How bleak is Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit”? The first time I read it, I felt a shiver down my spine. The first time I saw a performance, I wanted to jump off a bridge. It is a bleak, brilliant, existential torture-rack of a play that shakes you out of your daily stupor of denying mortality and makes you ponder life’s gaping and unconquerable questions.
Which makes it perfect for older high school students just itching to dive into murky philosophical waters.
But don’t worry. Clovis Unified is keeping us safe from a classic drama written in 1944.
In the play, three characters – a man and two women – find themselves in what appears to be a drawing room of some sort. They don’t know each other. While they appear on the surface to be respectable and upstanding, each carries dark secrets. Slowly, as their facades begin to crumble, it begins to dawn on them they’re stuck with each other for the long Hell, er, haul.
Notice that I didn’t say that the play startled me all those many years ago because it includes a lesbian character. I’d even forgotten that part. There are lots of books and plays known for sparking protests for overt sexual themes, but “No Exit” isn’t exactly on the Top 10 List of Works That Will Corrupt Your Precious Teenager.
Which brings us to the dust-up over Buchanan High School’s student production of “No Exit,” which was canceled after one performance, creating one of those social-media maelstroms that you’d think would make school administrators a little smarter about the power of the internet. The student director, Jared Serpa, told The Bee the play was shut down because a main character is gay. Clovis Unified – always good for a reactionary media brouhaha or five throughout the school year – counters that the school district wouldn’t ban a play just because of a gay character. The real reason to say no to “No Exit,” the district says, is the play’s sexual themes and other mature content.
But it isn’t really a play about sex. It’s about how humans are indefatigable social con artists who try to wall off our true selves from those around us. When Sartre wrote “Hell is other people,” he wasn’t talking about getting annoyed by your relatives at Thanksgiving dinner. He was suggesting that the sum total of ourselves – all the good and bad things we’ve done in a lifetime – can’t be hidden forever. Other people can see us as we truly are.
In a strange twist, the district acknowledges the play is part of the high-school curriculum. It is read in advanced placement courses.
You can read it, in other words. Just don’t perform it. (And who says live theater doesn’t have power?)
Here’s what I don’t understand about this whole silly situation: Why not just put a content warning on the production and leave it at that? The district could even set a suggested age minimum – that students younger than 15, say, might not feel comfortable with the adult themes presented in the show. If parents squawk, and this being Clovis, that seems inevitable, you could even require parental permission. But if seniors at Buchanan are willing to possibly limit their audiences and want to tackle a provocative title – one that their age group reads in their English classes – that should be their prerogative.
The incredibly tone-deaf thing is that once you open a play, you can’t close it down without a lot of consternation. (We’re funny in America about things like that.) The district should know better. And come up with a better rationale than some vague sputterings about “age-appropriate content” and adult themes. If that rubric is used, everything from Shakespeare to “Damn Yankees” could be on the chopping block.
On the positive side, I’m sort of glad I got to revisit “No Exit.” Yes, it freaked me out a little as a teenager. But now I appreciate the intellectual ride it gave me. And it’s nice to see that Sartre can still rile up a crowd. Wherever he is right now – in an ethereal drawing room or perhaps stuck in an eternal Clovis Unified board meeting – I imagine he’d be quite pleased with himself.