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Sartre’s “No Exit” is back from the dead
“Hell is other people.”
That most famous quote from Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play “No Exit” has been bandied about for 70 years—but most people have never had the chance to see the work onstage. Which, according to Gaye Jeffers, is one of the main reasons the UTC theatre department decided to stage it this season.
“It’s required reading in quite a few disciplines,” she says, “but no one on the faculty had actually seen it. We decided it would be interesting to bring the fables that are attached to it to life. Get past the philosophy and play the real people.”
According to biographical sources, “No Exit” was one of the works in the French philosopher’s massive catalog that he was most proud of. The story is simple: Three people are ushered into a mysterious space by a mysterious “valet”. Two things quickly become obvious: They’re all dead, and they are going to be trapped in this place forever. The play has been the inspiration for everything from a classic “Twilight Zone” episode to (some claim) the final episode of “Seinfeld.”
But Sartre’s almost mythic status as an intellectual can intimidate possible playgoers into believing they would be in for an evening of mind-boggling theory-spinning. Nothing, could be farther from the truth, says Jeffers. “It’s not a museum piece at all. It’s about people who are broken, and who are breaking away from their concept s of themselves.”
Of the young actors playing “No Exit’’s four characters, “two had read the play, one in the original French, and the other two had only heard of it,” before coming to rehearsal, Jeffers says. She notes the rehearsal schedule itself had been shortened because of the play’s short length—“but we found that it was really exhausting. The three people are onstage constantly and it requires a tremendous amount of focus and concentration. The actors got to know each other very well very quickly.”
Jeffers is using the Paul Bowles translation, which she finds more actor-friendly, and is not downplaying the play’s overt sexual references. The visual style is taking cues from the 1940s, but the lighting and set design “open up the play in a visual way,” she says, creating interactions with the audience.
Asked who, in her opinion, the Valet is, she responds, “He’s a games player. Only he has all the answers and he enjoys being that person. He’s menacing, but funny…we have slightly exaggerated his look, but we are not putting any specific identifier on him. He looks like a bellboy with fuzzy hair.”
Most importantly, Jeffers says, she’d like people to think of playwright Sartre as a real person, and imagine the circumstances under which he was creating this play: occupied Paris. “Think about all that he was living through in the last days of World War II. The death, the destruction…questioning the basis of existence. Trying to make sense of a world in chaos,” she says.
And of course, he did have a wicked sense of humor, she reminds us, “even when we’re not in hell.” Above all, Sartre insists that art, philosophy and life must be approached with an “active mind. You will have to do a little bit of seeking on your own.”
7:30 p.m. Feb. 13, 14, 15,
2 p.m. Feb. 15.
UTC Fine Arts Center,
Vine & Palmetto Sts.
$12 ($10 students with ID).
(423) 425-4269, tickettracks.com