Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Respectful Prostitute (or The Friendly Whore): The Existentialist Construction or Racism

Note: This post is a review of a play that speaks to racial tensions in the southern United States during the 1940’s, and as such quotes a source text that uses pejorative terms based on perceived race.  The terms appear uncensored in this review in order to maintain the integrity of the source text.  This is not meant as an endorsement of these terms.

 

Jean-Paul Sartre; the man, the myth, the legend.

Jean-Paul Sartre; the man, the myth, the legend.  Fun fact: he turned down a Nobel Prize.

For many, existentialist theory is an esoteric subsidiary of academia that has no real meaning outside of allowing one to identify the most pretentious person at a party, but existentialism does have broad reaching social implication and can offer insight into one’s personal identity and struggles to define that identity, and can also provide understanding into the systems of oppression that marginalizes various peoples.  The academic writings of existentialist theorists like Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Albert Camus can offer insight, but the language of such theoretical works can be unengaging and even difficult to follow for even some of the brightest minds.  Sartre, like Camus, did not rely entirely on his theoretical work to expound his theories though; he also relied on his creative fiction.  It is through narrative that Sartre is able to demonstrate the value of existentialist theory and illuminate its practical application.  In his play The Respectful Prostitute (or The Friendly Whore as it might be translated from La Putain Respectueuse, which it the original French title), Sartre deconstructs the American mythos by creating a narrative that brings existentialist theory to life, illuminating how existentialist concepts such as facticity, authenticity, and Otherness shape our identities and influence our preconceptions of ‘race’ and gender and how ‘existence precedes essence’ also informs these social constructs.  Coupled with this, Sartre also demonstrates the flaws of rationalism and shows how logical fallacies can warp our perception of the world and compel us to indulge in actions that are counterintuitive to our authentic identity.

 

FACTICITY

 

 

Meg Mundy, who played Lizzie in the original stage production of

Meg Mundy, who played Lizzie at the Cort Theatre in 1948.

Facticity is the collection of elements against which an individual is defined.  Though existentialist thought defines identity as something formed by the individual, there are elements that one inherits.  Things like sex, perceived race, and nationality are all things which we inherit, and likewise, our own pasts are an element of our respective facticity.  Sartre weaves a conversation on facticity throughout the play.  When Lizzie, the title character, mentions to Fred, a man whom she has spent the night with, that his attitude in the morning fails to mirror his actions of the previous night, Fred replies that “What’s done at night belongs to the night.  In the daytime you don’t talk about it” (250).  Fred, then, is putting forward an existentialist argument that the present is not defined by the past and can be shaped in a manner that is incongruent with the past.  The irony of this is made clear when Fred defends his cousin Thomas, who has shot and killed a man of colour.  In order to defend his actions, Thomas has publicly and falsely accused the man he killed, and another man of colour who was witness to the crime, of rape.  Fred encourages Lizzie to lie and claim that the two men did attempt to rape her, and when she proves reluctant to do so, Fred tries to define Thomas, not by his current behaviour, but by his past.  Fred notes, for instance, that Thomas “comes from a good family” (256), and claims that “Thomas is a leading citizen” (257) whilst encouraging Lizzie to consider “the medals on [Thomas’s] uniform” (260).  Thomas’s medals speak to his past actions, not his current actions, much like his family’s status is one that was established before Thomas was even born.  Lizzie challenges this construction of Thomas’s identity and notes that on the train he “kept rubbing up against [her] and tried to put his hand under [her] skirt” (256), suggesting that he was actually the one guilty of sexual assault.  When Lizzie refuses to lie for Thomas, Fred then tries to suggest that Thomas’s fate is determined by his facticity when he bemoans that the life of the “finest fellow in town… depends on the whim of a floozy like this” (256).  The fact of the matter is, however, that Thomas’s fortunes are determined by his own actions, not the actions of a ‘floozy’.

 

 

TheRespectfulProstituteThere are several other instances where facticity comes into play.  Lizzie, for instance, believes that her misfortunes are the result of a bracelet she is wearing.  The bracelet, Lizzie believes, brings bad luck to the person who possesses it, but Lizzie also believes that she is not allowed to take it off.  The bracelet, of course, has nothing to do with Lizzie’s misfortunes. These misfortunes are, however, the result of her facticity.  Her proximity to the shooting was coincidental, and the racialized response is the manifestation of cultural and social influences.  A man of colour, who never appears on stage, is later lynched and shot when he is mistaken for the ‘Negro’ accused of trying to rape Lizzie, as Fred informs Lizzie: “They caught a nigger. It wasn’t the right one.  But they lynched him just the same” (273).  The man in question did not choose to be of colour, and his proximity to the events in the play are also strictly coincidental.  His fate, then, far from being related to his own personal choices, are strictly the result of facticity.  The issue with these readings, or course, is that they do contradict existentialist thought in a way in that neither the man who was lynched, nor the man who is falsely accused, nor Lizzie have chosen to be a part of this narrative, but at the same time, there is no suggestion that their authentic identity is altered by the actions that are beyond their control, so there is a preservation of existentialist ideals through this.

