Being morbid, troubled, and intermittently teetering on the brink of insanity/suicide is an occupational hazard for many professional Existentialists. Another burr in their saddle is a dearth of entertainment choices congruent with their bleak outlook—is a novel still a “good book” if you enjoyed it, or is it only a worthy read if it upset you? Naturally, the movement embraced playwrights with a penchant for cynical subtleties that they recognized as a palatable substitute for humor.
This is the context in which French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit” made a splash in the tepid pond of Existential academia. For a man who occasionally believed he was being chased by a giant lobster (I kid you not), in his more lucid moments Sartre possessed an ability to articulate cynicism in a winsome way. Allow me to present the synopsis of the play in a way that the writer and his friends would cringe at—that is, briefly.
“No Exit” is about three characters, in a room, who start to chat. That is the entire play.
What you discover from the dialogue—if you stay awake— is that they are dead people and the shared room represents Hell. They start off relieved that there is none of the anticipated torture. As the play progresses, they begin to get snippy with one another, bored of each other’s company, and eventually so totally frustrated, exasperated, and desperately unhappy with each other that the stage is set for Sartre’s infamous punch line:
L’enfer c’est les autres…Hell is other people.”
Though this depiction of Hell is grossly underestimating the actual torment of the place as revealed in Scripture, Sartre’s point should not be missed. The problem with the world is not what happens to us, as much as what happens because of us.