As the January cold settled in, and students enclosed themselves in their dorm rooms, the Boston College Theatre Department debuted No Exit. The play ran from January 26-28 in the Bonn Studio—a space that became, for the weekend, a glimpse into Hell.
This absurdist hallmark was written by Jean-Paul Sartre in Nazi-occupied France. A note in the BC program emphasizes the “paranoia of German control and coercion” as influential factors in the play’s psychology. Certainly, there’s a healthy dose of both paranoia and coercion, as well as desperation and nearly every vice or failing a person is capable of. The scant cast (four characters) needs many sins to work with, if they’re going to represent the entire human race.
For those who haven’t seen or read No Exit (or who think January is depressing enough as it is), the setting is fairly simple. Three recently deceased characters are locked in a small room for all of eternity—their personal Hell, attended to by a valet who never blinks. Unsurprisingly, the three damned souls don’t make great company for one another—a Brazilian war deserter, a devious postal clerk, and a murderous society woman aren’t fast friends. The rising tensions culminate in that quotable line, “Hell is other people!”
It’s a sentiment that stays with you, though most sentences that begin with, “Hell is…” tend to make that impression. But Sartre’s line doesn’t quite remove personal responsibility. The war deserter (an abusive coward), the postal clerk (a jealous manipulator) and the society woman (a naive adulteress) arrive in Hell because of the self-centered or self-destructive lives they’ve lived. For No Exit to say, “Hell is other people” isn’t the same as saying, “Other people put me in Hell.” Rather, each character has, through their own actions, made it Hell for themselves to interact with their fellow human beings.
If this theme continues to weigh on the minds of audience members, more so has it affected the students who produced the play. Director Kylie Fletcher (MCAS ’18) explains, “Whenever you’re working on something…it encompasses your entire life and anything you do. …I’ve definitely been a lot more cognizant of how I talk to people…because these people are so nasty to each other. Well, why do they have to be that way? It doesn’t make sense.”
Actress Isabel Litterst (MCAS ’21), who played the murderous socialite, was challenged to encourage audience empathy for her character. She says, “A big thing that helped me with that was finding the vanity that she has, because [that’s] something everyone can relate to. Just finding her nastier side from that really deep hurt.”
Even the role of Hell’s valet, who is sometimes interpreted as a demon or Satan, carried lessons in it. Besides learning how to keep from blinking, Hal Knowlton (MCAS ’21) found his character had a surprisingly familiar view of human suffering.
“I think the way Satan views his victims, is…akin to how people will watch reality TV,” he said. “[It’s] getting some form of enjoyment out of just watching [people’s] interactions. …There will be a lot of people fighting. And it’s interesting. …I felt that Satan has a similar reaction to that. …It’s just kicked up a notch.”
I believe Sartre would enjoy these observations, as the intentions of absurdist writers wasn’t to distance themselves from reality, but to better express it. When it comes to plays like No Exit, such similarities are warning signs. The moment we start to relate to damned souls or even demons (and that moment came for every member of the audience) we ought to take a step back.
Buy your ticket and watch this play with a wary eye—absurdity often shares a door with the real world.