Genet, Jean 1910–1986
Genet, Jean 1910–1986
Genet, Jean 1910–1986
PERSONAL: Born December 19, 1910, in Paris, France; died of throat cancer, April 15, 1986 in Paris, France; never knew his parents; was abandoned by his mother, Gabrielle Genet, to the Assistance publique, and was raised by a family of peasants.
CAREER: Novelist, dramatist, and poet.
AWARDS, HONORS: Village Voice Off-Broadway (Obie) Awards, 1960, for The Balcony, and 1961, for The Blacks. Literary Grand Prix (France), 1983.
Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs (novel), dated from Fresnes prison, 1942, limited edition, L'Arbalète, 1943, revised edition published by Gallimard (Paris, France), 1951, French & European Publications (New York, NY), 1966, translation by Bernard Frechtman published as Our Lady of the Flowers, Morihien (Paris, France), 1949, published with introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre, Grove (New York, NY), 1963, reprinted, 1991.
Miracle de la rose (prose-poem), dated from La Sante and Tourelles prisons, 1943, L'Arbalète, 1946, 2nd edition, L'Arbalète, 1956, translation by Frechtman published as Miracle of the Rose, Blond, 1965, Grove (New York, NY), 1966.
Chants secrets (poems), privately printed (Lyons), 1944.
Querelle de Brest, privately printed, 1947, translation by Gregory Streatham published as Querelle of Brest, Blond, 1966, translation by Anselm Hollo published as Querelle, Grove (New York, NY), 1974.
Pompes funebres, privately printed, c. 1947, revised edition, 1948, translation by Frechtman published as Funeral Rites, Grove (New York, NY), 1969.
Poemes, L'Arbalète, 1948, 2nd edition, 1962.
Journal du voleur, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1949, French & European Publications (New York, NY), 1966, translation by Frechtman published as The Thief's Journal, foreword by Sartre, Olympia Press, 1954, Grove (New York, NY), 1964, reprinted, 1987.
Haute surveillance (play; first performed at Theatre des Mathurins, February, 1949), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1949, French & European Publications (New York, NY), 1965, translation by Frechtman published as Deathwatch: A Play (also see below; produced as Deathwatch, Off-Broadway at Theatre East, October 9, 1958), Faber (Boston, MA), 1961.
L'Enfant criminel et 'Adame Miroir, Morihien, 1949.
Les beaux gars, [Paris], 1951.
Les Bonnes (play; first performed in Paris, April 17, 1947), Pauvert, 1954, French & European Publications (New York, NY), 1963, translation by Frechtman published as The Maids (also see below; produced in New York at Tempo Playhouse, May 6, 1955), introduction by Sartre, Grove (New York, NY), 1954, augmented French edition published as Les Bonnes et comment jouer Les Bonnes, M. Barbezat, 1963.
The Maids [and] Deathwatch, introduction by Sartre, Grove (New York, NY), 1954, revised edition, 1962.
Le Balcon (play; produced in Paris at Theatre du Gymnase, May 18, 1960), illustrated with lithographs by Alberto Giacometti, L'Arbalète, 1956, French & European Publications (New York, NY), 1962, translation by Frechtman published as The Balcony, (produced in London at London Arts Theatre Club, April 22, 1957; produced on Broadway at Circle in the Square, March 3, 1960), Faber (Boston, MA), 1957, Grove (New York, NY), 1958, revised edition, Grove (New York, NY), 1960, reprint of French edition edited by David Walker, published under original title, Century Texts, 1982.
Les Negres: Clownerie (play; first produced at Theatre de Lutece, October 28, 1959), M. Barbezat, 1958, 3rd edition, published with photographs, M. Barbezat, 1963, translation by Frechtman published as The Blacks: A Clown Show (produced as The Blacks Off-Broadway at St. Mark's Playhouse, May 4, 1961, and revived as The Blacks: A Clown Story by the Classical Theater of Harlem, 2003), Grove (New York, NY), 1960.
Les Paravents (play; produced in Stockholm, Sweden at Alleteatern Theatre, 1964), M. Barbezat, 1961, French & European Publications (New York, NY), 1976, translation by Frechtman published as The Screens (produced in Brooklyn, NY, at Brooklyn Academy of Music, November, 1971), Grove (New York, NY), 1962.
Lettres a Roger Blin, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1966, translation by Richard Seaver published as Letters to Roger Blin: Reflections on the Theater, Grove (New York, NY), 1969 (same translation published in England as Reflections on the Theatre, and Other Writings, Faber (Boston, MA), 1972).
The Complete Poems of Jean Genet, Man-Root, 1980.
Treasures of the Night: Collected Poems of Jean Genet, Gay Sunshine, 1981.