 

AUTHENTICITY + EXISTENCE BEFORE ESSENCE

 

Barbara Laage, who played Lizzie in a 1952 film production of The Respectful Prostitute.

Barbara Laage, who played Lizzie in a 1952 French film production of The Respectful Prostitute.

The notion of authenticity is closely linked with the concept of ‘existence before essence’.  The notion that there is an existence before essence is the belief that each person has an authentic identity that exists outside of the social construction of one’s self and the facticity the surrounds each person.  The struggle for an existentialist hero, then, is to behave in a manner that represents their authentic self, and this is the struggle for Lizzie.  Lizzie is asked to testify against the man falsely accused of trying to rape her.  Lizzie tells Fred that she doesn’t “want to bear false witness” (257).  Fred replies to this by trying to place the weight of Lizzie’s past on her, asking her is she was telling the truth the night before when she called Fred “‘honey baby,’ ‘lover man,’” and when she “signed to make [Fred] think [he] was giving [her] a trill” (260).  This is a false analogy, but aside from that, Fried implies that that if Lizzie indulges in a certain type of behaviour in the past, she must continue to indulge in it in the future.  Fred goes on to suggest that it is ironic that a “ten-dollar whore… wants to tell the truth.” He then explains that the facticity of the situation should dictate her decision: “There is no truth; there’s only whites and blacks, that’s all.  Seventeen thousand white men, twenty thousand niggers.  This isn’t New York; we can’t fool around down here” (256).  Fred’s analysis of the situation is that because of the numbers and tensions based on perceived race, Lizzie must do what will ensure no riot occurs as a result of such tensions.

 

Another shot of Barbara Laarge, likely reading the library of existentialist monographs in preparation for her role as Lizzie.

Another shot of Barbara Laarge, likely reading the library of existentialist monographs in preparation for her role as Lizzie.

Lizzie’s authentic self is made clear in the play, but not every character is able to identify it.  The accused man, who is simply called ‘The Negro’, seems to be intuitively existentialist.  When he goes to Lizzie’s home and asks her to hide him, she confesses, after she promised to tell the truth, that she signed a paper stating he tried to rape her.  He is surprisingly understanding, which shocks Lizzie who questions him, asking “Don’t you want to choke me?”  He replies: “Lots of times they force people to say things they don’t mean” (269).  The Negro recognizes that that Lizzie’s false testimony is not a representation of her authentic self, but rather the product of the ‘essence’ that is projected onto her.  The Senator discovers the authentic Lizzie when he returns to Lizzie’s home with an envelope from Thomas’s mother.  Lizzie had been convinced through an ‘appeal to her emotion‘ to testify on behalf of Thomas and save his mother the misery of watching her son go to prison.  The envelope, she assumes, contains a letter from Thomas’s mother thanking her, but instead it only contains $500.  Lizzie futilely looks through the envelope for a letter of gratitude (267).  The authentic Lizzie is an empathetic person, not a greedy person.  The Negro recognizes this, but The Senator does not.

THE OTHER

 

 

An artistic rendering of Jean-Paul Sartre, borrowed from here.

An artistic rendering of Jean-Paul Sartre, borrowed from here.

Intersubjectivity, which encompasses the psychological relationship between individuals, is central to the concept of the Other as it pertains to existentialism, and is likewise central to The Respectful Prostitute.  When one person sees another, they view them as ‘Other’, looking at them through ‘the Gaze’ and thereby objectifying them.  This plays a key role in perceptions of race.  In naming The Negro, Sartre encourages the audience and the reader to see this character as the other characters in the play see him.  The plays’ characters do not wish to identify who he is and instead objectify him as a ‘Negro’.  For Fred, this means a multiplicity of things.  The Negro represents a mass of twenty thousand people of colour, which in turn represents a threat to the seventeen thousand ‘white’ people.  Fred also suggests that “Niggers are the devil” (249), which objectifies people of colour by turning them into signifiers of evil.  The white community in the play, like Fred, does not differentiate between individual people of colour, but rather see them all as the same, which is demonstrated when they are looking for The Negro and find a ‘negro’ and confuse him with the one they are looking for.  The man mistaken for The Negro is lynched because he is seen as a member of the amalgamated Other.  The Negro internalize this as he notes early in the play, telling Lizzie that “When white folk who have never met before, star to talk to each other, friendly like, it means some nigger’s goin’ to die” (246).  The Negro see Others as experiencing a reality different than his own, and he internalizes this, feeling shame or anxiey and seeing himself as the world sees him, like the man in Sartre’s ‘key hole’ analogy, who hears a creaking floor and imagines somebody peering in on him and is filled with shame in imagining how he is viewed by the world.

