The Flies, by Jean-Paul Sartre, is one of the foremost examples of existentialist writing by one of the world's most prominent existentialist writers. Indeed, The Flies is one of Sartre's best-known works. Existentialism was an early twentieth-century intellectual movement that explored, outside of moral or scientific constraints, the existence and experience of the individual. The movement tended to espouse the idea that the individual has total free will and therefore the utmost responsibility for his or her actions. It also explores the repercussions of this freedom. The Flies demonstrates these principles through a retelling of the Greek myth of Electra and Orestes. The characters in the play learn that their gods are powerless and that, as human beings, they possess an innate freedom, which cannot be negated.
First produced in Paris at the Théâtre de la Cité in 1942 as Les Mouches, the play was published in French in 1943. It was translated and performed in New York City as The Flies in 1947. A separate English translation was published, along with Sartre's play No Exit, in 1947. Still studied and performed today, a more recent edition of The Flies, still in print, can be found in No Exit and Three Other Plays, 1989.
Jean-Paul Sartre was born June 21, 1905, in Paris, France, the only child of Jean-Baptiste
and Anne-Marie Sartre. His father, a naval officer, died of a fever when Sartre was almost seventeen months old. Sartre subsequently spent his childhood with his mother and his maternal grandparents. Isolated without friends of his own age, Sartre entertained himself by reading. As a student, he began attending the École Normale Supérieure in 1924, earning a doctorate in philosophy in 1929. While there, he befriended fellow student Simone de Beauvoir, who became a noted intellectual and feminist. The two were sometimes romantically involved, had a lifelong friendship, and influenced each other's work throughout their respective careers.
Following his graduation, Sartre was drafted into the French Army, where he served uneventfully from 1929 to 1931. Afterwards, he began teaching at the Lycée le Havre. While there, he began writing his first novel, La Nausée, which was published in 1938. Translated into English and published as Nausea in 1949, the book was and remains a critical success. Shortly after leaving his teaching post, Sartre studied at the Institut Français, from 1933 to 1935. There, he began reading the works of such philosophers as Martin Heidegger, whose writings heavily influenced Sartre's own philosophies. This influence, and the solidification of Sartre's emerging existential themes can be seen in his 1939 publication Le Mur (translated as The Wall and Other Stories in 1948). The collection, like his novel, was an immediate success.
Later that same year, however, Sartre was again drafted into the army, this time due to the outbreak of World War II. He had not served long before he was captured, and he spent nine months in Germany as a prisoner of war. Returning to Paris as a civilian in 1941, Sartre resumed his teaching and writing career, and he also participated (albeit minimally) in the Resistance (the movement against the German occupation of France). Around this time he began writing his seminal existential work, setting forth the philosophies of existentialism in L'Être et le néant: Essai d'ontologie phénoménologique. The work was published in 1943 and translated into English as Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology in 1956. Arguably at the peak of his writing career, Sartre also wrote his best-known plays during this period, Les Mouches (published in 1943, translated as The Flies in 1947) and Huis clos (published in 1945; translated as No Exit in 1947).
By the end of World War II, Sartre had established his writing career and was no longer teaching. He also founded the periodical Les Temps Modernes. His standout works from this period include the three-volume novel Les Chemins de la liberté, published from 1945 to 1949 (translated as The Roads to Freedom, 1947-1950). Sartre also wrote a great deal of literary criticism drawing on his existential ideals. In 1945, he was awarded the French Légion d'honneur for his work, which he refused based on the belief that to accept an organization's award was to make his work subject to that organization's powers.
By the 1960s, Sartre had once again turned to writing philosophy. As important as his first major philosophical work, albeit more optimistic, Critique de la raison dialectique: Precede de Question de methode (translated in 1976 as Critique of Dialectical Reason: Theory of Practical Ensembles) was published in 1960. Sartre's next significant publication was his 1964 autobiography Les Mots (translated as The Words in 1964). Also in 1964, Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he also refused, and was the first Nobel laureate to do so. In 1965, Sartre adopted his occasional mistress Arlette Elkaïm as his daughter, and she became the sole beneficiary of his estate after his death. By the 1970s, Sartre's health was failing, and he succumbed to a lung ailment on April 15, 1980, in Paris.
The Flies is set in Argos, Greece. The opening scene depicts a statue of Zeus, "god of flies and death," in the town square. Elderly women dressed in black worship the statue. Orestes and the Tutor enter the square and ask the women for directions, but they spit on the ground and run away. Orestes notes that though he was born here, he has been away so long that he does not know his way around. The Tutor makes fun of the town's backward and unfriendly customs. He then asks a boy for directions, but the boy babbles at him, speaking nonsense. A bearded man passes by, and the stage directions state that the man is Zeus in disguise. The Tutor says the bearded man has been following them for some time, but Orestes has not noticed.
The square is filled with flies, and the Tutor brushes them away from himself and from Orestes. Zeus approaches them and says that his name is Demetrios and that he is from Athens. They suddenly hear screams coming from the town's palace. Zeus tells them that the screams signal the beginning of a local festival, called Dead Men's Day, held in remembrance of the murder of Argos's former king, Agamemnon—killed fifteen years ago to the day. Zeus says he was in Argos when Queen Clytemnestra and her lover, Ægistheus, killed the king. Ægistheus then usurped the throne and has ruled Argos with Clytemnestra ever since. Orestes curses the gods for allowing such a thing to happen, and Zeus replies, "Don't blame the gods too hastily. Must they always punish? Wouldn't it be better to use such breaches of the law to point a moral?" Zeus adds that the flies swarming the town were sent by the gods "as a symbol."
Zeus asks a passerby, an old woman dressed in black, if she is in mourning. She replies that the whole town is in mourning. Zeus tells the woman that she was happy about Agamemnon's murder, which she denies. She says the town is remorseful for allowing the murder to occur by not warning the king of the plot, and that the townspeople do nothing but pray for forgiveness. Orestes grows suspicious of Zeus's identity since he knows so much about the town and its people. Zeus ignores Orestes' suspicions, but he says that the townspeople's repentance is dear to him. When Orestes questions him about this statement, Zeus corrects himself and says that he meant it is "dear to the gods." Orestes is shocked to hear that the gods would enjoy the people's fear and repentance.
Orestes learns from Zeus that Agamemnon and Clytemnestra had a daughter named Electra. She was too young to remember her father, and she still lives in the palace with her mother and her father's murderer. Zeus says that Agamemnon and Clytemnestra also had a son, named Orestes, but he was also murdered. At this remark, Orestes is about to reveal his identity, but the Tutor stops him. Zeus says that while some still believe that Orestes is alive, he would rather the boy were dead. Orestes then introduces himself as Philebus from Corinth and asks Zeus why he wishes Orestes were dead. Zeus answers that if Orestes claims his rightful place on the throne and brings his people joy, then the people will no longer be penitent, which will in turn anger the gods. He foretells that such a thing would "bring disaster … a disaster which will recoil" on Orestes. Zeus then shows them a magic trick to keep the flies from bothering them and goes on his way.
Orestes wonders if the strange man was a god, but the Tutor chastises him for believing in such nonsense. Orestes says he has no memories of Argos, that it would have been his home but is not now. He suggests that they leave, and the Tutor is relieved to hear that Orestes does not harbor any plans of revenge. Just as they are about to leave, Electra enters the square and approaches the statue of Zeus. She mocks the statue, calling it an empty idol. Electra notices Orestes, and he introduces himself, as he did with Zeus, as Philebus from Corinth. When Electra introduces herself and Orestes realizes that she is his sister, he asks the Tutor to leave, which he does. Electra tells Orestes that though her mother is the queen, she is treated as a servant in the palace. Orestes wonders why she does not run away, and Electra replies that she is "waiting for—for something." She hints that she is waiting for Orestes and wonders whether he will be brave and reclaim the throne or be cowardly and slink away from Argos.
Clytemnestra calls for Electra as she enters the square, and Orestes tries to hide his shock at seeing his mother for the first time. He describes her face as "drawn and haggard" and thinks she has "dead eyes." Clytemnestra and Electra squabble and then Clytemnestra introduces herself to Orestes. In turn, he introduces himself once again as Philebus from Corinth. Clytemnestra immediately tells him of her crimes and remorse, revealing that the only thing she truly regrets is allowing her son to be taken from her. Electra asks Orestes to attend the ceremony commemorating Agamemnon's death, and she leaves to get ready. When they are alone, Clytemnestra asks Orestes to leave, because she has a feeling that he will bring ruin on the town, and then she also leaves the square to prepare for the ceremony. Shortly afterward, Zeus returns and states that he has been helping the Tutor find horses for their departure. Orestes says he has decided to stay. Zeus hides his disappointment and offers to be Orestes' guide.
The scene begins at a cavern in Argos; the entrance is blocked by a large boulder. It is believed that the cavern reaches into the underworld, and when the boulder is removed from the mouth of the cavern, the spirits of Argos's dead will enter the town and stay for twenty-four hours. During this time period, the dead pester all the people who transgressed against them during their lifetimes. On the day commemorating Agamemnon's death, the boulder is removed, and the townspeople wait in dread. A crowd has gathered for the ceremony, and Zeus enters with Orestes and the Tutor. The Tutor belittles the superstitious townspeople, but Zeus tells him that in the gods' eyes, the Tutor is no better than the people of Argos. Ægistheus and Clytemnestra enter, but when Ægistheus finds that Electra is not there, he sends his soldiers to retrieve her. They return empty handed, unable to find her. Ægistheus and Clytemnestra begin the ceremony without her, but not before Ægistheus promises to have Electra punished.
The High Priest of Argos comes forward and removes the boulder from the mouth of the cavern, calling forth the dead and instructing them to inflict their revenge on the living. Ægistheus goads the crowd, and they cry for mercy. The men repeatedly chant, "Forgive us for living while you are dead." When Ægistheus mentions Agamemnon, Orestes cries out, "I forbid you to drag my father's name into this mummery." Before Ægistheus fully registers what has been said, Electra appears wearing a white dress—everyone else is dressed in black. The crowd is shocked by her sacrilege, a violation of the traditional black garb worn during Dead Men's Day. Electra claims, though, that the ghost of her father is happy to see her in white. She dances with joy and says that the dead do nothing to stop her. As she dances, more and more people begin to question what they have been told about the dead and their vengeance. Some people in the crowd also begin to question Ægistheus. Zeus, aggravated by Electra's display, uses his powers to push the boulder over the mouth of the cavern. The townspeople interpret this occurrence as a bad omen and become fearful once more of the gods' powers.
