Tuesday, 6 October 1998

Jean-Paul Sartre: Huis Clos (1944)

Translation: As In Camera, by Stuart Gilbert (1946)
Edition: Penguin , 1960
Review number: 128

Huis Clos is probably the best of Sartre's drama. Here he chooses a form in which his philosophical arguments fall more naturally than in the situations set up in his other plays, and this means that the philosophy is less nakedly apparent. By setting the play in a hell of his own creation, he can mould the setting to fit in with the main points he wishes to make, while in his other plays the setting is either naturalistic (as in Les Sequestres d'Altona and Morts sans Sepultures) or based on a well-known myth (as in Les Mouches).

There are three main characters in Huis Clos, each, recently deceased, shown in turn into the Second Empire drawing room in which they are destined to spend eternity together by the valet, the only employee of hell they will ever see. Garcin is a South American journalist who claims to have died a hero for standing up for the freedom of the press; Inez is a lesbian killed by her lover who committed suicide by gassing them both; and Estelle is a socialite who lives only for the company of men. Each of them slowly realises that they are there to torment each other, leading to Garcin's famous remark, "Hell is other people". They also come to know more about each other than they want to, as they are able to see what is happening on earth when someone is talking or thinking about them, and they narrate what is happening almost involuntarily.

What is revealed about the three of them is that their crimes are essentially existential in nature; and here Sartre very wisely chooses not to interrupt the flow of the play to explain or analyse them. Garcin is in fact a coward obsessed by bravery and honour, killed in an attempt to flee the country. Estelle revels in her power over some kind of men - not Garcin, who is too self-obsessed to be interested in women - and yet she killed her baby to be able to carry on her life in the style which she enjoyed. Inez killed her lover's husband in order to be with her.

The three are believable characters, and the more we know about them the more we see how they have been cleverly selected to torment one another for eternity.

The French title refers to the vacation period when the courts are closed; thus it means that there is no way for the characters in the play to change their fate: no appeal. The English title chosen for this translation is also a legal term, but with a somewhat different meaning. In a sense it is also appropriate to the play; the characters are on trial, but only the judge and jury (and indeed executioners) in the persons of the other characters are present.

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