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Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit as a poly fable (Read 6981 times)
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Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit as a poly fable
12/28/11 at 14:16:41
 
http://polyinthemedia.blogspot.com/2008/10/sartres-play-no-exit-as-poly-fable.ht ml
 
A while ago Sparkler and I went to see a production of the play No
Exit. Even if you've never heard of it, you've probably heard
Jean-Paul Sartre's signature line from it:
 
"Hell is other people."
 
I came away thinking something I've never seen anywhere: that Sartre
surely wrote the play with a polyamory theme in mind, which reviewers
and commentators have missed over the years because they didn't lead
Sartre's poly life.
 
So here goes. (If you're not into lit-crit type stuff, move along now,
nothin' to see here....)
 
---------------------
 
The play goes like this. Three strangers, freshly dead and just
arrived in Hell, are escorted by a demon valet into a nice hotel room,
where they will be sealed up together for all eternity. They are a man
and two women, one of them a lesbian. Within the first hour and a half
they are trying to kill each other and themselves, using a
letter-opener that the managers of Hell thoughtfully left in the room
for them. Only to discover that in Hell, you can't even die. Bwahaha!
 
I'd never seen the play performed before. But I knew about it ever
since I had deep discussions of it in high school with my first love,
when I was 16. (Sartre was taught in high school back then.) I
insisted to her that if hell is other people, heaven must be too. The
difference is *all up to us.*
 
Watching the play, it became clear that the hotel room is meant to be
not a hell but a purgatory, a place where salvation is still possible
— if the characters could only get it together. For instance: early
on, when the characters realize that they are intended to be each
others' torturers (no demons required), the man proposes that they can
beat the system and save themselves by sitting silently apart from
each other in the corners and contemplating repentance.
 
Of course they can't keep this up for long. The lesbian behaves as a
vicious domme toward the bubblehead socialite girl; the socialite
displays stupid hots for the guy; the guy is disgusted with her but
goes along with it in order to spite the jealous lesbian to her face.
 
Along the way, we learn that a defining sin for each of these three
people in life — a reason why each one has been sent to Hell — was his
or her behavior in a truly horrid triangle relationship of one sort or
another. And here they are locked together forever, in another three.
 
Now, Sartre had one of the first famously open relationships involving
threesomes: with his lifelong partner, Simone de Beauvoir (though he's
often judged to have treated her poorly.) I looked up some biography,
and found that the two of them at times brought a third partner into
their couple relationship. In fact, says a recent biographer, de
Beauvoir's own first novel, *She Came to Stay,* "was based on the trio
that she and Sartre formed with a younger woman called Olga
Kosakievicz." And if I'm reading the history right, Olga was
apparently in the first group of three actors to rehearse No Exit when
Sartre wrote it!
 
So Sartre was quite familiar with living and functioning in MFF threes
(yes, de Beauvoir was actively bi). And even when not in one, he and
de Beauvoir (their relationship lasted 50 years) famously agreed to
tell each other everything about their other lovers.
 
This had to affect his thinking and writing about bound-together,
sexually interested threes.
 
I say that No Exit has a little-noticed poly message that's quite
different from the unrelenting bleakness that most people see in
Sartre. If the characters were literally at each others' throats 90
minutes after their arrival in the room, where will they be after a
year in there, or 20 years, or 600? Their hell was arranged to fit
their sins. It is up to them to redeem themselves: by learning to
treat partners in a triad with the love and kindness and devotion they
failed to show in life, and thus create their own salvation there in
that room — since they'll be in it for eternity. If they want to get
to heaven, *this* is where they must make it.
 
Consider: Sartre makes a big point of stating that the room is
furnished with no mirrors, and that even the women's make-up mirrors
have vanished out of their purses. Therefore, as he has a character
say, the only way they can ever see themselves again is by the tiny
reflections that show when they look deep into one another's eyes.
There's a message of redemption here overlooked by critics who lack
Sartre's poly life experiences (even considering how dysfunctional
those experiences sometimes were). Because if hell is other people,
heaven is too.
 
Heck, if it was just a man and a woman in the room, and they'd been
sent to Hell for their bad behavior as parts of couples, every
reviewer would say it's obvious they're supposed to save themselves by
learning to love well as a couple. Duhh.
 
And then, I found a statement by Sartre himself (in the preface he
narrated for the Deutsche Grammophon recording of No Exit), that the
characters in the play are indeed supposed to be able to create their
own redemption:
 
--------
    What I wanted to suggest is precisely that many people are
encrusted in a series of habits and customs... but that they don't
even try to change.... I wanted to show by way of the absurd the
importance freedom has for us, that is, the importance of changing our
actions by acting differently. No matter what circle of Hell we're
living in, I think we're free to break out of it.
--------
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