Could Jean-Paul Sartre have foreseen that his vision of hell would, in a not so distant future, become the literary foundation for a whole genre of home entertainment? I think we'll risk a "little did he know".
Little did Jean-Paul Sartre know, when writing his succinct play No Exit (Huis Clos), that the hell he placed his characters in would one day be a tv studio. Sartre's original vision of hell is a far cry from those of Vergil or Dante - which certainly doesn't make it less disturbing. No seven circles and limbo, no roaring fires, just a group of people placed together seemingly haphazardly in a locked room, all ready to get on each other's nerves - and doing just that. Sound familiar?
I am quite surprised that Sartre's play has not been brought up more often in the debate on so-called reality television. The similarities are quite obvious. Anyone who's ever had one or several flatmates can relate to the play. And when simply living with roommates, you are allowed to leave your room, even the house. The goldfish people of Big Brother are locked in together, and they've had no say in choosing their cohabitants. The title of the show refers to the literature of George Orwell, but I dare claim that the concept owes at least as much to Sartre and his cleverly constructed inferno as to Orwell's vision of a society of surveillance.
Of course, Big Brother is not the only show to sport obvious literary allusions while ignoring the literature that seems to show their true nature. The CBS series Survivor, for instance, is based on a Swedish original concept called Expedition: Robinson, that has similar spin-offs in all the Scandinavian countries. The allusion to Robinson Crusoe is obvious - the contestants are "stranded" on a "desert" island, struggling for survival - but hey, they're in a group, rivalling, and doesn't that already sound more like another novel one might have heard of? Survivor and Expedition: Robinson are as least as close to Golding's Lord of the Flies as to Daniel Defoe's shipwrecked hero, but I guess somehow "The Kill Piggy Expedition" sounds slightly less appealing and heroic.
And again, whether the contestants are on an island, in a house, on a farm, in a bar, running a countryside hotel or simply riding the elevator for 101 days, it's all about putting people together on a closed set and seeing what they will do to each other and how long it will take them to get on each other's nerves. L'enfer, c'est les autres indeed.
Of course, Sartre's characters were doomed to spend eternity together. The miniature hell of reality television is over in three weeks or 100 days - for the contestants, that is. For the rest of us, staying on the other side of the screen, it might just look as if we're doomed to an infinity of variations on the reality tv genre.