“Hell is other people!” bellows Garcin in the revealing climax of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, a 1944 abstract existentialist play that highlights man’s most terrible qualities. The Boston College theatre department’s latest production delivers all of the fire and fury of a psychological hell while punctuating the piece with perfectly timed bouts of humor and tragedy.
No Exit tells the story of four characters’ journey through hell and the dirty deeds that landed them an eternity of misery. The driver of the action of the play is a valet, played by Hal Knowlton, MCAS ’21, who locks three wretched souls in an inescapable room and watches from offstage as they slowly unravel. He is the first to enter the room and theatrically removes the covers from the furniture, eagerly preparing for his guests’ arrival. Knowlton metaphorically describes his character’s role as setting up two incompatible friends on a blind date and “showing up at the diner” to watch them “drive each other crazy.”
Garcin, a journalist at a WWII-era pacifist paper in Rio de Janeiro, is the first to be escorted by the unsettling valet into the stone-walled room, which contains just three chairs, a bronze statue, and a knife. Played by Grant Whitney, MCAS ’21, Garcin’s response to the lack of chains, whips, and burnt flesh is humorous at first, as he fires an unrelenting round of questions at the devilish valet. Garcin’s tone shifts, however, when he realizes he is subject to an eternity with no rest—the lights are always on in hell. Despite noticeably recoiling when touched by the menace, Garcin frantically pounds on the door when left alone.
Inez and Estelle, played by Nicole Hayes, MCAS ’20, and Isabel Litterst, MCAS ’21, respectively, are then ushered into the room. While Inez enters in a panicked state, calling the name of her dead girlfriend out into what she does not yet know is a void of endless pain, Estelle enters with many questions and complaints about the furniture. Estelle’s concern with superficial matters reflects her vanity—she also breaks down when she discovers there are no mirrors for her to use to fix her lipstick in the room.
The student performers detailed their process for achieving convincing entrances into hell on stage. Just before entering the room through the door on center stage, the actors imagine dying. Each thespian gets in the headspace of their character and tries to mimic their emotion as much as possible. Whitney imagines he is sent to his own execution by electric chair, although Garcin dies after being shot 12 times in the chest. Inez dies when her girlfriend turns on the gas stove while they sleep, effectively suffocating both of them in the dead of the night. Meanwhile, Estelle spends her final hours in a diseased daze and eventually dies from pneumonia.
Knowlton’s process is slightly different than that of Whitney, Hayes, and Litterst, who all play human characters that experience an actual death. Rather than picturing himself confronted with mortality, Knowlton prefers quiet contemplation. The valet plays the role of a satanic being in this version of hell, a role that presents both physical and mental challenges for the actor. Because Garcin describes the valet as “unblinking” in Sartre’s script, Knowlton is not allowed to blink on stage for up to 20 minutes at a time. Combined with his smug smile, Knowlton’s ability to remain wide-eyed on stage makes for a very sinister appearance.
Despite Estelle’s qualms about the dreary set, student director Kylie Fletcher, MCAS ’18, detailed the significance of each piece on stage in an interview. Fletcher discussed how the set was updated to convey her vision for the play to a modern audience. While a 1940s audience would easily find the set’s Second Empire style chairs too ugly to spend an eternity with, Fletcher also took from the brutalist style of architecture that moderns find unattractive today to create the walls and floors, citing O’Neill Library as an example of a brutalist eyesore.
Because Sartre incorporates both philosophy and psychology in the abstract piece, Fletcher had to be creative to convey the memories of Earth the characters recall throughout their time in the grey brick room. Stage manager Meg Ellis, MCAS ’20, is in charge of the sound and lighting cues during the show, and she discussed how the production team managed to give the audience a peek into the characters’ most private thoughts. Each time a character experiences a flashback, a certain color lighting pervades the stage to convey the singularity of the experience. Light music, whispers, and other sound effects are paired with the lighting to allow the audience to have the same experience as the characters when they are eavesdropping on Earth. Additionally, each character’s chair in the room is the same color as the light that accompanies their memories. While Ellis’s primary objective is that the audience enjoys the theatrical experience, she also hopes the hard work and intentional effort behind the scenes does not go unnoticed.
