Sartre's Theater of Resistance: Les Mouches and the Deadlock of Collective Responsibility

in Sartre Studies International
Author: Andrew Ryder
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Sartre's play Les Mouches (The Flies), first performed in 1943 under German occupation, has long been controversial. While intended to encourage resistance against the Nazis, its approval by the censor indicates that the regime did not recognize the play as a threat. Further, its apparently violent and solitary themes have been read as irresponsible or apolitical. For these reasons, the play has been characterized as ambiguous or worse. Sartre himself later saw it as overemphasizing individual autonomy, and in the view of one critic, it conveys an “existentialist fascism.” In response to this reading, it is necessary to attend to the elements of the play that already emphasize duty to society. From this perspective, the play can be seen as anticipating the concern with collective responsibility usually associated with the later Sartre of the 1960s. More than this, the play's apparent “ambiguity” can be found to exemplify a didacticism that is much more complex than sometimes attributed to Sartre. It is not only an exhortation about ethical responsibility, but also a performance of the difficulties attendant to that duty.

Sartre Studies International

An Interdisciplinary Journal of Existentialism and Contemporary Culture

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