Absurd, yes, but Sartre's 'No Exit' at Quintessence is powerful

by Len Lear
Posted 10/12/23

In college, I was part of a theater group that put on several “Theater of the Absurd” plays. I was always puzzled about their meaning.

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Absurd, yes, but Sartre's 'No Exit' at Quintessence is powerful


In college, I was part of an experimental theater group that put on several “Theater of the Absurd” plays, the most absurd of which was “Waiting for Godot,” by Samuel Beckett. I was always puzzled about the meaning of these plays. My only guess was that they had to do with the catastrophic destruction, dislocation, mass murder and inconceivable suffering of the millions who were killed in World War II and even of those who managed to survive.

Theater critic Martin Esslin coined a term for it in his iconic 1960 essay, "The Theatre of the Absurd," which begins by focusing on playwrights Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Jean-Paul Sartre and Eugene Ionesco. Esslin says their plays have a common denominator — the "absurd," a word that Esslin defines as “that which has no purpose, goal or objective." The French philosopher Albert Camus wrote that these plays describe the human situation as “meaningless and absurd.”

The “absurd” in these plays takes the form of man's reaction to a world apparently without meaning, or God or man as a puppet, controlled or menaced by invisible outside forces. The characters are often caught in hopeless situations and forced to do repetitive or meaningless actions; the dialogue is full of clichés, wordplay and nonsense; plots are cyclical or ridiculous – seemingly a parody of “realistic” plays like those of legendary American playwrights Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams or Eugene O'Neill. 

One of those plays was “No Exit,” by the atheistic French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, which is currently being performed through Oct. 28 by the Quintessence Theatre Group, 7137 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy. Its founding artistic director, Alexander Burns, is a Mt. Airy native who has directed more than 60 professional plays in his career, “not counting those on Devon Street that I put on during block parties when I was growing up.”

“I've always been fascinated by 'No Exit,' which I was first exposed to as a student at Germantown Friends School,” he said in an interview last week. “My favorite character was Inez, one of the greatest queer characters of all time. It was shocking and exciting to me. I read it again during the pandemic and thought it was still so relevant. I watched so many friends' relationships disintegrate during Covid. If you look at the play philosophically, it is saying that regardless of how you choose to live your life, your actions will be judged, and just one action can define you as a person – so you must take responsibility for your actions.”

There is a clear moral structure to the play. The central theme for the main male character, Garvin, is his sin of cowardice. He did not have the courage to stand up for his beliefs. He almost takes pride in standing down. The character who gets off best is Inez. She has integrity.

“There is much humor, too, and a richness of character and ideas. It packs a punch,” Burns said. “I heard a couple having a conversation after the show. One said, ‘It must have been more powerful back when it was written (1944), not so much now.' But then, two minutes later they were deep in discussion about the meaning of the play.”

When Burns was born, his mother, Lisa Hemphill-Burns, was designing costumes at People’s Light and Theatre Company in Malvern for a production of Shakespeare's tragedy, “Macbeth,” so he feels he was born to be in the theater.

He acted in plays while attending Northwestern University but has not acted since graduation, except once last year when an actor in “Mary Poppins” got sick and Burns had to step in. 

“I knew early on that I enjoyed performing,” he said, “but I quickly focused on the bigger picture. Even at ages 10 and 11, I was creating projects like those shows on Devon Street during block parties. And I have never stopped creating.”

Burns has also worked at the Arden Theatre, University of the Arts, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Wilma Theater, University of Chicago, Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., Syracuse Stage, and Steppenwolf Theatre.

For more information, visit quintessencetheatre.org. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com.