Un Captif Amoureux, Gallimard (Paris, France, 1986.
Rembrandt, translated by Randolph Hough, Hanuman Books (New York, NY), 1988.
Lettres à Olga et Marc Barbezat, L'Arbalète (Décines, France), 1988.
Elle, edited by Albert Dichy, L'Arbalète, (Décines, France), 1989, translation by Terri Gordon produced at Zipper Theater, New York, 2002.
Genet à Chatila, Solin, (Arles, France), 1992.
Splendid's: Pièce en 2 Actes, edited by Albert Dichy, L'Arbalète, (Décines, France), 1993, translation by Neil Bartlett published as Splendid's, introduction by Edmund White, Faber (Boston, MA), 1995.
The Selected Writings of Jean Genet, edited and with an introduction by Edmund White, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1993.
Le Bagne, (theatrical scenario), L'Arbalète (Décines, France), 1994.
Le Condamné à mort et autres poèmes, suivi de funambule, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1999.
Lettres au Petit Franz (1943–1944), edited by Claire Degans and François Sentein, Gallimard (Paris, France), 2000.
Théâtre Complet, edited by Michel Corvin and Albert Dichy, Gallimard (Paris, France), 2002.
Prisoner of Love, translated by Barbara Bray; introduction by Ahdaf Soueif, New York Review Books (New York, NY), 2003.
Fragments of the Artwork, translated by Charlotte Man-dell, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), 2003.
The Declared Enemy: Texts and Interviews, edited by Albert Dichy, translated by Jeff Fort, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), 2004.
Oeuvres completes, 6 volumes, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1951–79, portions published in six volumes, French & European Publications (New York, NY), 1951–53.
L'Atelier d'Alberto Giacometti; Les Bonnes, suivi d'une lettre; L'Enfant criminel [and] Le Funambule, L'Arbalète, 1958.
Work represented in anthologies, including Seven Plays of the Modern Theatre, edited by Harold Clurman, Grove (New York, NY), 1962. Creator of the film, "A Song of Love," based on Genet's poem "Un Chant d'amour." Author of scenario, "Mademoiselle," Wood-fall Films, 1966. Contributor to Esquire.
ADAPTATIONS: Le Balcon was filmed and released as The Balcony by Continental in 1963 and adapted as an opera by Peter Eotvos that premiered at the Aix Festival in Aix-en-Provence, 2002; Querelle de Brest was filmed as Querelle of Brest and Haute surveillance was filmed as Deathwatch; a filmed stage performance of The Maids was released in 1975. Selections from Genet's works have been recorded on Caedmon Records, including a reading by Genet, in French, from Journal du voleur.
SIDELIGHTS: Jean Genet's works rarely inspire indifference. For some readers, he was a creative genius; for others, he was a mere pornographer. Indeed, his works, his attitudes, his theories, and the criticism written about him seem founded on irreconcilable oppositions.
Although the facts of Genet's life are mixed with fiction, it is certain that he was born in 1910 in Paris. His father was unknown, and his mother, Gabrielle Genet, abandoned him at birth. As a ward of the Assistance publique, he spent his early childhood in an orphanage. As a young boy he was assigned to a peasant family in the Morvan region of France. The foster parents, who were paid by the state to raise him, accused him of theft; and some time between the age of ten and fifteen he was sent to the Mettray Reformatory, a penal colony for adolescents. After escaping from Mettray and joining and deserting the Foreign Legion, Genet spent the next twenty years wandering throughout Europe where he made his living as a thief and male prostitute.
According to the legend, he began writing his first novels in jail and quickly rose to literary prominence. Having been sentenced to life in prison for a crime he did not commit, he received a presidential pardon from Vincent Auriol in 1948, primarily because of a petition circulated by an elite group of Parisian writers and intellectuals. After 1948 Genet devoted himself to literature, the theatre, the arts, and various social causes—particularly those espoused by the Black Panthers.
Francois Mauriac, a fervent opponent of Genet's work, rebuked him in a 1949 article "The Case of Jean Genet" ("Le Cas Jean Genet") for what Mauriac saw as Genet's literary exploitation of vice and crime. Many critics conceded Genet's talent but deplored its use, which, ironically, helped confirm Genet's stature as a writer. At the opposite end of the critical pole were the Parisian intellectuals, led by Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Cocteau, who quickly became ardent defenders of Genet and his work. Sartre's 1952 portrayal of the writer as existential hero in Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr (Saint Genet, comedien et martyr) elevated him to the status of cult hero and his work to a legitimate object of scholarly research.
