Saturday, March 27, 2010

No Exit

Jean-Paul Sartre presents hell in his existential play No Exit. There are no pitchforks or demons, only an ugly furnished hotel room with three damned. There is no sleeping in hell, and no blinking. Hell, as Garcin says, is “life without a break” (5). The play starts with the Valet who brings Garcin into his room. Garcin is surprised to learn that hell is nothing by a series of rooms, connected by passages and stairs. Garcin, left alone for only a moment, is then introduced to Inez, who will be his roommate. Later, the Valet brings Estelle, a lovely young girl, into the room. The Valet announces that there will be no one else brought in, and leaves the three alone.

It becomes obvious that they will not get along. Garcin ran a pacifist newspaper and wonders if he was actually a coward, Inez is a lesbian and a self described “damned bitch” (25) and Estelle married a man for his money, and is obsessed with being pretty and attracting men. Inez is attracted to Estelle, who wants nothing to do with her, and Estelle constantly tries to get Garcin’s attention, who attempts to keep to himself. Even when Garcin is willing to give in to her advances, he cannot go through with it because he desires Inez’s approval too much.

Estelle wonders why the three of them have been put in the same room. She believes that there must be a reason, while Garcin states that it is mere chance. Inez presents her disturbing theory; that they will serve as each other’s torturers. Garcin, adamant that he will torture no one, comes up with a way to avoid this: “each of us stays put in his or her corner and takes no notice of the others…Also, we mustn’t speak” (17). Garcin’s plan does not work. Inez begins to sing, and Estelle asks the others if they have a mirror. Inez's mirror has been taken, and there are no mirrors in the room. Inez then offers to be Estelle's mirror. Garcin attempts to ignore the others, laying face down, covering his eyes with his hands. Inez and Estelle begin talking, and continually address Garcin, who is forced to come back into the conversation.

Garcin realizes that not speaking will be impossible, and decides that the best thing to do is have full disclosure among themselves, and asks the others what they have done to be damned. He confesses first: he has cheated on his wife and treated her badly throughout their five-year marriage. Not only this, but he does not regret it, and admits that he enjoyed making her suffer. Similarly, Inez confesses that she slept with her dead cousin’s wife, and made her suffer. She admits: “I can’t get on without making people suffer” (26). With much prodding, the two finally get Estelle to tell what she has done: she had killed her baby because she did not want her husband’s child.

One of the biggest ironies in the play is that the “no exit” implied by the title is not an outside force, but their own minds that entrap them in hell together. Garcin, who becomes so frustrated with Inez and Estelle, attempts to open the door. At first it does not open, but with much pushing, it finally does. Garcin, who declared he would leave them forever, and Estelle, who claims that she will leave if the door opens, both stay. Garcin stays because he needs Inez to convince him that he is not a coward. Estelle stays because she needs Garcin.

At the end of the play, Garcin comes to the realization that “hell is—other people” (45). The three then fully realize the extent of the situation, that they will be there, together, forever. “Estelle [with a peal of laughter]: ‘Forever. My God, how funny. Forever’ ” (46).

No Exit, with a setting of the afterlife, recalls Dante’s Divine Comedy, particularly The Inferno. Sartre’s allusion to this is ironic in that Dante’s works presents salvation through God, whereas in Sartre’s world, there is no salvation or even an explanation as to what has brought the characters to hell, or what their punishments will serve (Godfrey No Exit: Overview). In Gary Godfrey’s article No Exit: Overview, he explains the existential implications in No Exit:

Sartre’s plea is for authenticity, which he sees as an acceptance of our inherent liberty engaged in life so as to affirm that liberty. In order to find the peace which Inez, Estelle, and Garcin so painfully lack, we must act in good faith, or we too could find ourselves locked in an evil world with no exit.

In Godfrey’s article, he brings out that an important existential theme in No Exit is that of free will and how we use it. Existentialists emphasized free will, that humans have no one to answer to except themselves, and are therefore free to do as they wish. Sartre’s play, then, is not a warning of living a sinful life because it may lead to hell, (Sartre was an atheist) but a warning to not live one’s life in such a way that it becomes an entrapment, to live it in a way that we can find “peace.” We therefore, according the Sartre, must live a life of "authenticity."

