When French playwright Jean-Paul Sartre’s contemporary existential masterpiece for stage, Huis Clos (No Exit) was first produced, theatre audiences and critics alike were disturbed by its unsympathetic characters and unrelentingly bleak thesis—succinctly stated by Garcin, the journalist-coward trapped in a room with two other craven individuals, all fated to act as each other’s torturers for eternity—”Hell is other people.”
The three damned souls – Garcin the army deserter and philanderer, Inez the lesbian who turned a wife against her husband, and Estelle the gold-digger and cheat – are ushered into a Second Empire style drawing room. They realize that they are in hell, and they fully expect to meet with the wrath of Satan and his minions.
Instead, they are politely shepherded into the single room together, one by one, after which the door is locked behind them. Quickly, they realize the hideous truth of their collective situation – each individual is to act as the torturer of the other two.
Resisting this fate, they decide they must fully understand and forgive each others’ sins in order to find salvation. As each character’s personal web of deceit unravels, they are all forced to face their own true nature.
ESTELLE: Ah yes, in your mind. But everything that goes on in one’s head is so vague, isn’t it? It makes one want to sleep. I’ve six big mirrors in my bedroom. There they are. I can see them. But they don’t see me. They’re reflecting the carpet, the settee, the window– but how empty it is, a glass in which I’m absent! When I talked to people I always made sure there was one near by in which I could see myself. I watched myself talking. And somehow it kept me alert, seeing myself as the others saw me…Oh dear! My lipstick! I’m sure I’ve put it on all crooked. No, I can’t do without a looking-glass for ever and ever. I simply can’t.
INEZ:Suppose I try to be your glass? Come and pay me a visit, dear. Here’s a place for you on my sofa.
The barriers come down, the denials fade, all attempts to self-justify are shot down, and the ugly truth of each sinner is revealed.
GARCIN: Will night never come?
GARCIN: You will always see me?
GARCIN: This bronze. Yes, now’s the moment; I’m looking at this thing on the mantelpiece, and I understand that I’m in hell. I tell you, everything’s been thought out beforehand. They knew I’d stand at the fireplace stroking this thing of bronze, with all those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales!There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS–OTHER PEOPLE!
ESTELLE: My darling! Please-
GARCIN: No, let me be. She is between us. I cannot love you when she’s watching.
ESTELLE: Right! In that case, I’ll stop her watching. (She picks up the PAPER knife and stabs Inez several times.)
INEZ: But, you crazy creature, what do you think you’re doing? You know quite well I’m dead.
INEZ: Dead! Dead! Dead! Knives, poison, ropes–useless. It has happened already, do you understand? Once and for all. SO here we are, forever.
ESTELLE: Forever. My God, how funny! Forever.
GARCIN: For ever, and ever, and ever.
(A long silence.)
GARCIN: Well, well, let’s get on with it…
First produced in Paris, 1944, Jean Paul Sartre’s famous one-act play Huis Clos is his clearest dramatic metaphor for his philosophy: We all hold the power of choice, and with that power comes the responsibility of consequence. It is in the judgement of our peers that the truth lies about who we really are.