The most prominent intellectual movement of the mid-twentieth century was the concept of Existentialism. The Existentialists emphasized the freedom of the individual mind and criticized a number of aspects of society, often focusing on religion. Jean-Paul Sartre was especially critical of religion, as is expressed in his 1943 play Les Mouches, or The Flies. This play is a retelling of Sophocles' Electra, a play which told of the brutal murder of Agamemnon, king of Argos, by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegistheus, who becomes the new king. When the long-banished son of Agamemnon, Orestes, returns to Argos to avenge his father's death, he is punished by Zeus and the Furies for his attempt at revenge. In Sartre's new interpretation, Aegistheus sends his entire city into a permanent state of repentance not just for his own misdeed, but for all sins that they committed themselves. Their grief pleases Zeus, thus the deity is angered by the arrival of the guiltless Orestes, who is untouchable by the gods since he is not shackled by penitence. Sartre clearly demonstrates several tenets of Existentialism's view of religion, as evidenced by his attack on religious guilt, the theme of the individual mind defeating and destroying religion, and of each person being the judge of their own conduct.
One of the primary focuses of The Flies is its denunciation of religious guilt. A prominent part of the play's plot is Aegistheus' institution of an annual day of punishment in Argos for all of the citizens' misdeeds, a day on which the ghosts of the dead people whom they have wronged supposedly come back to haunt them for twenty four hours. This day, however, is really just a fraud made up by Aegistheus and Zeus. Its purpose is, for Aegistheus, to make the people think that he actually feels remorse for his crime against the dead king and to make his misdeed seem smaller by accentuating the sins of everyone else (98), and for Zeus, to bring all of the people feelings of anguish and penitence, a suffering which he delights in (64). In this Sartre illuminates the notion of repentence's being a fraudulent falsity, a lie motivated by the material objectives of men, not valid purposes of gods. The fact that in this play Zeus takes on the form of a living human who speaks to other characters makes him appear, purposefully, as a man rather than a god, implying that gods are merely man's creation. Zeus is also shown as a villainous character, one who enjoys only the pain of others, making statements such as, "I like crimes that pay...What good to me is a carefree murder, a shameless, sedate crime, that lies light as thistledown on the murderer's conscience?" (102). This suggests that even if gods do exist, they are depraved and are not worthy of man's guilt. Now Orestes has returned to Argos, and Zeus detests him because he has no guilt. Zeus declares, "Ah, how I loathe the crimes of this new generation; thankless and sterile as the wind! Yes, that nice-minded young man will kill [Aegistheus] as he'd kill a chicken; he'll go away with red hands and a clean heart" (102). Orestes, the aforementioned killer, is the hero of the play. The other citizens, however, those who do repent and fear the day when their dead rise from their graves, are depicted as dumb, corrupted wretches who use poor grammar, have committed ridiculous sins, and follow their kings every lying word mindlessly (75-8). This strikes yet another blow at religious guilt, making The Flies a prime example of Existentialism in action.
In addition to an attack on religious guilt, the play also displays themes of the individual mind defeating and destroying religion. In the original Electra, Orestes meets dire consequences for his vengeful killing of Aegistheus and Clytemnestra, having his flesh eaten by the Furies. On the contrary, in The Flies, Orestes remains victorious solely due to his guiltless conscience. Electra, his sister and partner in crime, is the one who planned the murders in the first place, years before Orestes' arrival, and she is the one who talked Orestes into performing the deed when he came to Argos. Yet Electra, the mastermind of the murders, becomes stricken with guilt afterwards as she and Orestes take refuge in the shrine of Apollo (113), and it is due to this guilt that she becomes easy prey for the Furies, and succumbs. Meanwhile, Orestes believes that the killings were for a good purpose, and does not regret them in the least. Therefore, without guilt, the Furies are unable to eat him. Orestes tells Electra pleadingly, "It's your weakness gives them their strength" (114), a statement which encapsulates perfectly the way in which the mind is able to conquer the gods in the play. Zeus now comes to goad Orestes into remorse, but no booming declaration can make Orestes regret his actions. It is because of this strength of the young man's mind that the gods cannot touch him, and are rendered powerless against him as he walks past them, throws open the doors of the shrine, and steps outside into the daylight, thus defeating religion with his mind and with his unbelief.
Similarly, Sartre also demonstrates common principles of Existentialism by showing individuals to be the judge of their own conduct. When Zeus goes to the shrine of Apollo to prod Orestes into feeling guilt for his actions and thus enter into penance, he launches into a mighty tirade (115) that could wear down the most stubborn of challengers, except for Orestes. Earlier Zeus had spoken with Aegistheus, telling him that Orestes was free, and knew he was free, to which Aegistheus had responded, "A free man in a city acts like a plague-spot" (104), and to which Zeus had added, "Once freedom lights its beacon in a man's heart, the gods are powerless against him" (104). They were correct. The gods judge Orestes' deeds as terrible and worthy of much remorse. Orestes, however, judges his actions as right in the name of honor, dignity, and proper vengeance, and nothing can dissuade him of that belief. Therefore, even when Zeus draws apart the walls of the shrine, revealing the heavens in all their splendor, with planets and stars spinning brightly, and proceeds to proclaim (with music in the background) the wonders of his creations in the universe and the goodness of the world, and the tiny insignificance of Orestes in comparison with all else, and orders him to cease his audacity lest the earth crumble at his feet (119-20), Orestes replies, "Let it crumble!...You are the king of gods, king of stones and stars, king of the waves of the sea. But you are not the king of man" (120). Orestes chooses to judge his conduct; he does not allow the gods to judge it, and it is through this that he makes himself free from their power.
In conclusion, in Jean-Paul Sartre's three-act play The Flies can be found several indications of Existentialist attitudes toward religion. Sartre lashes out at the frequent use of guilt in religion, and extols the ability of the individual mind to conquer religion and to judge its own actions. The Flies was Sartre's first play, written during the time of the German occupation of France, giving the main themes of The Flies an interesting contrast against the situation in Sartre's country at the time. This play and many others continue to define the era in which Existentialism developed.
Incidentally, I got an A on this paper.