Mirrors. We use them every day, find them in all sort of obvious locations. One could almost say that we even take mirrors for granted, simply assuming that they will always be there when we need them. But what if you were never to see a mirror again – could never glance at a reflective surface as you walk past, making sure your tie or lipstick is straight, nor spend hours perfecting your hair? Surely you would be self conscious at first, but we can assume that if no one had a mirror, we could let things like crooked ties and stray broccoli crowns bother us much less.
Estelle Delaunay is not one of those people. Remove her mirror and you have removed her soul. Remove her mirror and she becomes uncontrollably panicked. Estelle, as the great philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre might have explained, exists, but her essence is in her mirror.
The critical tenant of Sartre’s existentialism is, of course, that humans exist first and then define their essence. Estelle is one of three characters is Sartre’s classic work in the theatre of the absurd. Portrayed with prim snootiness by Maura Stadem, Estelle at first refuses to accept her new situation, and requests that her roommates refer to their present state as “absence.” “If we absolutely must give a name to this state of affairs,” she sniffs, “let’s call it ‘absence.”
But her companions have no such illusions, immediately accepting the fact that they are indeed, in hell – even though it looks like a sitting room furnished with Second Empire furniture. Inez Serrano (Elle Wilhite) was a lesbian postal clerk, while the sole man, Vincent Cradeau (Regen Wilson), was a journalist who treated his wife with ultimate cruelty. The banality of the room in which they are placed emphasizes Sartre’s belief that hell is not a specific physical location, but a state of mind. Sartre wrote and first performed “No Exit” in 1944, 3 months before the liberation of Paris by Allied Forces and surely, living under Nazi occupation must have seemed a hell on earth to him.
While Sartre may have felt no physical pain during his imprisonment in Paris, neither do his characters – there are none of the whips or chains or screams of pain that all of them expected in hell. There is simply the 3 of them, locked in a room together. Forever. Inez grimly explains, “In hell, dammed together…we’re together, just the three of us, for eternity.”
At first, this doesn’t appear to be an entirely disagreeable situation, given the expectations. However, as time progresses, the 3 realize that this is the most awful existence ever. When Vincent suggests that they all sit in a corner of the room and be quiet, Inez snaps, “You want to sit over there on your easy chair when you’re all over the room.” Think about sharing a bedroom with someone – you get to know their most personal habits learn every intimate detail about them. The constant contact is oppressive, smothering, stifling. Now multiply that by eternity, and it is easy to see why Sartre wrote the famous line, “Hell is other people.”
For Estelle, hell is life without a mirror. She misses her literal self-reflection, but further, without a mirror, she must rely on others for self-definition. Each character is left with a choice: to define themselves the way they want to, or how others want to define them. They all must accept or deny the judgments passed on them by the other two and find themselves constantly seeking a mirror to avoid the judgmental gaze of others.
A great strength of the Warehouse Theatre is its casualness -one woman walked in with a beer at the start of the show – and its intimacy – the audience probably needs to be capped at about 25. The Warehouse is an ideal space to stage No Exit because the intense experience of being in such a tight enclosed space, with buzzing florescent bulbs above the heads of the actors only adds to the feelings of entrapment. On the other hand it was open-mike night at The Warehouse Cafe next door and the bands could be heard through the paper-thin walls.
In the end there is an exit and I left with a number of ideas to mull over and a newfound respect for those who share bedrooms.
No Exit, now at the Warehouse Theatre, staged by the Scena Theatre Company.