The Respectful Prostitute by Jean-Paul Sartre (1946)

A slender play which is hard to take seriously and more a testament to the chronic anti-Americanism of 1950s French intellectuals than any kind of ‘analysis’ of the race issue in America. Like many of Sartre’s plays it presents a plight, a fraught and melodramatic situation, designed to bring out his eternal themes of freedom and responsibility.

The plot

Scene one

It’s a short piece, one act comprising two scenes set in the same rundown front room. Lizzie is a prostitute. There’s a ring at the doorbell. It’s a big black guy in a panic. The lynch mob is coming for him. They’re saying he raped her on the train. ‘Please promise to tell them it ain’t true.’ She promises. He runs off.

Last night’s ‘client’ comes out of the bathroom where he’s been freshening up during all this. He’s a repellently arrogant young white man named ‘Fred’ who treats Lizzie roughly, at one point nearly strangling her, telling her she’s a sinner and the Devil and their bed smells of ‘sin’. That kind of self-hating sex addict. She reminds him that he was kind and loving last night. He violently denies it and contemptuously gives her just ten dollars for her night’s work.

Anyway, this hard-edged conversation reaches a revelation when Fred asks Lizzie if she was raped by the black man on the train last night. His pal, Webster, told him (Fred) that she (Lizzie) was raped. To be precise, Webster told Fred that two black men were raping a white woman when a bunch of white men went to her help, one of the blacks flashed a razor and a white man shot him dead, the other black escaping and jumping off the train. They’ve been chasing him ever since.

Ah. Now we know why the black guy turned up in such a panic at her door just a few minutes ago.

Except that – startled – Lizzie denies this entire story and describes what really happened. Four white guys got on the train pissed as farts, began touching her up, two black guys intervened to protect her, and a drunk white man shot one, the other escaped i.e. the one we just saw knocking on her door.

Fred now asks if that’s the story she’s going to tell (blacks intervening against whites) when she’s brought before the judge tomorrow? Because he – Fred – comes from a famous family, the Clarkes, his Dad is a senator, and he knows the white man accused of the shooting, Thomas, and ‘let me tell you, he is a fahn upstanding member of the community’, and he doesn’t deserve to go to gaol.

Fred offers Lizzie $500 if she’ll tell the judge his version of the story, i.e. lie to incriminate the black man. In fact, he now reveals that he has her testimony to this version of the story already printed out and ready for her to sign. In fact – it now emerges – that’s the main reason he came to visit her last night, to get her to make a false statement. The rest (having sex) was just a, er, distraction.

Lizzie for her part is no angel and fairly racist. She says (in the extremely blunt language of the play) that she doesn’t like blacks (‘I don’t like n******’ p.269) and wouldn’t sleep with no black man. But she insists she can’t lie, she won’t lie, so Fred threatens her some more.

At which point the police knock and enter. They accuse Lizzie of being a prostitute, which is illegal. When she denies it, Fred points to the money on the table which he says he has just paid her i.e. far from meaning all his sweet words of love last night he has utterly used and compromised her in order to blackmail her, and force her to sign the false testimony. And now, we realise, the racist police are in cahoots with him.

Thus the cops swing in behind Fred’s demand that she lie to the judge: they tell her she’ll go to prison for 18 months unless she incriminates the black man before the judge at today’s hearing.

Lizzie still refuses to sign and Fred gives a vile speech asking what value the life of a two-bit whore has in comparison with a ‘fahn upstanding gennelman’ like Thomas? He grabs her and is physically forcing her to her knees to reverence a photograph of fine young Thomas, when his father, Senator Clarke, walks through the door. Intimidated, the cops step aside and Fred lets Lizzie go.

The handsome, soft-voiced Senator then does his spiel, gently reassuring Lizzie that it’s fine, just fine, to tell the truth about what really happened on the train, he admires her, he really does… but maybe she should stop and think, just for a minute, about fine old Mary, his dear old sister, a fine old grey-haired lady, mother of this poor unfortunate boy, Thomas, and how – if Lizzie goes ahead and incriminates him and he gets sent to gaol – well, it’s going to break fine old Mary’s heart.

Furthermore – and at this point the play begins to move from the realm of the extreme into the realms of fantasy – the Senator then does an impersonation of Uncle Sam, speaking kindly to little ole Lizzie and asking her, as with the voice of America itself:

“Here are two men I have raised in my bosom, young Lizzie – a fine upstanding white boy who comes from one of our oldest families, went to Harvard and owns a factory which employs 2,000 workers, ‘a leader, a firm bulwark against the Communists, labour unions and the Jews’ (p.264).

