Jean-Paul Sartre published La P… Respecteuse ( The Respectable Prostitute) in 1946, probably the play was inspired by the Scottsboro’s case which Sartre heard when he visited the USA. The case is about the Scottsboro boys who had a fight on a train with a group of white youths. After the fight, two girls who were part of the group testified in court that they were raped by the black males. This situation spread hate in Scottsboro’ population that wanted to lynch the boys to death. The boys were convicted of rape and sentenced to death. Some years later, it was discovered that the girls were prostitutes, and there was no rape at all. The boys who were already in the death row were released. The Scottsboro’s case inspired many literary works, songs, Broadway musical, Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Sartre’s La P. Respectueuse.
Sartre’s story occurs in a hotel room somewhere in the segregated South and has as its main theme the oppression minorities have to go through in America. In many ways the play anticipates some of the concerns to be discussed by blacks during the Civil Rights Movement (1955- 1968) which claimed dignity, economic, political self-sufficiency and the end of segregation. It had Martin Luther King and Rosa parks as some of its main leaders.
In Sartre’s story, Lizzie, a prostitute from New York who moves to the South has to face the situation of being cajoled to testify against a black man whom she knows is not guilty. Lizzie represents the disempowered group of women while the accused black man represents the black population which is also excluded from the American dream. Here, the playwright not only deals with the concept of solidarity among minorities, but he also criticizes the capitalist system in America which preaches individualism.
On one side Lizzie shares the whiteness of the Senator but she is not a member of the empowered male group due to her gender and social class. On the other, the black man shares the masculinity of Senator Clark but is disempowered due to his race.
Sartre emphasizes that their difference is also marked in terms of space. In the play, both the black man and the white woman are locked up in a room, while there is a group outside hunting the black man to lynch. They also despise the white prostitute. Imprisoned in the hotel room, they are not part of the America of Senator Clark; they are in borderlands. The meaning of this closed space is ambivalent; the hotel room functions as the margins. Their desperation in this closed space makes them feel disenfranchised. As Lizzie says:
Lizzie: … They’re coming down. Well, look at us, now! Aren’t we alone in the world? Like two orphans (Sartre, 1946:262).
They are considered the orphans of America; they cannot claim for their rights, either regarding gender or race. By being orphans their status contrasts with the other characters who constantly claim to have a mother. Sartre follows this concept of a nation, a motherland, which has white males as its subjects. In the play, white males as Senator Clark, Fred, and Thomas have a natural right to own the nation, a birthright secured by their masculinity and whiteness. In this sort of imagined community, they are the natural sons of America, while Lizzie and the black man are orphans.
The paradox here is that in order to affirm their subjectivity, the Clarks really need the other side, the disempowered, and this explains Fred’s obsession for both the black and the woman. Fred is obsessed by the black man and the prostitute in different ways. His hate towards the black male reveals a sort of fear and obsession. The prostitute threatens him through the possibility of her freedom. Fred needs to tame and dominate Lizzie in order to feel safe.
With Lizzie, Fred’s obsession occurs in terms of sensuality, sexuality, and appropriation of the woman’s body. Lizzie’s subjectivity is effaced while Fred affirms his masculinity, however, his sexual impotence represents the fragility of his power.
It is interesting that at the end of the play, Lizzie has a chance to kill Fred and be free from his domination, but she chooses not to do it, instead, she accepts his protection, and promises to become his wife, his partner.
Sartre argues that white women and black males will build a different relationship with empowered white America, and each group will choose a distinct way to deal with the nation.
It is worth noting that the discussion about women rights and civil rights in the US excludes black women, but that is another story.