Ægistheus says that he cannot kill Electra on the holiday, so he banishes her from the palace and orders that any man who sees her in the city tomorrow must kill her. The townspeople are pleased with this ruling, and they head back to their homes. Ægistheus and Clytemnestra return to the palace. Afterward, Orestes reveals his identity to Zeus (who overheard Orestes' earlier cries) and asks him to leave him alone with his sister. Zeus departs with the Tutor. Once they are alone, Orestes offers to help Electra to escape, but she refuses. She wants to stay in the city and find vengeance, and she plans to hide in the Temple of Apollo, where no one can harm her. She refuses to leave Argos until her brother arrives and they take their revenge on Ægistheus and Clytemnestra together.
Orestes reveals his identity to Electra, but he says that he does not want revenge, he only wants to rescue his sister. Though Electra believes Orestes, she prefers to think of him as Philebus, because he is not the Orestes of her dreams. Electra tells him to leave Argos, calling him her "noble-souled brother," and saying, "I have no use for noble souls; what I need is an accomplice." Orestes refuses to leave, but Electra feels he is innocent and will be corrupted if he stays in Argos. Orestes then says that he has no home to go to and that only Argos can be his home. Electra replies that the townspeople will never accept him and that nothing he can say or do will ever make Argos his home.
At an impasse, Orestes asks the gods for a sign as to whether he should stay or go. Unnoticed, Zeus has been eavesdropping on their conversation. At Orestes' request, Zeus causes a ring of light to appear around the boulder. Both Electra and Orestes take this as a sign that he should leave. Disheartened, Orestes appears to have an epiphany, and he chooses to renounce the gods and ignore their wishes. He announces that "something has just died" and declares, "There is another path—my path." He now plans to kill Ægistheus and Clytemnestra and to relieve the city of its suffering by making himself a vessel for its guilt. Electra says that Orestes is finally acting like the brother she has always imagined, and she accepts him and his plans.
Electra and Orestes sneak through the palace, hiding when two soldiers appear. One soldier hears a noise and is suspicious, but the other soldier thinks it is only the spirits of the dead. Clytemnestra and Ægistheus enter, and the soldiers leave. Believing that they are alone, Ægistheus tells Clytemnestra that he is tired of keeping the people of Argos fearful and repentant, and that he has never had remorse for his actions. Clytemnestra tries to comfort him, but Ægistheus is afraid it will displease Agamemnon's spirit. Clytemnestra reminds Ægistheus that he invented the myth of the spirits in the cavern, and he replies that he is so tired that he forgot. Clytemnestra leaves the room, and Ægistheus talks to himself, muttering that he is as empty as a "desert." He invokes Zeus and says, "I'd give my kingdom to be able to shed a tear." Zeus appears and warns Ægistheus of the plot to kill him. Ægistheus seems to welcome the thought of his death, but Zeus tells him that he must not allow himself to be murdered.
Ægistheus asks Zeus why he was allowed to kill Agamemnon while Orestes is not allowed to kill him. Zeus explains that he made a "profit" on Agamemnon's death: "For one dead man, twenty thousand living men [are] wallowing in" remorse. Ægistheus replies, "I see what lies behind your words. Orestes will have no remorse." Zeus admits this and talks about how he and Ægistheus are similar. They are both only able to rule by fooling men into believing they are not free. Zeus says that because "Orestes knows that he is free," the gods have no power over him. Ægistheus ultimately agrees to stop Orestes from killing him, and Zeus leaves. Immediately afterward, Orestes and Electra jump out from their hiding place. Ægistheus refuses to defend himself, and Orestes stabs him with a sword. He says he will feel no remorse because he is "only doing what is right."
Electra appears frightened by the sight of Ægistheus dying, and Orestes chastises her for it. Orestes goes to find Clytemnestra, but Electra changes her mind and does not want her killed. Despite this, Orestes goes to kill her alone, leaving Electra with Ægistheus's body. Electra is instantly filled with remorse for what she has done, although she pretends that she is happy. After all, her life's dream has finally come to pass. Clytemnestra's screams are heard in the background and then Orestes returns. He tells her that they are free, but Electra replies, "I don't feel free." She also states that they are murderers. Orestes tells her,
I have done my deed, Electra, and that deed was good. I shall bear it on my shoulders…. The heavier it is to carry, the better pleased I shall be; for that burden is my freedom.
As they talk, it becomes harder for Electra to see Orestes through the swiftly thickening swarms of flies. Orestes does not care about the flies, but Electra thinks the flies are staring at them. Indeed, the flies have transformed into the Furies, "the goddesses of remorse." As they stand over Ægistheus's body, soldiers begin to pound on the palace door, and Electra and Orestes escape to the Temple of Apollo.
Electra and Orestes sleep in the temple beneath the statue of Apollo as the Furies wait nearby. They gloat over Electra and Orestes, planning to devour the sleeping pair with remorse. Orestes and Electra awake, and Electra is shocked by Orestes' peaceful, guilt-free face. Orestes is equally shocked by Electra's tormented, guilt-ridden appearance. Orestes observes that Electra now has the "dead eyes" that her mother had. "What use, then, was it killing her?" Orestes asks Electra, "when I see my crime in those eyes, it revolts me." The Furies begin speaking to Electra, pushing her further into despair as they describe her mother's death. Orestes tells Electra not to listen to them. He says they want to turn her against him and that "once you are alone … they will fling themselves upon you." Electra cries out as the Furies torture her, and Orestes says, "It's your weakness [that] gives them their strength."
Orestes points out that the Furies do not speak to him because they cannot hurt him. Although he feels anguish at the memory of Clytemnestra's death and Electra's subsequent pain, he asks, "But what matter? I am free. Beyond anguish, beyond remorse. Free. And at one with myself." Electra replies that though the Furies scare her, Orestes scares her more. The Furies tell Electra, "Only the suffering of your body can take your mind off your suffering soul." Convinced, Electra goes to them, and they attack her as she screams in pain. Zeus appears and tells the Furies to leave her alone. He chides Orestes and Electra for their crimes, but Orestes mocks him. Orestes admits that he does not regret the murders or the pain he has caused his sister. He tells Zeus, "[Electra] is dearer to me than life. But her suffering comes from within, and only she can rid herself of it. For she is free."
Zeus mocks and threatens Orestes, but when Orestes challenges him, Zeus backs down. Zeus turns to Electra and tells her that he will protect her from the Furies and absolve her as long as she repents her crimes. Electra says that she always wanted Ægistheus and Clytemnestra dead, and asks Zeus how she can regret her crime. Zeus tells Electra that she only thought she wanted them dead, but that she never truly wanted the murders to happen. As Electra begins to believe him, Orestes warns her that "it's now you are bringing guilt upon you. For who except yourself can know what you really wanted? Will you let another decide that for you?" Zeus tells Orestes and Electra that if they repent, he will make them rulers of Argos. Orestes mocks this offer as well. Zeus replies that Orestes will be cast out by his own people, but Orestes is not troubled by this threat. Zeus then goes into a tirade, stating that he created the universe and that everything in it is good. He says that Orestes is "like a splinter" in all that is good and that nature will "revile" him.
Orestes is not frightened by Zeus's rage. He states that while Zeus may be "king" of the universe, he is "not the king of man." Though Zeus made humans, he made them free. Zeus replies, "Let me tell you it sounds much like an excuse, this freedom whose slave you claim to be." Orestes responds, "Neither slave nor master. I am my freedom." Electra exclaims that Orestes is being blasphemous. Zeus adds that Orestes' freedom "means exile." Orestes agrees to this statement, but he says that nevertheless, he must show the people of Argos that they, too, are free. Zeus asks, "What will they make of it?" Orestes replies, "What they choose. They're free; and human life begins on the far side of despair."
Zeus indicates that he pities Orestes; yet Orestes states that he pities Zeus. As Zeus is about to leave, he tells Electra that she must choose sides between them. Electra begins to go with Zeus, telling Orestes, "Would to God that I had never known you!" Orestes tries to persuade her to stay, but she still follows Zeus. As soon as Electra exits the temple, the Furies begin to descend upon her. She calls out after Zeus, promising to do as he wishes. Orestes pities her fate, and soon afterward, the Tutor arrives with food. The Furies try to stop the Tutor, but he appeases them with the food that was meant for Orestes. He tells Orestes that the townspeople have gathered outside of the temple in an angry mob. Orestes commands the Tutor to open the doors to the temple, and he calls out to the crowd. He tells them that he is Agamemnon's son, and the crowd grows quiet. All of the flies of Argos have gone, gathered solely around Orestes in the form of the Furies. For the first time since Orestes' arrival in Argos, the sun is shining.
Orestes tells the mob that he does not want to be king. He declares, "As for your sins and your remorse … all are mine, I take them all upon me. Fear your dead no longer; they are my dead." The crowd parts for Orestes as he exits the temple and makes his way out into the world, the Furies following after him.
Ægistheus is the king of Argos. Before he was king, Ægistheus was Clytemnestra's lover. He killed her husband, King Agamemnon, and usurped the throne. Ægistheus also had Agamemnon and Clytemnestra's young son, Orestes, taken to be killed, and made their daughter, Electra, a servant in her own palace. Ægistheus first appears in act 2 during the ceremony of the dead, which mourns Agamemnon's murder. He torments the crowd with their guilt to the point that they cry (unheeded) for mercy. Ægistheus pretends to tremble at the thought of Agamemnon's spirit, and he makes a great show of repenting his crime. Indeed, in private, he admits that he regrets nothing; he concocted the ceremony of the dead as a means to control the people of Argos, and he is fully aware that he, like Zeus, is only able to rule by fooling the townspeople into believing they are not free.
Since his power depends on this belief, Ægistheus is extremely agitated when Electra almost succeeds in proving that the ceremony is a farce. He tells her, "I suffered your presence in the palace out of pity, but now I know I erred." Though Ægistheus says that he cannot kill Electra on the holiday, he banishes her from the palace and orders that any man who sees her in the city the next day must kill her. Later, alone in the palace, Ægistheus admits that he is weary of his charade of power and the fear that he must maintain. He is so weary that when he learns of Orestes' plan to kill him, Ægistheus practically welcomes his own end. Ægistheus has also come to believe his own lies, as when Clytemnestra tries to comfort him, and he is afraid it will displease Agamemnon's spirit. Ægistheus has no remorse but makes it seem like he does (and instills it in his people). In awe of Orestes' proud defense of his actions and lack of regret, Ægistheus acknowledges his confusion in his last remarks before dying.
Exactly fifteen years before the setting of the play, Agamemnon, king of Argos, was murdered by his wife's lover, Ægistheus. Though Agamemnon is dead before the play begins, his spirit is imagined to hover over Argos on the anniversary of his death. Agamemnon's death is also essential to all of the events that ensue throughout the play, and for this reason he is an important character.
