Critical Essays Sartre's Dramatic Formula


Sartre's early plays reflect a formula which he described in a 1940 essay entitled "Forgers of Myth"; in this essay, he analyzes the French drama of the Occupation and of the post-war period. He advocates a particular type of drama, one which is short and violent and which is centered entirely around one event. It should be a "conflict of rights, bearing on some very general situation — written in a sparse, extremely tense style, with a small cast not presented for their individual characters but thrust into a conjunction where they are forced to make a choice — in brief, this is the theater, austere, moral, mythic, and ceremonial in aspect, which has given birth to new plays in Paris during the Occupation and especially since the end of the war."

Sartre's plays are characteristically classical in structure, adhering to traditional unities (time, place, action) and maintaining a fast, non-stop pace. These are not the plays of a romantic or wistful soul; rather, they fairly burst with naturalistic reality and offer the spectator a cold, often brutal encounter with Sartre's Weltanschauung (world view). There is little color or profusion of emotion; it is a stark universe peopled with characters who represent various "types" in Sartre's thinking: good faith, bad faith, rocks, animals, and so on. It has often been called a "black and white" theater, one in which actions are right or wrong, acceptable or condemnable, heroic or cowardly. But traditional value judgments do not apply here: While there are good and bad actions, these adjectives refer more to their philosophical principle than to their moral quality.

There is much ground for comparison between the works of Sartre and the Absurdists. Sartre and Albert Camus, for example, shared many ideological viewpoints and brought to their plays, novels, and essays similar reactions concerning the universe.

But the differences are also worth noting. The epithet "absurd" is vague and often misleading. It is used to describe the works of such varied writers as Camus, Beckett, Ionesco, Adamov, Genet, and Albee, yet the systems at work in these dramatists are unique to the writers, and even within the works of one writer, the ideas change and evolve radically. Therefore, it is of no value to apply the term "absurd" to the works of Sartre since he is, at best, peripheral to this "school" of drama. The absurdists, for the most part, concentrate on the irrationality of human experience. They do not suggest a path beyond this lack of rationality, and they show how cause-effect relationships deteriorate into chaos. Their dramatic structure mirrors this causal impossibility and focuses on the sense of absurdity in an irrational world. Sartre, on the other hand, begins with the assumption that the world is irrational.

The idea of rationalism did not interest him: What was the point, he thought, of battling with ideas which led nowhere? Who cared whether there was — or whether there was not — rationalism in the world; more important, he judged, was the concept of freedom and choice — and even more significant was the idea of creating an order out of the chaos.

So while the absurdists concentrated on the lack of order, Sartre narrowed in on the construction of order. The former were more interested in showing the absence of cause-effect situations, while Sartre demonstrated the need for making responsible choices which would effect a life based on freedom from "nausea."