- No Exit from the Gaze:Sartre’s Theory Facilitated Through Aspects of Meisner’s Practice
“I think the gaze was the central character in the play.” Audience member comment at a postperformance discussion of Sartre’s No Exit.1
The play No Exit was written in 1944 after Jean-Paul Sartre was a prisoner of war during the German occupation of France. It is, in its essence, a staging of Sartre’s phenomenological theory and existential philosophy as expressed in his magnum opus, Being and Nothingness. Concepts such as “the gaze,” “nothingness,” “bad faith,” “being-for-others,” “love, masochism and sadism,” and the “essence/existence dilemma” are particular themes in No Exit, which Sartre introduced and explored in Being and Nothingness. These concepts are dense and difficult, subtle and thorny, and grasping their finer nuances can be challenging. How can an understanding of these concepts be facilitated for actors who must portray characters that embody these ideas? How can audiences comprehend these ideas? How can theory be translated into the practice of theatrical performance?
This article considers one experiential approach to these questions. It traces Sartre’s theories from philosophy to theatrical realization through the use of techniques based on Sanford Meisner’s methods in rehearsals and performance. It considers the problems of transferring theory inherent in dramatic texts into practice. A discussion of aspects of Sartre’s theory from Being and Nothingness, as distilled in No Exit, is followed by an analysis of the conflation of theory and practice in the rehearsal room and performance. Meisner’s methods are best suited to the internalization and practice of Sartre’s theories, and of “the gaze” in particular. Furthermore, this article considers aspects of audience meaning-making [End Page 127] through experience-based workshops and postperformance discussions attended by audiences.
In some ways, the performance analyzed in this article asked the actors and the audience to have a dual consciousness. Dual consciousness, where one is “witnessing aspects of consciousness” and is “emotionally involved and noninvolved” simultaneously, is predominantly used to describe one state of the actor’s consciousness.2 This article also considers the possibility of the audience member’s dual consciousness, of her witnessing her own watching. As discussed below, the gaze was the primary vehicle to facilitate this dual awareness.
The relationship between critical theory and theatre practice is a subject of continuing debate; discussions in this area primarily explore methods for trying to bridge this gap.3 While much scholarship explores the theories of play texts, there remains a dearth of research into the methods for transferring knowledge from these theories into theatre practice. Practical strategies for conveying the complex theories of intellectually formidable plays from the page into the rehearsal room and subsequent performances are unavailable. The general rubric of “theory” refers here to the playtext’s underlying philosophies, discourses, and ideologies.
The purpose of transferring the theory of any given play into theatre practice is ultimately for audience readability. As Meyer-Dinkgräfe argues, when theory and practice are integrated, the “art created . . . has not only the intention, but also the very impact of affecting the spectator’s consciousness.”4 Extant methods for this transference include didactic program notes, expert-led pre- and postperformance discussions, lecturing to the actors in rehearsals, and asking the actors to research the theories themselves. These methods either presuppose an intellectual understanding of difficult concepts, or they create an expert/student binary that distances the audience and the actors from an emotional engagement with the play itself.5 We explored a more experiential method for transferring the theory of a playtext into theatrical practice: the use of exercises for the actors in rehearsals based on Meisner training methods.
Sartre’s No Exit was staged in Sydney, Australia in 2011 by Crossbow Productions.6 It was in this particular production that an experiential method for the transfer of theory into practice was explored. No Exit is a germane play for such an exploration, as the content of the play is an expression of Sartre’s seminal theories found in sections of Being and Nothingness. The authors of this article were participants in the production. Detailed...