ants and toiled at cathedrals as if they were hills, though I don’t believe it. In any case, the individual, in-formed, isolated, and sometimes lonely consciousness which wrote Sartre’s books and (like Rilke) wrote the rest, is the supreme achievement of our tradition in the West, and if (which again I do not believe) the creative consciousness has become too expensive and in any case rather useless to the struggle of mankind for general animal ease, then general animal ease is too expensive and in any case rather useless to accomplishment, which is the task at hand. Groups feel with a shallow though terrifying strength like a wind over an inland lake; they cause, but they neither think nor create, nor did the Greeks suppose their many gods together jerrybuilt the world. I’ve had to say it before, but even in a gang bang, the best sperm gets the egg.

This Issue

October 14, 1976