Unfortunately, Sartre's seminal work fostered almost as many legends about Genet as Genet himself had created; Sartre accommodated Genet's life, theories, and early works to his own existential philosophy. To give but one example, Sartre maintained that Genet loathed "history and historicity," an idea that is easily refuted given the historical content of so much of his creative work. Sartre's use of Genet for his own purposes, however, in no way detracted from the value of Saint Genet as a source for valid interpretation of the writer. For, be it the thesis (Genet as existential saint), or the antithesis (Genet as Mauriacian Lucifer), modern criticism clearly agrees that Genet and his works are best represented by the concept, first identified by Sartre, of the "eternal couple of the criminal and the saint."
Recent analyses of Genet's works have become less occupied with their morality than with their complexities of style, thematic structures, aesthetic theories, and transformations of the life into the legend. In addition, scholarship has revised many of the early opinions of his works. It is now clear, for example, that Genet purposely created myths about his life and art. The once widely accepted story of the uneducated convict creating works of genius in a jail cell was undoubtedly created to enhance his opportunities for financial and literary success. It is now certain that Genet had read Proust and that he was aware of his literary ancestors, such as de Sade, Rimbaud, Lautreamont, Celine, Jouhandeau, Pirandello, and the surrealists.
One useful aspect of the Genet myth is the idea that his development as a writer was from poetry to novels to plays. According to the legend, his initial creative effort was a poem written in prison, and, in fact, his first published work was his poem "The Condemned Man" ("Le condamne a mort"), of 1942. The period from 1942 to 1948 was dominated by four major novels and one fictionalized autobiography. He also wrote two plays, of which one, The Maids (Les Bonnes), was produced by Louis Jouvet in 1947. Although Genet made two films between 1949 and 1956 (Imagenetions and Song of Love), he commented in a 1965 Playboy interview that "Sartre's book created a void which made for a kind of psychological deterioration … [and I] remained in that awful state for six years." His most successful theatrical period was from 1956 to 1962. During that time, he wrote and presented three plays—all successful major productions. Various ballets, mimes, films, aesthetic criticism and socio-political statements were interspersed throughout his years of productivity, from about 1937 to 1979. Weakened by ill health, Genet published little after 1979.
From his first poem The Condemned Man, to his last work, the play The Screens (Les Paravents), Genet dealt with constant subjects: homosexuality, criminality (murder, theft, corruption), saintliness, reality and illusion, history, politics, racism, revolution, aesthetics, solitude. Many people have been shocked not only by his themes but also by his attitude toward himself, his life, and his material—and most of all by his stated intention to corrupt. He openly professed his homosexuality, his admiration for crime and criminals, his joy in theft, and his contempt for the society that rejected him. His vitriolic and scatological attacks on accepted social values made him the target of innumerable moralists.
Genet, whose work is often defended on the basis of its poetic style and inspiration, has been very little studied as a poet. In Richard C. Webb's Jean Genet: An Annotated Bibliography, 1943–1980, the section devoted to studies of the poetry consists of one page: two entries and ten cross-references. By comparison, entries for the plays require 295 pages. Clearly, the poetry has been seen as the least important part of Genet's work. Scholars point out that his poetic style and structure follow nineteenth-century models and that there are obvious borrowings from Valery, Verlaine, Hugo, and Baudelaire. Camille Naish in A Genetic Approach to Structures in the Work of Jean Genet established that the poems could be specifically linked in theme and structure with his subsequent works. However, Naish also quoted Genet as disparaging his own poems, "finding them 'too much influenced by Cocteau and neo-classicism.'"
Genet's early success as a novelist may certainly be attributed to various factors—to the support of Cocteau and Sartre, to the scandal arising from his subject matter, and to the notoriety of the thief as novelist. The critics long continued to accept the simplistic legend of the unlettered convict genius despite the classical references and other literary allusions, the sophisticated structures, and the sheer volume of work purportedly created between 1942 and 1948. The legend persisted until 1970 when Richard N. Coe published, in The Theatre of Jean Genet: A Casebook, an essay by Lily Pring-sheim in which she reported that the Genet she had known in Germany in 1937 was of "a truly astonishing intelligence…. I could scarcely believe the extent of his knowledge of literature." She also revealed that Genet begged her "to store away a number of manuscripts … and that he shared [with her friend Leuschner] an uncontrollable thirst for knowledge, for Leuschner, like Genet, carried books about with him everywhere he went: Shakespeare, language textbooks, scientific treatises."
