Sartre Essay, Research Paper

?Jean Paul Sartre has been described as one of the most controversial of modern French playwrights, and his work is also known extensively outside France.?

Examine the aims of the writer through close exploration of two of his plays.

2nd year/2nd term (31.3.2000) ? B.A. Hons. Acting Studies Essay by Ralph Gassmann

Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris on the 21st of June 1905. He studied at the ?cole Normale and subsequently became a lecturer in philosophy working in provincial secondary schools. His first public major work ?Being and Nothingness? in 1943 established him as a existential philosopher. His plays dominated the stage of post-war France. During World War II he was held prisoner for one year ? this was probably due to his open resistance to the Nazi occupation of France. When the war ended in 1945 he dedicated his time to both writing and editing the journal ?Les Temps Modernes? (Modern Times).

Amongst other work he wrote classics such as ?No Exit? (1947), ?The Devil and the Good Lord? (1951), and ?The Condemned of Altona? (1959). In 1960, he finished his second basic philosophical work, ?Critique of Dialectical Reason?, and in 1964 he went on to be known world-wide for the account of his childhood, ?The Words?. That same year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he refused. Followed in 1971-72, the first three volumes of his detailed study of Flaubert?s life and work were printed. From 1975 Sartre began suffering from failing eyesight and by the end of his life he was to be rendered blind. He died in Paris of oedema of the lungs on the 15th of April 1980. Jean-Paul Sartre was renowned as a philosopher, literary figure, and social critic, and was seen as a famous representative of Existentialism.

From an existentialism point of view man is seen to be full of anxiety and despair, simply existing, until he has made a definite choice about his future ? whilst the philosophy suggests that this is the only way to achieve one?s ultimate in life. Existentialists used social or political causes as a way of giving purpose to an existence. Sartre work (?Th??tre Engage? or ?Theatre Committed?), is therefore revolving around social and/or political actions.

One of Sartre?s best plays displaying his attitude towards God, love and man?s freedom of choice, is undoubtedly ?Le Diable et le Bon Dieu? or ?The Devil and the Good Lord?, which was first performed on the 7th of June 1951 at the ?Th??tre Antoine? in Paris. The hero, Goetz, a bastard who has no proper sense of his identity tries to find a place in the world by becoming absolutely evil ? by comming evil for its own sake. Although he does not really succeed in destroying society, his position as a commander in the army enables him to kill men. His ambition is to weaken the peasant forces and strengthen the power of the princes.

Goetz advised by a priest, that all men are sinners and commit evil deeds, he decides to do the improbable: absolute good. On his own lands, he then founds the ?City of the Sun?, a community where everybody is equal. However, soon he recognises that the peasants actually prefer the old system ? Goetz?s absolutism fails because it disregards human individuality. Although making many sacrifices in his attempt to love men purely, the peasants don?t reciprocate this love. He even looses his battle with the priest selling indulgences because of his failure to realise that to love men, one must accept them with all their weaknesses ? one must communicate at their own level. His vain attempt to prove his love for mankind by kissing a leper turns out to be futile when the leper says: ?Here?s another one who wants to kiss a leper… If it?s for your salvation, I can?t refuse, but be quick about it. You?re all the same; it looks as though God gave me leprosy just to give them the opportunity of going to Heaven. (Goetz goes to embrace him) Not on the mouth! (Kiss) Pouah! (He wipes his face)? (Tableau V, Scene 2).

Whatever Goetz does, good or evil, the end results are the same ? in both cases disasters befall him. Why? Because his actions are made in order to please God, rather than to please man. At the beginning his acts of violence are carried out to contradict God and peasants are suffering by his plundering. However, although thinking of himself as a great destroyer, his anarchistic and evil behaviour destroys nothing of great importance. He is able to kill men but doesn?t succeed in killing society or its bases ? his evil deeds only benefit the prince. Later on in the play he forsakes his evil doings to obey God. The peasants are still doomed to misery with his refusal to organise their revolt, and from his own point of view he merely destroys the human part of himself, obeying divine laws. Whilst trying to do absolute good or evil he only manages to carry on destroying lives.

The entire play centres around man?s relationship with god. From the playwright?s point of view, men who believe in god automatically take on destructive tendencies as they can only rise again from their ruins by destroying themselves. Sartre?s hero even manages to ruin himself to the point of senile dementia. He therefore refers to the bible itself in which we can all read ourselves that God does kill man as surely as the devil does ? because of man?s deviance from the status quo. Finally, Goetz makes the radical decision that God doesn?t exist. This displays Goetz?s major change within the play ? his change of attitude towards humanity! Whilst he formally cherished violence to defy God he later completely abandons it to please God. Finally he discovers that man must engage in violence sometimes and behave peaceably at others and that a man must find his own sense of morality. When he therefore joins the peasant revolt, he even kills one of his officers who refuses to follow him. Between the devil and the Lord he chooses man.

?Les S?questres d?Altona? (The Condemned of Altona), is another of Sartre?s plays that is significant for showing his philosophical/social attitude. It was first performed at the ?Th??tre de la Renaissance? on September 23, 1959. Sartre sets his play, which draws critical attention to France?s policy of keeping Algeria as a part of France, in Germany. Its historical content is a further facade, he had created to prevent the play from being banned. Indeed, Sartre was not necessarily bothered by the play turning out to be a flop or banned, but by setting the play in France, the self-censorship would have interfered before it would have even come to a production and he never would have found anyone to stage it. He wrote his play in such a way that its audience wouldn?t take the Germany of ?The Condemned of Altona? literally ? no one would see the play as a story of a German ex-soldier in 1959 but as a denouncement against the cruelties in Algeria committed by France. Once again, Sartre goes back to his philosophical ideas about the question of free-will, choice and guilt.

