No exit: the best plays about confinement,
from Sophocles to Sartre
by Michael Billington
I could be
bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space,” says Hamlet.
He should be so lucky. A lot of plays in the history of drama deal with
self-imposed or enforced isolation. Here are just a few to remind us that our
current situation is not without precedent.
Sophocles’s Philoctetes (409BC)
Spare a thought for Sophocles’s hero. He’s been dumped on the isle
of Lemnos for nine years with a festering snake bite that stinks to high heaven
– that’s why the Greeks abandoned him en route for Troy. Mind you, he’s not without
company: Odysseus and Neoptolemus turn up to trick him into returning since
they need his expertise as an archer. There’s an ironically happy ending,
but Sophocles is the first great dramatist to
explore the corrosive effect of isolation.
John Galsworthy’s Justice (1910)
Can plays do any good? This one is often cited because the
wordless central scene shows a young clerk, sent to prison for forgery, locked
up alone and beating furiously and helplessly on his cell door. Winston
Churchill, on his sixth evening as home secretary, went to the first night and
was so shocked by what he saw that he changed the law on solitary confinement
and ordered that political prisoners, including militant suffragettes, be
treated differently from hardened criminals.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos (1944)
“Hell is other people,” is the line everyone remembers from
Sartre’s tragedy of confinement: one that shows a neurotic pacifist, a female
infanticide and a lesbian postal worker locked up together for eternity. Even
though dead, the trio seek to destroy each other. But you could argue that
Sartre’s gloomy message is contradicted by our current crisis, where isolation
is encouraging charity and goodwill. The play’s real pertinence comes from the
Beckettian final line, “Eh
bien, continuons,” as the trio confront an unending fractious
No escape … Ian McKellen
and Owen Teale in No Man’s Land. Photograph: Johan Persson
Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land (1975)
Pinter had several alternative titles for this bleakly brilliant
play: A Tomb of Honour, The Last Toast, Closing Time, Night Quartet. All reek
of desolation and finality. Yet there is also wit and humour in the play, which
shows Spooner, a minor pub-poet, seeking to penetrate the drink-fuelled
defences of a self-immured writer, Hirst. There is much comedy in their canter
through an imagined past and a strange gallantry about Spooner’s final attempt
to rescue Hirst from a permanent entombment.
Samuel Beckett’s Footfalls (1976)
Beckett was the poet of terminal stages, and all his plays deal,
in one way or another, with confinement or solitude. This, however, is one of
the most haunting in the way the physical action perfectly embodies the theme.
We watch as May, a middle-aged woman, paces relentlessly up and down a narrow
strip of stage communing with her bedridden mother whom we hear but do not see.
It is both an image of filial servitude and of timeless human suffering. Take
May out of her setting, as a production once did by having her roam about the
theatre, and Beckett’s vision is shattered.
Caryl Churchill’s Imp (2019)
Churchill often deals in big social themes but this play – part of
a quartet seen at the Royal Court last September – had an eerie, claustrophobic
resonance. The central image was of a pair of ageing cousins cooped up together
in uneasy harmony and bound together by a dark secret. They have a pair of
young visitors, but there was an element of the comic-macabre about the
relationship between Toby Jones’s depressive Jimmy and Deborah Findlay’s
quietly murderous Dot. It says a lot about the play’s suggestive power that you
wonder how they would cope with our current enforced lockdown.
Toby Jones in Caryl Churchill’s Imp. Photograph: Johan Persson