Sartre also seemed to stress self-reflection and the importance of knowing one's self in his play. Garcin needs Inez to convince him that he is not a coward (which she never gives into) because he cannot convince himself. It is significant that there are no mirrors. The three are unable to reflect on themselves, and therefore need each other to do the reflecting for them (as Inez offers to be Estelle's mirror). This is hell; being forced to rely on others to reflect on ourselves, to live forever in constant judgement of others.

Works cited:

Gilbert, Stuart trans. No Exit and Three Other Plays. Vintage International, 1989.

Godfrey, Gary M. "No Exit: Overview." Reference Guide to World Literature. Ed. Lesley Henderson. 2nd ed. New York: St. James Press, 1995. Literature Resource Center. Web. 27 Mar. 2010.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Krapp's Last Tape

Krapp is a “wearish old man” (480). In Samuel Beckett’s short play Krapp’s Last Tape, which premiered in 1958, a clown-like sixty-nine-year-old man is presented. Krapp is described as wearing “rusty black narrow trousers too short for him. Rusty black sleeveless waistcoat, four capacious pockets. Grimy white shirt open at neck, no collar. Surprising pair of dirty white boots, size ten at least, very narrow and pointed.” Krapp also has a “white face. Purple nose” (480). Krapp eats a banana, throwing the peel on the floor, which he almost trips on. This is of course humorous, but the play is also very tragic. Krapp’s Last Tape, then, is a tragicomedy, which presents Krapp (the clown) as a lonely, unfulfilled, old man.

During the play, Krapp listens to recordings of himself at thirty-nine years old on an old tape-recorder, hunched over, leaning in to hear. His thirty-nine-year-old self is celebrating his birthday alone, and recalls a time when he was twenty-seven or twenty-nine, when he was living with his lover Bianca. Thirty-nine-year-old Krapp recalls a “memorable equinox,” which the older Krapp doesn’t seem to remember. He reflects on his past as a boy, and wonders about the future, reflecting on his old neighbor who sings: “Shall I sing when I am her age?” (486)

Time and memory are stressed in Krapp’s Last Tape, which are two important absurdist themes. Time can be a barrier, and is subjective, which makes it absurd. This can be seen in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, where the two tramps wait, doing all they can to make time pass quickly. The two also have a hard time remembering things from their past or even things that happened the day before. Similarly, Krapp has a hard time remembering (he doesn’t remember the “memorable equinox”) and he spends his time reflecting on his past, living in the past while in the present.

Krapp listens to the recording, and records himself at sixty-nine years old, saying “ Nothing to say, not a squeak. What’s a year now? The sour cud and the iron stool” (496).

Jeanette R. Malkin’s essay "Matters of Memory in Krapp’s Last Tape and Not I" discusses memory in Beckett’s works:
It is not the memories revealed or the words which suddenly "come" that are of the essence. Rather, it is the complex net of memoried states of being--the interplay of inner voices, the pluralisms of self-perception, the complexity of agency, of volition or its lack, the simultaneity of pasts and present, the multiple modes of repetition and recall, of traces and patterns: which evoke a sense of our own trivial yet inevitable multiplicity, simultaneity, fragmentedness.

Malkin brings out that time is important in Beckett’s works because it stresses our nature of being. Being involves thinking and remembering. Remembering involves thinking of things that are not happening now, but happened before. We therefore exist both in the past and in the present. This is why time and memory are absurd.

Listening to his younger self, Krapp must look up the word viduity, which his younger self uses in the recording. Krapp reads the definition from the dictionary: “State—or condition of being--or remaining—a widow—or widower” (489). Krapp reflects on the two words being and remaining: “(Looks up. Puzzled.) ‘Being—or remaining?’ ” (489). The question of what it means to be has been a question in philosophy for a long time. Existentialists stressed being as all we are, we are only beings existing, and this is all we can know. Krapp wonders what these two words mean. What does it mean to be? What does it mean to remain?

