Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “Huis Clos” is an exploration of the nature of human relationships, set in Hell. It was written during World War II, shortly after his magnum opus “Being and Nothingness,” and is deeply influenced by both of these forces. It has been become a classic of modern literature and the phrase that the character Garcin utters shortly before the end, “L’enfer, c’est les autres” – literally “Hell is ‘the other’”, or more to the point, “Hell is other people” – has become a frequently quoted phrase, often by people unaware of its origin. The title is usually translated as “No Exit,” and I have used that form, but the original French is a legal term that would be equivalent in English to “In Camera,” a conversation behind closed doors.
When I first read the play it became apparent to me that the characters in the play all followed operatic stereotypes; Garcin was a self-important narcissist (tenor); Estelle was a flighty and deceptive gold digger (soprano); and Inez was cruel to the point of brutality (Alto). With the addition of a Valet (bass), we had the perfect quartet of voice types from an 18th century opera buffa or comic opera. The interaction among the characters also had echoes of that style: Estelle was attracted to Garcin, Inez was attracted to Estelle, and Garcin was in love with himself. (In opera buffa, of course, Inez would have been a pants role, but in modern theatre and opera, she can be a lesbian).
To turn Sartre’s work into an opera buffa, I had to emphasize the comic element of the original play, rather than the sinister undercurrents that were an element of an earlier operatic treatment by Andy Vores. I did follow the conventions of an 18th century “numbers opera” – there are individual recitatives, arias, duets and trios – but the harmonic language in distinctly modern. Perhaps the closest model would be Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress.” Much of the language and references have been updated. Instead of a French Second Empire (1852-1870) sitting room, the suggestion of a dated and oppressive environment is through worn Southwestern furniture, an ironic Thomas Kinkade painting on the wall, and a large Frederic Remington bronze sculpture in the middle of the room. Although some of the dialog and the arc of the story are from the original play, the story has been simplified and much of dialog adapted to the need of opera for clear and repetitive narrative while retaining the impact of the original work.
Warren Cohen, March 2016
Further notes on composing No Exit, A Comic Opera
I updated some things. Garcin (the tenor) in Sartre had been a journalist, and a macho jerk who was actually a cowardly military deserter who was executed by a firing squad. I kept the journalist, but turned him into an ammosexual chicken-hawk who panicked when he actually faced combat and was killed by deliberate “friendly fire” because he put everyone else at risk. Inez had died from a gas-stove incident, which was now a smoking in bed incident. Sartre’s idea of a room in Hell is one full of oppressive, dated, Second Empire furniture, which would mean nothing to an audience today. For a contemporary crowd, I thought something done in a 1980s Southwestern Style would have a similarly dated and weird feel.
I did use the title and some of the lines from the usual English translation, but I retranslated some from the original and probably 60 percent of the dialogue has no correspondence with the original play, although the arc of the story is the same. I could write a very long essay on the relationship of both the opera and the original play to Sartre’s philosophical masterpiece “Being and Nothingness,” finished shortly before he wrote the play, but I am sure most of my audience would not care. The musical language is freely tonal, and it might remind you of other composers, but honestly, when writing it I was unaware of any influences looking over my shoulder.
Warren Cohen, March 2016