Sartre, Miller, and Pirandello

In the handout provided by the instructor regarding Sartre, there appears the line, "We define man only in relation to his commitments." This is a good place to start in analyzing characters from Miller's The Crucible, and Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author; in each play, we find a variety of personal commitments ranging from "good faith" to "bad faith" (problematic terms coming from a man who would reject any scheme of objective, universal value systems).

In The Crucible, the obvious candidate for "Mr. Good Faith of 1692" is John Proctor. Although he has had his moment of weakness with young Abigail Williams, he has taken responsibility for his actions and is trying to amend his life and marriage; he has a nose for mendacity and hates the smell of it; and he rejects the fire-and-brimstone variety of preaching prevalent in his day, embodied in the Reverend Parris--he realizes that it is a power play, a "bad faith" attempt to use the fear of God in order to take his place. Procter's last line before his death can be seen as existential: "Show honor now, show a stony heart and sink them with it!" (Act III, 613-4). Such acceptance and fortitude in the face of one's doom is the hallmark of existentialism.

Sartre tells us, "The best way to conceive of the fundamental project of human reality is to say that man is the being whose project is to be God."[1] This can certainly be seen in the persons of Parris, Danforth, as well as, in a warped sense, Abigail. While Danforth and Parris wish to be the omnipotent, unquestionable arbiters of justice (as they see it), Abigail's "God" is a more perverse, Old Testament or even pagan variety, capricious and vain, demanding total obeisance and inflicting cruel punishments upon the non-believers. All three of these characters could definitely be seen as acting in "bad faith."

One other notable character in relation to existentialism is the Reverend Hale. Although he starts out as an antagonist, his own ethical consciousness ultimately leads to an epiphany, a realization that he has been acting in "bad faith," and he takes responsibility for his actions by attempting to save the life of John Proctor. In the end he acts in "good faith," although at this point it is too late.

Pirandello's play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, has far more immediate existential implications. The "Six Characters" serve as an analogy for humanity at large: the absent "Author," like the absent Godot in another famous play of existential themes, is the absent God, the missing creator for whom the Six will search in vain. They are the absurd and at once discarded idea which, nevertheless, remains; a tiny group of superfluous beings searching for validation, for meaning, in an empty cosmos. What could be more Sartrean?

The father character has taken responsibility for his actions, _______________

[1] Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Human Emotions, p. 63.

namely of banishing his family and turning to whores for solace, and thus he is living up to Sartre's ethic. Yet he has not accepted his circumstance, that of a floating literary spectre, and insists that his story be told; he seeks validation in the eyes of others, which goes against the existential mode. "Hell is other people," Sartre writes in No Exit, and other people are the last place to look for any kind of approval or confirmation of one's own existence. The ontological question was settled long ago by Descartes, and one need not go beyond oneself to discover oneself. Whether the father's actions represent "good faith" or "bad faith" is difficult to say, as he is a fictitious character, as is each of his family members, and so the rules don't necessarily apply.

The leading man and leading woman characters seem to be acting in "bad faith" in that they are objectifying the characters they are attempting to portray, in order to get a handle on how to portray them. This is necessary to some degree in all acting and it raises the question of whether the whole act of acting is not tainted to some degree with "bad faith." In the world of Six Characters the answer would certainly be yes, but, since existentialism is more concerned with the objectification of other people, not fictitious characters, the actors of the world are off the hook.

In closing, it should be noted that existentialism, while interesting to kick around over coffee and liqueurs, is essentially an empty and unrewarding philosophy. In it, Sartre kills God and immediately dons a beard and a robe and jumps up onto the throne himself, issuing the same edicts, now translated into his specialized nomenclature. His stress on personal responsibility is simply a reworking of the ancient Hindu concept of karma. His "good faith" and "bad faith" are just reworkings of the Golden Rule. But credit must be given to his candor; when he states that man wishes to become God, he's not kidding. He knows what he's talking about.


Sartre, Jean-Paul, Existentialism and Human Emotions, Secaucus, NJ, Citadel Press, Inc., 1957.

©1996 Patrick Galloway

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