Many critics consider The Flies (Les Mouches) to be Sartre's most effective drama. It deals with commitment and resistance, and the theme of freedom is woven throughout the play's fabric. The play was produced in 1943, during World War II, and Sartre is lauded for having gotten his play past the Nazi censors; although on the surface this is a mythological drama, it is also a political and moral play about the plight of human slavery. Sartre wrote The Flies in keeping with his desire to "put on the stage certain situations which throw light on the main aspects of the condition of man and to have the spectator participate in the free choice which man makes in these situations." The Flies is Sartre's first play, written a year before No Exit, and it gave him his first popular opportunity, via the stage, to communicate his ideas to large groups of people who ordinarily might not have read his other works. This, for Sartre, was the best feature of the theater: It was a tremendous forum for disseminating his thoughts. It was, in the 1940s, the medium which served something of the purpose which television serves today.
The play was produced during the Nazi occupation of France in 1943. It is an actualization of a myth (Oresteian) and came as another French contribution to the long list of Oresteian dramas. The French classical education has often led French playwrights to use Greek and Roman subject matter, and in 1873, the poet Leconte de Lisle wrote a tragedy dealing with Orestes entitled Les Erinnyes. After him, writers discovered the value of using myths to illustrate contemporary problems. This spawned a flow of mythologically inspired dramas, including Cocteau's Antigone (1922), Orphée (1926), and La Machine Infernale (1934); Giraudoux's Amphitryon 38 (1929), La Guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu (1935), and Electre (1937); Anouilh's Eurydice (1941), Antigone (1942), and Médée (1943). The idea of an American actualization of the Electra myth presented itself in Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), and this drama shows that the human aspects of mythology are relevant to the literary expression of any country.
The basic story is this: Orestes returns home after many years' absence and finds that his mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegistheus (her husband in The Flies), have murdered Agamemnon, Orestes' father; they now sit on the throne and have made a slave of Orestes' sister, Electra. She urges her brother to murder them, which he does, and then he is hounded for the rest of his life by the Furies of revenge.
In Sartre's version of the myth, the characters are shown as "being" and "becoming." Some refuse to commit themselves to an action, while others engage themselves forcefully; responsibility is a feature which again is shown to be necessary for escaping life's "nausea," and when the characters reject this responsibility, they are obliged to accept the consequences, in the form of flies. As early as the book of Exodus in the Bible, flies are used as a symbolic plague for punishment: "And there came a grievous swarm of flies into the house of the Pharaoh, and into his servants' houses, and into all the land of Egypt: the land was corrupted by reason of the swarm of flies" (Exodus 8:24). And, in the fifth century B.C., the three great Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides all wrote versions of this myth. Critics have often compared the treatment of the Orestes myth by Sartre with that of Giraudoux: The Flies is less concerned with literary aesthetics than Electre, and Sartre uses it as a vehicle to elaborate his existential principles. He criticized Giraudoux for portraying human essence as a fixed commodity as opposed to the act of becoming, and, in a series of essays on theater, he described what his ideas on the theater were in terms of life's everyday situations:
He was dedicated to a moral theater where there would be conflict in "the system of values, of ethics and of concepts of man" ("Forgers of Myths, The Young Playwrights in France," in Theatre Arts, XXX, June 1946, 324-35).
He rejected the realist theater and the pièce à thèse because man is not generally in a position to make exacting decisions between right and wrong, fact and fiction, moral and immoral, real and ideal.
Theater must be seen as a religious rite where the dialogue should be dignified. There should be "a rigorous economy of words . . . through the pace of the dialogue, an extreme conciseness of statement — ellipses, brusque interruptions, a sort of inner tension in the phrases."
Sartre addressed the issue of choosing one's essence: "Many authors are returning to the theater of situation. No more 'characters'; the heroes are freedoms caught in a trap, like all of us. What are the issues? Each character will be nothing but the choice of an issue and will equal no more than the chosen issue. . . . Each one, by inventing his own issue, invents himself. Man must be invented each day" (Situations III, 293).
He argued that the bourgeois control of the theater must end, that it be freed to the rigors of criticism and challenge from different viewpoints. He stressed the significance of the act, saying that "action, in the true sense of the word, is that of the character; there are no images in the theater but the image of the act, and if one seeks the definition of theater, one must ask what the act is, because the theater can represent nothing but the act" ("Beyond Bourgeois Theatre," translated by Rima Drell Reck, Tulane Drama Review, V, March 1961, 3-11).
These characteristics are integrated into his plays, and each play tends to stress an individual component of his existential system while also underlining the action with his entire ideology. In No Exit, the specific idea stressed is: "Hell is other people"; in The Flies, the principal thought is: Only those people who choose, act, and accept responsibility can be free of "nausea," free of remorse, and free of the flies.