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16 January 2012

Huis Clos on Whitehall

Politicians could do worse than going to see Sartre's play.

By Jonathan Webber

Mainstream political discourse in Britain seems remarkably unconcerned with human fulfilment. Aside from sporadic discussion of marriage, the business of governing seems hardly at all informed by the deep concerns and commitments of the people being governed. Instead it is essentially driven by disagreement over the basic duties of a minimally decent state, the desire to discharge these duties more efficiently, and the goal of supplying employers with the employees they require.

Arguments for altering the structure of our lives to allow us greater opportunity to pursue what matters to us most, regularly put forward by the New Economics Foundation among others, seem perpetually unable to gain a fair hearing. It is as though the priorities of our society have already been set by other people, behind closed doors, and politicians and the public can only debate how to pursue these priorities.

In times of plenty, rising prosperity can distract us from the question of what really matters. In an age of austerity, on the other hand, this question is unavoidable. If spending cuts are to be made, then the discussion of where and how to cut will invite reflection on the kind of lives we want to live. It is no coincidence that protests about particular cuts are often tinged with deeper objections to the way life is currently organised. We should be expecting increased interest in radical political ideas and in the existential concerns that give rise to them.

The arrival of one of Jean-Paul Sartre’s plays at a theatre on Whitehall seems rather timely, therefore. For decades now in Britain, Huis Clos (or No Exit or In Camera) has been confined to fringe festivals and student productions. Yet here for one month at the start of 2012 it is being performed at Trafalgar Studios 2, a major West End theatre tucked in among the corridors of political power. Tickets sold out almost immediately when they went on sale.

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Most of Sartre’s plays apply aspects of his philosophy to particular historical political situations. But the thin historical backdrop of Huis Clos is unashamedly incidental to its exploration of ambition, achievement, self-image, personal relationships, and wider social position as the foundations of each person’s life. It is in the tensions between these, Sartre suggests, that we find what is most important to us.

Despite treating these themes away from any particular political context, the play is not short of political aspects. First performed under the Nazi occupation of Paris, its claustrophobic atmosphere under the incessant constraint of “the others” was taken by many reviewers as an attempt to incite resistance. After the war, public performance was banned in many countries, including Britain, because one of the characters is gay. The current production gives new resonance to the characters’ view that they are in a hell devoid of devils. Since they will inevitably torture one another, they conclude, this is an efficiency saving.

This satirical aspect of the performance is not at all out of place. Sartre’s humour is too often overlooked, making his work seem boringly sombre and ponderous. Sartre himself, however, seems to have understood very well that jokes are not always frivolous. The current production makes good use of Sartre’s wit in the dialogue and the manifest absurdity of the action. This prevents the play appearing as a didactic lecture on how to live, allowing it instead to shine as a rich and suggestive exploration of the interplay between basic dimensions of life.

The underlying logic of the action is allowed to remain puzzlingly and pleasingly ambiguous. This sense of puzzlement is enhanced by the production’s immersive engagement of the audience. The paranoia of the dialogue invites such participation, but the days are long gone when this could be dramatically justified purely by its novelty. In this production, placing the action in the midst of the audience combines with a basement location, background white noise, and even manipulation of the temperature to position the audience sensorily in the world of the play.

Mere spectators could ponder what the action all means for the characters over there on the stage, but this participation brings the characters and their concerns much closer to home. Together with the rounded complexity with which these characters are portrayed, reflection on exactly what these concerns are brings into focus deep questions about what really matters in life.

We are unaccustomed to exploring these questions in our public political discourse. The presence of Occupy outside St Paul’s Cathedral seems to have increased the willingness of leaders of the Church of England, an organisation committed to particular beliefs about what really matters, to draw on their beliefs in public political discussion. But those of us not committed to these beliefs cannot simply ignore the questions they are intended to answer.

For these questions are essential to thinking about the kind of lives we want to live and the kind of society we want to live in. It is high time they were taken seriously in public political debate, especially among those who work in the streets around the theatre currently showing Sartre’s masterpiece.

“Huis Clos” runs at Trafalgar Studios 2, London SW1 until 28 January