“No Exit” perfectly defines the existentialist philosophy that Sartre later shaped and developed. But this philosophy is presented in the form that is easily accepted by the audience: in the form of a stage play. Filled with memorable parts and comic relief, this play is easy to perform both for professional and amateur theater groups. The portrayal of Hell as something very familiar and almost comfortable, not the fire-and-brimstone pit, makes this work more of a science fiction than reciting Scripture (though Hell is clearly a Christian concept).The main characters and new “visitors” of Hell have never met before and now have to work out the issues that brought them there together.
“No Exit” refers too much to the popular culture, borrowing the motifs of “soap operas”, so for a long time the work wasn’t viewed as serious literature. We may forget that the main characters are in Hell, thinking that they are just performing in light-hearted reality show. But if we look closer at their interaction, we’ll see how toxic they are for real. Each of the character shifts from victim to torturer, they form the codependent relations of the Karpman triangle, illustrating the point of the author that Hell isn’t about physical tortures, Hell is other people that hurt.
The scene looks like a cozy drawing room with lavish French furnishing - three decorated couches for the visitors and a bronze mantelpiece. Everything is made in Second Empire style and looks very comfortable. A valet arrives, inviting the first visitor inside. The name of the visitor is Joseph, Garcin. He is shocked to see the room, seems that he expected the classical Hell, with fire and torture devices. Still, he has no option than to stay and wait for the rest. The valet politely explains the rules of the place to Joseph. Mirrors are prohibited, also there is no nighttime and no one is allowed to sleep. Joseph tries to guess which tortures are awaiting for him and asks the valet about such an unconventional Hell - but the valet vaguely replies that there are other rooms behind the door. Finally, the valet excuses himself and exits, showing Joseph the call button he can use to summon him back. Unfortunately, the call button isn’t working well all the time.
Staying alone and knowing nothing is unbearable for Garcin and soon he rushes to the call button, repeatedly pressing it. It doesn’t work. But after a while the valet opens the door to introduce the second visitor - a woman named Inez. Inez doesn’t ask the valet about anything - she is pretty sure that in Hell a woman named Florence (supposedly her lover) should wait for her. Seeing Joseph instead she is shocked and outright calls him her torturer, stating that her punishment is separation from her beloved.
Amused Garcin tries to calm her down, explaining that he isn’t a torturer, but just another deceased, like she is. He introduces himself, saying that he was a mere journalist and a pacifist. They try to know a bit more about each other. Inez is a postal clerk and an open lesbian. Her negative attitude to all the men clashes with Garcin’s artificial “macho” behaviour and exploitative attitude towards woman. Finally they manage to sort things out and are trying to develop the strategy of surviving in Hell. Joseph suggests that if they are locked here together, they have to be polite and helpful to go along well with each other and any other sinners that will be appointed here. Inez roughly refuses, insisting that everyone should mind their own business and care about themselves first. Though, she herself admits that she isn’t a nice person.
The door opens for the third time and the valet invites another soul inside. Her name is Estelle and she is stunningly beautiful. She is scared of Joseph, who is sitting with his face covered by his hands - Estelle expects him to be some faceless monster awaiting her in Hell. Garcin again has to calm the new visitor down, raising his head and showing that he has a normal human face. Confused, Estelle quickly regains her composure and immediately tries to draw all the attention in the room to her beauty. She chooses the couch the color of which suits her outfit and capriciously demands to compliment her beauty.
Now, when the room is filled, they try to discuss the reasons that got them to Hell. John is the first to tell his story. He tells that he ran a pacifist journal in Rio and was executed for his ideals by the militarists. Estelle is an orphan, who cared for her younger brother and married a very old but wealthy man to support her little brother. She died of pneumonia and is sure that she is in Hell by mistake, because she did nothing so wrong to get here. Inez doesn’t say much more except describing her place of work, but blatantly demands that they all have to stop lying to each other and himself and confess to their sins. Inez is the first to understand that they were chosen to irritate each other and deliberately placed in the same room to make each other miserable.
Garcin assumes that Inez is right and tries to keep silent. He is afraid (and has all the reasons to be!) that any interaction will lead to more suffering. He advises everyone else to do the same, but Inez loudly states that they are in Hell and soon will be executed. Meanwhile Estelle goes all drama queen, demanding from everyone not to say the word “dead”, saying that she prefers “absentee”, denies every reasonable proof that they are indeed in Hell and constantly laments that there are no mirrors to look at them, because she should look horrible after her death.
