Monday, September 28, 2015

Sartre, Wilder and Death

Review of Wilder's 'Our Town' is here.

Review of Sartre's 'No Exit' is here.

I pulled both of these plays off the shelf almost at random.  I'd read 'Our Town' some twenty years ago but hadn't read 'No Exit' before.  Both are striking in different ways but they share a similarity in how they deal with being dead.  The third act of 'Our Town' takes place in a cemetery and is (mostly) peopled by the dead talking about the living.  'No Exit' features three dead people trapped in a room together making each other miserable.  But both are very, very different.

How the dead interact with life - In 'Our Town', the newly dead are seated in the spots of their graves.  They are calm and distant.  When the living come, they are aware but not excited.  Their survivors aren't very important any more, nor is the world that is still going on.  In fact, the main lesson learned is that the living don't appreciate just how good being alive is.  This is presented without envy.  If anything, it's presented with pity and remorse.
In 'No Exit', the newly dead still have some connection to the lives they've led but only until they are forgotten.  As soon as that happens, all connection is severed and they are cut off from that experience.  When that happens, it is somewhat tragic as then they are truly stuck in a room.  There is nothing calm about their demeanor.

How the dead interact with each other - 'No Exit' famously ends with the line that 'hell is other people'.  The three are trapped with each other for only about an hour in the play and they make each other miserable.  They find faults and they pick at them.  They will quickly drive each other crazy.  Forever.
Meanwhile, in 'Our Town', the residents of Grover's Corners can idly sit together without any problems.  They have the attitude of people sitting and visiting after church, which no doubt they did many, many times while still alive.  No one seems all that bothered, and this includes a man who was a drunkard that hung himself.

What they do - Wilder's cast can sit forever without problems.  In fact, the only thing that I can imagine they'd miss is having something to do.  If I was staging this, the women would be knitting while the men were endlessly whittling or something. 
The cast of 'No Exit' fret, but it's harder to imagine what they'd be doing to keep busy.  The women are veterans of countless dinner parties but these clearly aren't friendly affairs.  Their knives are ever at hand.  The man is a newspaper man, who lives by thinking and writing.  He'd be just as bored with knitting and if you offered him a chance to whittle, he'd try to kill himself with a knife.

Their intended audience - It's no exaggeration to say that 'Our Town' is very American, while 'No Exit' is very French.  It's hard to think of a switch between them.  'Our Town' wouldn't play to raves in Paris and 'No Exit' would not be a terribly popular high school play.  (Well, maybe with the students, but not with their parents.)  They both contain philosophical truths, but one invites after-play discussion over wine and cigarettes, the other over a burger and malt.  (Though come to think of it, the two plays would make a fascinating double feature or mash-up!)

These are both fine, fine plays.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Reading for October

Only one:

Melville: Moby Dick link 

It's a biggie but well worth it.  (If you want to shorten it, you can scan the chapters that deal with the technical details of whales.)

Friday, September 18, 2015

Links to the Past

Is the Earth really round? link

Denouncing the Classics link

Father of History link

Harry Potter and ... (Existential Comics) link

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

No Exit - Sartre (69)

This is about another play from the 100 Drama series.

'No Exit' opens with a man being shown a simple room by a valet.  The valet explains that there is no need for food or sleep anymore.  The room will be closed and the only means of communicating will be with a bell that is capricious in its operation.  The man asks about the upcoming torture but there are no instruments of torture or a torturer in evidence.  We come to understand that the man is dead and he believes he is in hell.
Two women join him and they each expect torture.  They talk and discover that none of them knew each other while they were living.  Each of them feels strong guilt about actions when they were alive.  All of them suspect that one of the others is a spy of some sort and the torture will soon begin.  They distrust each other.
But they also want comfort and love.  They want reassurances that they weren't awful people while alive.  They want to know that they are still lovable and desirable.  However, they can't seem to find some easy state that allows the others to be happy.  Slowly it dawns on them that they will torture each other.  The play observes that 'hell is other people'.

I'd never read this before.  The message is simple and powerful: we make our own lives, and the lives of people around us, miserable.  Sartre doesn't offer any relief from this and perhaps he doesn't believe there is any.  While reading it, I couldn't help but think that it wouldn't be too hard for me to pick people that would make eternity hell for me.  (Certain former co-workers came to mind.)  In fact, if I was trapped in a room with two other people for all time, I don't know if there would be any possible two that would keep it from becoming hell.  What an exquisite torture Sartre has thought of.

The play is a bit of a gimmick but I don't think that is much of a strike against it.  The illusion that you must accept is a solid one and the rules are easy to grasp.  Staging this play would be relatively easy and the cast is only four people.  I don't have a feel for the popularity of the show.  It really doesn't scream for a wide audience.  I bet it made an impact though.
'No Exit' is a play that I will think about for some time.  That's what it aimed for and it struck that target hard.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Our Town - Thornton Wilder (71)

Since I'm not doing much of the actual reading for the Great Books list, I thought I'd at least dip my toe back into the 'Drama 100' list and read some plays.  To recap for those joining the broadcast midstream, there is a book called 'Drama 100' which ranks the best stage plays 1-100.  Last year I thought that I'd be able to get through about one a month and that would serve as a supplement to the Great Books list.  That schedule proved impossible to hit so I thought I would do some here and there. 
Next month, the Great Books list gives us 'Moby Dick' and that will put me back on track (hopefully for the next five plus years).

Thornton Wilder's 'Our Town' is unique.  It's called the 'most performed play in America' so you may be familiar with it already, but just in case you aren't, here is what you need to know.  The play is performed with a fairly bare stage.  There is no set.  Only furniture that is moved around to suggest various places.  The story is narrated by the Stage Manager who constantly breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the audience. 
The setting is a small New England town in the early part of the 20th century.  It's a good town and most (but notably not all) are very happy with it.  The first act introduces us to the town and some of its people, most notably the couple we will follow throughout Emily and George.  They are about the same age and have literally grown up next door to each other.
The second act is titled 'Love and Marriage' and it shows the their wedding day.  We get an extended flashback to the time when they first realized they were in love.  The entire thing is sweet and authentic.  The third act deals with death and has a poignant message about living each day.  The dead can't help but wonder how the living fail to see each day as a miracle.  The message is interesting and well told. 
It's not hard to see why the play is widely done.  The staging is simple and inexpensive.  The cast can be fairly small or fairly large, depending on what size you want.  The story is well done and has moments of profundity.  Their are a few roles that budding actors can really get their teeth into.  This is a staple of American high schools.

I studied this play while I was in high school and haven't read it since.  Back then I read it (at least once) and saw it performed both professionally and by friends in school.  I remembered liking it and that's still true.  My enduring memory was of the bare set.  I didn't remember much of the story at all.  I was pleasantly surprised, especially with the depth of the third act.  This is a fine, fine play.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Links to the Past

Plato's Cave, animated link

In praise of shorter Great Books link

Taylor Swift Socratic Dialogue link

Translating 'Wimpy Kid' into Latin link 

What is a sandwich?   A Platonic approach link

Star Trek: but instead of normal, it's with philosophers (Existential Comics) link

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Reading for September

Just in case any followers out there are doing better than me lately...

Hume: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding link
Kant: A Critique of Pure Reason (prefaces, introduction, transcendental aesthetic) link