 

FALSE ARGUMENTS AND RATIONALISM

 

Oscar winner Lee Grant, who was blacklisted in the 1950's, portrayed Lizzie in a 1962 television production of The Respectful Prostitute.

Oscar winner Lee Grant, who was blacklisted in the 1950’s, portrayed Lizzie in a 1962 television production of The Respectful Prostitute.

Existentialism, which suggests that people make decisions based on subjective feelings such as anxiety, generally stands in opposition to rationalism, which argues that people are rational creatures who makes decisions based on reason.  Sartre’s narrative attacks concepts of rationalism in two ways, the first of which is by demonstrating how what one sees as ‘rationale’ can often be an example of a logical fallacy and that basing decisions on such reasoning is counterintuitive to true progress.  The Senator, when trying to convince Lizzie to lie on Thomas’s behalf, relies on several flawed arguments.  He puts forward the ‘appeal to tradition’, by linking Thomas with American values, stating that he is “a hundred-per-cent American” and “comes from one of our oldest families” (264).  Just because he comes from an old family, though, does not suggest that he is a good person, nor does having views in concert with traditional American ideals mean that one is adopting sound ethical principles, especially considering that America was built on the backs of millions of slaves.  The Senator also uses the ‘appeal to the majority’, suggesting that if Lizzie lies for Thomas, “whole town will adopt” her (264), and then asks Lizzie if she “suppose[s] that a whole town could be mistaken this is something”.  This is later internalized by Lizzie who postulates to herself that “a whole city can’t be completely wrong” (272).  As we know, though, an entire country can be wrong judging by the actions of many Germans during the years in which the Nazis were in power.  The ‘appeal to authority’ is also employed by The Senator when he assures Lizzie that the town’s ministers, priests, doctors, lawyer and its mayor” (264-265) would all support her.  The appeal to authority is logically fallacy because authorities are not always correct, much like when Mel Gibson suggested that companies selling vitamin pills shouldn’t have to be regulated by the FDA (thank you John Oliver).  Just because Mel Gibson said it, doesn’t make it true.  It is not until The Senator invokes the ‘appeal to emotion’ that he is able to convince Lizzie to lie, telling her that Thomas’s mother Mary is a “poor, dear old lady, who is going to be killed by” the fallout of Thomas’s crime (261), and then  assures Lizzie that if Lizzie signs the affidavit that falsely claims The Negro tried to rape her, he will tell Mary that “‘Lizzie MacKay is a good girl, and she’s the one who’s giving [her] son back to [her].’  And she would smile through her tears” (261-262).  Rather than relying on reason to convince Lizzie, The Senator manipulates her emotions to convince her.  Though these are all instances of logical fallacies, they demonstrate how logic or reasoning can be flawed and that individuals should therefore not rely on logic exclusively.

 

Actor Earl Cameron, who played 'The Negro' alongside Lee Grant.

Actor Earl Cameron, who played ‘The Negro’ alongside Lee Grant.

The method through which The Senator finally convinces Lizzie is demonstrative of the second part of Sartre’s attack rationalism, as he demonstrates that humans do not rely on reason when making decisions, but rather subjective interpretations.  Lizzie makes it clear that she does not want to bear false witness against The Negro, but Fred, who is perhaps the antithesis to The Senator, tries to appeal to subjective and irrational means to convince her to testify against The Negro.  He first tries to bribe her, hoping that her elation with an economic windfall will convince her, but when she declines to do that, he threatens to have her convicted for prostitution by the police, hoping that her fear will compel her to bear false witness.  It is The Senator, who after failing with logic, compels an emotive response from Lizzie that encourages her to sign.  The Senator makes Lizzie feel guilty for the pain that will be endured by Thomas’s mother should he be sent to prison, and it is this guilt, not reason, that compels her to finally sign the affidavit, though this guilt is no doubt reinforced by the peer pressure and threat of prison.  Lizzie’s choice, then, is not based on ‘reason’, but emotion, and thereby demonstrating the fallacy of rationalism.

 

THE AMERICAN MYTHOS

 

Another shot of Lee Grant.

Another shot of Lee Grant.