The play ends with Krapp listening to his younger self, who explains that his best years are probably gone, but he says “I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.” Krapp ruminates on these words, while “the tape runs on in silence” (499). The title of the play suggests that Krapp will no longer record himself, as it is his “last tape.” The tape records silence. Inevitably, Krapp will die, and his voice will be silenced. He will no longer be and he cannot remain.

Works Cited:

Malkin, Jeanette R. "Matters of Memory in Krapp's Last Tape and Not I." Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 11.2 (Spring 1997): 25-39. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Linda Pavlovski. Vol. 145. Detroit: Gale, 2004. Literature Resource Center. Web. 19 Mar. 2010.

Seaver W, Richard, ed. A Samuel Beckett Reader. New York: Grove Press, 1976.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Leader

Let’s get absurd. Eugene Ionesco’s play The Leader, one of Ionesco's short plays, can certainly be called absurdist. The plot is bizarre and highly symbolic, and the actions of the play are nonrealistic.

The plot goes as follows: the Announcer excitedly reports the actions of The Leader’s to the Young Lover, the Girl-Friend and the two Admirers. The Leader is off stage, only the Announcer can see him. The four anticipate The Leader’s entrance, listening to every word of the Announcer. The Announcer broadcasts each thing The Leader does, like shaking hands with people, eating his soup and petting a hedgehog. Finally, The Leader comes on stage, passing through where the five are waiting, who then discover that The Leader does not have a head. This does not matter to them because “he’s got genius” (116). At one point, the two Lovers chase each other across the stage, meeting the two Admirers in centre stage in confusion. The two couples exchange partners for a moment, embracing the other. The play ends with each character asking the others what their name is.

The Leader highlights some absurdist and existential themes. Depersonalization and loss of identity are most apparent. At the beginning of the play, the Girl-Friend tells the Young Lover “I’m afraid I don’t happen to know you!” (110). The two never exchange names, though they do proclaim their love for each other. In fact, no character is given a name at all, only titles. The Leader is only The Leader, the two lovers are called the Young Lover and the Girl-Friend and the two Admirers are called the Admirer and the Girl Admirer. The end is significant in that the characters still do not know each other: “[The Young Lover to the Girl Admirer, the Girl Admirer to the Announcer, the Announcer to the Girl-Friend, the Girl-Friend to the Young Lover:] ‘What’s yours? What’s yours? What’s yours?’ [Then, all together, one to the other:] ‘What’s your name?’ ” The play ends here, with no questions answered. What are their names? What are they doing there? Why does The Leader not have a head?

Marilyn R. Schuster brings out this depersonalization in her article Absurd Apotheoses. She states:
At the end of the play…the male Admirer embraces the Girl Friend, as the Female Admirer embraces the Young Lover. The fact that the play ends with interchangeable couples and a five-way chorus of “What’s your name?” makes as forceful a statement about depersonalization as the headless leader.

The Leader symbolizes mindless rhetoric used by one in power to sway others. The Leader has no personality. He goes through the motions of any other politician, kissing babies’ heads and shaking hands. The politics that he represents leads to the depersonalization of everyone, symbolized by the Announcer, the two Lovers and the two Admirers.

It is ironic that The Leader is so highly respected, given the status of a God. The Announcer states that The Leader “ ‘embraces the little girl…calls her ‘my child’ ” (112). The Leader also “ ‘Suffers the little children to come unto him.’ ” (113). The Leader, then, is compared to Jesus. This is of course ironic because The Leader doesn’t have a head.

The absurdists emphasized depersonalization and loss of identity because the world is absurd. The world is absurd to human beings because we are not capable of knowing ourselves, despite our will to know. We want to know where we came from and our purpose, but we cannot know these things. This is what makes the world absurd, and this is why we do not know ourselves. The absurdists, highlighted in Ionesco’s play, warn readers not to allow "leaders" to decide for them what the truth is. No one person is able to know such truths more so than another, and allowing another to decide for us is dangerous.

Works Cited:

Schuster, Marilyn R. "Chapter 7: Absurd Apotheoses." Eugène Ionesco Revisited. Deborah B. Gaensbauer. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996. Twayne's World Authors Series 863.
Literature Resource Center. Web. 15 Mar. 2010.

Smith, Peter, ed. Rhinoceros and Other Plays. New York: John Calder Publishers, 1960.