The Flies by Jean-Paul Sartre (1943)

Sartre had been interned in a German prisoner of war camp (Stalag 12D) immediately after the fall of France, in the summer of 1940. There he wrote and staged a play (with a surprisingly Christian theme, set on Christmas Eve and titled Bariona, or the son of thunder).

After nine months he was released in April 1941 and returned to his job in Paris, teaching philosophy while also writing fiction and essays, but he had caught the theatre bug. More precisely, he had seen how theatre could dramatise a plight shared by the author and audience. However, no play which even remotely criticised the German occupation could get past the censors, so he had to look for a subject which would be officially acceptable, but still provide a vehicle for his sentiments.

Historical subjects were safe, the classics even more so. Sartre settled on the ancient Greek legend of Orestes, the centre of a cycle of stories which had been dealt with in plays by the famous ancient Greek playwrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

The original myth

The Trojan prince Paris is asked to judge which of the three great goddesses is most beautiful. Hera (goddess of power) promises him kingdoms and empire, Athena (goddess of wisdom) promises him wisdom and Aphrodite (goddess of beauty) offers him the most beautiful woman in the world.

He gives the award to Aphrodite who then helps him undertake a friendly tour of the Greek kingdoms. In In Sparta he is entertained by the city’s king, Menelaus, whose wife, Helen, just happens to be the most beautiful woman in the world. That night Paris, with Aphrodite’s divine aid, steals Helen down to the ship and he and his comrades sail back to Troy.

Next morning Menelaus is outraged and contacts his brother, Agamemnon, chief among Greek kings. Agamemnon calls for an alliance of all the Greeks to sail 1,000 ships to Troy and besiege it till the Trojans return Helen.

The entire fleet is assembled and ready to sail but there is no wind. A soothsayer tells Agamemnon he must sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia, to please the gods and so – shockingly – Agamemnon does, a wind arises and the fleet sails to Troy, which they besiege for ten long years.

The Greeks eventually win the war due to Odysseus’s clever ruse of the Trojan Horse and Agamemnon returns to Mycenae. But his wife, Clytemnestra has never forgiven the murder of her daughter and so, along with the lover she has taken in Agamemnon’s absence – Aegistheus – she murders Agamemnon.

Before he left for the war, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra had had three children. Iphigenia was, as we saw, sacrificed. Electra has stayed with her mother. But their son, Orestes, by now a young man, was not present in Mycenae for the murder of his father. When Orestes does return some years later, he avenges his father by killing his mother and Aegistheus. He is then pursued by the Furies, who hound all evil-doers.

In the last of the trilogy of plays on the subject by Aeschylus, the goddess Athena intervenes between Orestes and the Furies to institute the first ever trial, in which Orestes is spared. It is a fascinating text in which the playwright uses the story to examine and defend the social structures of his day.

Sartre’s play

The outline of the plot is the same. Orestes turns up in the city ruled by Aegistheus and Clytemnestra 15 years to the day after Agamemnon’s murder. He quickly bumps into his sister, Electra, who is fed up with being forced to skivvy for the raddled and haunted queen. After initial hesitations Orestes proceeds to kill Aegistheus and Clytemnestra, then flees with Electra to seek sanctuary in the temple of Apollo.

There are two key differences: the city has been plagued by an infestation of flies ever since the murder; and Aegistheus has instituted a religious festival, the Day of the Dead, in which the town’s dead are meant to rise from their graves and haunt the living for 24 hours. This encourages the living to fall on their knees and acknowledge all their crimes and sins. Act two takes place at the mouth of the cave where these dead ghosts appear, in a ceremony overseen by king Aegistheus in his pomp, to which a reluctant Electra has to be dragged.

That’s the action, but the play actually consists of a lot of dialogue and discussion between the characters, thus:

  • Zeus king of the gods is a leading character (unlike the ancient versions) who introduces himself as ‘Demetrios’ to both Orestes and Aegistheus, before dropping his disguise and speaking openly about the nature of kingship and rule.
  • Orestes’ slave is also his tutor, meaning the pair can be left alone to have philosophical dialogues, allowing Orestes to speak his thoughts out loud – the same function as Horatio to the prince in Hamlet.
  • Electra is initially reluctant to acknowledge Orestes as her brother, then becomes keen to kill the king and queen, then suffers fierce remorse, ageing overnight.
  • In the final and third act the Furies appear and speak, as in the original plays, explaining their role and the punishments they have in store for the errant children.