A simple count of the major works supposedly created by Genet between 1942 and 1948, when he was in and out of prison, should have led some critics to question the legend. The staggering production of this period allegedly included four novels, an autobiography, two plays, three poems, and a ballet. Pringsheim's testimony supports the idea that a major portion of the work was done at an earlier date and in libraries with reference sources. In his very first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers (Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs), supposedly written in Fresnes prison, Genet accurately quoted from The Constitutional and Administrative History of France by the nineteenth-century historian Jean-Baptiste-Honore-Raymond Capefigue. Furthermore, in a letter to the author of this essay, Genet confirmed that he had read The Memoires on the Private Life of Marie Antoinette by Madame Genet-Campan. The fact that Genet had read these rather unusual works, had quoted accurately from one of them (supposedly while in prison), and had used the other as a source for material in his play The Maids, leads one to several conclusions: major portions of Our Lady were written outside prison, Genet was extremely well read and undoubtedly an habitue of libraries, and he probably received the basics of a traditional French education while incarcerated as a boy at the Mettray reformatory.
Of the five novels, counting the fictionalized autobiography, The Thief's Journal (Journal du voleur), critics consider Our Lady of the Flowers and Miracle of the Rose (Miracle de la rose) to be the best. Genet's first novel was brought to Jean Cocteau's attention by three young men who had become acquainted with Genet who was then selling books (some stolen) from a bookstall along the Seine. Cocteau recognized the literary merit of Our Lady. This novel's uniqueness stems from its basic philosophy, its sophisticated literary technique, and its composite central character Genet-Divine-Cula-froy. Some critics think that Genet, the uneducated convict, should be considered a precursor of the "new novel"—that literary movement which came into being as a protest against the traditional novel. Genet's works, like those of the well-known "new novelists" Alain Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor, may be considered untraditional in their disregard of conventional psychology, their lack of careful transitions, their confused chronologies, and their disdain for coherent plot structures.
To understand Our Lady, or any of Genet's works, one must turn to Sartre's Saint Genet for an explanation of the "sophistry of the Nay." In Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, Sartre explained Genet's view of the world by relating it to the concept of the saint. According to Sartre, saintliness results from refusing something—honors, power, or money, for example—and the seekers after saintliness soon "convince themselves and others that they have refused everything." Sartre went on to comment, "With these men appeared the sophistry of the Nay … [and] in a destructive society which places the blossoming of being at the moment of its annihilation, the Saint, making use of divine meditation, claims that a Nay carried to the extreme is necessarily transformed into a Yea. Extreme poverty is wealth, refusal is acceptance, the absence of God is the dazzling manifestation of his presence, to live is to die, to die is to live, etc. One step further and we are back at the sophisms of Genet: sin is the yawning chasm of God." From this concept, Sartre postulated the concept of the "eternal couple of the criminal and the saint": hence, the legitimacy of the pursuit of saintliness by the homosexual thief Genet-Divine-Culafroy, the hero/heroine of Our Lady. The plot of this "epic of masturbation," as Sartre first labeled it, is difficult to follow because Genet wanders from past to present without transition in an epi-sodic celebration of perversity. Louis Culafroy, a twenty-year-old peasant, arrives in Paris from the provinces. He assumes the name Divine and makes his living as a thief and male prostitute. Through the story of Our Lady's conviction for the murder of a helpless old pederast, it is the development of the Genet-Divine-Culafroy character which focuses the novel and provides its true literary merit.
Genet's seeking to canonize this homosexual thief and his use of metaphors combining the sacred and the obscene caused the moralists to rally to the defense of the traditional and the acceptable. Francis L. Kunkle in his Passion and the Passion: Sex and Religion in Modern Literature is representative of those critics who reject Genet's work; Kunkle found Our Lady to be "a kind of endless linguistic onanism which often collapses into obscene blasphemy." Most critics, however, consider Our Lady innovative in its treatment of time and its concept of gesture-as-act, sophisticated in its self-conscious aesthetic, and poetic in its use of incantatory language. In Jean Genet: A Critical Appraisal, Philip Thody defended the worth of the book: "There are a number of reasons for considering Our Lady of the Flowers as Genet's best novel, and the work in which his vision of reality is given its most effective expression. It has a unity which stems from its concentration upon a single character, and Genet's projection of his own problems on to Divine creates a detachment and irony that are not repeated in any other of his works."
In his next two "novels," Genet followed the successful formula used in Our Lady. Miracle of the Rose relates the story of Harcamone, "graduate" of the Mettray reformatory, who, betrayed by a fellow convict, murders a prison guard in order to die "gloriously" rather than serve a life sentence. The novel concludes with the mystical experience that Genet, the work's narrator, supposedly underwent the night prior to Harcamone's execution. Although this novel provides certain insights into Genet's life, the reader must be cautious about regarding the work as strictly autobiographical. The writer stipulated that his life must "be a legend, in other words, legible, and the reading of it must give birth to a certain new emotion that I call poetry." Miracle, which is easier to follow than Our Lady, may be marred by the excessive self-consciousness of its technique. Yet, as in Our Lady, Genet set forth in Miracle his inversion of good and evil, his longing for deification through degradation, and his homo-eroticism.
