The Flies

The Flies Study Guide

Born in 1905, Sartre was an intellectual and writer whose political beliefs and worldview were greatly altered by the German occupation of France during World War Two. The invasion in 1940 was followed by the collaboration of the Vichy government, led by Marshall Petain, with the Nazis and led to a severe loss of freedom for the French people.

After being released from a German prison camp in 1943, Sartre joined the Resistance movement, an underground organization whose bravery and disregard for the inherent danger of their pro-Allied actions contributed to the flow of information from France to Britain and greatly influenced the outcome of the War. Sartre could not directly attack the Germans in his writings because he would be censored, but like his contemporaries with similar views (Camus, Giraudoux) he chose to express his views through the adaptation of Greek plays. The Flies is an adaptation of Aeschylus' "The Libation Bearers" and is a vehicle for Sartre's anti-fascist beliefs. Conditions in Argos mirror conditions in France; Aegistheus murders the true king of Argos and takes his place (representing the invading Germans) whilst Queen Clytemnestra supports him (representing the French government). The play is Sartre's call to action to the French people, urging them to rise up and take back their country. Simone de Beauvoir stated upon seeing it, “It was impossible to mistake the play's implications; the word Liberty, dropped from Orestes' mouth, burst on us like a bomb.”

The play shows us where Sartre was not only in his political beliefs at the time, but also in his own philosophical development. He was becoming preoccupied with the idea of personal freedom and responsibility, and began to see actual freedom as something that confounded people to the extent that they did not realize they were free. He also started to espouse self-government, postulating that if man was able to govern himself with total freedom, he would choose to do the right thing without being ordered to do so simply because he would feel a responsibility to do so. The Flies combines not only politics and philosophy, but also Sartre's two main philosophical beliefs of Existentialism and liberalism.

The Vichy regime did not ban the play when it was first staged in Paris in 1943; indeed, it was well-received by audiences (though critics were ambivalent).

Though it sometimes suffers in popularity compared to No Exit, the play has generally withstood the test of time and is still staged and studied. Many critics see it as Sartre’s purest dramatic expression of existentialist thought.