The Death of Nihilism

No Exit and The Chairs
by Jean-Paul Sartre/Eugene Ionesco, adapted by the Jeu class
Directed by Madeleine Planeix-Croker
Thursday (2/14) 8:00 PM, Friday (2/15) 8:00 PM, Saturday (2/16) 8:00 PM
Theatre Intime
$8 for students, $10 for Princeton faculty and senior citizen, $12 for the general public



It may be a bit of an understatement to call my colleague Charles Ouyang’s recent review of Theatre Intime’s Freshman One Act Festival a controversy. Charles certainly minces no words; but while he exercised his critical prerogative (his right to which I have supported), I was somewhat worried that the rest of us folk from the Nassau Literary Review might have become persona non grata over at Murray-Dodge. Which would have been most unfortunate for me, were it true – because when I heard that Theatre Intime was staging a production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit (Huis Clos) and Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs (Les Chaises), together, I became immensely excited. I am fascinated by the intellectual movement in literature and philosophy (yes, even when in Princeton shall I dare to count it as philosophy) we call existentialism, as well as the corollary development in theatre we call the theatre of the absurd.

I have – as hinted – endured not a little disdain from some of my peers in the Philosophy Department for my sympathies toward the “old-fashioned”, “pseudo-literary,” and “un-rigorous” thought those melodramatic French nihilists apparently produced. And of course, that’s all they are – nihilists, unable to do something philosophically productive with their intellectual lives. No less a figure than the head of Princeton’s Philosophy Department, Professor Michael Smith, has complained that the Frenchmen he read at school as child (he mentions that Camus was among them) were nihilists. The consensus among the Philosophy Department today, it seems, is that the thinkers conglomerated in France in the 1940s and 50s never managed to transcend the morally imbecilic notion that, as Macbeth famously puts it,

Life’s but a walking shadow
It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

With such a view being common in my own department, I’ve come to wonder, then, whether the enthusiasm I’ve had for existentialist literature has really been well-founded. Could Sartre be relevant today? Does he have anything of value to suggest to us? It was for this reason that I found myself excited that No Exit was going to be staged here. I wanted some help thinking about my questions. And, I am happy to report, Theatre Intime had no compunctions about obliging me – their production cleared quite a few things up for me, and as it happens no bridges have been burnt between the Nassau Literary Review and Intime.

But sitting down to watch it has generated even more questions – albeit good ones.

The first that comes to mind, when one learns that indeed both No Exit and The Chairs were directed by the same director (Madeleine Planeix-Croker) and were intended not as separate productions but one, is: exactly what feat of artistic vision might put these two plays together? Would it be a “feat”?

No Exit, if you recall, is the source of the famous line, “hell is other people.” One man, Joseph Garcin, and two women, Inès Serrano and Estelle Rigault, are put together in a prosaic but comfortable room.This room would be a room not unlike any other, except that is in hell. And these three would be a crowd not unlike any other, except that they are all also dead. They first expect that their room is a waiting room, that they will move on to the truly gruesome hell later (once the paperwork has been filed or something, one imagines). But then these three dead people in hell realize that there is really no need for a torturer to arrive; they can do the job themselves quite well, even if unwittingly or unwillingly. Thus, each one is the torturer for the other two. But their torture is accomplished through a pain they already know: living at the same time with others and with themselves, without a possibility of escape.

The Chairs is a rather different monster, and indeed, was conceived to be part of the tradition of absurdist theater in many more ways than No Exit was. The Chairs was dubbed by Ionesco himself “a tragic farce”, and while No Exit seems pessimistic at worst, The Chairs seems undeniably nihilistic; some critics have even called it “anti-realist”. The narrative, if we are compelled to believe there is one, is much more difficult to follow. Traditionally, The Chairs is meant to have three (real) characters as well, an old couple – a man and a woman– and an orator, who appears later, in a bid to entertain some imaginary characters. These are meant to be guests at a party that the old couple is throwing. This is a very important party, with some very high-profile guests, and so the main action of the play is centered around the preparation for and execution of this party. Now these are the things one sort of picks up on, but anything besides than this basic plot is rather more difficult to discern. It is a play that resists the scrutiny of an audience, not by being obtuse, but by being absurd. Characters operate more like monkeys than humans.

But then we have a great discrepancy in lucidity between the plays. There is also a discrepancy in emotional energy, in tone, and even in purpose. How do they reconcile? Luckily it is not very long before we begin to see the two being brought closer together in Ms. Planeix-Croker’s production.

The first of the many changes made to No Exit in this adaptation (and we must remember it is exactly that; audience members expecting a totally true-to-text rendition of the Sartrean classic must break with their expectations, or else prepare for disappointment), is that the valet, who initially escorts Garcin into the Second Empire Living Room that is the setting, is no longer just a single valet. Instead a group escorts him in, reminiscent of a chorus in an ancient Greek tragedy. The many replace one; but while we understand who the valet is – a mere footman of hell – we don’t know anything about the group . . . except that they are cast of The Chairs! We must still wait to find out, however, what relationship they bear to each other, and indeed what they add to No Exit. 

