Most people only know Simone de Beauvoir as the common-law wife of Jean Paul Sartre and as the author of The Second Sex. Emily Blake's one-woman show, Simone De Beauvoir: On Sex, Art & Feminism, attempts to dispel this ignorance. Unfortunately, the play's plethora of real-life facts--many of them gleaned from Deirdre Baird's pop biography--doesn't sufficiently remove the mask of this misunderstood woman.
De Beauvoir was born in Paris in 1908. According to this script, however, her real life began when she met the revered founder of Existentialism. Although Sartre was short and "looked like a rat," the two fell instantly in love and began an often-painful relationship which lasted until the end of Sartre's days (though the two were opposed to the institution of marriage and never legally tied the knot).
The play begins many years later, with a phone call. Sartre is sick, possibly dying, which throws De Beauvoir towards the bottle and into a "drunken reverie" about her life with this abusive and magnetic man. Strangely, the conspicuous consumption of many, many glasses of wine don't seem to get her any drunker throughout the 45-minute soliloquy. In fact, Blake's mood remains pretty consistent--heartily saddened and nostalgic--as she recounts her painful relationship with Sartre, her books, and her affairs with other lovers.
Under the intelligent direction of Michael John Murnin, Blake's trips down memory lane are broken up into direct conversations with the audience (with Blake responding to imagined questions), and flashbacks where she convincingly mimics the wall-eyed Sartre. Despite such a linearly told narrative and sparse basement staging at St. Marks Theatre, Blake is actually quite entertaining. She is even occasionally funny ("Were Sartre's affairs the existential view of sex?"), and is certainly sympathetic as the traumatized yet ambitious companion of a pig.
Yet De Beauvoir's famous intelligence is somewhat absent. Although Blake refers to her ability to stand her intellectual ground with Sartre and other black turtleneck- wearing members of the Parisian bohemia, the character we come to know is little more than a grieving lover. It therefore comes as a shock that this woman could write such a powerfully feminist manifesto as The Second Sex. In fact, the book--and the response it garners--seem to shock her as well. When it is published, her friends shun her, while random women rejoice at her call for freedom. Suddenly, she is a political icon and then...this is the last we hear of her life.
The play ends as it began, with a call reporting the health of Sartre (which is imminently grave), reminding us once again that his life is ultimately framing hers. Upon his death, De Beauvoir still seems masked. But then, isn't the negation of self precisely what Sartre was seeking?