Places: The Flies

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1943 as Les Mouches (English translation, 1946)

First produced: 1943

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Existentialism

Time of work: Antiquity

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Argos

*Argos. Flies, TheAncient Greek city in which the play is set. The square is dominated by a statue of Zeus, god of flies and death, and it has two purposes within the drama. First, Sartre emphasizes visually the overbearing influence of Zeus. Second, by assuming that his audiences are aware that public squares in ancient Greece were places through which everyone had reason to pass, he avoided having to contrive pretexts for the meetings that set in motion the action of his play. In the square, Orestes and his tutor come into contact with assorted citizens, none of whom welcome them. There, they are also accosted by Zeus (disguised as a human traveler) and meet Electra as she goes about her business. Later, Orestes meets Clytemnestra there. This sequence of meetings contrasts with the absence of Aegisthus from this public place, creating a sinister aura which in turn is reinforced by references to his spies and to his palace, showing how he dominates the minds of the inhabitants even when not present.

Mountain cavern

Mountain cavern. Ostensible resting place of the souls of the dead, who emerge on this day each year. This artificial device, invented by Aegisthus and Zeus, justifies the permanent state of remorse in which the inhabitants of Argos are kept by their ruler, the better to control them. (Parallels with Occupied France cannot be missed here.) Here, too, Zeus can play his magician’s tricks with the rock that normally blocks the entrance–a childish display that impresses the inhabitants of Argos but leaves Orestes unmoved.

Palace

Palace. Home of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra; place in which Orestes spent his earliest years. His memories provide a flavor of innocence that contrasts with and emphasizes the horrendous nature of his act when he kills his mother in the very palace in which she gave birth to him.

The throne room of the palace, like the public square, is dominated by a statue of Zeus. Aegisthus’s death at the foot of the statue hints that Orestes’s blow is aimed as much at Zeus as at his henchman, and the curse Aegisthus lays upon Electra and Orestes, reinforced by his warning to beware of the flies, is more menacing because it is Zeus who will give effect to the curse and unleash the flies.

Sartre locates Clytemnestra’s death offstage, though still within the palace. As Electra listens to the commotion on stage beneath the statue of Zeus, her self-confidence wanes, and later Zeus regains control over her.

*Temple of Apollo

*Temple of Apollo. Place in Argos. In the late 1930’s, French archaeologists unearthed ruins in Argos that they declared to be a temple dedicated to Apollo. The discovery became known in France as a French achievement. The outbreak of World War II prevented further digging, but when Sartre needed a place in his play in which Electra and Orestes could seek sanctuary, he remembered the temple of Apollo and realized it lent plausibility to the location. The fact that the temple is dedicated to the god Apollo is irrelevant to the drama. What matters is that Electra and Orestes should be safe from the baying crowd while Zeus tempts them with his offer of protection if only they will show remorse.

BibliographyChampigny, Robert. Sartre and Drama. Birmingham, Ala.: French Literature Publications, 1982. After first developing a critical discussion based on Sartre’s dramatic theories, this brief but well-argued monograph shows, by examining individual plays, that Sartre did not always put theories into practice in his plays.Contat, Michel, and Michel Rybalka, eds. Sartre on Theater. Translated by Frank Jellinek. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976. A handy anthology of various documents written by Sartre about the theater. Included, along with the jacket copy for the French publication of The Flies in book form, are excerpts of press interviews and articles pointing out the political content of this work.McCall, Dorothy. The Theatre of Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969. An excellent overview of Sartre’s dramatic works with special emphasis on their philosophical, literary, psychological, and sociological ideas and values. Useful bibliography.Schilpp, Paul A., ed. The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1981. Intelligent and scholarly presentation of the different aspects of Sartrean philosophy. Of particular interest to readers of The Flies are the chapters concerned with bad faith, authenticity, freedom, essence, and commitment.Spoerri, Theophil. “The Structure of Existence: The Flies.” In Sartre: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Edith Kern. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. An imaginative and penetrating interpretation exploring not only the play’s main themes and characters but also the difficult obstacle of reconciling Orestes’ ethical revolt with his love for his people.
Categories: Places