In The Thief's Journal Genet reveals much about his incredible odyssey through the criminal underworld and the sordid prisons of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Even if only partially factual, the book remains a fascinating social document. But whether Genet's works are primarily social documents or private mythologies is a question that frequently occupies critics. For example, Lucian Goldmann, in La Creation culturelle dans la so-ciete moderne (Cultural Creation in Modern Society), labeled Genet the "greatest advocate of social revolt in contemporary French literature." Yet, in Narcissus Ab-sconditus, the Problematic Art of Autobiography in Contemporary France, Germaine Bree stressed the mythological aspect of his work saying that Journal "gyrates upon itself, proclaiming its symbol-laden ceremonies to be fiction."
Funeral Rites (Pompes funebres) and Querelle of Brest (Querelle de Brest) are Genet's least successful works. Funeral is Genet's lament for a lover killed during the liberation of Paris, and Querelle relates the depressing story of a sailor who is a murderer, thief, and opium smuggler. Both works concentrate on homosexuality, and Querelle is the only Genet novel that is not fictionalized autobiography. The critical judgments about his novels reflect the antitheses so often associated with the author and his works: the novels are considered poetic eroticism or pornographic trash, lyrical incantations or demented exhibitionism, sociological documents or masturbatory fantasies. They have been described—and this is only a partial catalogue of labels employed—as existentialist, solipsistic, ambiguous, mythological, homosexual, popular, Freudian, semi-mystical, humorous, basically romantic, adolescent, obscene, blasphemous, ahistorical, archetypal.
After the publication of The Thief's Journal Genet turned to the theatre for the presentation of his radical views of the world. Perhaps because of his obsession with religion, the theatre proved a better vehicle for his ideas and techniques than did the novel, since the theatrical experience is, by definition and tradition, a form of ceremony, a rite. However, Genet had some problems in adjusting to the new medium, in seeing his fantasies corrupted by realistic treatment; during Peter Zadek's 1957 London production of The Balcony (Le Balcon), for example, he was barred from the theatre for disrupting the production. Yet he soon learned to stage his fantasies within the context of theatrical reality. More importantly, he met and accepted Roger Blin as his future director and interpreter. Under Blin's guidance, his theatrical genius blossomed in the productions of The Blacks and The Screens.
Critical reactions to the plays are as divergent as they are to the novels. In Theatre and Anti-Theatre: New Movements since Beckett, Ronald Hayman labeled Gen-et's plays "anti-theatrical." Lucien Goldmann focused on the socio-political aspects of the plays, which he considered examples of revolutionary, social realism. Between those two extremes exists a wide range of terms often applied to Genet's drama, including ritualistic, absurd, metaphysical, neurotic, nonrealistic, and cruel.
Genet's works for the theatre may be divided into two periods—1947 to 1949 and 1956 to 1962. It is generally accepted that although The Maids was the first play produced, Deathwatch (Haute Surveillance) was written earlier. The several revisions that Genet made of Death-watch suggest that he was little satisfied with the original version of the play so often compared to Sartre's No Exit. This first play by the "convict-genius" is tightly constructed, almost classical in conception and presentation. The unities of time, place, and action are strictly observed. However, the concept of decorum is violated by the on-stage murder of Maurice by Lefranc, and the language and premise of the author are definitely not classical. Once again, the spectators and the critic are confronted with the concept of the "criminal and the saint."
Genet established a criminal-religious hierarchy—that is, the more serious the crime the more "saintly" the criminal. Within this hierarchy Genet developed those subjects consistently found throughout his work: betrayal, murder, homosexuality, theft, and solitude. Although there is some dispute over who the "hero" really is in Death Watch, it seems obvious that Lefranc, not Green Eyes, is the preferred Genetian hero because he chooses his murder and opts for prison, whereas Green Eyes repudiates his murder. Furthermore, Lefranc admits that he is provoked to murder Maurice by an imaginary spray of lilacs, symbol of fate and death. Lefranc seeks to become the "Lilac Murderer" in imitation of other thugs who have acquired exotic nick-names appropriate to their crimes—the Avenger, the Panther, the Tornado, for example. Deathwatch thus serves as an excellent example of Genet's creative process. As the author of an essay in the French Review commented, "he began with a basic symbol, that is, it is unlucky to take lilacs into a house for they will cause a death, and then expanded this symbol to include the basic themes of the play—murder, betrayal, fate, sex, and the criminal-religious hierarchy. By bedecking his criminals with lilacs, Genet has created a gigantic and a new flower-symbol."
