The inescapably French philosopher, playwright, screenwriter, novelist, political activist and critic Jean-Paul Sartre died in 1980. But his distinctive, ineludible 20th century ideas — Existentialism and the ever-conflicting glories of the left — have remained as examined, thrashed about and cautiously celebrated as they ever were during his own time.
Here in New York, meanwhile, a company called Nutshell Productions is mounting what could well be the umpteenth revival of Sartre’s play No Exit, running at the Times Square Arts Center (300 W. 43rd St., 4th Fl.) through Dec. 6. The production, directed by Robert Haufrecht, translated by Samuel Gilbert, features Richard Hymes-Esposito, Geraldine Johns, Karen Giordano and Etienne Navarre playing the characters caught in Sartre’s keen underworld of the mind.
And we are proud, here at the Clyde Fitch Report, to announce a scoop: an interview with the dead playwright himself. It was, shall we say, a very long-distance call, but as you will see, Sartre is as feisty and maddening as ever. (Thanks as well to Haufrecht for facilitating the discussion.)
For tickets to No Exit, visit www.noexittheplay.com.
And now, 5 questions Jean-Paul Sartre has never been asked — and a bonus question.
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Do the words I write express my thoughts? This appears as a simplistic question, but no, it is not. It is why there are misunderstandings in the world. You see, when a person speaks the same words, one absorbs the impact of that person, the sound, the volume, the emotion, if any. And, of course, it is different with each person. Therefore, I am required to, shall we say, paint with more words, often, to express the thoughts I wish to convey. Both before and after. And, of course, even thoughts mutate from time to time.
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I don’t believe questions are idiotic. Even this one. What would the world be if we restricted questions?
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Again, I don’t regard a question as weird. Perhaps certain acts by certain people under unusual circumstances could possibly be considered weird. Or, say, the concept that weapons capable of destroying whole cities and millions of lives will keep the world safe. Perhaps, that is weird.
4) No Exit is perhaps your most popular work. How is Robert Haufrecht’s production different from any other? If you were alive today, is there anything about the play — any element, moment, line — you would write differently?
Well, first of all, my knowledge of English is limited. If it weren’t, I would have translated it myself. Every production is different by virtue of different actors with their sensibilities, different directors with theirs. I have witnessed different sets that affect the tone. Mr. Haufrecht has a sense of the backgrounds of these three individuals and how they relate to the war, the occupation and the resistance. Of course, it is a different time and not everyone brings that knowledge into being. My audience in Paris in 1944, indeed, had a very different perspective. Mr. Haufrecht keeps that perspective in mind, but also ilicits the inherent humor. Yes, there is humor. And, well, the music he chooses to introduce the first moment is, shall we say, unexpected.
5) How would you explain Existentialism to the past few generations, for whom the shell-shocking experience of World War II, if they know of it at all, is a distant memory? What was life like before the war and the Bomb? Had those things never come to pass, would you still have been writer? Oh — and what is it like to be dead?
No, I cannot explain Existentialism in a brief answer. First of all, you reveal your age in that we Europeans had already experienced World War I. Perhaps that was the greater of shocks, truly a cataclysmic break between the 19th and 20th centuries. I was a writer before the advent of World War II, so… Would my writing be different? Well, of course. The world would be different. Perhaps the nuclear age would never have come to pass. Though I am told man has never regressed as to the development of weaponry. What is it like being dead? The same as before I was born.
6) In 2009 — and again, as you’re answering this question from the perspective of being dead — what, exactly, is hell?
Hell is not for the dead, but for the living. Yes, I am still an atheist.