Clytemnestra, queen of Argos, plotted with her lover, Ægistheus, to kill her husband, Agamemnon, allowing Ægistheus to usurp the throne. She also allowed her lover to take her son, Orestes, and have him killed, the only act she truly regrets. Clytemnestra forces her daughter, Electra, to work as a servant in the palace. She also does not take responsibility for making Electra a servant, claiming that it was ordered by Ægistheus. At one point, Clytemnestra warns Electra that they are alike, that she was once like her daughter and that "nothing good" came of it. In another perceptive moment, she asks Orestes (whom she only knows as Philebus) to leave, because she fears he will ruin them. Described as having "dead eyes," Clytemnestra is consumed with remorse at allowing her son to be taken from her. It is likely that, for this reason, she renounces her own will, becoming little more than a figurehead who does Ægistheus's bidding. Throughout the play, she is not shown to take any actions or make any decisions. Perhaps this is why her dying moments are not portrayed; her screams are merely overheard.
Orestes' sister and a servant in the palace, Electra is the only person of Argos who refuses to feel remorse for something that she did not do. She longs for her brother to arrive, imagining that he will kill Ægistheus and Clytemnestra in revenge for Agamemnon's murder. Perhaps Electra also imagines that she and Orestes will rule together joyfully in their place. Ultimately, however, Electra comes to regret the killings, and she wishes that she had never met Orestes. In this way, Electra becomes a foil (contrast) to Orestes. Where he is brave, she is fearful. Where he feels no remorse, she feels repentance. Where he challenges the gods and mocks them, she sees blasphemy. By the play's end, Electra agrees to repent in exchange for Zeus's protection from the Furies, "the goddesses of remorse," who hound her penitent soul. Initially a joyous, rebellious, and beautiful young woman, Electra possesses her mother's "dead eyes" after the murders, perpetuating the cycle of violence and remorse into which she was born. Electra is unable, or unwilling, to recognize her freedom, and her end underscores Orestes' own triumph.
In the beginning of the play, Zeus comments that the flies plaguing Argos are "a symbol." Later in the play, it becomes clear that they symbolize the Furies, "the goddesses of remorse." Furthermore, the flies feed on rotting meat, while the Furies feed on rotting souls. This is why they are so successful in their attacks on Electra, whose soul is quickly devoured by guilt. Orestes tries to warn Electra, saying, "It's your weakness [that] gives them their strength." Despite this, the pain the Furies cause Electra is less frightening to her than Orestes' lack of remorse. The Furies tell Electra that "only the suffering of your body can take your mind off your suffering soul," and Electra believes them. In the end, however, the Furies choose to let Electra escape and pursue Orestes instead. This is partly because Electra gains Zeus's protection in exchange for her repentance. The Furies also believe they can wear Orestes down, and that though "his little soul is stubborn," "he will suffer for two [himself and Electra]." In fact, as Orestes soon takes the remorse of all of the people of Argos upon him, he suffers for far more than two.
The High Priest of Argos officiates over the ceremony of the dead, removing the boulder from the cavern and calling forth the spirits of Argos's dead. He calls Electra a "profaner" for daring to wear white and dance with joy during the ceremony, and he chastises the crowd for listening to her. He perpetuates the townspeople's fear and prevents them from understanding that they are free, though it is likely he is also unaware of this fact.
Orestes is the protagonist of The Flies. He is often referred to by critics as an existential hero, because he embodies all of the values and principles inherent in existential belief. At the beginning of the play, Orestes does not wish for revenge; he only mourns the childhood that he never had. Upon meeting his sister, Electra, he calls himself Philebus from Corinth. Witnessing her circumstances and that of the town, Orestes begins to reconsider his decision. His mind is forever changed, however, when Zeus sends him a sign in an effort to make him leave Argos. At this very moment, Orestes has an epiphany. He announces that "something has just died" and then declares, "There is another path—my path." Orestes then plans to kill Ægistheus and Clytemnestra and to relieve the city of its suffering by making himself a vessel for its guilt.
Because, during his epiphany, Orestes realizes that he is free, Zeus admits that he no longer has any power over Orestes. Nevertheless, Zeus makes Ægistheus promise to stop Orestes from committing murder, because he fears that if the people of Argos realize they are free, then he will lose control over them as well. Orestes, however, succeeds, and though the murders and his sister's remorse pain him, he remains steadfast in his knowledge that he is free. Despite his sister's appeals, Zeus's arguments, and the Furies' presence, Orestes will not surrender his will—and to renounce his actions (the murders) is to renounce his will. He acknowledges that he will be in "exile," but he still wishes to tell the people of Argos that they too are free, even if it leads to their own exile. Orestes states that "human life begins on the far side of despair." For this reason, it seems essential that Orestes does not take the throne, not only because Zeus wishes him to rule in the same manner as Ægistheus but also to prove to the people of Argos that he has committed a righteous act (not motivated by a desire for power, a power that Orestes knows to be an illusion). This action, or lack thereof, paves the way for Orestes to take on the sins and remorse of the townspeople.
Townsfolk of Argos
The townsfolk of Argos are not aware that they are free, and they are subjugated by remorse and fear. Therefore, both Ægistheus and Zeus are able to rule over them. The townspeople take on a single character, that of the mob, both during the ceremony and in the play's final scene. During the ritual, Electra easily leads them to question their beliefs, and the falling boulder quickly convinces them that Electra is a blasphemer who should be punished. At the end of the play, the townspeople are more clearly a mob in their cries for Orestes' blood. However, they grow quiet when he reveals his true identity, and they part for him as he makes their sins his own.
The Tutor is Orestes' servant and traveling companion. He is also the man who has educated Orestes. The Tutor's defining characteristic is that he sees religion as a superstitious and backward tradition for small-minded people. It is likely that this belief has influenced Orestes to some extent. Though the Tutor does not wish for Orestes to exact revenge on his father's murderers, he supports Orestes regardless, as is seen when he brings food to Orestes in the Temple of Apollo and placates the Furies with it.
Though Zeus is acknowledged in the play to be the creator of the universe, he is described as the "god of flies and death." Like Electra, he acts as a foil to Orestes, albeit in a less direct manner. At their first meeting, Zeus hides his true identity from Orestes and the Tutor, calling himself Demetrios. Zeus's main function as a foil is performed in his debates with Orestes in act 3. This is especially true when Zeus explains the consequences of freedom to Orestes, who embraces freedom nonetheless. Zeus tells Orestes that he will be cast out by his own people, that he will be "like a splinter" in all that is good and that nature will "revile" him. Orestes does not care, observing that while Zeus may be king of the universe, he is "not the king of man." Zeus adds that Orestes' freedom means exile. Orestes agrees that it does. By the end of their debate, it appears that they have arrived at a semblance of mutual respect through mutual pity. Zeus pities Orestes for his exile, while Orestes pities Zeus for his attempt to convince men that they are indebted to their creator. Though Zeus does his best throughout the play to undermine Orestes, he is ultimately rendered powerless by Orestes' knowledge that he is free, subject to no man and no god.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Sartre's relationship with Simone de Beauvoir has long been of interest to literary historians. Study their relationship and give a class presentation based on your research. Based on your research, do you believe Beauvoir influenced Sartre's writing in any way? Discuss your findings in your presentation.
- Research the existentialist movement and write a paper that summarizes your findings. Based on what you have learned, why do you think Sartre is considered one of the foremost existential philosophers? How did he develop his version of existentialist philosophy? How was it unique?
- Study the German occupation of France during World War II, paying particular attention to the influence of the occupation on French literature and culture. Pretend that you are a writer in France during that time. Write a week's worth of diary entries describing the daily impact of the war, your fears and concerns, and your imagined participation in the Resistance Movement or an underground writers' community.
- With several of your classmates, perform a scene from The Flies. After the performance, in a short presentation to your class, discuss your interpretation of the scene and how your performance influenced your understanding of the play.
Existential philosophy focuses on the ultimate freedom of the individual. All constraints (social, cultural, moral, or otherwise) are an illusion. According to existential thought, humankind is largely unable to process absolute freedom, which is why humans thrive under constraint. Constraint offers a sense of security by placing manageable boundaries on freedom. This central theme regarding freedom, and man's experience of it, is illustrated in The Flies in several ways. Though the Tutor has taught Orestes that religion is nothing but superstition, Orestes is religious in some ways. He wonders if Demetrios (Zeus in disguise) is a god, and he prays to the gods for guidance. However, when the sign that he asks for comes, Orestes realizes that whether he listens or not is immaterial. The gods have no power over him, because he is free.
Following this realization, Orestes demonstrates his freedom, accepting both the good (the ability to act without remorse) and the bad (being cast out from society) consequences of his actions. Given that existentialism is founded on the idea of absolute freedom, Orestes embodies the figure of the existential hero. Unfortunately Electra, who once believed in her freedom, ceases to do so after the shock of Ægistheus's death. When Orestes tells Electra that they are free, Electra replies, "I don't feel free." Although Orestes feels anguish at the memory of Clytemnestra's death and Electra's subsequent pain, he says, "But what matter? I am free. Beyond anguish, beyond remorse. Free. And at one with myself." Nothing that Zeus can say or do convinces Orestes that he is not free. Even Zeus admits that he made man free, though he did it so that they "might serve" him. Earlier in the play, however, it is acknowledged that both Ægistheus and Zeus are only able to rule because they convince their subjects that they are not free. Electra, in contrast to Orestes, initially believes that she is free but renounces her freedom as soon as its consequences ensue.
The constraints of guilt, remorse, sorrow, and repentance are all imposed upon the people of Argos and relished by Zeus, who is empowered by them. These constraints not only deny freedom, they also obscure it. By refusing to own their actions through repentance, the characters deny their freedom; they are not even aware that they have autonomy. This can be seen in Clytemnestra's "dead eyes" and her refusal to take responsibility, instead ascribing her actions to Ægistheus's rulings; the townspeople's fear of the spirits who are said to come and inflict revenge on those who harmed them during their lives; and, most prominently, in Electra's change of heart after the murders of Ægistheus and Clytemnestra. Orestes comments astutely when he says that "the most cowardly of murderers is he who feels remorse." In this statement, Orestes indicates that it is cowardly to reject one's own actions; to reject one's actions is to deny one's freedom to act. In this regard, to feel remorse is not only to reject one's freedom but also to disown it.
The flies that Zeus initially calls "a symbol" later transform into the Furies, who in turn represent remorse. The Furies tell Electra, "Only the suffering of your body can take your mind off your suffering soul," meaning that the pain of freedom can be alleviated by the shackles of remorse. Indeed, remorse is attractive to both the people of Argos and to Electra, because it allows them to retroactively avoid responsibility for their actions. For instance, when Zeus tells Electra that she only thought she wanted Clytemnestra and Ægistheus dead, but that she never truly desired the murders to happen, Electra begins to believe him. Yet Orestes tells Electra that to "let another decide … for you" in an attempt to evade responsibility is the very act that will heap "guilt upon you."