The Maids, based on an actual murder committed by the Papin sisters, is a one-act play that serves as a brilliant example of Genet's ability to create complex structures for what Sartre called his "whirligig of reality and illusion." Genet wanted very much to have the female roles performed by young men. He also wanted a sign posted to inform the audience of the deception. This would have added two more levels of illusion to the already complicated role-playing wherein one of the maids assumes the guise of their mistress and her sister plays the role of the sister playing the mistress. As the author of an essay in Kentucky Romance Quarterly noted, a remarkably complicated work results: "The complexity of Genet's genius is such that he can create a play such as The Maids based on 'historical materials' which is at the same time an illustration of the philosophical concept of the eternal couple of the criminal and the saint, a 'Fable' based on the history of Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution, and an example of a black mass."
The Balcony, unlike the first two plays in which there is a certain classical simplicity of form, is a long and complex series of scenes that take place primarily in Madame Irma's "House of Illusions," a brothel where various rooms are reserved for the ritualized performance of erotic fantasies based on such equations as sex/power, sex/religion, and sex/revolution. In the preface to the definitive edition of the play, Genet stressed that his play was not a satire but the "glorification of the Image and the Reflection…." Richard N. Coe, in The Vision of Jean Genet, considered The Balcony an example of Genet's essential conception of drama: "The highest, most compelling form of experience—the experience which Genet describes as sacred and which forms the basis of all his mysticism—occurs when the human consciousness becomes simultaneously aware of the two co-existent dimensions of existence: the real and the transcendental. This, as Genet sees it, is the underlying miracle of the Christian Eucharist; and it is also the principle of all true theatre." Given Genet's obsession with religion and saintliness, it becomes more understandable why he objected so strenuously to Zadek's realistic London production of The Balcony. For, as Martin Esslin pointed out in The Theatre of the Absurd, Genet desired that "his fantasies of sex and power … be staged with the solemnity and the outward splendor of the liturgy in one of the world's great cathedrals."
In a real sense, the first and last scenes of this complex play are summations of Genet's theories and theatrical techniques. The first tableau opens with a character wearing bishop's vestments in a whore house (attack on conventional morality). The bishop is a fake who turns out to be a gas-meter reader (whirligig of illusion and reality). Like the other Western power figures (the judge, the general, the chief of police, and the revolutionary), the bishop's existence is predicated on its opposite. The cleric can exist only if sin exists, for his function, which is to forgive sinners, depends on the antithesis of holiness (antithetical power relationship of the sinner and the saint). Within this same antithetical concept, the bishop later seeks to betray the chief of police (betrayal as necessary adjunct to saintliness). Concomitantly, the bishop is "holy" because he plays the role of a clergyman in a whorehouse, but he is less "holy" than the prostitutes because they are not playing the roles of but are truly prostitutes. Thus in Genet's upside-down world they are saints (sophistry of the Nay).
After a series of tableaux illustrating various Genetian subjects—betrayal, murder, the nature of royalty, illusion and reality, sex and power, the futility of revolution, function versus appearance—Madame Irma, the sole character who is not a victim of the need to live an "illusion," turns to the audience and advises them to "go home, where everything—you may be quite sure—will be falser than here". By breaking the theatrical conventions in addressing the audience directly, by blurring the distinction between the illusion of the theatre and the "reality" outside the theatre, the conclusion thereby reflects Genet's desire that the play be the "glorification of the Image and the Reflection." Genet the thief has once again "robbed" the bourgeois audience. An experienced crook, he diverts their attention with shock tactics while he tries to strip them of their values. The irony is that he not only tries to undermine their moral certainties but that he is enriched by their willingness to pay to be insulted and deceived. There is, in his mind, very little difference between picking a victim's pocket and doing what he does in the theatre. As the play ends, the sounds of a new revolution are heard, by which Genet intended that smug, self-righteous men be reminded that thieves, murderers, and revolutionaries will constantly strive to wreck their complacency.
Genet's last two major artistic creations, The Blacks (Les Negres) and The Screens may well have provided him with his most satisfying moments in his war on society. Both plays, in which racism or colonialism are presented within the context of Genetian ritual and ceremony, are vitriolic attacks on bourgeois values. The Blacks, written in 1957 and performed in 1959, is a play within a play. The audience, which must always include a white person or an effigy of one, is entertained with a ritual re-enactment of the murder of a white woman by a black man. The murderer is convicted by a white court—blacks wearing white masks. However, the trial of the murderer is a diversion from the real crime—a black traitor's execution—that is supposedly taking place off-stage. Presenting blacks acting out their hatred of whites and of white society, the play had its greatest success and most profound impact at the time of the race riots in America in the late 1960s. Although Bettina Knapp declared in Jean Genet that nothing real occurs on stage, that "The whole ritual on stage, then, is a big joke, a game, a 'clownerie' (the subtitle of the play)," it is more often believed that Genet's play was one of the first theatrical productions in which black actors confronted a primarily white audience with an expression of their suppressed hatreds and prejudices.
