Jean Sartre’s one act play No Exit is not for the traditional theatregoer. This show pushes boundaries and ignites contemplation about a subject people generally try to avoid: Hell. We are taught from a young age that Hell is a bad place and that we want to avoid it at all costs, but rarely does the discussion wander to what Hell actually holds. What is Hell? Who is there? What does one do in Hell? No Exit is a well-written attempt at the contents of Hell and UnCovered Theatre Company’s recent production of the show has me questioning a few preconceived notions I’ve made over the years.
There are three characters in the play who are brought to Hell, only to discover that they will not be enduring their anticipated physical torture, but rather they will be spending the rest of eternity with each other. At first glimpse this doesn’t seem like the worst fate; if they only ignore each other and practice politeness at all costs, they might be able to endure this new life. But as they come to realize, their whole situation is organized in such a way that they each act as the torturer for the other two, whether they intend to or not. The scenario has been planned down to a tee, with no chance of an exit for any of the residents.
The greatest suffering they all endure is the fact that their most powerful desires are constantly within arm’s reach, but they can never obtain them. Each character wants something that another can give them, but the third presence in the room is their only inhibitor. It is a constant cycle that has them all in such a dire state of suffering that at one point in the play one of the characters is pleading to have some form of physical torture instead of the pain he is enduring with the constant nattering of the other two in the room.
Could Hell just be that one’s greatest desire is always within reach but they can never get it? It is interesting to think that Hell is mostly only associated with physical torture; we’ve heard the things people speculate: lava, nail pulling, intense labor and awful music playing on repeat. We all have a version of Hell that terrifies us enough that we change our lives to make sure we don’t end up there.
The concept of having our own personally designed Hell makes a lot of sense. Consider the possible truth that our actions and desires on earth not only reveal who we are as people, but they could also be building the blueprints for our Hell. To exist eternally in a constant state of pain and suffering would need an elaborate plan that would have to be tailored specifically to somebody’s time on earth. It’s insane to think that right now our desires might be examined by not only a higher power, but also an evil power. Are we nothing but a soul being fought over by two higher powers for our eternal residence?
Thankfully, we are a species that looks to the greener side of the fence. If there is any chance of salvation we generally move in that direction. It’s nicer to think of an eternity in the Grand Hotel rather than the dumpster outside of Little Caesars. This optimism keeps a large chunk of humanity on the right side of the road; a healthy fear of the Underworld keeps a real-life version of the Purge from hitting the local neighborhood. Many people live their lives with the expectation of moving on to a different existence after their time on earth, whether that is an eternity in Heaven, a reservation in Hell or a reincarnation into a different earthly form. The only common truth is that all of these are speculations. We can never really know what happens after we die, but that is where faith comes in. We have our faith: whether it be in God, in humanity or simply the faith that we will wake up tomorrow. We have each other, we have our lives and we have our choices. At the end of the day, all we can do is try to be better people, pursue whatever it is we place our faith in, and hope we don’t end up in the Hell that awaits us.
Perhaps Hell is not a place filled with our biggest fears, but rather it is existing in the absence of our desires. Perhaps Hell doesn’t exist at all. Perhaps it really is a boat ride down the River Styx until you reach the presence of Hades himself. We will never really know, but that does not mean we shouldn’t talk about it. I believe the more we know ourselves the better an idea we will have of our Hell. This is a terrifying thought, but then again, Hell is pretty terrifying.
UnCovered Theatre’s production of No Exit is a great way to integrate the discussion of Hell into the small, Christian campus of Rochester College. The show is progressive and it contains uncomfortable topics, but I believe that it is more important to be uncomfortable and aware rather than happy and negligent. After each performance, I eagerly awaited to chat with the audience members on their thoughts of the show, only to discover that most people were not only disturbed by the content, but they were also so lost in thought that they couldn’t express their conclusive opinion about the performance. Theatre has always been one of my greatest sources for discussion and contemplation on questions that are too often ignored. I am proud to be an artist who pushes boundaries; it is something I hope to always continue to do with my art. I advocate that we do more obscure, provocative art here at RC: things that will make us pause for a moment to rack our brains. It’s time to start being open, honest and a little uncomfortable. Maybe our little corner of humanity will be better off because of it.