While Estelle is perched on her blue settee, she is suddenly struck by a vision of Earth where she sees a past suitor canoodling with a woman named Olga. The color blue illuminates the small stage as she stares into the distance, falling deeper and deeper into despair as she realizes she is losing her ties to her past life. Meanwhile, Garcin’s memories and visions are accompanied by a green light and Inez’s by red.
From the moment Inez enters the room, she immediately clashes with Garcin. While Inez is an independent and rambunctious woman, Garcin displays a violent misogyny during both verbal and physical confrontations with the female characters. Hayes describes her character as “confrontational” but with “little windows into her vulnerability,” a combination she hopes an audience will relate to.
“Everyone puts [on] a face,” Hayes said.
While Fletcher hopes the theatergoers can relate to the characters, there are certain aspects of the French play an American audience may find unfamiliar. The script is a British translation that contains a few colloquial terms that may sound strange to an American ear. There are French cultural references that are largely inaccessible to those unaware of the history between France and Brazil—in France, Brazilian men have a negative “machismo connotation” according to Fletcher. That may explain why Sartre depicts Garcin’s character as brutish and overly masculine. The audience learns of Garcin’s violent tendencies toward women and of his history of unapologetically cheating on his devoted wife. In a candid moment of self-reflection, Garcin reveals he would often bring women to the home the couple shared and his loyal wife would serve the impolite lovers their morning coffee.
However, Garcin’s character is much more complex than he appears. Whitney describes Garcin as an “asshole” who uses his masculinity and brutishness as a veil for his cowardice—Garcin is murdered because he avoided serving in the army during WWII, an act that is punishable by death in his home country. Much like Inez, Garcin’s soul is unmasked during his time in hell, and this proves to be a much more unsettling experience than physical torture for the guarded individual.
Despite her physical beauty, Estelle possesses the ugliest soul in the play. She describes her past, in which she marries young to a wealthy older man, only to meet her soulmate while betrothed to someone else. When the younger, more handsome man impregnates Estelle, she is devastated. After going to Switzerland to have the baby in secret, she drops the baby girl into the cold lake below her balcony to release herself from the burden of motherhood. Her overtly materialist views cause her to refuse to raise a family with a poor, unsuccessful man. Although Estelle’s egregious actions make her seem despicable in the worst way, Litterst believes the troubled character will find redemption in the fact that she really only seeks attention and support due to her hard past and yearning to be loved.
Throughout the play, Estelle constantly seeks validation from Garcin and makes multiple attempts to seduce the man. This impetuous pursuit creates a massive power struggle between the characters, as Inez tries to divide the two to drive Garcin insane and Estelle tries to give herself leverage over the aggressive Inez by capturing the love of Garcin. Ultimately, Garcin gives into temptation and shares a steamy makeout session with Estelle, a scene that Whitney joked he was not to excited for his mother to witness in the crowd.
As the characters dive deeper into their inescapable, troubled minds, the valet watches from the audience. He creeps up unannounced and pierces the audience and cast members with his unwavering stare, creating a remarkably eerie feeling in the room. While the valet may come off as unrelatable, Knowlton believes the concept of reveling in others’ pain is comparable to watching reality television—to some extent, everyone finds comfort in the problems of others.
All four actors were tasked with assuming an uncomfortable role in some way. Each performer had to convey egregious character traits that manifest themselves to a limited extent during life on Earth. Despite the heavy content of Sartre’s existentialist masterpiece, the backstage area was bursting at the seams with lighthearted banter and uplifting support prior to the production’s dress rehearsal last week. Knowlton joked the production’s theme song is “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC and Hayes recalled the time the entire production broke out in a spur-of-the-moment rendition of Kanye West’s “Gold Digger.” Contrary to what one might expect after tearing each other apart on stage rehearsal after rehearsal, the cast of No Exit exhibited a genuine comradery off the stage.
The climax of the play is reached when the three damned souls are finally able to open the door through which they all entered an indeterminate amount of time before. Despite desperately looking for an escape for the duration of their time in hell, Garcin, Estelle, and Inez can’t seem to leave their quaint quarters. Perhaps the fear of what lies beyond the door cripples the poor souls from escaping, but more likely, the characters have realized that no matter their physical location in the underworld, there is no escape from the guilty conscience brought about by their earthly injustices.
Featured Image by Kristin Saleski / Heights Staff