Simply put, rhetoric is the art of communicating effectively. On a more practical level, it is the art of communicating ideas. In this manner, The Flies is a play meant to promote existential rhetoric. The third act, in which Orestes argues that he is free, is a prime example of rhetoric. Orestes not only communicates that he is free but also identifies the repercussions of freedom. While promoting these ideas, Orestes argues that the consequences of freedom are preferable to those of slavery, both blind and willing. This latter example of rhetoric is predominantly included in his arguments with Electra, while the former are included in his arguments with Zeus. Other examples of existential rhetoric in the play include the Tutor's ridicule of religion, and Zeus's discussion with Ægistheus, in which both admit that they are only able to rule by tricking their subjects into believing that they are not free.
The Greek myth of Electra exists in many guises and variations. It appeared in dramatic form throughout Greek history, in Aeschylus's Oresteia trilogy, which was first performed in 458 bce; in Euripides' tragic play Electra, written around 410 bce; and in Sophocles' tragic play Electra, which was likely written between 409 and 410 bce. Sartre's The Flies is based on the Electra myth, though it is revised to suit an existential agenda. Indeed, the play both contains and flouts (contradicts or challenges) the style and characteristics of a Greek tragedy. On a general level, tragedies often include death and are either sad or serious in tone. In this manner, The Flies can easily be classified as a tragedy. Central to Greek tragedy, however, is the hero's reversal of fortune (usually from good to bad, rather than vice versa), which is brought on by the hero's moral or character flaws. While Orestes is inarguably the hero and he does see a reversal of fortune, it is not entirely clear whether that reversal is good or bad. It is also unclear whether that reversal is derived from a flaw or a strength.
Existentialism, an early twentieth-century philosophy that focused on exploring the existence and experience of the individual outside of moral or scientific constraints, tended to support the idea that the individual has total free will and therefore the utmost responsibility for their actions. Existentialists recognized that the knowledge of total freedom often gives rise to despair. Nevertheless, they believed that right and wrong are uncertain or arbitrary, and that morality is predominantly a tool for denying oneself of freedom and responsibility. Indeed, existential belief posits that the ultimate sin is to deny the true nature of one's freedom by abdicating it and therefore denying one's responsibility. The reverse of this, imposing one's will on another individual, was also considered a sin. Both, according to existentialists, are called "bad faith."
Founded in part by nineteenth-century philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard, the existentialist movement was at its strongest from the 1930s to the 1950s. Beginning with 1930s works by German philosophers Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger, the movement peaked in the 1940s in France, led by Sartre, Albert Camus, Beauvoir, and Gabriel Marcel. The movement is perhaps most notable for the wealth of literature it produced. Canonical works by Sartre and Camus all reflect existential beliefs. Writers whose works predated the peak of existentialism, such as Franz Kafka and Fyodor Dostoevsky, were nonetheless claimed by the movement as well. Furthermore, the popularity of existentialism is largely derived from its historical context. In the face of the atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust, Europe struggled to redefine what it meant to be human in a world that permitted genocide. Thus, earlier modes of thought and expression were no longer sufficient. In this manner, the philosophy merges well with absurdism, an artistic movement that took place in conjunction with existentialism. Existentialism also gave rise to the philosophical movement of phenomenology, which predominantly explored the nature of firsthand experience, namely how a person experiences the "other," or that which is outside of oneself.
Following the defeat of the Allied Forces in the Battle of France during World War II, the French signed an armistice on June 22, 1940, ceding the western coast of France and northern France to the Germans. France was believed to have had a superior military, and its surrender came as a blow to the French people. The remaining southeastern portion of the country was governed by Marshal Philippe Pétain from the temporary capital of Vichy. Thus, the unoccupied area was known as Vichy France. However, in 1942, when Allied Forces invaded North Africa (just south of Vichy France), the Germans occupied all of France. From 1940 to 1944, while under German occupation, France suffered food shortages, curfews, and forced deportation of Jews and laborers. Even Vichy France, while unoccupied, was not much better off. The French democracy was revoked and Pétain ruled with dictatorial powers.
Thus, some French citizens were opposed not only to the occupation but also to the government in the unoccupied zone. French General Charles de Gaulle escaped to London, England, and arranged for French troops that were not captured by the Germans to join with British forces; this group became known as the Free French. In France, the Resistance was stimulated in small pockets through illegal publications and underground political organizations. Sartre cofounded one such group, Socialisme et Liberté, in 1941. However, the organization was not successful, and Sartre mainly focused on his writing from then on. Members of the Resistance also hid Jews and Allied soldiers, and they destroyed the railroad lines used by supply trains to German troops. The German occupation of France finally came to an end in December 1944, following the Invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, by the Allied Forces.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1940s: The prevailing philosophy of the day is existentialism, which explores the existence and experience of the individual outside of moral or scientific constraints, with the idea that the individual has total free will and thus absolute responsibility for his or her actions. Leading existentialist thinkers include Sartre, Martin Heidegger, and Karl Jaspers.
Today: There is no dominant philosophy; rather, there are several loose offshoots derived from post-postmodernism, which reacts to and opposes postmodern irony. Post-structuralism, however, which prevailed in the 1970s, is perhaps the most recent movement with a definitive philosophy. Post-structuralism questions and challenges the structures in language and systems of thought. Leading post-structuralist thinkers include Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.
- 1940s: The German occupation of France ends in December 1944, following the Invasion of Normandy (D-Day) on June 6, 1944, by the Allied Forces (mainly British, American, and French troops). World War II ends in 1945.
Today: There has not been a third world war; however, war across continents, involving alliances, still occurs. On March 19, 2003, the United States invades Iraq with British, Polish, and Australian military support. The invasion is declared a success on May 1, 2003, but as of 2008, troops are still engaged in the conflict.
- 1940s: Anti-Semitism is central to Nazi policies, and Jews in occupied France are forced to wear a yellow star on their clothing. Many Jews are deported and sent to concentration camps.
Today: Anti-Semitism in Europe has been in decline since World War II. However, a slight reversal of this trend begins in 2000 with a statistically significant rise in hate crimes, such as beatings and vandalism.
Sartre was writing at the peak of his career in this war-torn environment. Certainly, it is difficult to ignore the remarkably bleak tone of French intellectuals and artists at the time, and Sartre was no exception. The Flies was written halfway through the French occupation and, aside from its existential leanings, the play's presentation of characters who mistakenly think they are subject to gods with powers beyond human
control has been frequently interpreted as a metaphor for French citizens living under the German occupation. The play, in a sense, is a call to arms and a condemnation of complacency.
Though the initial reception of The Flies was somewhat ambivalent, the play has withstood the test of time and is now acknowledged as a significant contribution to twentieth-century literature. Though second in popularity to Sartre's play No Exit, The Flies is still considered to be one of Sartre's best dramas. Both plays, written within a few years of one another, are predominantly valued for the insight they shed on existential thought. Timothy J. Williams, writing in the Midwest Quarterly, comments that The Flies is "possibly the best introduction to the philosophy of Sartre." Williams adds that it "contains all the essential elements of his existentialist thought" and notes that it is "one of Sartre's least ambiguous works." Commenting on the political undertones in the play, Williams observes that "many post-war critics find an anti-Vichy message in the play, or view it even as a clarion call to resistance." Seconding these opinions in Sartre Studies International, Sam Coombes writes that "the implications of the portrayal of Orestes as an allegorical representation of resistance to the German occupation and to the Vichy regime are readily apparent." Coombes, like Williams, believes that The Flies "stages an opposition between the inalienably free subject defined in that work and the influence of an oppressive ideology perhaps more clearly than anywhere else in Sartre's fiction."
Commenting on the play and on Sartre's initial reception in the United States, Hudson Review critic Gerald Weales states that Sartre's "work was the first European work to come to us after the end of World War II." Thus, Weales finds that "Sartre brought a supposedly new philosophy, one which could be used as [an] excuse or banner." Weales adds that "the freedom of the existential hero became, for some people … a kind of license, a lifting of moral restraint." He further observes, "On the other hand, the freedom of the existential hero … could be seen and was seen as a positive philosophy, a road by which a man might make his tough way through a world" that, following World War II, was felt to have been one "which God had deserted and in which the [old] economic and psychological determinisms could no longer be used as excuses."
Tieger is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, she explores the aspects of Greek tragedy in The Flies.
Traditionally, the Greek myth of Electra in its many variations is defined as a tragedy. Yet, while Sartre's The Flies is indeed based on the Electra myth, the play's status as a tragedy is questionable. In order to ascertain whether or not The Flies can be called a tragedy, one must consider the classic characteristics of Greek tragedy and subsequently apply them to Sartre's play. Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) asserted in his Poetics that the defining feature of a tragedy is the hero's reversal of fortune (usually from good to bad), which is known in Greek as peripeteia. This reversal is brought on by the hero's hubris (pride) or moral or character flaws (often called the tragic flaw or hamartia). Related to this reversal of fortune, the hero often comes to an epiphany (sudden realization), or anagnorisis. As an added dimension, the audience undergoes a catharsis (purifying emotional experience) upon experiencing a well-made tragedy. The phenomenon of catharsis, according to Aristotle, is derived from the fear or pity that the audience feels during the course of the tragedy.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Sartre's 1964 autobiography, Les Mots, was translated as The Words in 1964. The volume focuses on Sartre's childhood and early years, providing insight into some of the events that shaped his emerging philosophies.
- Like The Flies, the play Huis clos (published in 1945, translated as No Exit in 1947) demonstrates Sartre's existential beliefs in dramatic form. It is perhaps his best-known play.
- In hindsight, Franz Kafka is often classified as an existential writer. His most famous story, Die Verwandlung (1915), was translated as The Metamorphosis in 1937. It features a man who awakes one morning to find that he has been transformed into a giant insect.
- Albert Camus was a leading French existentialist writer and one of Sartre's contemporaries. His best-known work is L'Étranger (1942), published in English as The Stranger in 1946. The story portrays a young man who is to be executed for a murder that was supposedly cold-blooded, when in fact the protagonist was acting in self-defense.
Inarguably, peripeteia occurs in The Flies, but whether that reversal is for good or for ill is not entirely certain. Orestes begins the play as an innocent person; he does not plan to avenge his father's death and instead wishes to pursue the peaceful life he has enjoyed as a child raised by strangers. Yet Orestes mourns the rightful childhood that he was robbed of and says that he does not have a home or a people to call his own. No matter how peacefully he may choose to live his life, Orestes will always be a man whose inheritance was taken from him. When Orestes realizes that he is free, though, he feels empowered to take his revenge. Orestes murders Ægistheus, his father's murderer, and commits matricide, killing his mother, Clytemnestra. Though he feels anguish at the thought of these murders, and also at his sister's subsequent horror, Orestes acknowledges that his distress does not matter, because he is free and therefore "beyond anguish … beyond remorse … and at one" with himself. Orestes has become an exile who embraces his banishment. He wants to bring his fellow people to their own exile (what he believes is freedom), because, as Orestes states, "human life begins on the far side of despair."