Criticism of The Blacks attested that, even in the black community, there was, as usual, a wide divergence of opinion. E. Bullins, the editor of Black Theatre, attacked the play and its author: "Jean Genet is a white, self-confessed homosexual with dead, white Western ideas—faggoty ideas about Black Art, Revolution, and people. His empty masochistic activities and platitudes on behalf of the Black Panthers should not con Black people…. Beware of whites who plead the Black cause." However, most critics, black or white, saw the play as an expression of black liberation, of black psychology, and of the bitterness in race relations. Very few critics accepted what director Roger Blin insisted was Genet's intention: to present a play that was an exercise in aesthetics, not in politics or psychology.
Genet's last work, The Screens, is an obvious attack on French colonialism and a virulent condemnation of the war in Algeria. As a result, it provoked hostile reactions from the right-wing element in France. Published in 1961, the play was not performed in its entirety until 1964 in Stockholm. Due to its explosive content, The Screens was banned in France until 1966, when it was presented for a total of forty performances at the behest of Andre Malraux, Minister of Culture. It must have delighted Genet's sense of irony to see his play produced at the Odeon, the theatre of France, for the play is an attack on the nation. Even more ironic was the need for police protection because of the violence directed at the actors and the author by "honest patriots." The outcast, the rejected orphan, the despised homosexual and thief, had had the last word.
It is a difficult if not impossible task to summarize The Screens, Genet's most complex play. Some ninety-six characters create "artistic" patterns on screens during the performance of a very complicated plot while dressed, for the most part, in fantastic costumes. The plot concerns Said, the poorest man in Algeria, who can afford to marry only the ugliest woman. An ascetic fig-ure, Said wishes to become as abject as possible through self-degradation; Leila, Said's intended, supports his intentions and seeks to become even uglier in order to help him achieve his goal. Having stolen, not from the French but from his Arab neighbors, Said is cast out by his own kind and ultimately arrested. The "hero" of this play is not only poor and ugly, a thief and an outcast, he is loathsome—or worse—dull. Of all of Genet's plays and of all of his heroes, The Screens and Said are the most calculatedly vile. Genet's images of filth and excrement abound, and both the French and the Arabs are portrayed as vermin. As Richard N. Coe wrote in The Vision of Jean Genet: "One might almost suspect that Genet, in a last desperate attempt to reconcile his artist's aestheticism with politics, is trying to use the conventional concept of Beauty—which he himself now identifies unhesitatingly with the enemy society—as an argument in favour of the outcast. But, in spite of the ingenious twists of logic involved … the argument defeats itself. For if beauty is sufficient to invalidate the claim of Monsieur Blankensee to so many kilometers of Algerian countryside, unfortunately it invalidates the claims of the Arabs simultaneously. What remains is not Arab-owned economy, but simply a Void, a zero."
Although Genet and Blin insisted that the play was nonpartisan, that it was a poetic and not a political statement, the hostilities began soon after the opening performance. The stage became a target for stink bombs and rotten eggs; numerous fights broke out between actors and spectators and between partisan spectators. In particular, a scene where French soldiers break wind in the face of a dead French officer caused howls of protest, mostly from cadets of Saint Cyr and from members of various veterans' organizations.
Although a definitive judgment of Genet and his works is difficult to make, a quantitative statement about the critical attention to him is revealing. Webb's Jean Genet: An Annotated Bibliography, 1943–1980, lists some 1,790 books, articles, theses, and other scholarly works; and this number does not count the many critical reviews of specific productions that Webb includes—for example, the seventy-two write-ups of the 1959 Paris production of The Blacks. Genet and his works are clearly the subject of much critical interest. Both author and works were catapulted to international fame primarily because of the scandal created by his "pornography" and because of Genet's association with Sartre. Yet, rather than debating the "pornographic" aspect of the works, most modern critics argue about their meanings. Any effort to categorize Genet's work may appear arrogant, but it seems appropriate to identify three subjects or characteristics—nihilism, complexity, and antithesis—pertaining to his entire canon.
Perhaps the most easily defined characteristic is negativism. Although the obvious nihilism may be a pose, it is one which serves several purposes. Ultimately one suspects that Genet used the sordid facts of his life as a means to escape it and that he recognized very early on that success is often founded on a loud, provocative, scandalous attack on bourgeois society. Some critics theorize that he created his own scandal based on nihilism and eroticism in order to become rich and famous and to gain a measure of revenge upon society. But whatever the source or motive, Genet's works reflect his unwavering pursuit of his ideals of nothingness and absolute solitude.