Issues

There’s a lot of words about murder, killing, justice, revenge, retribution and so on, which could keep moralists talking for days.

But the central ‘existentialist’ message seems relatively straightforward. Orestes ‘develops’, ‘evolves’, ‘changes’ from a hesitant and curious visitor to his home town, to a man reluctant (in conversation with Zeus or Electra) to intervene, into his final position of a free man who Strikes For Justice.

In a pivotal scene between Zeus and Aegistheus, the god explains what they both know, that the great secret of kingship is that men are free but are frightened of their freedom. This is just as well as he and Aegistheus both like Order. It explains why Aegistheus has instituted the utterly bogus Day of the Dead – it helps weight people down with their guilt, it makes them look backward, it makes them feel in thrall to their past actions and incapable of breaking free.

Zeus also offers another vision of unfree human nature to Orestes when he paints himself as the god of Nature and Good. Orestes defies him, in a sequence of speeches which, I think, we can be confident are the Author’s Message:

Neither slave nor master. I am my freedom.

Suddenly, out of the blue, freedom crashed down on me and swept me off my feet. Nature sprang back, my youth went with the wind, and I knew myself alone, utterly alone in the midst of this well-meaning universe of yours. I was like a man who’s lost his shadow. And there was nothing left in heaven, no right or wrong, nor anyone to give me orders.

Zeus tempts him: come back to me, believe in me, I will give you peace and forgetfulness. But Orestes is having none of it.

Outside nature, against nature, without excuse, beyond remedy, except what remedy I find within myself. But I shall not return under your law; I am doomed to have no other law but mine. Nor shall I come back to nature, the nature you found good; in it are a thousand beaten paths all leading up to you – but I must blaze my trail. For I, Zeus, am a man, and every man must find out his own way. (p.119)

That’s the existentialist message: man is hopelessly, irredeemably, unavoidably free. He has no excuses but bears full responsibility for all his actions. Full acceptance of  this crushing weight is the only authenticity.

Zeus says, ‘tut tut I won’t give up without a fight,’ and exits. Electra is distraught at the plight her brother has thrown her into, and runs after Zeus begging his forgiveness i.e. she gives in to religious belief.

The slave enters to tell Orestes that the mob is at the door baying for his blood. Orestes heroically declares that he murdered Clytemnestra and Aegistheus to set them free, to abolish silly superstitions like the Day of the Dead which are meant only to keep them in their place. Orestes confronts the mob and says he will willingly, consciously bear the responsibility and the guilt of the deaths and take away the punishment, the ghosts and the flies. And so Orestes exits pursued by the Furies.

That’s the end, so we never find out what the reaction of the puzzled populace is.

You can see how, not far at all beneath the superficial classical storyline, is the narrative of a man who freely and fully accepts the responsibility for committing murder in order to free his people.

On a philosophical level, it is about a man who rejects all the consolations of false beliefs and ‘bad faith’ in order to act out his freedom.

And, on a political level, about a man who is a Resistance fighter prepared to accept the guilt of murder in order to free his people from the plague of flies i.e. the German occupation.

The diagrammatic nature of Sartre’s intent explains his changes to the traditional story, the most obvious of which is the downplaying of Clytemnestra’s role; in the myths she is the prime mover for the murder of Agamemnon and it is her murder – the terrible crime of matricide – which triggers the advent of the Furies to torment Orestes. But Sartre has no interest in the ‘crime’ of matricide which carries with it a huge freight of basic emotional, let alone Freudian, overtones.

He is more interested in political philosophy and so Aegistheus – a shadowy figure in the myths – is much more prominent in this play: as the figure of the (Nazi) tyrant, as the figure of the man imposing a spurious superstition on the people (the Day of the Dead), as the king Zeus debates the arts of kingship with, and then as the representative of all the repressive forces in the play (and occupied France) which Orestes must slay.

Thus Orestes kills Aegistheus onstage and it takes several blows with a sword during which they continue to have a philosophical dialogue; whereas Clytemnestra is slain off-stage: we only hear her piercing screams while Electra gives us a running commentary on her own feelings.

I’m no feminist but Sartre’s play is much more masculine that the original. In the Aeschylus plays, Clytemnestra, the Furies and the goddess Athena all play key roles in a text which explores femininity, law and society. Two and a half thousand years later, for Sartre, justice and freedom are essentially men’s talk.

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Clytemnestra [having just murdered Agamemnon] (1882) by John Collier. Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London


Credit

Les Mouches was first performed in Paris in 1943. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published in Britain in 1946. All references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

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