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In Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit,” opening Friday at First Presbyterian, hell is other people.

Source: The News Sentinel. January 6, 2005

In Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit,” opening Friday at First Presbyterian, hell is other people.

By James C. Hendrix

Hell, the dictionary tells us, is a state or place of evil, misery and destruction.

We get there after living a life not well led.

To Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist author of “No Exit,” which opens Friday at First Presbyterian Theater, hell is not a place of fire and brimstone or eternal pain.

Hell is other people.

The hell in Sartre’s 1944 play is set in Hotel Hell, complete with a valet. A small stark room is inhabited by three principal characters.

There are no implements of torture; none are needed. Sartre’s devil is savvy: He lets the damned do all the heavy lifting.

The circumstances and surroundings (no windows, no mirrors, no beds, no darkness, no privacy, a door locked from without) are all these three souls need to torture one another and themselves. Torture is their ineffective medicine, inflicted, thanks to Sartre, with biting humor.

“No Exit” is considered by many critics to be Sartre’s best play and most accessible dramatization of his philosophy of existentialism. He wrote the original draft in two weeks at the Café Flore in Paris.

Titled “Huis Clos” in the original French, it was first produced in the spring of 1944 at Paris’s Vieux-Colombier Theater. At the time Nazi Germany occupied France. Sartre deliberately wrote “No Exit” as a one-act play so that theater-goers would not be kept past the German-imposed curfew.

Joel D. Scribner, production manager at First Presbyterian Theater and director of “No Exit,” said the play is an inviting piece that is philosophical without being preachy and eloquent without being rambling.

“The play is about three people coming to grips with their true selves,” Scribner said. “They are stripped away of all the pretensions they might have placed upon themselves when they were alive. The piece fits perfectly into our staff’s idea of staging a play that doesn’t use a lot of set pieces, has a small cast and concentrates on the words of the text.”

The cast features Julie Donnell as Inez, Thom Hofrichter as Cradeau, Jill Kelly as Estelle and April Berryann as the valet.

In the play, Inez is a lesbian who has an innate understanding of what to do to shatter the other two residents, and who needs the suffering of others to exist.

Inez is particularly hellish for Estelle, a wispy blond socialite who is seductive and selfish.

Cradeau, damned to hell for his horrible mistreatment of his wife, is a coward posing as a pacifist.

The fourth character is hell’s own valet who leads the other three to their eternal resting place, answers their questions and leaves promptly.

Thom Hofrichter, who plays Cradeau, said that although his character concludes that “hell is other people,” we should not misinterpret the statement as implying that “other people are hell.”

“There’s a lot of talk among the three characters about hell not having mirrors,” Hofrichter said. “But Sartre uses the mirror as a metaphor. The other people are the mirrors, and each person comprises the respective hell for the others. Although Cradeau, Inez and Estelle try to hide their true nature from each other, each character is able to see the other for who he or she truly is.”

When “No Exit” opened, it was an immediate success. The original production played in Paris for several years, even after World War II ended and Paris was liberated. Parisian audiences valued Sartre’s subtle message of resistance and implied subversiveness.

Critics, however, gave the play mixed reviews, primarily because of its unsympathetic characters and unrelenting bleakness. The fact that Inez was a lesbian was also a controversial point for both audiences and critics alike.

Scribner said “No Exit” spells out Sartre’s existential philosophy in dramatic detail: We need to make sound decisions, despite the fact that we live in an irrational world.

“The main point of existentialism is that people are a result of their choices and that we have the freedom to choose,” Scribner said. “But we must take responsibility for our choices.”
Sartre classic

What: A local troupe produces the Jean-Paul Sartre classic “No Exit.”

When: 7:30 p.m. today; 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Jan. 8, Jan. 14 and Jan. 15; 2 p.m. Jan. 16.

Where: First Presbyterian Theater, 300 W. Wayne St.

Tickets: $7 today, $15 adults, $12 seniors and under age 23 all other performances. Call 422-6329.

Source: The Journal Gazette. January 7, 2005

Fireless hell: Sartre’s ‘No Exit’

Play examines people’s actions

By Steve Penhollow

The Journal Gazette

Burning in a lake of fire is certainly one way to spend one’s eternal damnation.

But Jean-Paul Sartre had a more insidious suggestion.

The three recently deceased characters in Sartre’s play “No Exit” discover at the outset that the afterlife for people of their questionable character consists of nothing more threatening than a French drawing room with inconsistent valet service.

No sweat.

But what if you had to spend infinity in a room with people seemingly chosen to drive you optimally batty?

The characters in the play await their torturers, little suspecting that they are meant to torture one another.

First Presbyterian Theater will begin a run of “No Exit” this evening.

Sartre didn’t draw his notions of hell from the Judeo-Christian tradition. He was one of the most well-known atheists of the 20th century.

Sartre was a proponent of existentialism, which stresses – among other things – full personal responsibility for the consequences of one’s acts.

Thom Hofrichter, First Presbyterian Theater minister of drama, said he believes the play has a lot to say to modern Christians.

Hofrichter says Sartre alleged that “existence precedes essence,” meaning that humans have no essence when they are born.

They exist first and then establish their essence through the choices they make.

We live in a time, Hofrichter says, when words seem to speak louder and more persuasively than actions.

“In this society, people give themselves labels and then their actions contradict the label. People call themselves ‘compassionate conservatives’ when their actions are anything but compassionate.”

The characters in “No Exit” have no place to hide when the toxic chemistry of the three forces self-reflection.

Joel Scribner, First Presbyterian Theater production manager, who is actually directing Hofrichter-as-actor this time around, says there are too many instances of situational morality in today’s society.

“Murder is bad, but it is OK if it serves the oil industry,” he says.

Hofrichter says one of the ways modern Christianity fails its adherents is by making it too easy to absolve oneself of responsibility for one’s actions.

“There is a misuse of the saving power of grace,” he says. “It reminds me of an Emo Philips joke: ‘When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bike. Then I realized that the Lord doesn’t work that way, so I stole one and asked him to forgive me.’ ”

Hofrichter says words – no matter how powerful, seductive and oft-repeated – should not free a person from fearless self-assessment or transform harmful acts into just ones.

“You shouldn’t be able to call yourself the Environmental Protection Agency and rape the land,” he says.

“We are getting more and more sophisticated about how we lie to each other in this culture. ‘No Exit’ says you are ultimately judged by your actions. What you do is who you are.”

All this philosophizing doesn’t preclude the play from being thoroughly entertaining.

Hofrichter says it’s funny, fast and even lusty at times.

But it also makes you think, which is not as incongruous as it might seem to some present-day patrons.

“Theater doesn’t have to be a medium for turning your brain off,” he says. “Being entertained doesn’t always have to mean hurdy gurdy music playing.”
If you go

What: “No Exit”

Where: First Presbyterian Theater, 300 W. Wayne St.

When: 8 p.m. today, Saturday, Jan. 14 and 15; 2 p.m. Jan. 16

Admission: Tickets, from $12 to $15, are available by calling 422-6329.

  Jean Paul Sartre. A french philosopher of the 20th century.
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