Theatrical Sartre

Sartre on Theater

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

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,…

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