SARTRE at the Questors Theatre

The man I fell in love with: The philosopher, the activist, the metaphysician, the rebel in action. Sartre addressing the World Peace Congress. Moscow 16 July 1962

It has been exactly 110 years since the birth of one of the world’s greatest thinkers. Jean-Paul Sartre was a polemicist, a metaphysician of subjectivity, a fearless political activist, a believer in revolutionary humanism, an intellectual force that shaped our perception of Existence and Essence after the Second World War.

When, as woman author, I approached the vastness of the Sartrean corpus I was temptingly intimidated. Do I write this under the guise of a man? Do I write it pretending that I am Sartre? I didn’t. I made the decision to write SARTRE as a woman who is the eye that looks. And a woman’s eye that looks can only be one thing and that is anarchic. No woman inside the bounds of permissibility is allowed the gaze; therefore one who commands it can only do it outside of the policing stare of acceptability and this is where Sartre and I meet. Our unease with unquestioned authority and our belief in an ontology of political existence and a metaphysics of actionable freedom is what brought us together.

SARTRE is a play about freedom. As Sartre himself would put it, the tragedy of our own endless freedom which we all seem ill-equipped to handle. There is no better paradigm to show the confines of human freedom than a philosopher in action. Sartre was the rock and roll man of philosophy: the ugliness of his exterior, the passion with which he engaged with politics and ideology, the fierce loyalty to his principles, his outspokenness, his religious attachment to Simone De Beauvoir, his unbridled sexuality make him an irresistible dramatic character. The play is not biographically loyal to source; it does however use historical events and elements of Jean-Paul Sartre's philosophy of Existentialism to take us on a journey of the limitations of being of human.

Sartre was always an Existentialist. Many attempts, including his own semi-autobiographical attempt, Les Mots which won him the Nobel Prize for Literature, have been made to trace the beginnings of Sartrean Existentialism. Raised by his adoring grandfather, High School Headmaster, Charles Schweitzer and his very young mother, Anne-Marie, Jean-Paul was educated at home by Schweitzer until he was eleven and was admitted at the École Normale Supérieure in 1924. His personal journey traced through the Phenomenology of his tutor, Edmund Husserl marks the beginnings of Sartre’s refocusing philosophy on the workings of subjective consciousness in a partly Cartesian and partly Kantian project. Sartre easily married Phenomenology with the emergent and fashionable Existentialism, an antidote to Positivism, an open invitation to man to allow himself to desire to be God: a quest forever frustrated. And it is precisely in this perpetual deferral, this constant anguish of being aware of our limitations in legislating our own worldly existence, where lies our capacity for self-definition. “Man” says Sartre, “is nothing else but that which he makes of himself”. Sartrean Existentialism puts man in possession of himself and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his shoulders. This is the most frightening concept, the most colossal responsibility, the very heart of Existence which for Sartre is and comes before Essence. No excuses. No determinism. No love. No love apart from the deeds of love.

The play begins in 1962 when Jean-Paul Sartre embarks on a dangerous flirtation with Communism in the light of the post-Stalinist era. Khrushchev's Soviet Union was a mild version of its Stalinist past but Sartre had already positioned himself at the heart of the Stalinist argument. And then, he collided head-on with his biggest flaw: he fell in love with a KGB spy. Lena Zonina represents the catalyst through which he will live the next decade of his life. He will get down on one knee and ask for her hand in marriage. He will dedicate the Critique of Dialectical Reason to Madame Z, a union of their two surnames, Zartre. He will even upset Simone De Beauvoir to an extent he had never done before. He will then have to deal with the fact that Lena Zonina chooses the USSR over Paris. He will be a changed man at the end of this escapade, the Father of Existentialism, possibly the most influential figure in Philosophy after Georg Hegel.

Today we are facing the real threat of Nationalism overtaking the European continent. Libertarians are free to be libertarians but you can't fail to notice that the narrative of Stalin's USSR and Hitler's Hadamar are more and more present in people's attitudes in a way unseen for decades. SARTRE imperts to us the aesthetics of dogma and humanitarianism but through the lens of an optimistic outcome. We have survived. It hurts but we will survive again. Not without sacrifice.

I wrote SARTRE as a woman playwright, without putting my male armour on. The female aesthetic is very particular and it is rarely given the opportunity to politicise itself. An anti-authoritarian female politics in theatre, outside of the more specified somatic approaches, is even rarer. Let us consider the utopic hypothesis that anarchism is the abolition of the State’s policing gaze, the eradication of institutionally dominant bodies, the total obliteration of Establishment politics and supremacist causes. Despite the complexities of these theories, Sartre fuses Marxism with his Existentialism as dialectically requiring one another for a totalising understanding of human reality. Sartre’s Marxism develops within his full awareness of the crushing of the aspirations of the individual by Marxism’s historical outcome that was Communism. He shouts against the butchering of thousands during the Hungarian uprising in ’55; he isn’t afraid to confront Khrushchev over the massacres committed in the Soviet Gulag; the list is endless. Sartre humanises Marxism into an Existentialist Anarchism, espoused in his support of the Algerian and Cuban causes, his anti-colonial activism but also his refusal ever to join the French Communist Party declaring “Les Communistes ont peur de la Révolution”.

His anarchic kudos lies in the fact that he is not afraid to synthesise nor accept the transformative accomplishments of existence on man’s essence. He is not afraid to weave his Marxism, the social theory of ideological superstructures into Existentialism which is very much an extreme form of individualism. Sartre would have a right go at me if I were to say this in front of him but you can be sure I wouldn’t shy away from a fight with one of the world’s finest heavyweights.
SARTRE is here to remind us that "L'homme est condamné à être libre".

We must take this very seriously. With his irresistible smoker's voice and his unrepentant sexiness, Sartre shows us the danger but also the limitlessness of our endless freedom.

SARTRE directed by Michael Langridge will be presented as a Staged Reading at the Questors Theatre in Ealing on 1 August before embarking on a future life, the details of which we shall shortly let you know about.

(c) Effie Samara 2015

Sartre is played by Paul Collins. Simone de Beauvoir most ably delivered by Caroline Bleakley. Lena Zonina is played by Jananne Rahman, Robert Gallimard by Nigel Lawrence, Nelson Algren by Iain Reid and Illya Ehrenburg is played by Michael Langridge.

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