Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 plays about three people in Hell is what you might call a psychological tour-de-force-majeur. Over the course of a little more than two hours, this trio of strangers writhe and slither over one another, creating knotty bonds of allegiance, dependency, attraction, enmity... all the ingredients for an eternity of kaleidoscopic mental and emotional torments.
The transgressions of these three range from the mundane and expected (sexual sins such a lust, adultery, possessiveness, and jealousy; sins of commission, such as manipulation and murder; sins of omission, such as neglect and scornful emotional deprivation) to the sublime. (Is cowardice a sin? How about layer after layer of self-deception and ultimate over-compensation?) The play’s most famous line has it that "Hell is other people!" ("L’enfer, c’est les autres") but there’s more to this utterance than the surface meaning of misery imposed by means of those in one’s company.
The setting is deceptively placid. Three couches in the "Second Empire" style sit in a parlor; a bronze sculpture sits on a mantle, along with a lamp. There’s a buzzer button to summon help from a staring, long-fingered minion (Jeanine Frost), whose posture and eager, cruel smile suggest a predatory nature that could involve a tearing of meat and a crunching of bone -- or the equivalent in terms of a human soul. This minion (a demon? A damned soul serving time?) refers to the post-mortem occupants of Hell as "guests," as though the underworld were a grand hotel, and in a way it is: A succession of rooms and corridors, and that, the minion assures the new arrivals, is all.
The room’s first new guest is Garcin (Robert C. Latino), the publisher of a "pacifist newspaper" whose attitudes toward war and peace turn out to have been informed by his desertion of the ranks during the Second World War. Not that his having fled the field of battle changed his earthly fate, which involves a bullet-riddled death. How he arrived at that end comes to light slowly, and as much through implication as statement; as we learn about the choices that led to his destruction and damnation, we also become privy to the suffering he inflicted upon his wife, a creature Garcin looks upon as soft and weak. Like any bully, he dishes out cruelties to her as much because of her failure to reproach him as because of his own selfish and overriding desires.
We find these things out through the insights of the two women who join Garcin, mostly Inès (Wendy Lippe), a lesbian with a penchant for treating other people like pieces on a game board. Inès conceives a raging lust for the room’s third occupant, Estelle (Judith Kalaora), who at first seems sweet and innocent (if somewhat over-refined to the point of snobbery), but whose failings are just as spectacular as those of the others.
There are a few superficial elements to the play that could distract one from the deeper cross-currents of the text; Garcin’s sexism, for example (he regrets being lodged with women because men would, like him, know the value of silent introspection), or the implicit message that Inès is in Hell as much for being a lesbian as for her pitiless and hard-hearted way of treating others. (Though, it’s only fair to say, Estelle’s perpetual need to define herself in terms of the men she seduces is presented as just as much of a mortal flaw).
But there are deeper layers to be pondered once one looks past those surface features. Similarly, the characters seem to be gifted with an ability to see through the walls of Hell into the world of the living, at least with respect to the places and people that were once part of their own daily lives. They tune in with anxiety to what others have to say about them; they peer into the rooms in which they once dwelled, and react with shock and horror to the things that the new occupants of those rooms do (and the things that former colleagues and relatives say about them).
Clearly, if "Hell is other people," it’s just as much defined by an inability to escape one’s own ego; this is true for every single moment of eternity, because the damned are denied even the temporary reprieve of sleep.
It’s into the labyrinth of ego that Sartre follows these three doomed souls, who worm and ferret their way through each others’ secrets and lies but have a limited ability to plumb their own dark depths, despite Garcin’s stated desire to "sort out" his life after the fact and Inès’ awareness of her own streak of wickedness (characteristics that deftly, and with great insight on Sartre’s part, create a bond as powerful between the two as love).
Each performance of this co-production between The Psych Drama Company and Algonkuin Theatre Projects offers a post-show discussion that offers illumination on the play’s comments on the human psyche, and the inferno that is human relationships, both between individuals and between each person and society at large.
Director Marty BlackEagle-Carl (who is also Algonkuin Theatre Projects’ Producing Artistic Director) has no problem summoning the setting in the performance space of The Factory Theatre, and the actors bring vivacity to their roles; they visible itch and writhe in the confines of their nicely furnished room, and Kalaora summons tears at a couple of junctures in a way that shows that her character’s girlish innocence is not entirely a guise.
This play is regarded as existentialist, but in a way wants to go beyond the problems of time, meaning, and human existence. The characters complain about Hell’s heat and stuffiness; the audience sweats right along with them.
-Kilian Melloy, EDGE Media Network’s Assistant Arts Editor
No Exit | EDGE Media Network
"I truly enjoyed your production of No Exit. I had to have a primer though since it’s not a mainstream play and also because I anticipated that there had to be a deeper message for it to be a Psych Drama Company project. I was motivated to learn about the play and to understand Sartre’s ideas. It is an intriguing and captivating play, I'm glad Psych Drama chose to take on the challenge. Dr. Lippe gave a great performance! I’m always amazed, it’s not only that she interprets a character with great intensity, she also adds a certain (something I’d call) ferocity that draws one into the story. The talented cast was well chosen and was also very compelling in delivering the message of the play, and the characters’ fear, anguish, despair - the process of realizing Sartre’s argument: L’infer, c’est les autres! I appreciated the post performance discussion as well. Late into the evening though it was, I appreciated the ideas and thoughts that the moderator and participants expressed."
"To me the play and its message coming about so close to the end of another relationship appeared like a uncanny coincidence. It became more personal and somewhat eye opening for that reason."
"If based on Sartre’s view expressed in the play, relationships between people are plagued by inauthenticity, self-deception in so many ways, loving relationships must also be tainted. Yeah, what about love? If what Sartre said is true we’re doomed, we’re never going to find or attain that true, unconditional love. We may declare it but are we being true to ourselves, or do desire and the need to be loved trump us? I looked to see if Sartre addressed the love topic and sure enough I found a bit about his take on ‘authentic’ love and the redemptive solution. Phew, I guess there’s still hope!"
"I want to tell you that I was BLOWN AWAY by your performance of No Exit on Saturday night. I had never experienced theater in such an intimate setting, so that was something very powerful for me ... but your performance, Dr. Lippe, specifically, was so strong! You sounded so different from the person I spoke with offstage - you were so fully in character, it was like you truly were a different person. We were all very impressed!"
"Dr. Lippe, I have rarely been as caught up in the immediacy of a drama as I was last night. You and your cast were brilliant. Thank you!"
© 2019 The Psych Drama Company/Pandora’s Box Productions, Inc.