Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul SartreNovelist, essayist, playwright, and founder of a new school of thought which would become known as Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris on June 21, 1905. After graduating from the Ecole Normale Supérieure in 1929 with a doctorate in philosophy, he served in the French Army from 1929-31. He then served as schoolmaster for several years at Le Havre, Lyon, and Paris. He published his first novel, Nausea, in 1938, and a year later, a volume of short stories entitled The Wall. His literary career, however, was put on hold in 1939 when the French Army was mobilized. He was taken prisoner in June of 1940 and imprisoned in Staleg XIID near Trier. After nine months in the German prison camp, Sartre managed to escape and made his way to Paris where he joined the French Underground.

Somehow, in spite of the German occupation, Sartre managed not only to write another book, but to get two plays produced in the occupied capital. In 1943, Charles Dullin produced Sartre's first play, Les Mouches or The Flies, at the Théâtre de la Cité. In The Flies, Sartre uses the classic Oresteian myth as a vehicle for his existential philosophy. The play revolves around the return of Orestes to his homeland, Argos, several years after the murder of his father at the hands of his mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegistheus. Rejecting the sense of guilt which the murderers have forced upon the people of Argos and established as the state religion, Orestes avenges his fathers death and liberates his homeland. Sartre's political message was clear: do not hesitate to kill not only Germans but also French collaborators if this is the only means of liberating France.

A year later, a company using the once famous Théâtre du Vieux-Columbier produced his second play, a one-act entitled No Exit which tells the story of a demoniacal lesbian, a spoiled society woman, and a cowardly journalist who find themselves trapped in Hell. They are held captive in a single chamber in which they must eternally torment one another with the awareness of their delusions and their failures as human beings. In the end, they come to the realization that "There's no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is--other people!"

Sartre's other plays include The Respectful Prostitute (1946), Dirty Hands (1948), The Devil and the Good Lord (1951), and The Condemned of Altona (1959). In addition to plays, his works include important philosophical works and novels. His awards include the New York Drama Critics Circle Award (1947), Grand Novel Prize (1950), and the Omegna Prize (1960). In 1964, Sartre declined the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in Paris on April 15, 1980.

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Related Sites

French Theatre Index

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