His protagonist, Frantz von Gerlach, is a Nazi war criminal who for the past thirteen years has lived in voluntary isolation in his father?s mansion. This was a choice Frantz had made straight after he returned from the polish front in 1946 in order to escape the Nuremberg trials as well as Germany?s post-war agony. Locked away in a windowless room, Frantz refuses to communicate with family members with the exception of his sister Leni with whom he leads a incestuous relationship. Leni supplies him with information regarding crimes committed by the Allies against the German people, however hiding from him the actual truth ? that Germany currently enjoys an economic boom. The actual motivation behind Frantz?s self-imposed isolation is his desperate search for a justification of the acts of violence he carried out as the ?butcher of Smolensk? and clings to a vain hope that this will be found in the perpetuation of Germany?s post-war agony. Whilst engaging this fantasy he demands from Leni reports of Germany?s continued destruction. The price he ?pays? for this is incest. Therefore, Frantz attempts to escape from bad faith whilst persuading Leni?s madness permitting her only to make love to a von Gerlach.

During these thirteen years Gerlach?s father, now suffering from throat cancer, has only six months to live and tries in vain to contact his eldest son. In his despair to contact his son he creates an ingenious plot to force Frantz out of his reclusion. Von Gerlach demanded the return of his younger son, Werner, and his wife to the family mansion in Altona (Hamburg) to be within his sphere of power. As a businessman who by now has given up his conscience in favour of economic success, von Gerlach represents Sartre?s ?chief?. As Sartre explains ?Frantz?s father is in the image of those German industrialists whom the journals and magazines used to baptise ?giants who have reconstructed Germany? while in fact they helped Hitler try to destroy it. They are the same people.?1

To end Frantz?s incarceration von Gerlach persuades Johanna to infiltrate his son?s ?upstairs world? and inform him that Germany has now reached a level of previously unknown prosperity, destroying Leni?s lies and proving to Frantz how useless his escape from bad faith is. To bribe Johanna into carrying out this act, her father-in-law offers to make her husband, Werner, the head of his shipbuilding company ? therefore humiliating Werner and underlining his mediocrity and obedience. Johanna realises what life for Werner and herself would become if she accepted. He would have to endure Leni?s cynical sadism and his brother?s madness in order to free Werner and herself and enable them to return to Hamburg where Werner was once a successful lawyer. Johanna co-operates with her father-in-law and enters Frantz?s ?upstairs world? using Leni?s signal. She then confronts him engaging the final meeting between father and son.

According to Sartre himself, the whole play centres around the ?problem of filial and paternal love?2 or, as I interpret it, with man?s relationship with the absolute ? and the final scene between father and son sets the stage for them to realise that they are both guilty of errors. It is true to say that Frantz is the one person his father truly loved because he sees him as the reincarnation of himself. Frantz?s passion for power is actually that of his own father. This can be compared to God creating man in his own image ? presuming there is such a God. How much choice did Franz have during the war? Was he forced into committing the crimes he did? Was he manipulated by his father as he collaborated with the Nazi regime ? wasn?t he the product of the ?standard? German upbringing of a boy in these times? Again Sartre makes you believe, that man is fundamentally free and therefore makes the decisions to take which ever course of actions he chooses. In the case of this play, Frantz chose to commit the crimes he did as the ?butcher of Smolensk? himself and nothing can justify that fact. For thirteen years he avoided accepting his responsibility, but now realises that he must face up to his guilt. For Frantz and his father suicide seems to be the only option: Frantz could escape prosecution and end his guilt and his father?s battle with throat cancer would be over. Frantz realises he has never been anything but a pawn in a game he never understood along with all the other pawns who?s freedom is decided by a system their ancestors created. Frantz?s last despairing cry ?J?ai ?t?, (I have been or lived), is the final irony.

It seems to me that both of these works read more like philosophy essays than conventional plays. It may be well be, that Sartre himself always thought of his plays as writing rather than stage material. Indeed, when I read Altona for the first time after I had seen it as a production at the ?Schauspielhaus Zurich?, it was obvious that these philosophical and political enterprises were clearer in reading than in the performance itself which has surely to do with the complexity of Sartre?s attitude. In either way, Sartre?s plays are an important part of the literary history of the last century as his dramatic skills manifest themselves in producing dramas which can interest those who have no knowledge of his philosophical view.


1 Interview published in ?Les Lettres Fran?aises?, September 17, 1959

2 Interview published in ?Le Figaro?, September 11, 1959

further readings

?Jean-Paul Sartre ? Philosophy in the World?

by Ronald Aronson

? Ronald Aronson, 1980

published by NLB and Verso Editions, London

?The Work of Sartre ? Volume One?

by Istvan Meszaros

? Istvan Meszaros, 1979

published by The Harvester Press Limited, Brighton

?Camus and Sartre ? Critical Appraisals?

by Germaine Bree

? General Editors Foreword, 1972, 1974

published by Calder and Boyars

?Hope Now: The 1980 Interviews?

Jean-Paul Sartre and Benny L?vy

?/published by The University of Chicago Press, 1996

?Der Teufel und der liebe Gott?

?/written by Jean-Paul Sartre

translation by Uli Aum?ller

published b Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH, Reineck bei Hamburg

?The Devil and the Good Lord; and two other plays?

?/written by Jean-Paul Sartre

published by Vintage Books, 1962

?Die Eingeschlossenen von Altona?

?/written by Jean-Paul Sartre

published by Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH, Reineck bei Hamburg

?The Condemned of Altona; Men without Shadows; The Flies?

?/written by Jean-Paul Sartre

published by Penguin, 1962



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