And on the other hand, here is a black man who chisels and dawdles, sings and ‘wears pink and green suits’. Now, which of these should we save, which one is the better American?”

Bamboozled and confused by the Senator’s gentle but grand and domineering manner, by his fine noble appearance and his stirrin’ patriotic tones, Lizzie finds herself in a daze signing the fake testimony — at which point the Senator, Fred and the cops drop all pretense of kindness and concern and simply sweep out. At the last moment Lizzie repents and runs to the door… but it’s too cotton-picking late!

Scene two

The much shorter second scene is set in the same dingy living room, 12 hours later, the evening of the same day.

The Senator returns to say that Thomas was let off and has been reunited with his dear old mother who has kindly sent her a letter. Lizzie opens the ‘letter’ to find a hundred dollar bill enclosed – not even the $500 which Fred had at one stage promised her – and not even a note of thanks. She is crushed by the contempt, the ingratitude.

The Senator is not fazed by her visible scorn and marches respectably out. Next moment the desperate black guy from scene one climbs in through the window. (I know it’s meant to be dead serious, but all these panic-stricken entrances and exits kept reminding me of the Keystone Kops.) A lynch mob is closing in on him. Just in case we don’t know what that means Sartre spells it out. the lynch mob will tie him up, whip him across the eyes to blind him, then pour gasoline over him and set him on fire (p.269). Maybe castrate him first, you can never be sure.

Lizzie gingerly admits to the black guy that she did reluctantly sign the false testimony confirming that he raped her — but she bitterly regrets it now and she promises to hide him from the mob. She offers him a revolver so he can shoot his way out, but he repeatedly refuses to take it. ‘Ah can’t shoot white folks,’ he repeats, piteously. ‘Hide in the bathroom,’ she tells him.

A couple of lynchers knock on the door and demand to search the place, until Lizzie reveals, to their surprise, that she is the woman who was raped and is the pretext for the hue and cry.

Sartre twists the knife by giving stage instructions that the lynchers are not only shocked, but look at her with fascination and desire, too. Filthy white American hypocrites! Daunted by her claim, they run off to search the rest of the building but kindly promise to come fetch her when they catch the varmint so she can watch them torture him to death.

The black guy comes out of hiding in the bathroom and there’s a brief dialogue. Lizzie is overwhelmed: the whole town, all the men she’s met, the police, the senator and Uncle Sam, the entire country is saying he’s guilty and that she was raped, so insistently that she’s beginning to doubt her own experience. And the black guy, too, admits that he’s feeling guilty, despite having done nothing. Why? Because, as he puts it, ‘they’re white folks’. Thus he is shown as being not just a physical victim, but – worse – a psychological victim of white racism, which uses every institution and implement in its power to convince him he is inferior and guilty.

There’s another knock on the door and the terrified black guy runs back into the bathroom. Enter Fred who excitedly tells Lizzie that they’ve caught and lynched and burned to death a black guy. Admittedly, it was the wrong guy, but hell, all black people are guilty of something, right? Anyway, the point is that watching a black guy being burned alive has made Fred feel horny as hell. He’s run all the way over here not knowing whether he’s going to murder Lizzie or rape her, but now he’s here he’s got a good idea which, and he grabs her and she starts to scream.

In response the black guy comes running out the bathroom. Fred draws a revolver but the black guy pushes him out the way and runs out of the door. Fred runs after him and we hear two gunshots. Lizzie takes the revolver she tried to give to the black guy earlier on, and hides it behind her back as Fred re-enters. She points the gun at him, threatening him. Convinced she’ll do it, the cowardly Fred starts begging for his life.

There then happens a frankly astonishing thing. You might expect a man faced with a gun held by an angry woman to beg for his life or try to coax her round. Instead, Fred gives a long speech pointing out that she can’t shoot him because the Clarke family he comes from are the embodiment of American history and American values!

The first Clarke cleared the forest hereabouts and killed all the Indians. His son was friends with George Washington and built this town and died fighting for American Independence. His great-grandfather saved a bunch of people during the great fire of San Francisco. His granddaddy came back to town and built the Mississippi Canal and was elected Governor. His daddy is Senator and Fred aims to become Senator, too.

In other words, Sartre makes this vile, hypocritical, bullying, psychopathic racist into a proud epitome of American history and culture, placing his disgusting personality at the centre of the American narrative.

You can’t do it, Fred says. ‘A girl like you can’t shoot a man like me’ (p.275) and, in fact… she can’t.