Joseph still stays aside of the conversation, but Inez gradually warms up to Estelle, especially when she is playing the broken bird. She is more than willing to persuade Estelle that her beauty isn’t tarnished and offers to be her “mirror”. Inez describes what she sees in the most eloquent words, complimenting Estelle’s appearance in any way possible, but goes a bit too far and Estelle - who is clearly straight - isn’t delighted but terrified. She clearly prefers Joseph paying her attention, but the man still sits in the corner without any reaction. Nevertheless, soon his defence fails and Garcin also becomes involved in the conversation, that grows into argument with brutal offences and insults. Inez is angry at Garcin for being a fake pacifist, who treats women as sex dolls and items of status. Estelle is more than willing to be the item of status and is clearly delighted to see Inez and Joseph gradually starting to fight over her.
During their argument, the three characters see some events from the real world that happen after their deaths. Garcin sees the conversation about himself that happens after the funeral. One of his colleagues named Gomez talks to the others about Joseph’s personality, and the deceased journalist learns the real opinion of other people about him. It isn’t flattering. The vision of Inez seems to signify nothing - she sees her apartment closed, then cleaned and rented to some new people. Estelle is enraged, seeing her friend named Olga flirting with the young man who was Estelle’s admirer. She still considers him - or rather his attention - her “property”. Still everyone states that the visions have nothing to do with the reasons that brought them to Hell. Each of the three says that they don’t feel sinful enough to be in Hell.
Gradually the real stories start to shape out during the argument. Garcin wasn’t only a pacifist, he was an adulterer. His wife was a good woman who adored him, but Joseph treated her just as a cooking and cleaning machine. He was shameless enough to bring his lovers home and sleep with them in the bedroom to have the blankets washed by his wife afterwards. The woman tried to commit suicide but didn’t have the will to either die or leave her abusive husband. Garcin is also revealed as a coward. His declared pacifism is built on fear. When his country was engaged into real war, Joseph didn’t stand for his pacifist ideals, and he didn’t object his enlisting to the army, but immediately deserted and fled, leaving his wife and his journal behind. Then he was caught and court-martialed. His colleagues discussed him because of it - he left the journal he proclaimed the most important thing in his life.
Inez, a rough and intelligent lesbian, lived with her cousin and her wife Florence in the apartment she saw in her vision. She fell in love with Florence and thought over the plan of getting the woman for herself. She was intelligent enough to turn Florence against her husband, still being seemingly innocent in it. Her cousin, who loved Florence with all his heart, committed suicide in despair, after Florence declared that she despises him. Gradually realising what happened for real, Florence understands that Inez ruined her life with her own hands and poisons both herself and Inez with gas in that very apartment. Inez saw that apartment is being prepared for the new inhabitants after the bodies were buried.
Estelle still denies that she deserves to be in Hell, but we learn that she was unhappy with her old husband who she married for money only. She needed attention and admiration that resulted into the long list of lovers. One of her affairs resulted in a pregnancy. Understanding that she doesn’t want her cheating to be revealed and doesn’t want the baby either, Estelle fled to Switzerland. Her lover followed her, he promised her that he would take care both of her and her baby. But after Estelle gave birth, she drowned the newborn baby before the eyes of her lover watching helplessly. He didn’t arrive in time to save his child. Driven by guilt, he kills himself.
It becomes obvious that they are in Hell to be both torturers and victims. Garcin tortures Estelle, not giving her his attention and love that she desperately needs to forget about her last romance - that resulted in killing her child. Meanwhile, Garcin is tortured by Inez, who openly claims he is a coward - the fact that Joseph doesn’t want to admit, covering it by macho behaviour. Still Garcin, seeing through the rough behavior of Inez her strong will and ability to empathize, seeks her approval. It becomes essential for him to prove her that he is not coward - Garcin considers it his “redemption”. Inez is a victim of Estelle, desperately trying to win her love and make her a substitute for Florence.
In despair, Garcin gives up to Estelle’s advances, telling her everything she wants to hear, hoping that she will return the admiration and say him that he is brave. Inez, seeing their dysfunctional codependent bond (but not seeing her own) blatantly tells that their relationship will be only a mutual lie, because Estelle will also say him what he wants to hear just to win the man. It won’t mean anything and won’t tell anything about her real opinion about Garcin. Understanding that Inez is right, Garcin snaps and tries to escape. The door opens without effort, but he finds himself unable to leave until Inez admits he is not a coward and forgives him. Inez, enraged that such a miserable man won Estelle, claims that she will never do so, ensuring that Garcin will suffer forever. Estelle, seeing that Inez has ruined her possible relationship with Joseph with her revelations, also breaks and tries to stab Inez with a knife - that results in nothing, because they are already dead.
Finally all the three realise what their Hell is about. They can’t get rid of each other, they can’t escape to death - they are already dead. There is no sleep and nighttime, so they are doomed to see each other forever, without any break. The trio is inseparable and destined to spend the eternity in agony, unless they find the will and courage to accept themselves and each other - that is not going to happen.
All the characters collapse onto their couches, laughing hysterically, finally seeing the terror and absurdity of their fate. Garcin concludes that Hell is other people.