Sartre’s play was likely about as well received in the South as the novels of Erskine Caldwell, Neil Young arena shows, and members of the Union Army, given that he portrays America, and the South specifically, as a prejudice, unjust and superstitious society.  The American Mythos often focuses on praising the founding fathers and forming their history in a manner that excludes the wrongs committed by America in the past, but Sartre’s presentation of American history does not hide the ugly past.  When Fred, for instance, boasts about his ancestry, he doesn’t simply state that the “first Clarke cleared a whole forest” and set up a farm, but also notes that “he killed seventeen Indians with his bare hands before dying in an ambush” (274).  It is this forcible usurpation of a territory belonging to an autonomous people that defines the birth of America, but this is not how American history is often taught.  The Senator employs a similar unabashedly frank presentation of American when defending Thomas: “He is a hundred-per-cent American, comes from one of our oldest families, has studied at Harvard, is an officer… a firm bulwark against the Communists, labor unions, and the Jews” (264).  This statement clearly situates America as a capitalist country where organizations that represent the captains of industry seen as ethically superior to the unions representing the working class, but it is also important to keep in mind that this play was published shortly after the end of WWII, and so the link between America and anti-Semitism  creates parallels between Nazi Germany and America.  Though America did not implement any anti-Semitic polices, it did have Jim Crow laws in effect, as well as a plethora of other laws the marginalized people of colour, and it seems clear that Sartre is suggesting and overt link between the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews, and America’s treatment of people of colour, not only in their past, but in their present.  Fred boldly states that the Clarke family has “made this country, and [America’s] history” is the history of the Clarke family (275).  Given that the Clarke family boasts how proud it is of its participation in the attempted genocide of the Native people, anti-Semitism, anti-union actions, and the murder of innocent people of colour, it seems quite clear this is indeed a reflection of American history and one Americans should take ownership of, but it is not one that Americans should be boastful and proud of.  Remember the Alamo? YES! I do, it was a war America fought so that they could usurp a region that belonged to another country so that they could bring slavery to the region, but American history classes, folk songs, TV shows and movies, prefer to focus on Davy Crockett and his stupid fucking hat!  Sartre challenges the American mythos by aligning its policies with tyrannical and oppressive regimes like the Nazi party through succinct and convincing allusive juxtaposition between the Nazis and the American political machine.

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION

 

 

Jean-Paul Sartre, who used to go by JPS until people started confusing him with GPS and GSP.

Jean-Paul Sartre, who used to go by JPS until people started confusing him with GPS and GSP.

The Respectful Prostitute is like an existential death-ray that is aimed by Sartre to deliver a razor-sharp skewering of American hypocrisy and logical fallacies (I just wrote that with the hope of appearing on a book jacket one day).  The work does have its limits.  It is a short piece, so the character are not fully developed and though their motivations are believable, there is a lack of depth in the characters themselves, with the exception of perhaps Lizzie.  Their actions, though, do have a depth that is not often present in most narratives.  Every small action invokes a larger question that offers the reader or audience insight into the themes that Sartre is trying to express.  Why, for instance, does Fred take Lizzie on as a mistress at the end of the play?  Why does she accept?  How does The Negro manage to not only forgive, but empathize with Lizzie?  Most characters are one-dimensional.  The Senator is the smooth, despicable orator, the police are simply extensions of the law, Fred is the entitled racist who far from feeling guilt for privilege, is proud of it, and The Negro is the empathetic victim who is intuitively honest and conscionable.  This lack of depth does not make them unbelievable or uninteresting, but it does limit them.  The work though is a success. It holds the reader’s interest, puts flesh on existential ideologies, and tells a story that, far from being esoteric, is relatable and engaging.  I do take issue with the title, and the translator seems to have softened up the language.  Translating ‘putain’ to ‘prostitute’ (which in French is actually prostituée, which rhymes with Téléfracias) instead of ‘whore’, seems to dilute the sentiments of the title.  It would be akin to replacing all of the pejorative terms ‘African American’.  It simply does not keep the spirit of the work.  It seems, though, that the translator (Lionel Abel) did maintain the spirit of the words in the play itself and may have altered the title due to pressure from Puritan minded publishers.  Overall, the work is a triumph in that it manages to animate and make relatable many of the core elements of existentialism that are often times inaccessible to many.  That said, I expect that this will remain the only play where a woman actually says “it’s too bad the n****r didn’t really rape me” (262).  Overall, this work can be summed up with two words: STARTISTICALLY SARTASTIC!

 

 

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out my thoughts on other playwrights from the mid-20th, such as Tom Stoppard, Arthur Miller, Gunter Grass, Eugene Ionesco, Max Frisch, and Harold Pinter. And if you are a fan of post-modern drama, be sure to check out my play The King’s Attrition, which is available for free on this website.  If you prefer prose, my novella thieves is also available for free.  Be sure to check them out, ‘like’, share and leave a comment.  And to get updates on my latest posts, follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler.

 

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Comments

  1. Might you know who owns the rights to this play?
    Thank you!
    V

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