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The Flies (French: Les Mouches) is a play by Jean-Paul Sartre, written in 1943. It is an adaptation of the Electra myth, previously used by the Greek playwrights Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides. The play recounts the story of Orestes and his sister Electra in their quest to avenge the death of their father Agamemnon, king of Argos, by killing their mother Clytemnestra and her husband Aegisthus, who had deposed and killed him.
Sartre incorporates an existentialist theme into the play, having Electra and Orestes engaged in a battle with Zeus and his Furies, who are the gods of Argos and the centerpiece for self-abnegating religious rituals. This results in fear and a lack of autonomy for Zeus's worshippers, who live in constant shame of their humanity.
Orestes first arrives as a traveler with his tutor/slave, and does not seek involvement. Orestes has been traveling in a quest to find himself. He enters the story more as an adolescent with a girlish face, one who does not know his path or responsibility. He enters the city and introduces himself as Philebus ("lover of youth"), to disguise his true identity. Zeus, also disguising his true identity, has followed Orestes on his journey. Orestes has come on the eve of the day of the dead, a day of mourning to commemorate the killing of Agamemnon fifteen years prior. No townsperson will speak to Orestes or his tutor because they are strangers and not mourning, remorseful or dressed in all black. Orestes meets his sister, Electra, and sees the terrible state that both she and the city are in. Electra has been treated as a servant girl since her mother and Aegisthus killed her father. She longs to exact her revenge and refuses to mourn for the sins and death of Agamemnon or of the townspeople.
Orestes goes to the ceremony of the dead, where the angry souls are released by Aegisthus for one day where they are allowed out to roam the town and torment those who have wronged them. The townspeople have to welcome the souls by setting a place at their tables and welcoming them into their beds. The townspeople have seen their purpose in life as constantly mourning and being remorseful of their "sins". Electra, late to the ceremony, dances on top the cave in a white gown to symbolize her youth and innocence. She dances and yells to announce her freedom and denounce the expectation to mourn for deaths not her own. The townspeople begin to believe and think of freedom until Zeus sends a contrary sign to deter them, and to deter Orestes from confronting the present King.
Orestes and Electra unite and eventually resolve to kill Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. Zeus visits Aegisthus to tell him of Orestes's plan and convince him to stop it. Here Zeus reveals two secrets of the gods: 1) people are free and 2) once they are free and realize it, the gods cannot touch them. It then becomes a matter between men. The ceremony of the dead and its fable has enabled Aegisthus to keep control and order over the town, instilled fear among them. Aegisthus refuses to fight back when Orestes and Electra confront him. Orestes kills Aegisthus and then he alone goes to Clytemnestra's bed chamber and kills her as well.
Orestes and Electra flee to the temple of Apollo to escape men and the flies. At the temple, the furies wait for Orestes and Electra to leave the sanctuary so the furies can attack and torture them. Electra fears her brother and begins to try to avoid her responsibility for the murders. She attempts to evade guilt and remorse by claiming she had only dreamt of murder for 15 years, as a form of release, while Orestes is the actual murderer. Orestes tries to keep her from listening to the Furies - which are convincing her to repent and accept punishment.
Zeus attempts to convince Orestes to atone for his crime, but Orestes says he cannot atone for something that is not a crime. Zeus tells Electra he has come to save them and will gladly forgive and give the throne to the siblings, if they repent. Orestes refuses the throne and belongings of the man he killed. Orestes feels he has saved the city by removing the veil from their eyes and exposing them to freedom. Zeus says the townspeople hate him and are waiting to kill him; he is alone. The scene at the temple of Apollo represent a decision between God's law and self-law (autonomy). Zeus points out that Orestes is foreign even to himself. Sartre demonstrates Orestes' authenticity by stating that, since his past does not determine his future, Orestes has no set identity: he freely creates his identity anew at every moment. He can never know who he is with certainty because his identity changes from moment to moment.
Orestes still refuses to repudiate his actions. In response, Zeus tells Orestes of how he himself has ordered the universe and nature based on Goodness, and by rejecting this Goodness, Orestes has rejected the universe itself. Orestes accepts his exile from nature and from the rest of humanity. Orestes argues Zeus is not the king of man and blundered when he gave them freedom - at that point they ceased to be under god's power. Orestes announces he will free the townspeople from their remorse and take on all their guilt and "sin" (author makes reference to Jesus Christ). Here Orestes somewhat illustrates Nietzsche's overman by showing the townspeople his power to overcome pity. Electra chases after Zeus and promises him her repentance.