That Second French Empire living room, which since the days of Sartre has traditionally defined the set design in No Exit, is also gone. There are only modest wooden chairs, one for each of the three main characters. The stage is no longer boring, kitsch and stifling; now it is bland, stark, and still stifling.

The new set is used to very good effect, however. Now that the chairs are smaller, they are mobile, and the characters can and do move them around the stage to play with the notion of distance. Each chair belongs to a character like a throne to a king or queen, and so movement of the chairs is a proxy for indicating the increasing and decreasing emotional distance between the characters. They can get up close and personal – and often it is important that they do – or they can try to seclude themselves. And especially when they do this, the movement of chairs gives us a sense of a metered-out space. Naturally this is a stage, and any stage has physical boundaries; but in having a set design that runs up against that when it didn’t have to, the audience is made aware of the fact that the characters are living in a confined space. And thus, since there is in fact no exit (yes!) to the room, we get a sense of just where the claustrophobia that the characters might feel could come from. It’s a marvelous effect.

The same thing happens in The Chairs. Once preparations for the party are fully under way, chairs begin to be piled up on stage, in no particular formation or order (since imaginary guests don’t care how accessible the seating is), thus clogging up the space and confining movement. A renewed sense of entrapment is produced.

But aside from these physical changes, No Exit seems to proceed as it should. The actors, it must be commented, very clearly understand their characters well, and yes, play them very well. Estelle (Evelyn Giovine) is une coquette belle, a beautiful girl who seems as innocent as the day she was born, but whose power to corrupt has in truth not failed to corrupt her too. She becomes a kind of pivotal sex object, around which Garcin and Inès (who is a lesbian) struggle, both against each other (in spite) and against themselves (in lust). Ms. Giovine makes it look effortless. Inès (Rachel Wilson) does the complete opposite: capturing the bitterness, grit, and spite in her character. Yet she somehow manages not to become tedious. Garcin (Tyler Lawrence) then rounds off the trio, a strong and hubristic South American, with a questionable relationship to machismo. One complaint we might make here is that it’s somewhat difficult to see how a man like Garcin could have been a pacifist; he comes across as far too much of a “bro” for that (and after seeing his “bitches and a drink” routine, you’ll know exactly what I mean). But then again, perhaps that’s the point. The irony of his personality could then only be realizable in a social setting, though. And this is where the acting really works. There is a very peculiar balance between chemistry and loathing that the three characters must pull off; and I think they manage it rather nicely.

Now, there are nonetheless major changes in No Exit, and I think that the point of those changes actually relates to something new (or at least exaggeration of something that was already there) in the acting of The Chairs. I’ll explain the latter first.

With the original play featuring mainly an old man and an old woman, there is a certain depressing character about the setting of The Chairs. Indeed, when no-one real arrives to their party, despite their apparently having invited everyone, there is an almost desolate, desperate feel to the scene. But they are mad – no two ways about that. Their dialogue is only minimally ordered, it’s more rambling than anything else. But their insanity is thus an insanity made visually manifest in desolation – their age and their apparent solitude are representative of a barren world. Only material things – the chairs – clutter this world. It is indeed difficult not to take the original product as an expression of nihilism.

But in Theatre Intime’s production, there are five characters, not three, and they are billed as concierges. They take on the dialogue that the old man and old woman are meant to have, but they play with the voices in which this dialogue is meant to happen. At times there are clearly two interlocutors, and the rest merely echo and reinforce what they say (again, reminiscent of a chorus). It is very eerie. But at times the conversation expands to involve them all, and it is not clear who is participating in which voice, or if new voices have been added, and if so, why. The Chairs of this production is very confusing, and thus properly absurd. But we had already said that the characters of The Chairs were insane, so what is different about this particular kind of  insanity? Two things. Firstly, that it is expanded to affect several more characters, and that the differentiation between characters weaves in and out of visibility. There is a newly communal aspect to this insanity. Secondly, the sheer excitement and bright emotional energy that the cast of this production have is almost ridiculous. They are so happy, so eerily happy. Just look at the face of Concierge No. 3 (Stephanie Rigizadeh) as she sings the Britney Spears ballad Lucky, and you encounter exactly this joy. Or, for that matter, you could look at any of the other concierges singing with her: 1-4. (Peter Giovine , Juliet Garrett , Allen Hernandez , or the über-energetic Spencer Rodriguez). But this is exactly how it is supposed to be! For in this way, there is an almost Dionysian quality to their insanity. It isn’t debauched, but it says Yes to life (as Nietzsche would put it), and at that, to an absurd life.

