Starting this week, Nu Sass stages Sartre’s famous play as it was first presented, performing No Exit in a living room size venue with space for just 20 people. Here, director Angela Kay Pirko examines her discoveries from the play.
In his 1946 lecture Existentialism is a Humanism, delivered to a crowd of scholars and scorners of existentialism, Sartre defines the essence of his particular brand of existentialism as man’s essence being entirely determined by his actions – and at the same time, there is no way to truly interpret who we are except by the eyes of others, for it is through their perception of our actions that we determine our nature. To quote: “[A person] recognises that he cannot be anything (in the sense in which one says one is spiritual, or that one is wicked or jealous) unless others recognise him as such. I cannot obtain any truth whatsoever about myself, except through the mediation of another.”
This idea of a person being only what others observe and believe him to be lies in the heart of No Exit, Sartre’s one act play, which is coming to Caos on F St in the heart of DC on November 5th. Nu Sass Productions, who sold out a run of Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day in the same space earlier this year for the first installment of our Small Batch Audience Series, is back – and tackling this twisted take on the worst of what awaits us in the afterlife.
A few days from opening, I feel now like Sartre’s views on Hell were more ahead of his time than I had any idea of starting this process. So many people parody or misunderstand “Hell is other people.” It’s not what we think – that oh, people are annoying, look at their troublesome tics, all that shallowness, so obnoxious, whatever kind of take. It’s so much more than that.
November 5 – November 22
CAOS on F
923 F St NW
Washington, DC 20004
Thursdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Sartre wrote his play (in the French originally titled Huis Clos, or “in camera”) in 1944, in the middle of World War II. At the time, in occupied France, with a strict curfew and limited ability to congregate in groups, Sartre had to create a one-act play that could be performed in a living room (a Second Empire drawing room, as much of the furniture of the play is described as belonging to that particular style).
His massive treatise on existentialism, Being and Nothingness, was published a year earlier, and one of its cores ideas – the subjectivity of what a person believes themselves to be versus the objectivity of what another observes us to be by our actions – lies at the heart of No Exit and what makes Sartre’s Hell, Hell.
To Sartre, ‘Hell is other people’ because other people see us for what we truly are, by what our actions have determined us to be. In the play, the characters have all these pretensions and falsehoods about who and what they are that get burned away one by one, until all that’s left is their true selves, stuck in this space for all eternity. There’s no escape into subjectivity for them, no ability to lie to themselves about their identity. They are what the others know them to be, and no more.
And what’s so hellish about that?
We live in an age of social media and the ability to record every moment of our lives – by photos, videos, text, so on. We are really able to determine our own narrative and display ourselves in whatever light we choose a lot of the time. Imagine for all eternity having nothing but a showcase of your worst moments – the stuff you’d never let anyone know about your life, the moments where you failed, where you were thoughtless or cowardly or cruel, where you weren’t as brave and good and clever as you thought yourself to be, where all your lies about the person you are got stripped away – imagine that parading inescapably in front of your eyes, for all eternity.
If that’s not Hell, I don’t know what is.
Guest writer Angela Kay Pirko is a DC-based actor and director who has worked in film and theatre in DC and New York. She is The Co-Producer and Resident Director for Nu Sass Productions, and Founder and producer for Gooseberry Productions.