In one sense, Orestes experiences a reversal of fortune from good to bad. He was once innocent, but he loses this purity and becomes an outcast, abhorred by nature and man alike. In an existential interpretation, however, Orestes' reversal is one that goes from bad to good. Where he was once ignorant of his very nature, Orestes has come to understand that he is free, able to act without remorse, and no longer subject to the gods or man. He crosses "the far side of despair" and claims his "human life." However, when one considers that Orestes takes the sins of Argos's people upon him, it becomes more difficult to define the reversal of fortune as either good or bad. Certainly, Orestes appears to be a tragic and heroic figure as the crowd parts for him and the Furies follow, but is this a good or bad fate? To most, Orestes' fate appears to be bad, though an existentialist may perceive it as good. Given that existentialism is founded on the idea of absolute freedom, Orestes embodies the figure of the existential hero. Yet when he takes on the sins of his townspeople, he becomes an unequivocal hero.
Considering hamartia, Orestes does not appear to have a tragic flaw. This is especially true when he is viewed as an existential hero. According to existential thought, the tragic flaw of human existence is the denial of freedom. Thus, Orestes is the only character in The Flies who distinctly lacks hamartia. However, if one views Orestes' reversal of fortune as progressing from good to bad, then Orestes' tragic flaw is his lack of remorse, which is seated in the knowledge that he is free. It is this flaw that makes him a murderer; causes him to be forever hounded by the Furies; and separates him from the gods, mankind, and his own sister. Since existential values subvert the play's classification as a tragedy, though, it is Electra—not Orestes—who is a more tragic (and flawed) character.
It seems far more clear, with or without an existential viewpoint, that Electra experiences a reversal of fortune from good to bad as brought about by a tragic flaw. Electra begins the play as a joyful, rebellious, and beautiful young woman who is full of life. When Electra faces her remorse (her tragic flaw) at the murders of her mother and Ægistheus, she is hounded by the Furies. Also, her beauty is replaced by the "dead eyes" that were once her mother's, and she agrees to rule Argos as a repentant subject of Zeus. Even so, Electra's lot has improved on a material level. She is no longer a lowly maid and is on the cusp of becoming the queen of Argos. On a surface level, Electra's fortune moves from bad to good. On a deeper level, though, her fortune progresses from good to bad. Notably, the reverse is true of Orestes. If we are to judge the play's outcome by the characters' inner lives, rather than by outward circumstances, Electra is certainly a more tragic, flawed character than Orestes.
The trait of anagnorisis as it appears in The Flies is perhaps easiest to quantify in a straightforward manner. Certainly, Orestes experiences an epiphany. After asking the gods for a sign, which he receives in the form of a ring of light surrounding the boulder, Orestes realizes that "a change has come on everything." He announces that "something has just died," and declares, "There is another path—my path." This sudden realization precedes and, in fact, causes his reversal of fortune, rather than being derived from it. Regardless of cause and effect, this epiphany still meets the criteria of anagnorisis. Electra, however, does not appear to experience an epiphany of any sort. Certainly, she experiences a change of heart through her remorse for the murders, but this can hardly be labeled an epiphany. Indeed, Electra's remorse is mere reaction, little more than squeamishness at the sight of Ægistheus's blood. The best she can offer while standing beside Ægistheus's body is that she "didn't realize how it would be." Considering this aspect of Greek tragedy, it is Orestes, and not Electra, who is assigned the role of tragic hero—existential or otherwise.
Addressing the catharsis that the audience is intended to feel in reaction to The Flies is a difficult proposition, especially when one considers that an emotional experience is subjective and is unique to each audience member. However, given that Aristotle proposes that catharsis is brought about via the experience of fear and pity, one can assess whether or not the text of the play is likely to evoke these emotions. It seems fair to argue that the play evokes pity, if not for the murder victims and the perpetually mourning villagers, then certainly for Electra and Orestes. Regardless of the divergent paths that the brother and sister choose, both ends are unenviable and positively pitiable. Electra becomes a slave to her repentance and to Zeus, and Orestes is cast out of society, doomed to be hounded by the Furies. Yet the only possible fear that can be felt in the play is derived from Electra's fear of freedom and of the Furies, or, perhaps, her fear of what her long-nursed desire for murder has wrought. Admittedly, this theory is something of a stretch, making it hard to define the play as cathartic based on Aristotle's two-pronged criteria (pity and fear). Furthermore, Sartre's intention in writing The Flies appears to be to demonstrate existential principles. Thus, the play's end achieves less of a catharsis and more of an edification (an educational or enlightening experience).
While the play does meet Aristotle's qualifications, especially peripeteia, hamartia, and anagnorisis, it does so predominantly on a surface level that does not consider the values of existentialism. The Flies also meets these criteria when both Electra and Orestes are considered alternately as the tragic hero. Still, the cathartic nature of the play in either reading is somewhat questionable. In general, when The Flies is read exclusively as an existential play, it largely fails to meet the definition of a Greek tragedy.
Source: Leah Tieger, Critical Essay on The Flies, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
Timothy J. Williams
In the following excerpt, Williams discusses Sartre's The Flies and his view of individual freedom and human existence.
Jean-Paul Sartre summarized his philosophy in three words: existence precedes essence, thereby abandonning all a priori definitions of a human being. According to Sartrean existentialism, before a person can complete the statement "I am … something," he or she must acknowledge the primary reality of human existence: "I am." Whatever follows this realization of the mere fact of existence can only result from action. Every individual is absolutely free—Sartre says that people are condemned to be free—and we totally define ourselves by our actions, we create ourselves through our choices. The "authentic" individual must confront this existential reality by accepting responsibility for actions and refusing to invoke any external standards, religious or philosophical, to justify personal choices. Such an individual is overwhelmed by the full implications of this radical freedom and experiences moral anguish and a sense of absurdity in recognizing that everything is ultimately arbitrary. The result is alienation from the great majority of people, who will not appreciate this freedom, and the free individual must endure a profound despair born of absolute moral solitude and from the certainty that there is no metaphysical hope.
Reading The Flies (Les mouches) is possibly the best introduction to the philosophy of Sartre. His first dramatic work, it is comparatively brief, yet contains all the essential elements of his existentialist thought. It is also one of Sartre's least ambiguous works, certainly much clearer than the 1938 novel, Nausea (La nauseé). Gabriel Marcel, the Christian existentialist and Sartre's contemporary, considers The Flies a "manifesto" of existentialism (L'heure théâtrale, 189). Despite this relative clarity, opinions about the fundamental meaning of this play are varied, just as are assessments of Sartre's ultimate achievement in philosophy. One particularly interesting detail about The Flies is that it was first staged during the Nazis' occupation of France. Since many post-war critics find an anti-Vichy message in the play, or view it even as a clarion call to resistance, the fact that The Flies was allowed on a Parisian stage in 1943 has had to be explained. Typically, Sartre's freedom to produce his play has been attributed either to the "stupidity" of the German censors, or to their "artistic liberalism" (Brosman, 73). However, critics do not seem to have considered an equally obvious possibility, and one that has profound implications for the interpretation of the play and the overall assessment of Sartre's philosophy. It is possible that the German censors were correct, ultimately, in detecting nothing dangerous in the message of The Flies, at least nothing that would challenge their totalitarian program for a subjugated Europe.
Like other French writers of the twentieth century (Anouilh, Camus, Giraudoux), Sartre expounded his ideas by reviving ancient Greek themes and characters, in this case by reworking the myth of Orestes and Electra. The thoughts and deeds of this brother and sister illustrate opposing reactions to the propositions of Sartrean existentialism as they confront the moral dilemma of vengeance against the murderers of their father, King Agamemnon of Argos. But the spectator (or the reader) of Sartre's dramatic recreation must keep in mind that all is not as it appears. Though Sartre has exploited many aspects of the Greek myth, he most decidedly does not wish to recreate classically-inspired tragedy. Whereas in Greek theater tragedy often seems to arise from the distance separating people from the divine, atheistic existentialism admits to no possibility of a chasm to be bridged, for nothing lies beyond mankind, nothing but the void.
In the opening scene of The Flies, Orestes has returned to Argos with his tutor, but, significantly, under the assumed name of Philebus of Corinth. Though he knows his true family history, Sartre's Orestes has yet to really discover himself. Far from being driven by the gods to avenge the death of his father, he seems merely curious to see the city and palace that might have been his to rule. Otherwise, he appears to have no concrete plan of action. His ill-defined character at this point in the play can be taken as a literal illustration of the Sartrean notion that "existence precedes essence" (Marcel, L'heure théâtrale, 187). Zeus, disguised as a citizen of Athens, has been anxiously following the travelers for some time. It becomes clear that he would like Orestes to depart from Argos, fearing that the stranger will profoundly disturb the piety of its faithful citizens. But from the outset, Zeus shows himself to be utterly powerless to obtain his ends, and this is the key to understanding his role. He appears to be very active in the play, but in fact accomplishes nothing. Long before he himself acknowledges his impotence, we understand him to be a mere figurehead, the shadow of a belief system that is entirely illusory.
The unfriendly inhabitants of Argos are immersed in their annual period of repentance for the crime of having allowed their king to be slaughtered. Orestes reacts with a mixture of curiosity and aversion toward the Argives' frantic cult of contrition. This commemoration of "Dead Men's Day" has been interpreted as Sartre's mockery of the theme of national guilt that was promoted by the Vichy government during the Nazi occupation (Brosman, 74). It is also possible—unavoidable, really—to interpret the Argives' unceasing cries of "Ayez pitié de nous" ("Have mercy on us") as an attack on the Christian idea of sin and redemption (Marcel, L'heure théâtrale, 183) and more specifically, the Catholic Church and its penitential liturgy (Cawdrey, 51). In any case, Zeus, the figure of the gods and upholder of religious belief, delights in the expressions of remorse and acts of mortification, whereas the skeptical Orestes is clearly irritated by the entire proceeding. When Aegistheus invokes the name of the dead King Agamemnon while presiding over the religious ceremonies, Orestes erupts with his first flash of anger: "I forbid you to drag my father's name into this mummery."