Therefore, given these moments or periods of intense emotional energy, the existence of which no-one who watches this production will deny, I am inclined to perceive on the stage certain thematic spirits, encapsulations of points of view. This sort of theater is then, I would argue, more “philosophical” than we might be used to. The plot is not the point; the points of view that are put in conversation though the plot areIf you follow me on this, then the work of viewing this production involves an exercise of interpretation that is somewhat idiosyncratic. But go with me here; let’s see where it gets us.

But how, if I understand The Chairs thus, do I relate it back to No Exit, and how do I take it as a single coherent production, a product of some artistic vision. Well we have already seen one way. The cast of The Chairs take the place of the valet in No Exit, and thus inaugurate the action of the play. But there is another way, found in one of the additions to No Exit: the interludes.

Sartre certainly did not write any Trey Songz tracks into the original script, yet this is what we find in Ms. Planeix-Croker’s production. At first I thought: “OK, what Sartre were you reading? This totally misses the point. How can you allow such moments of emotional exuberance, such moments of escape, of exit, when the sense of entrapment is so important in this play? How could you furnish No Exit with exits?”

There are three interludes, one for each character, and the interludes act as flashbacks of sorts. Modern songs are played, the action of the stage breaks, and the actors begin dancing (an admittedly impressively choreographed set of routines). In my preview, apparently people found this funny; and I thought: “you don’t get it”. But all three interludes happen in the first half of No Exit, and after it finishes, of course, The Chairs is staged. But at the end I clicked: No, it was I who did not get it. The three interludes, and especially the first two, are moments of interruption in the play, but not quite moments of escape. Why? Because the exuberant, almost Dionysian spirit we found in The Chairs is just as much a natural occurrence in the world as the spirit of nihilism, rationally explicated in No Exit. The interludes are thus ways of importing the exuberance, the yes-saying to life, into No Exit, bringing the play closer in tone to The Chairs (the tone of which was already an innovation, as we saw).

It would be important, however, to be careful about articulating the work of the production around these moment of song, around these moments of Dionysian spirit. No Exit remains a different work, far more coherent, far more a work to be thought before understood, than The Chairs, really a work to be experienced before understood. But then it makes sense to me that Theatre Intime would put them together, and would still put No Exit before The Chairs in the production. I felt that I was being drawn in this way. No Exit, in its modified form, wet my toes, and then The Chairs, in its modified formsubmerged me.

So then how were the two supposed to work together to form a whole?

I’ve found myself making many references to Nietzsche, so far, and I think it’s more than just my pretentiousness manifesting itself. The argument, if we can term it as such, found in this latest production of Theatre Intime’s seems to resemble the argument Nietzsche makes about Greek tragedy in The Birth of Tragedy. The spirit of nihilism and pessimism which pervades both No Exit and The Chairs, and into which we are tempted to fall, is interrupted by its opposite: a spirit of “saying Yes to life”. This spirit is then brought to a culmination in The Chairs, but not without losing the sense of the immanence of its opposite. The old man and old woman commit suicide after all. But the production comes to life through this contradiction. And at the end, we may say, the positive spirit is not all that meaningless. Does it transcend the sense of nihilism? I don’t know.

The success of this production, for me, lies in its refutation of the idea that the existentialists and absurdists were nothing more than nihilists. But is the exuberance, the Dionysian spirit, as I have been calling it, really something that in the end can have value? After all, it’s not much else but a purified version of YOLO. And to wit, have I taken this question too seriously in watching this production?

Go watch it, watch it carefully, and then come back to me. At the very least, I would say this was certainly no “freshman” attempt!

Juan-Jacques Aupiais

About Juan-Jacques Aupiais

Juan-Jacques Aupiais is a student of Philosophy, Literature, and Intellectual History in the Department of German. Contact him, if you desire, at
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2 Responses to The Death of Nihilism

  1. J.M. Colon J.M. Colon says:

    Solid review, JJ. It looks like I know what I’m going to be seeing tonight.

    So, uh, how well-integrated *exactly* were the dance numbers into the existentialist theater? The songs you mentioned seem, ah…well, un tout petit peu trop moderne, if you know what I’m saying.

  2. great review! says:

    Really thoughtful and comprehensive review. I’m not really sure what to say in response, except that I definitely have to go see this show, because it seems like the kind of show that would really get me thinking.

    Could you explain this quote, though?

    “For in this way, there is an almost Dionysian quality to their insanity. It isn’t debauched, but it says Yes to life (as Nietzsche would put it), and at that, to an absurd life.”

    I’m not really a philosopher or an existentialist or anything, so I’m not really getting what Dionysian means, or what it means to say yes to an absurd life. How is life absurd? It sounds really interesting, I just feel like I don’t know the vocabulary.

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