of the 60s is this decade's has-been. But is France's famous
philosopher and author due for a revival? Richard Eyre thinks
he deserves it
Wednesday May 3, 2000
In this country, Jean-Paul Sartre is as unfashionable as loon pants. So it is hard to imagine a world in which, as Iris Murdoch said after she briefly met Sartre in 1945 in Brussels, "His presence in the city was like that of a pop star. Chico Marx, who was there at about the same time, was less rapturously received."
When I was a student in the 60s, Sartre didn't have poster status - his pipe, glasses and air of bad-temper kept him off walls that celebrated Che, Brigitte Bardot and James Dean - but few student bookshelves lacked a (largely) unread copy of his exegesis of existentialism, the 632 page Being and Nothingness. From the little we (I) read, we understood only what suited us, but, growing up in a world still scarred by global war and haunted by the Holocaust and the Bomb, it was not hard to grasp a philosophy predicated on the absolute absence of God. If we understood Sartre superficially, we understood him sufficiently to corroborate our feelings of confusion about our sexual and political identity. "First of all, man exists," he said, "turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself." That seemed to describe our condition pretty accurately, and his argument for the reality of "nothingness" hit the mark as far as student life was concerned.
Although Sartre's philosophy remained more talked about than read, his novels were popular (Roads to Freedom was serialised by the BBC) and his plays were much performed. In fact, it was practically a legal obligation in the 60s for student drama groups to perform Huis Clos. The play is a philosophical game, written in response to three actors who asked Sartre for a piece in which all the characters would have equal status, the same number of lines, and remain onstage throughout the action. (What is it about French theatre? Cocteau wrote The Eagle Has Two Heads for the actor Jean Marais, who told him, "I want to do three things in a play - I want to be silent in the first act, I want to cry with joy in the second, and I want to come down a long staircase in the third.")
Sartre was attracted to the theatre (and fiction) because theatre thrives on metaphor - a room becomes a world, a group of characters becomes a whole society - so plays tend to be about how we live and why we live. In the theatre Sartre was obliged to characterise and animate his philosophical and political propositions, test theory against flesh and blood. And he was obliged to condense and distil his ideas. "The metaphysician who could not say anything unless he said everything was compelled in the theatre to give his message briefly," said Iris Murdoch, "and as Sartre unfortunately could not do everything, as opposed to thinking everything, he found the theatre, where he had undoubted talent, a sympathetic place to drop into." What's more, Sartre liked the fact that theatre happens in the present tense: "You can't write a play without urgency in it," he said, "and this urgency comes back to you because it is felt by the audience."
I appeared in two of Sartre's plays as a student actor, and I became familiar with all of them. In time they became theatrically extinct, but fashion in the theatre is as cyclical as in music, even if the cycles recur more slowly. Around the time that we had a success with Cocteau's Les Parents Terribles at the National, our then literary manager, Giles Croft, scratched an itch in my memory by suggesting that I look at Les Mains Sales (Dirty Hands). It is a noirish political thriller, set in a fictional east European country ("Illyria") in the dying days of the second world war. A young man is commissioned by a revolutionary Socialist Party to assassinate the leader of a rival faction, who is held to be diluting the party's principles by forming a coalition government with liberal and right wing parties. The play was better than I remembered it from the 60s: perhaps the distance of history and the collapse of communism made its concerns resonate more strongly. But it didn't demand to be performed and I forgot about the play until several years later.
Two years ago I spent the greater part of the year on a film which was never made. This is a familiar condition for anyone who flirts with the film industry, but the involvement of Glenn Close and Meryl Streep seemed a reasonable assurance of a green light at the end of the tunnel. When the film was cancelled I found myself with a continent of unexplored time, and at Jonathan Kent's suggestion I looked again at Les Mains Sales. My re-reading of the play coincided with the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland and with rancorous bickering between Old and New Labour. "Principle", "pragmatism" and "power-sharing" were words that rained down from all directions, while the metaphor of "dirty hands" was invoked on a daily basis. It seemed that perhaps Sartre's play was a play for today.
Les Mains Sales was first performed in 1948, and was widely interpreted as an attack on communism. While Sartre clearly intended to indict the unscrupulousness of the communist party, it is part of the virtue of the play that the "attack" is equivocal. Infuriated that his play was being used to castigate the left, he forbade further performances in 1952. Partly it was the debate between means and ends, purity and opportunism that attracted me to the play, but it was just as much its exploration of class, of sex, and of growing up. Like Hamlet, Hugo, the play's protagonist, grows up to grow dead. In making my version of the play, I've filtered Sartre's play through my own sensibility: the title of The Novice reflects my view that the play is as much about innocence as about belief and expediency.
Sartre has become an unfashionable playwright, a largely unread novelist, and is scorned as a misogynist: Angela Carter once commented, "There is one question that every thinking woman in the western world must have asked herself at one time or another. Why is a nice girl like Simone de Beauvoir sucking up to a boring old fart like Jean-Paul Sartre?" The old fart may be regarded as irrelevant as a philosopher, but for me his concern with our disposition to evade responsibility and to lie to ourselves - our "bad faith" - is as active a notion as when I first came across it. And in an age when we appear to believe nothing except celebrity, I can't think that a writer who says that we define man only in relation to his commitments is entirely redundant.
Just before Christmas of last year, I arrived in Paris on the Eurostar. To my astonishment, the magazine kiosks were plastered with photographs of Sartre. The pop philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy - a cross between Michael Ignatieff and Bob Geldof - had pronounced that Sartre had been resurrected as man and philosopher. Recently, I have heard that there is to be a Place Sartre-De Beauvoir near his favourite cafe, Les Deux Magots. What is more, Richard Attenborough is said to be making a film about De Beauvoir's affair with Nelson Algren. Is it Anthony Hopkins, Dustin Hoffman or Brad Pitt for Sartre? Oh yes, and they are doing a play by him at the Almeida.