It is Electra, however, who first speaks of action, of retribution, a vengeance of which she has long dreamt. But she seems unable to act alone. After lamenting her deplorable treatment at the hands of her murderous mother and stepfather, Electra tells Philebus (Orestes in disguise) that she has never had the courage to flee, but believes that she will not have to endure her situation forever. For the present, she is merely "waiting for something" or someone to put all aright. Thus, Electra is presented as violent in speech, but passive and timorous in behavior, which explains why she ultimately recoils in horror when Orestes finally executes his murderous plan.
And whence comes the plan of action? This is probably one of the most difficult and weakest moments in the play. The decision to act against Aegistheus and Clytemnestra has followed Orestes's prayer to the gods to show him the way: "I am weary" he says, "and my mind is dark; I can no longer distinguish right from wrong. I need a guide to point my way…. O Zeus, … make plain your will by some sign; for no longer can I see my path." There is then an inexplicable flash of light around the stone that seals the tomb of Agamemnon, a phenomenon which, of course, offers no real help. Is it a natural event or does it signal some epiphany? If the latter, the divine will would still have to be interpreted. But quite suddenly, following the taunts of Electra, Orestes experiences an enlightenment, a sudden awareness that he is totally alone in an indifferent universe: "Until now," he proclaims, "I felt something warm and living around me, like a friendly presence. That something has just died. What emptiness! What endless emptiness, as far as the eye can reach!"
Though overwhelmed by this feeling of absolute solitude, Orestes is emboldened by his new-found freedom, and declares that he will no longer take orders, neither from men nor gods. He asks Electra to guide him to the royal chambers so that he might strike without delay. Now, we have already been told that Orestes has been raised free from prejudice and superstition and that he is "free to try his hand at anything," but he has also been tutored in the importance of not committing himself. Why should he now be determined to avenge a crime in which he has no crucial stake? As we learn later in the play, Orestes has no interest in assuming the throne, and in fact leaves Argos at the first opportunity. How does an awareness of the fact of human freedom suddenly create the desire to avenge a wrongful murder? For that matter, what is a wrongful murder? Sartre might reply that existentialism does not answer the question of what one ought to do, but merely that once having decided on a course of action, there are no grounds for remorse or repentance. Indeed, it would seem that the most important factor in determining the "rightness" of a course of action is the attitude exhibited toward the action by the agent. Therefore, one possible message of The Flies is that while remorse invalidates an action, shamelessness is a kind of vindication.
When Orestes makes clear what he intends to do, Zeus attempts to intervene by warning Aegistheus of the danger. His will is that the king should strike first against this impious son of Agamemnon. Aegistheus, weary after fifteen years of upholding the guilt of his remorseful subjects, shows little interest in saving himself. He is merely curious about two things. First, why does Zeus, who permitted the murder of Agamemnon, now wish to prevent the crime of Orestes? The answer is that the crime of Aegistheus was "clumsy and boorish," a crime of passion, a crime that did not "know itself," and that was soon regretted. As such, it was a useful crime for the gods, keeping the whole city of Argos in fear and trembling, a fear of which the gods have need for their very existence. Orestes, on the other hand, will commit his deed in cold blood, and will not have a trace of remorse. Why, then, does Zeus himself not destroy Orestes? The god explains: "Once freedom lights its beacon in a man's heart, the gods are powerless against him. It's a matter between man and man, and it is for other men, and for them only, to let him go his gait or to throttle him." The reader is to understand, of course, that the gods are not real, that they are mere projections of human fear, ceasing to exist for one who no longer fears the burden of absolute freedom.
The brief encounter between Orestes and Aegistheus reveals the thoughts of the young man just as he strikes down his enemy: "Justice is a matter between men, and I need no god to teach me it. It's right to stamp you out, like the foul brute you are, and to free the people of Argos from your evil influence. It is right to restore to them their sense of human dignity." Although the course of action is expressed in noble terms—the suppression of evil, the restoration of human dignity—there is nothing in the play to justify the use of such terms. What is justice and how is it to be dispensed if each individual is radically free to choose and to validate any course of action? Why exactly is the crime of the tyrant Aegistheus more evil than the impending crime of Orestes? Indeed, what is a crime, and what is a tyrant? If such stinging questions occur to readers of The Flies, their effect is likely to be deadened by the relentless stream of Sartre's anesthetizing prose. It is at this point that the incoherencies of the play begin to accumulate. As Marcel observes, one cannot entertain the idea of justice "without reestablishing a certain order, a genuine order—that of unwritten laws—in opposition to the exterior and corrupt order established by the tyrant" (L'heure théâtrale, 188, my translation). Of course, the very idea of inferred, essential laws is impossible according to Sartrean existentialism.
Zeus makes a final effort to turn Orestes back into the fold, to rejoin the faithful in their religion of remorse and repentance. Orestes will have none of it. He tells Zeus, the god of lightning, that freedom came crashing down on him like a thunderbolt: "I knew myself alone," he explains, "utterly alone in the midst of this well-meaning universe of yours. I was like a man who's lost his shadow. And there was nothing left in heaven, no right or wrong, nor anyone to give me orders." Thus, the radical, personal freedom of Orestes is accompanied by darkness, for the light has simply gone out of his universe. In perhaps the most famous line that Sartre ever penned, Orestes reveals what existentialist man must confront in order to live authentically: "Human life begins on the far side of despair." Neither God, nor the universe, nor history, nor culture, nor family can provide a ground for existence. All is ultimately arbitrary and meaningless. Unlike the common person, Orestes must find his own raison d'être every day of his life: "Foreign to myself—I know it. Outside nature, against nature, without excuse, beyond remedy, except what remedy I can find within myself." Zeus warns that this attitude will mean exile, and asks Orestes what he intends to do with his new-found freedom. "The folk of Argos are my folk," Orestes declares, "I must open their eyes." In one of several passages that echo Nietzsche's Zarathustra and that mock the Gospels, Zeus replies: "Well, Orestes, all this was foreknown. In the fullness of time a man was to come to announce my decline. And you are that man it seems."
The flies are the furies, the goddesses of remorse. They set upon Electra, who has quickly repented of the vengeance she long desired, accepting the falsely exculpatory version of the crime offered by Zeus. Orestes angrily rejects the casuistry of Zeus. In vain, he pleads with his sister: "Electra! It's now that you are bringing guilt upon you. For who but yourself can know what you really wanted? Will you let another decide that for you? Why distort a past that can no longer stand up for itself?" Because Orestes refuses to doubt himself, the flies can do him no harm. They must disperse to let him pass as he bids farewell to the Argives and marches bravely toward a new day.
Whatever Orestes does with himself, armed with his new freedom, his destiny will have nothing to do with Zeus, with the citizens of Argos, with his sister, Electra, or even with the Orestes who has just killed Aegistheus. For existentialist man, all manifestations of the past—one's own vita, one's culture, human history, even the past of the universe, Creation itself—all these are meaningless. Only action in the present moment has significance. But wouldn't the prospect of absolute moral relativity weighing upon a given act have a rather paralyzing effect on any plan of concrete action? Just as it would be impossible to imagine any prolongation of The Flies, any sequel recounting further purposeful adventures in the life of Orestes, it is difficult to conceive of an existentialist program of coherent social activism of any sort, and this reality has certain parallels with the life of Orestes's creator….
Source: Timothy J. Williams, "Sartre, Marcel, and The Flies: Restless Orestes in Search of a Café," in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 3, Spring 2007, pp. 376-89.
In the following excerpt, Stoekl examines the possibility that Sartre knowingly and willingly took the place of an unfortunate Jewish professor in 1941, using Les Mouches (The Flies) as the basis for his argument.
Recently much debate has turned around Jean-Paul Sartre's alleged duplicity during the Occupation: did he or did he not knowingly replace, in 1941 at the Lycée Condorcet, a Jewish professor who had been deprived of his post simply because he was Jewish? Did this make Sartre a knowing, albeit passive, accomplice to Vichy racial policy—an accomplice, like millions of others in wartime France, in that he was, with an apparently clean conscience, willing to take advantage of another's—a Jew's—misfortune?
At this late date, it seems difficult to adjudicate this issue and proclaim Sartre's bad faith. We can never know for certain what he knew, and when he knew it. To try to understand Sartre's problematic position under the Occupation, I think one must go to the actual writings we have at our disposal: his essays, plays, and interviews. Failing this, we will always be constrained to judge him based on innuendo, negatively: what he wasn't doing, but should have done; what he may have known, and yet did not act upon. I think if we turn to his writings, or at least one of them, we will be confronted with a different problem. The question of Sartre's shadow-collaboration turns not around what he knew, or what we can know about his knowledge, but around what we can and cannot know about what wartime audiences knew and did not (could not) know of the supposed message of Sartre's wartime drama.
Was Jean-Paul Sartre's play Les Mouches, published in April 1943 and first performed that June in Occupied Paris with the approval of the German censor, a Resistance play? Was it meant to convey a pro-Resistance message? The debate has swirled for a number of years, giving rise to accusatory books, such as Gilbert Joseph's Une si douce occupation, arguing that Sartre never was a Resistance figure, and that the works he published under the Occupation were harmless, and hardly noted for their insurrectional fervor. On the other hand, defenders—starting with Sartre himself after the war—have argued that key wartime works such as Les Mouches were really calls to resistance, given censorship, however, it was necessary to mask the message with, for example, the setting of ancient Greece. Sartre even argued that the drubbing administered by collaborationist critics was proof that they understood the play's true intent: an argument for human freedom, in opposition to the Vichy doctrine of remorse and eternal penitence for the sins of the Third Republic. Sartre's foes, on the other hand, are quick to respond by recalling that Les Mouches was produced in a theatre whose name had been changed (from Le Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt to Le Théâtre de la Cité) to please the anti-Semitic occupier, that the director (Charles Dullin) dabbled in collaboration, that Sartre himself gave interviews to a (fairly mild) collaborationist paper (Comœdia), and so on. Finally, the seeming trump card: if the Resistance emphasis of the play was so clear, why did the censors pass it in the first place?
Ingrid Galster, in her book Sartre, Vichy et les intellectuels, has done a lot to set the record straight. After carrying out exhaustive research, which involved reading virtually every review of the play printed in Occupation-era papers—even the ones in German, published both in Paris and Berlin—she concludes that, in effect, neither side is right. On the one hand, clearly there were audience members "in the know," able to perceive the message of freedom and place it in the context of the Resistance. On the other hand, she argues, the collaborationist critics who roasted the play perceived absolutely no Resistance message: what they saw was a long, talky play that offended them mainly because it recalled Sartre's earlier works, such as La Nausée, perceived as a celebration of nausea—a disgusting book by a disgusting author, hardly the uplifting reading that the new era demanded. In addition, right-wing critics objected to the whiff of the avant-garde they perceived in the play's sets and costumes, which evoked for them the heyday of left-leaning aesthetic scandals of the prewar years—the bad old days. Moreover, one German critic, writing for the Paris German-language newspaper distributed to the occupying soldiers, actually saw in Les Mouches a celebration of a Nietzschean-Nazi superman.