When Electra repudiates her crime, Orestes says that she is bringing guilt on herself. Guilt results from the failure to accept responsibility for one's actions as a product of one's freedom. To repudiate one's actions is to agree that it was wrong to take those actions in the first place. In doing this, Electra repudiates her ability to freely choose her own values (to Sartre, an act of bad faith). Instead, she accepts the values that Zeus imposes on her. In repudiating the murders of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, Electra allows Zeus to determine her past for her. She surrenders her freedom by letting her past take on a meaning that she did not give to it by herself, and as a result she becomes bound to a meaning that did not come from her. Electra can choose, like Orestes, to see the murders as right and therefore to reject feelings of guilt. Instead, she allows Zeus to tell her that the murders were wrong and to implicate her in a crime.
The Furies decide to leave her alone in order to wait for Orestes to weaken so they can attack him. The Tutor enters but the Furies will not let him through. Orestes orders him to open the door so that he may address his people. Orestes informs them he has taken their crimes upon himself and that they must learn to build a new life for themselves without remorse. He wishes to be a king without a kingdom, and promises to leave, taking their sins, their dead, and their flies with him. Telling the story of the pied piper, Orestes walks off into the light as the Furies chase after him.
Zeus (Greek) / Jupiter (Roman)
Orestes (Philebus) : the brother of Electra, the son of Agamemnon
Electra : the sister of Orestes, the daughter of Agamemnon
Agamemnon : the king of Argos, the father of Orestes and Electra
Clytemnestra : the wife of Aegisthus, the mother of Orestes and Electra
Aegisthus : the husband of Clytemnestra
Sartre's idea of freedom specifically requires that the being-for-itself be neither a being-for-others nor a being-in-itself. A being-for-others occurs when human beings accept morals thrust onto them by others. A being-in-itself occurs when human beings do not separate themselves from objects of nature. Zeus represents both a moral norm, the Good, and Nature. Freedom is not the ability to physically do whatever one wants. It is the ability to mentally interpret one's own life for oneself—to define oneself and create one's own values. Even the slave can interpret his or her life in different ways, and in this sense the slave is free.
The Flies also shows the effect of Nietzsche on Sartre. Orestes represents the idea of the overman, as described in works such as Thus Spoke Zarathustra; the ability to free one's mind from dogma and the impressions of others, and instead think on a higher level. Like Zarathustra, Orestes feels he must "go down" to the people and open their eyes (though unlike Zarathustra, Orestes does it out of compassion). When debating Zeus, Orestes also talks about being "beyond" the moral yoke others allow to be placed on them - an idea explicitly discussed in Beyond Good and Evil, and implicitly described in other works by Nietzsche. Orestes is not bound by the false dichotomy of "good" and "evil," and instead accepts what has been done, choosing to focus on the present and the future.
After a first smaller US production at Vassar College early in April 1947, the play received its New York City debut at the President Theatre on April 16, 1947. It was directed by the head of the Dramatic Workshop, German expatriate stage director Erwin Piscator. The New York Times' critic Lester Bernstein reacted favorably to the play and its production:
|“||The Dramatic Workshop's skillful production takes this dramatic history of the play into full account by employing several theatrically effective devices, including a newsreel curtain-raiser depicting the Nazi heyday.||”|
Compared to the Oresteia
The Flies is also a modern take on Aeschylus’ trilogy, the Oresteia. While Sartre keeps many aspects of the original story by Aeschylus, he adjusts the play to fit his views, with strong themes of freedom from psychological slavery. He focuses most on the second play in the Oresteia trilogy, only referencing the first play, Agamemnon, with the mention of Agamemnon’s death by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. The plot of the third play, The Eumenides is also excluded because in that play, the Council of Elders absolves Orestes of his sins, but since Sartre depicts Orestes as remorseless, he cannot include that storyline in his play without having to change his storyline. Unlike in Aeschylus’ The Libation Bearers, where revenge is one of the main themes throughout the play, Sartre’s Orestes does not kill Aegisthus and Clytemnestra for vengeance or because it was his destiny, instead it is for the sake of the people of Argos, so that they may be freed from their enslavement. Sartre wants to stress the fact that Orestes comes to that decision by himself, without the aid or direction of any outside forces, which contrasts with the Orestes in The Libation Bearers, who relies heavily on the direction of the gods. Sartre even diminishes the character of Clytemnestra so that there is much less emphasis on matricide than there is in the version by Aeschylus. While Electra is guilt-stricken after the death of Clytemnestra, Orestes feels no remorse for killing his mother, so his relationship with her is not very important. Sartre’s representation of the Furies differs from that of Aeschylus in that, instead of attempting to avenge the crimes committed, they try to evoke guilt from those who committed them. Sartre does this to reiterate the importance of amenability; he wants to prove that remorse should only be felt if one believes the act committed is wrong. By acting in what he believes to be a righteous way and killing the king and queen, Orestes takes responsibility for his actions without feeling any remorse for them.
- Lester Bernstein: Critique of The Flies, in: The New York Times, April 18, 1947, cf. Thomas George Evans: Piscator in the American Theatre. New York, 1939–1951. Ann Arbor: University of Wisconsin Press 1968, p. 298.