The word "complexity" is constantly present in critics' discussions of Genet's works. Whether the complexity was intentional or the result of literary, educational, or philosophic insufficiency depends on what education Genet received while at the Mettray reformatory and on when exactly he began writing. If we accept Pring-sheim's statements, Genet was not only experimenting with verse and prose in 1937, he had already written several manuscripts and was in possession of and reading Shakespeare, language textbooks, and other material—all of this many years before he supposedly wrote Our Lady of the Flowers in Fresnes prison and long before he had met either Cocteau or Sartre. His first published novel does clearly reveal sophisticated techniques and classical allusions indicating that the legend of the uneducated convict genius was greatly exaggerated by Sartre, Cocteau, and Genet himself. He may have been primarily self-taught, and it is certain that he spent long hours reading and doing research in libraries. But the story that he was miraculously endowed in prison with literary talent and a vast store of classical and literary knowledge is clearly apocryphal.
Finally, antithesis was the foundation of Genet's literary theories and techniques as well as the basis for his view of the world. Whether they treat the eternal couple of the criminal and the saint or the "sophistry of the Nay," his works are best understood through the figure of the mirror, long a symbol of thesis and antithesis, wherein everything is at once itself and its own opposite. Genet, like the dancer in his ballet "Adame Mirror," creates a series of gestures in front of a mirror that reflects a reversed image of reality. Certainly he used the mirror image throughout his works—Stilitano lost in the house of mirrors at the amusement park in The Thief's Journal, the vital role of mirrors in The Balcony. Perhaps even more pertinent is the symbol of opposing mirrors, mirrors which reflect reality reversed time and time again; indeed, Genet used just such a technique in The Balcony when the gas-meter reader plays the role of the bishop in the whore house, the fake bishop is then forced by the chief of police to play the role of the real bishop who has been killed during the revolution, and then after seeking to betray the chief of police in order to assume power in the real world, the would-be bishop rejects function in favor of "sublime appearance." The entire sequence may be interpreted as a series of reversed reflections of reality caught in opposing mirrors. Genet was undoubtedly a part of that literary tradition in France called "le poete maudit" (the accursed or outcast poet) and represented by Villon, the Marquis de Sade, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, and even Gide and Proust. Generally rejected by society, these writers sought justification, vengeance, or something comparable by rejecting or attacking that society. If there is redemption for these authors, it takes place because of a commitment to art. One can not say that Genet and his works are less acceptable than were Baudelaire and his works in the mid-nineteenth century. Baudelaire was even convicted of pornography for The Flowers of Evil, now considered a masterpiece and a source for much twentieth-century poetry. Genet should be read and studied for those same reasons we now read and study those other writers in rebellion—as a way to understand ourselves and our times. Genet—the orphan, the professed homosexual, the convicted criminal—forces his readers to face certain facts of human nature and history. His language and his beliefs may be offensive to some, but his work reflects the reality of the world of criminals and prison life. Genet must not, however, be considered a mere writer of social documents, for his genius lay in his ability to create works of great complexity in a style that interests the reader and challenges the critic. Finally, there is no doubt that his subject matter and his innovative techniques and structures made him one of the most significant and controversial French authors of the twentieth century.
Genet's works, letters, selected texts, and interviews continue to be published long after his death. Among these publications are some older works that have never appeared in print. For example, in 1993, Genet's play Splendid's: Pièce en 2 Actes was published in France and two years later was translated into English as Splendid's. Although written in 1948, Genet had decided not to publish the work as he kept refining it. Sartre, however, had read the play and, according to Bettin L. Knapp writing in World Literature Today, "believed it was superior to The Maids." The play takes place in a luxury hotel named Splendid's, where criminals have kidnapped the daughter of an American millionaire and are holding her for ransom. One of the kidnappers accidentally hugs the daughter to death and the leader of the gang makes an appearance on the balcony of the hotel wearing the daughter's gown. Other criminals roam the hotel in a variety of roles, including acting as Napoleon on St. Helena. Throughout the play, role-playing and allusions abound. Knapp commented, "To read Splendid's, even after having experienced Genet's great works, is still an enrichment. For within its pages one not only discerns the poetry of his discourse, the harmonies, cacophonies, and rhythms of his voices, but also the many dramatic elements, styles, and techniques he used-travesty, mystery, pantomime, irony, humor, gesture, stage accessories such as mirrors, shrines, and clothes."
In addition to new published works and reprints, literary critics continue to study Genet. Carl Lavery, writing in the Journal of European Studies, noted, "The last ten years have witnessed a significant shift in the way Jean Genet's work has been received. Where earlier critics were perplexed by his scathing attack on all forms of political discourse … [his plays and novels] are now valued for their acute social and political insights, and their author is celebrated as a visionary thinker."
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