Dirty Hands, an existentialist play written by Jean Paul Sartre, is by far the most engaging and thought provoking play I have read. Admittedly, I’m not a reader of plays as I have always found them sharp and brutal and out of touch with my interests. I have read Shakespeare as well as his contemporaries and Oscar Wilde but beyond that I have never felt the need to broaden my readings of the play form. Dirty Hands has given me the motivation I needed to search for plays, both modern and ancient, and to soak them up like I normally would a novel.
Dirty Hands is a seven act play that takes place in Illyria, a fictional European country during WWII, and is mostly told through flashbacks which are seen through the eyes of a young man. It was first performed on April 2nd, 1948 in Paris. The play is a twist on the whodunit (as we are told in the first act who performed the act of murder) but the why isn’t clear to either the reader or the protagonist, and a case could be argued that the ‘why’ is left ambiguous even after the curtain closes.
Dirty Hands is a social commentary on individual beliefs vs duty of a revolutionary vs political ambition and how the lines inevitably cross and become compromised. It’s a tale that is interwoven with Sartre’s favoured existentialist concept, essence vs experience. Dirty Hands is a story driven by power and duty and leaves you with the feeling that you have been hit over the head with a brick and thrown into a river to drown. It’s a story of brutal humanism and moral ambiguity, individualism and duty and what is means to be human. Dirty Hands is one of those text’s that leaves you gasping for breath in one moment and pleading for more in the next. It may not be Sartre’s most well known play but it’s most certainly his most powerful and transcendent.
Whatever you are doing right now, stop. Put that book aside. Stop the movie you are watching. Read this play. Now.