Despite the thorough and excellent research it displays, Galster's book still leaves us with an unanswered question: how is it possible for a work to be read, or seen, by two communities, and found to have different "messages"? We need more than just the observation that both critics and supporters of Sartre were (and are) misguided. Were the collaborationist critics and the censors simply obtuse? Did Sartre really put one over on them? If so, why did even Michel Leiris—certainly an ally of Sartre and a man with impeccable credentials on the left—not stress the importance of the Resistance message in his review of the play, in a Resistance paper? One can go on: if Resistance message there was, it was so subtle that no one appears to have been moved by it to resist: in today's jargon, the play at the time of its first production got no "traction" as a call to Resistance. On the contrary: one German critic actually implied that it was a (rather mystifying) call to collaboration.
What's needed, I think, is a model of writing and reading that will allow us to see the larger social and political ramifications of a work based on specific communities of interpretation. It may be that Sartre was writing neither for the Resistance community of readers—real or potential—nor for the collaborationist one; rather, he was writing a polyvalent work that could be read in different ways by different groups: what would be manifest for one group would be a thematic black hole for the other, impossible to recognize or comprehend. This is not to say that the play is simultaneously a perfect work of collaborationist ideology and a call to heroic Resistance; instead, I would argue that the play puts forward certain idéologèmes, hardly a complete collection of them on either side, that allow it to pass muster among at least certain members of two, ferociously opposed, communities of readers. I am not saying that Sartre was consciously double-dealing; all we can know about what he was doing was what he himself wrote, in the play and in contemporary interviews; his later, post-Liberation comments are obviously tendentious, self-serving, and partisan (though not necessarily wrong). They do not and cannot take into account what Sartre would have said about the play if the Germans had won the war….
First, as Orestes tells us in Act II, Scene VIII, to be free is to suffer: it is the pain of one who literally bears the consequences of his free act.
I have done my deed, Electra, and that deed was good. I shall bear it on my shoulders as a carrier at a ferry carries the traveler to the farther bank. And when I have brought it to the farther bank I shall take stock of it. The heavier it is to carry, the better pleased I shall be; for that burden is my freedom.
Beyond this quiet and self-effacing—but joyful—suffering, there is the affirmation of liberty as strength and self-affirmation in the present. Orestes proclaims in Act III, Scene I:
It's your [Electra's] weakness that gives them their [the Furies'] strength. Mark how they dare not speak to me. [ … ] And the anguish that consumes you—do you think it will ever cease ravaging my heart? But what matter: I am free. Beyond anguish and memory. Free. And in agreement with myself. You mustn't hate yourself, Electra. Give me your hand; I won't abandon you. (translation modified)
Electra's remorse—her memory—is her weakness; conversely, the affirmation of the crime, in dread, is purely in the present, without memory. This is strength, nobility, but also, of course, toughness. Orestes is no sob sister: he commits his crime, the most horrible, the unthinkable—matricide—and affirms it, forgets its monstrosity, carries it, ultimately, secretly (for who else could understand? How could he communicate it?), and joyfully.
We know the conventional reading: remorse is Pétain's message, to resist it is to opt for freedom, and by extension, for the Resistance. (The critique of remorse is a major theme of the play, of course; but how great, really, was the cult of remorse in Pétainiste France? Was it as overwhelmingly important as it is in Jupiter's Argos?) But remorse in the play is presented not so much as the product of a government—that of Aegistheus—as it is a kind of "natural" fatality, the product of Jupiter's will. What Orestes fights against is less the remorse-doctrine of a single, oppressive government as it is the "natural" tendency to accept remorse by refusing to step up and commit brutal, horrifying crimes. Such is the case with Electra, who has longed for Aegistheus's death, but who refuses to take responsibility for it—who, in other words, caves in to the will of Jupiter.
Sartre's Orestes is an example of what I've called "existentialist fascism." That term might seem overly provocative, but consider: a lonely, elite hero, breaking brutally with the past, showing nothing but contempt for accepted morality, willingly commits a crime universally judged indecent, monstrous. Freedom is a heavy burden to carry, but its very heaviness, its antisocial and cruel (even masochistic) aspect, is what gives it significance. Freedom is the refusal to compromise, to back down, to remember, because all these are functions of remorse, of weakness. Freedom is monstrously violent, and its repetition in society—if there is to be repitition—is set off only by the lone, violent actor: Orestes himself, who, one assumes, will be such a figure of revulsion that no one can or will be able to remember him. That is the paradox of freedom: it is propagated through a public act, but one that renounces memory and that will itself be forgotten or hidden from memory.
This … can be read as a pseudo-Nietzschean freedom, but also that of the SS man, carrying out his duties, affirming his own personal freedom by carrying out a monstrous, but "necessary," crime. An SS man who (we might remind Dr. Buesche) expects no glory, no reward, no recognition, and whose glorious acts are a heavy burden that will of necessity always remain hidden, will never be celebrated or remembered, by himself or by others (and might very well be condemned). In 1943 Himmler proclaimed: "To have endured this [the sight of hundreds of corpses] and at the same time to remain a decent person [ … ] this has made us tough, and is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned [ … ]". In other words the burden, and paradoxically also the glory, will be outside memory.
Was the critique of remorse in Les Mouches an oblique critique of Pétain? Recall that Vichy was criticized not only by the left and the Resistance, but also by the right: French fascists who admired the Nazi cult of strength and violence (one thinks of Je Suis partout, Brasillach, Drieu la Rochelle) had little use for the endless lecturing coming from senile and impotent killjoys like the Maréchal … "Français, vous avez la mémoire courte" indeed.
Am I saying that Sartre was a fascist, even a Nazi? Not at all. Perhaps we do see here the outlines of Sartrean existentialism as it would have developed if the Germans had won the war, if the Occupation had continued indefinitely. We cannot know. What we do see is a handful of idéologèmes that make possible the reading of the play—no matter how cursory a reading—as a pro-fascist statement. Again, my point is not that Sartre was a fascist, but only that there are enough bits and pieces of ideology in the play to allow a hasty reading of the play as pro-fascist.
The significance of this is that people reading inattentively—the censors, easily bored collaborationist critics, puzzled Nazis—could have read or seen the play and not even noticed its putative message, because for them it would blend effortlessly into the collaborationist propaganda they produced and consumed every day.
But the postwar Sartre and his apologists were probably correct as well: the play was a call to Resistance; the young people who saw it at the Théâtre de la Cité and applauded its encomiums to freedom really were thinking ahead to the Liberation. Just as a quick reading could allow fascists to find nothing objectionable in Sartre's statements or in the larger themes of the play, so, too, young Resistance sympathizers could jump to the conclusion that the play was a celebration of the Resistance and an attack on Vichy.
My point is that both sides were "right," and neither was. Sartre wrote a protean work whose very strength was that it could be read from either side. To say this is to say more than what Sartre himself said—that he had to conceal a critique of Vichy and a celebration of the Resistance in a play set in ancient Greece, in order to get his "message" across. There is no question of concealment—unless it is a concealment of the sort carried out in Poe's "Purloined Letter," where the "hidden" letter was always there, visible, available if it only could be recognized. The strength of the play is that it presents two sets of complementary blind spots for two different audiences: fascists could see the play, ignore a vaguely provocative reference to "dignity" (the dignity of being a magnificent criminal) and see, no matter how lackadaisically, an affirmation of individual violence that transcends common, bourgeois morality. Resistance partisans, on the other hand, could (and did) ignore those elements, and fasten on the few hints within the play—again "dignity," the killing of Aegistheus as a house-cleaning by which the fascists are (apparently) eliminated, "freedom" as a personal benefit to be derived through democracy—that would lead them to perceive a celebration of the Resistance. For fascists, the play's flies would recall the filth that Occupation propaganda associated with Jews and misfits; for fans of the Resistance, the flies are symbols of the parasitical, petty remorse that characterizes the mindset of the loyal Pétainist citizen. Each community of readers has its blind spots, and these blind spots are symmetrically opposed; what I see, no matter how haphazardly, is precisely what is invisible to the other person—and vice versa….
Source: Allan Stoekl, "What the Nazis Saw: Les Mouches in Occupied Paris," in SubStance, Vol. 32, No. 3, 2003, pp. 78-91.
Oreste F. Pucciani
In the following interview, Pucciani presents Sartre with questions about his writing style, topics, and love for literature.
[The highlight of last year's theatre season in Paris was the opening of Jean-Paul Sartre's newest play, Les Séquestrés d'Altona. Oreste Pucciani, in France last spring, interviewed M. Sartre for TDR concerning his new play.]
PUCCIANI: From remarks of yours which I have read here and there, I gather that your ideas of engaged literature have changed since you published Qu'est-ce que la litterature? in 1948. Simone de Beauvoir has told me that you no longer feel that people can be changed by literature; that one of your greatest impressions of Cuba was that the Cuban people have been changed.
SARTRE: Yes. To an extent that is true. I remain convinced, however, that if literature isn't everything, it is nothing.
PUCCIANI: What precisely do you mean by that statement?
SARTRE: I mean that a writer, a novelist cannot deal with the slightest concrete detail of life without becoming involved in everything. If I want to describe a scene—Saint-Germain-des-Prés, for example—I am immediately caught up in all the problems of my time. I may try to avoid these problems, limit my world and deal only with a small fragment of reality. But actually I cannot. Look at Jouhandeau. I like Jouhandeau very much, but Jouhandeau has limited himself to the world of a couple: Lise and Jouhandeau. This sort of writing, however interesting, is bound to produce monsters. The writer cannot not be engaged. In one way or another all writers know this. Yet they don't accept it. Consequently, when they do try to deal with their own times, they end up by writing detective stories. Look at the last volume of Durrell.
PUCCIANI: Isn't this a different sort of engagement from engagement as you saw it in 1948? The engagement of 1948, as I understand it, was essentially an engagement of content over form.
SARTRE: Yes. Content over form, if you will. But I have certainly evolved since 1948. In 1948 I was still naïve—the way we are all naïve. I still believed in Santa Claus. Up to the age of forty! I believed, as you say, that people could be changed through literature. I no longer believe that. People can certainly be changed, but not through literature, it would seem. I don't know just why. People read and they seem to change. But the effect is not lasting. Literature does not really seem to incite people to action.
PUCCIANI: Is it perhaps because literature reaches people within their essential solitude?