Fred walks up to Lizzie and takes the gun out of her hands. He tells her that in fact he missed the black guy with those two gunshots she heard, but, what the hell, here’s what he’s going to do for her. He’s going to set her up in a nice place of her own, with plenty of black servants and more money than she ever dreamed of and he’ll come and ‘visit’ her three times a week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and the weekend. Will she be happy with that? A happy little ole girl?

And, come on now baby, tell papa the truth – Did he really give her a thrill last night when they were making love? ‘Yes,’ she meekly replies. ‘That’s my girl,’ he says patting her cheek.

And that’s the end.

The Wikipedia article says this play ‘explores the theme of racism in the American South in the 1940s’. I’d suggest it doesn’t ‘explore’ anything, it hits you over the head with the crudest characters and bluntest plotline Sartre can conceive in order to ram home the shockingly corrupt, hateful and racist situation in the American Deep South of the 1940s. All it lacks is actually burning a black man to death onstage – and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if modern, digitally-enhanced productions didn’t include old footage of lynchings, where they exist – to ram the point home.

The ‘n’ word

Putting aside the Keystone Kops entrances and exits, and the cartoon racism of all the white characters, in a way the most shocking thing about the play for a modern reader is the extremely frequent use of the ‘n’ word. This makes it problematic to quote and I wonder how it is handled in modern stagings.

If you search the online text you find the ‘n’ word is used 39 times in the text (somehow it seems like much, much more, maybe because of the word’s poisonous power) – but what really comes over is the hatred and contempt the white characters pour into their use of it.

More than the hokey plotline, it’s the virulence of the racist attitudes displayed by absolutely all the white characters which is so hard to take, to read, to cope with.

Anti-American

Apparently, when staged in the States the play produced a backlash among critics and audiences claiming it was anti-American. Well, it is. Massively, deliberately, contemptuously, calculatingly. It chimes with what I’ve been reading in Andy Martin about Sartre’s time in New York i.e he hated America, really profoundly hated everything about it.

And it gives substance to something else I’ve read about Sartre. Although he never actually joined the Communist Party, Sartre became steadily more of a Marxist as the Cold War progressed, supporting revolutionary communist aims and devoting his later writings to trying to integrate orthodox Marxist beliefs with his theory of existentialism.

So the way America treated its black population gave him a permanent argument against any claims for the moral superiority of the West vis-a-vis the communist bloc.

Whenever he was quizzed about the horrifying repressiveness of the communist regime in Russia which it was imposing during this period on all the countries of Eastern Europe – namely Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Yugoslavia – Sartre and his fellow Marxists were always able to respond with examples of the appalling racism, the Jim Crow laws, the discrimination and racist violence in America.

Twenty years later, they would be able to throw in the Vietnam War for good measure.

Intuitively, you’re inclined to think that there’s no comparison between, on the one hand, the communists systematically imposing totalitarian rule over an entire society, giving no-one any freedom of speech, assembly or publication, systematically clamping down on any dissent, sending people to labour camps for speaking out of turn, and so on – and the state of contemporary America where most people were free to assemble, speak, write, sing, publish and perform how they wanted to. During this period plenty of black entertainers got very rich – from jazz performers like Duke Ellington and Count Basie through singers like Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jnr. I.e there was a perfectly liberal, anti-racist cosmopolitan white America which was as appalled by the Deep South as any person of colour, and which campaigned and lobbied against racism.

But then again, maybe this is a hopelessly white point of view. Maybe – although I’ve read about it, seen art exhibitions and documentaries and movies about it – maybe I still can’t properly imagine how appalling it must have been to be a black man or woman, particularly in the systematically racist South, but even in many other places in the States, and subject to almost universal derision, discrimination, humiliation and violence, for most of the twentieth century.

A theatrical production

This trailer to what I think is a modern live stage production gives a sense of how scary and intense a really well-staged production of the play might be – though surely some of the hammy plot devices would have to be eliminated to bring out a real sense of terror.

The clip also gives a sense of the how much better the French language is suited to tragedy, to intense emotion and fear, than English, which is an intrinsically farcical language.

The movie

There’s also a French movie version of the play dating from the 1950s, which looks like it substantially expands the action, starting as it does in a nightclub. Alas, it seems this movie is not available on YouTube or via Amazon and so has, effectively, vanished from the face of the earth. Quel dommage.


Credit

The Respectful Prostitute was first performed in Paris in November 1946. This English translation by Lionel Abel was published in the United States in 1948. All page references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

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