The original name of the play in French is “Huis Clos” or In Camera, which means a private discussion going on behind closed doors, as in a legal situation when deliberation goes on before a sentence is passed. In its English translation, the name has been changed and the play was performed under different other names such as “No Way out”, “Dead End” and “No Exit”.
There are three principal characters in the play who are locked into a room together as a form of punishment for their sins and life. The play is taking place in the afterlife and in particular in hell. The most famous quotation of Sartre, “l’enfer, c’est les autres” or “hell is other people” is the motto of the play.
Sartre was the first philosopher to use the term existentialism although existential philosophy goes back to the 19th century with philosophers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Existentialist issues have been the focus of novels by Masters of literature such as Dostoevsky and Kafka. Their novels raised issues about absurdity of life and the dilemma of personal choice and man’s freedom with its consequent responsibility.
Existentialist believes that man creates his own existence; his being is formed once he discovers the absurdity of life, his freedom and his ability to make choices. Man makes his own existence through his choices and his actions, including ending his own existence. The realisation of freedom brings with it an existential sense of anxiety or “angst”. This feeling of anxiety makes some people choose to live inauthentic life or live “in bad faith”. People try to avoid their freedom, “escape from freedom” by attributing their actions to determinism of their genes or their past or rationality and the absolute values of society or traditions. When they build all their life on some fixed values or perceptions and suddenly they discover that all this is false, they go into despair.
Man’s existence is not only determined by his subjective experiences, choices and actions, but also by the existence of the Other. The Gaze of the Other limits his freedom and turn his subjectivity into an object.
In the play, No Exit or In Camera, this existential dilemma is clearly exposed. When Joseph Garcin is introduced into the room by the valet, the audience realises that this is a room in hell. The room has no Windows, no mirrors and only one door, which is locked. Later, Garcin is joined by another person, Ines Serrano, and then another woman join them, Estelle Rigault. The three are facing each other with open eyes and no mirrors to see themselves except in the eyes of the other. The actors and the audience discover that there is no torture in hell except the eyes of the others. They uncover each other’s sins, desires and unpleasant memories. This is a model of an encounter group were confrontation goes on with no prospects of end. Near the end of the play, Garcin shouts asking to be let out of the room, however when the door suddenly opens, he is unable to take the first step for fear of the unknown.
The audience discovered that Garcin, before he died, was working as a journalist and he refused to support the war of his country and so he was shot dead. He lived a life in bad faith unable to take the side of a good cause, and cheating on his wife. Near the end, when he refuses to walk out of the open door, he feels afraid of loneliness and unable to face his freedom and responsibility. He would rather stay in hell, and he prefers to become an object under the gaze of others.
Ines, a working class woman, who goes on torturing the other two in a sadist way, seems to be taking the role of the facilitator of the confrontation in the group. She forces the others to take responsibilities for their previous actions and drags them into confessions and agony of their memories. She make Garcin understand that he lacks the courage although he believes in a value system which proclaim this virtue. She makes him see himself as a coward. Ines, herself, is a lesbian who exposes the weakness of the other character, Estelle Rigault, a woman who makes her existence depends on the way men sees her.
Estelle Rigault is a Parisian society woman who made herself an object traded for money when she married a rich man older than her making excuses by supporting her family. She also cheated on this husband by having an affair with a young man and she got pregnant with a child whom she killed by drowning. Estelle needs the others to feed her existence, needs a man to desire her. She makes herself an object, as she is unable to take the responsibility for being free. Throughout the play, she asks Garcin to look at her, hold her, to touch her.
Both Garcin and Estelle are attached to their past and see their friends and loved ones back on Earth. Their existence is determined by their past in bad faith. Garcin justifies his existence by his “fate”, and he evaluates his past actions through the choices of other people. On the other hand, Ines considers her past as meaningless and she chooses to exist in the present. She cuts her attachment to the past and tells the other two that nothing is left of them on Earth and all what they have is here. Ines considers that the past sets her freedom and this has helped her to choose her essence in the present time. She is the only one of the three characters who was able to face her responsibility and her suffering at the same time. She is able to see the despair and yet to begin life on the other side of despair.
Jean-Paul Sartre [Wikipedia]
Jean-Paul Sartre [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
Sartre’s Existentialism [International Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
Jean-Paul Sartre Archive
North American Sartre Society