SARTRE: Yes. There is certainly that. But there is something, for example, in a political meeting—and I do not mean that political meetings are in any way superior to literature!—which has a more lasting effect. Direct political action seems to be more effective than literature. I think it perhaps comes from the fact that we writers don't know too well what we are doing. The situation of the writer today is very strange. Today the writer has more means at his disposal than ever before and yet he seems to count for so little. It's incredible. Today everyone is known; everyone knows each other. A writer of relatively little importance can easily be as famous or more famous than Baudelaire or Flaubert in their time. Look at my own career. I started around 1938 with La Nausée. There had been a few things before; nothing much. Then with La Nausée I had a nice succès d'estime. Now look at what has happened. In a way I should actually have fewer means at my disposal than I do. And yet what does it all amount to? There is a kind of impotence about being a writer today. I think the realization of that is the difference between my position today and my position in 1948.
PUCCIANI: You have mentioned impotence and that brings me to the Séquestrés d'Altona. As I see it, the great theme of the play is "sequestration." But the corollaries of "sequestration" are impotence and power. Do you agree?
SARTRE: Yes, Certainly that is so. But the play is really about torture.
PUCCIANI: It is an engaged play?
SARTRE: Yes. But it is not the play that I really wanted to write. I wanted to write a play about French torture in Algeria. I especially wanted to write about the sort of chap who tortures and who is none the worse for it. He lives perfectly well with what he has done. It never comes out unless he starts boasting some night in a café when he's had a little too much to drink.
PUCCIANI: Why didn't you write that play?
SARTRE: For the simple reason that there isn't a theater in Paris that would have produced it!
PUCCIANI: So you chose to set it in Germany?
SARTRE: Yes. After all, no one is going to contradict me if I say the Nazis committed torture.
PUCCIANI: Would you explain the title of the play to me?
SARTRE: Well, I used to be very fascinated by the "sequestered life." You know the sort of thing I mean. There is a common myth—it was very common in my youth—about the writer or the poet who locks himself up and just writes and writes because he can't help himself. It's his nature to be a writer and that's all there is to it. Of course, I no longer subscribe to that sort of nonsense, but I used to be very fascinated by it. Now I subscribe to the point of view that a writer writes because he has something to say. Anyway … I wanted to show this sort of sequestration in terms of liberation. As you say, the whole theme of the play is sequestration from the beginning. Léni is a séquestrée because she is incestuous. Old Gerlach is the powerful industrialist—un grand bourgeois—who is a séquestré because of his class. Frantz is also a séquestré from the beginning. The first sign that Frantz was really guilty of torture, that he was actually the first to torture, is his reaction to the Jewish prisoners. He was disgusted by their dirt and their degradation rather than revolted by their plight. This is not the sort of reaction to have. You can see from that that he was going in for such abstractions as "human dignity" and that sort of thing.
PUCCIANI: It seems to me that one might say in the final analysis that Frantz was a good man because he committed suicide.
SARTRE: Yes. Provided you say because he committed suicide. Actually, the terms "good" and "bad" have no meaning in history. The more one goes along, the more one realizes that the "good" were "bad" and that the "bad" were "good." It is a sort of mystification. The terms really mean nothing. There is no justice in history. Frantz comes to face what he has done; so does his father. They have to commit suicide. But the production of the play didn't really put the meaning across. Ledoux as old Gerlach wasn't what I intended.
PUCCIANI: With reservations Reggiani was very good.
SARTRE: Yes. With reservations.
PUCCIANI: The recent German production in Essen was apparently quite different. Gerlach was, I gather, much more what you intended. The powerful over-bearing industrialist.
SARTRE: Yes. But that was odd too. The Germans apparently cut out the scene where Frantz eats his medals. You remember, they are made of chocolate. At one point he and Johanna eat them. Very strange. Frantz should—he must—eat his medals.
PUCCIANI: I noticed that. But I thought the German version was an improvement. I didn't at all like that particular scene.
SARTRE: Really? Why?
PUCCIANI: I thought it out of keeping. It was a trick.
SARTRE: How strange. No one has criticized that. It was very successful on the stage.
PUCCIANI: I know. The audience laughed. But I didn't feel they should have.
SARTRE: Oh, but the audience must laugh! I have learned that if you don't give audiences a chance to laugh when you want them to, they will laugh when you don't. Besides, there is no point in some empty gesture like tearing off the medals or that sort of thing. There is no meaning in that. After all, the medals would remain intact. But if Frantz eats them, that means he eats them every day. The medals disappear. They are digested.
PUCCIANI: But what is the point of that?
SARTRE: You forget that we have heroes in France. They must be made to feel the insult that is intended. They must suffer a little for what they represent.
PUCCIANI: I have frequently heard your play criticized as being a drame bourgeois. This strikes me as unfair. I see the first, third and fifth acts as deliberately bourgeois; the "downstairs" reality. But the "upstairs" reality is quite different. That is avant-garde. There are two levels: physical and metaphysical.
SARTRE: Yes. Exactly. That's exactly it. Perhaps not "metaphysical," but still that's it. We must start with the bourgeois world. There is no other starting point. In this sense Existentialism is a bourgeois ideology, certainly. But this is only the starting point. In a different sort of world, theatre itself would be different. So would philosophy. But we have not reached that point. In a society of permanent revolution, theatre, literature would be permanent criticism, permanent contestation. That is a long way off. But it is entirely wrong to call my play a drame bourgeois. Bourgeois drama exists only for the purpose of eliminating the problem it deals with. This is not the case in the Séquestrés. There is an actual liberation in the two suicides. There is no secret mystery that is revealed. There is a dialectic.
PUCCIANI: To come back to the title of the play again, would you tell me just why you chose that title? I mean almost etymologically.
SARTRE: Well, you know what it means. In French a person who shuts himself up or who is shut up is called a séquestré. I don't know if you are familiar with Gide's Souvenirs de la Cour d'assises. Perhaps you recall the Séquestrée de Poitiers?
PUCCIANI: Yes. I wondered if there were an echo of that.
PUCCIANI: Your play is then actually an act of personal engagement?
SARTRE: Yes. Quite. I still believe in engaged literature.
PUCCIANI: Mauriac has said that you are the real séquestré. I wonder what you think about that? Your play reflects your concern for the writer's impotence; his frustration in power.
SARTRE: Well, no. I'm not a séquestré. No one has locked me up and I haven't locked myself up.
PUCCIANI: I once said in an article about you that engaged literature means la litterature au pouvoir. I wonder what you think about that.
SARTRE: Yes. That's correct. As a kind of ideal statement. But one should add immediately that it must be understood that literature will never be given this power. If it were, it would no longer exist. Look at Malraux. This is a great danger for literature. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons for my own evolution in this regard is that I became aware, after 1948, that I was in the process of constructing an ethic for the writer alone. Une morale de l'écrivain. I wanted to get away from that. I wanted to deal with all problems. Not just with the world of the writer.
PUCCIANI: I would like to ask you something about Existential psychoanalysis. I am reminded of this because of Frantz's "madness." Could one not say that Existential psychoanalysis is psychoanalysis for normal people whereas Freud requires a category of the "pathological"?
SARTRE: Certainly Existential psychoanalysis is concerned with normal people. Conventional psychoanalysis as it is practiced today in America and France is a plague. It encloses the individual in his malady. There is no way out.
PUCCIANI: This is somewhat erratic now, but I would like to raise another question of engagement. I have often heard Existential engagement criticized—by my students, for example—on the grounds that it is a doctrine for heroes, I remember one student's asking me: "How can the little people be engaged?"
SARTRE: That is very interesting. Yes. That may be a problem. But I wonder if there is not a difference there between France and the United States. I should imagine that in California, for example, where everything more or less works well …
SARTRE: … yes, badly, well, but it more or less works … I should imagine there would be a lack of cadres for engagement. But this is not true of France. There are many cadres here where a student like the one you mention could find a place for individual action. And I mean both on the Right and on the Left.
PUCCIANI: This brings me to a last question about engagement and the effectiveness of the writer. There is great interest in Existentialism. In California, for example, which is very remote from your world. I wonder if that interest could exist if you had not given literary form to your work?
SARTRE: Literature is certainly very important. Yes, I know what you mean. And I do believe that we must continue to give literary form to our work. It is the writer's only chance, as I have said everywhere. At the same time, literature is not the only way. This should not be taken to mean, however, that literature should not be engaged. I am not offering any alibis. I am less sanguine than I used to be, but I still believe the writer can help—if it is only to prevent the worst from taking place.
Source: Oreste F. Pucciani, "An Interview with Jean-Paul Sarte," in Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 5, No. 3, March 1961, p. 12-18.
Cohen-Solal, Annie, Jean-Paul Sartre: A Life, edited by Cornel West, translated by Anna Cancogni, New Press, 2005.
Coombes, Sam, "The Early Sartre and Ideology," in Sartre Studies International, Vol. 9, No. 1, June 2003, p. 54.
Flynn, Thomas, Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2006.
"Jean-Paul Sartre," in Nobel Prize in Literature 1964, http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1964/sartre-bio.html (accessed July 23, 2008).
Kedward, Roderick, Occupied France: Collaboration and Resistance, 1940-1944, Wiley-Blackwell, 1991.
McManus, Barbara F., "Outline of Aristotle's Theory of Tragedy in the Poetics," in College of New Rochelle CLS 267 Topics Web page, http://www.cnr.edu/home/bmcmanus/poetics.html (accessed July 30, 2008).
Oesterle, J. A., "Poetics (Aristotelian)," in New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., Vol. 11, Thomson Gale, 2003, pp. 433-35.
Sartre, Jean-Paul, The Flies, in No Exit and Three Other Plays, Vintage Books, 1955, pp. 49-127.
Weales, Gerald, "Whatever Happened to Jean-Paul Sartre," in the Hudson Review, Vol. 13, No. 3, Autumn 1960, pp. 465-69.
Williams, Timothy J., "Sartre, Marcel, and The Flies: Restless Orestes in Search of a Cafe," in the Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 3, Spring 2007, p. 376.
Beauvoir, Simone de, Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, translated by Patrick O'Brian, Pantheon, 1984.
Beauvoir's intimate memoir traces her tumultuous relationship with Sartre and tells of Sartre in his final days. She also shows how they shaped one another's ideas and writings over time.
Boyd, Douglas, Voices from the Dark Years: The Truth about Occupied France 1940-1945, History Press, 2007.
This study contains first-person testimonials from French citizens who lived under the German occupation, providing a day-to-day look at life in France from 1940 to 1945.
Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time, translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008.
Heidegger's work was extremely influential on Sartre's philosophies. It is likely that Sartre was familiar with Being and Time, first published in French in 1927. Indeed, the main title of his first major philosophical work Being and Nothingness is too similar to Being and Time to be coincidental.
Sartre, Jean-Paul, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Washington Square Press, 1993.
First published in French in 1943, this book sets forth the foundation of Sartre's existential philosophies and of existentialism as a movement. It informs readings of Sartre's fiction and provides insight into the history of twentieth-century thought.