JEAN GENET 1956
Jean Genet’s The Balcony (Le Balcon in original French) is considered by many to be the one of his masterpieces, though it was written after he said he would give up writing plays altogether. The Balcony was his first commercially successful play. Like many of Genet’s works, the play was inspired by Genet’s contempt for society and obsession with topics such as sex, prostitution, politics, and revolution. Set inside a brothel where common men play men of power in their sexual fantasies, The Balcony reflects on the emptiness of societal roles. Reality and illusion feed off each other in the difficult play. Dreams may make reality tolerable, but when they come true, as when the customers are forced to live the roles they play, it is not as satisfying.
The Balcony was first published in 1956, and was first produced in London on April 22, 1957, at the Arts Theatre Club. Genet did not like the production because it was done in a way that was too tasteful and realistic. His protests led to his banishment from the theater during the production. The play made its American debut in March 1960 at the Circle in the Square Theater, in New York City. There The Balcony ran for 672 performances and won an Obie Award for Genet. It was generally well received, though some critics thought it was hard to understand because of its complexity and reliance on illusion. The first French performance of The Balcony took place in May 1960. Since these initial performances, the play has been produced on a regular basis. As Donald Malcolm of the NewYorker wrote, “M. Genet’s vision of society is both perverse and private, and his play is a species of Grand Guignol—arresting, horrific, and trivial.”
Genet was born on December 19, 1910, in Paris, France. He was the illegitimate son of Gabrielle Genet, a prostitute, and an unknown father. He was abandoned at birth, and did not discover the name of his mother until he was twenty-one years old. Genet spent his early years in a state-run orphanage, before being sent to the country to live with foster parents at the age of seven. Caught stealing from the purse of his foster mother, Genet was labeled a thief. He embraced the label, and any subsequent accusations of criminal activity. By the time Genet was a teenager, he was a confirmed juvenile delinquent, and confined to a reform school.
When Genet was twenty-one years old, he ran away and signed up for the French Foreign Legion. He deserted the military in short order, and spent the next ten years wandering Europe—including Nazi Germany—committing crimes. He continued to steal, as well as work as a male prostitute, pimp, and smuggler. Genet was arrested, imprisoned, and expelled from several countries.
When Genet returned to France during the German occupation in 1941, he was jailed for theft. It was while he was in prison that he began writing. Genet garnered the attention of Jean Cocteau, a leading French writer and artist, for his poem “Under the Sentence of Death.” The piece was written about another prisoner who was being executed for murder. Genet’s poetry was collected and published in 1948 under the title Poemes.
Still a prisoner, Genet began work on a novel. His first pages were confiscated and burned, but Genet began again. The book, Lady of Flowers, was published in 1942 and made Genet a literary sensation. Genet wrote several more novels over the course of his life, including The Miracle of the Rose(1946) and The Thief’s Journal(1948). Many of his novels had an autobiographical element and concerned the seamier side of life.
In the mid-1940s, Genet turned to writing plays. The first two, Deathwatch and The Maids, were also about criminals. When The Maids—based on a true story of murdering sisters—was produced in 1947, Genet received some acclaim. Despite his success as a writer, Genet had not given up his life of crime. He was again convicted of theft, and it was only through a petition signed by France’s leading writers and artists that he avoided a life sentence in prison.
Genet wrote his most celebrated and commercially successful plays in the late 1950s: The Balcony(1956) and The Blacks(1957). Both black comedies played well in Europe and the United States. In 1960, Genet wrote The Screens, which was not produced until the late 1960s in France. The Screens was ambitious: a five hour epic, a cast of at least forty was needed to perform it.
Towards the end of his life, Genet also wrote nonfiction, though he produced nothing in his final decade. Genet died of throat cancer on April 15, 1986. Upon his death, he was celebrated as one of the most important and colorful figures in twentieth-century French literature.
The Balcony opens in a brothel, The Grand Balcony, that caters to the fantasies of its male clientele. Irma, the owner of the whorehouse, is arguing with a customer over a fee. He is dressed as a bishop, and is only interested in the revolution that is going on outside and the truthfulness of the sins the woman who serviced him has confessed to. Irma tries to hurry him, but he will not be rushed. He enjoys his role and continues to play it. He does not leave despite the fact that his safety is at risk outside.
Inside a room in the brothel, a client plays out a fantasy as a Judge. His whore plays a thief who is about to be executed by the executioner, played by a male employee of the establishment named Arthur. The Judge also relishes his role-play. Every outside noise, however, upsets him. He worries about the revolution, sharing the latest information with the other two. When he returns to his role, he can enjoy it too much, scaring the woman. Mostly, the Judge is the one who is humiliated by the other two for his pleasure.
In another room, Irma arranges the setting for the liking of a client who plays a General. Though he is concerned about his safety, he is equally obsessed about the details of his fantasy, and wants them followed to the letter. The General’s whore is nearly naked and acts like his horse.
Another client acts out his fantasy as a tramp. He looks at his reflection in three mirrors, and is very happy when his whore hands him a wig with fleas to wear. Sounds of machine gun fire are heard in the background.
Inside Irma’s room, she is going over accounts with her bookkeeper Carmen, who used to be one of her whores. Irma worries that her lover, George, who is also the Chief of Police, has not shown up yet. She notices that Carmen has changed recently. Carmen tells her she is not happy. She did not like the rules that Irma set up for the women that work at the brothel. They cannot talk about what they do or laugh. Carmen also misses her daughter.
While they talk, Irma checks in on her clients via a device similar to a closed-circuit monitoring system. Irma is rather callous towards Carmen’s feelings. She only cares about her business and her material possessions. Carmen tries to explain her problems with the roles she has been required to play, but Irma does really care. She is preoccupied by the revolution going on outside, and the imminent appearance of George.
Irma attempts to appease Carmen by offering her a role as Saint Theresa for a nice client. Carmen is flattered, but only sees the futility of their work. Irma talks proudly about the power of her “house of illusions” and tells Carmen that she is one of the best of her employees. Sounds of fighting between the rebels and the army grow louder. Irma worries about what will happen if the rebels win. She wants Carmen to die with her, but Carmen only wants to flee and find her daughter.
Carmen reports about the other girls to Irma. Irma asks particularly about Chantal, who left the brothel to join the rebellion. Irma worries that her brothel is being watched. Their conversation is interrupted by Arthur, who plays the Executioner. His work is finished, and he wants money to pay for silk shirts he has ordered. Irma says she will give him funds if he goes and looks for George at his
headquarters. She also wants to know what is going on in the streets. Arthur goes, despite his fears.
Just after Arthur leaves, the George (Chief of Police) shows up. George reports that the palace is surrounded and the Queen is in hiding. He is ambivalent about that situation because he is more concerned about the fantasies being acted out in the whorehouse. He wants to know if anyone has wanted to imitate him. He becomes angry when the answer is negative, though Irma tries to soothe his ego. George vows to prove his worth as a leader and keep killing so that clients will want to be the Chief of Police in their fantasy.
Irma confides to George her fears about the rebellion and what the rebels might do to her studio. He assures her that he has taken every precaution. Irma passes on information obtained from Chantal, who apparently has left the brothel for the rebellion. Irma reveals that her former plumber, Roger, is a rebel, and he and Chantal took off together. Arthur finally returns, and reports about the increasing violence outside. His speech is interrupted by a bullet entering from the outside that kills him.
Near the Grand Balcony, Chantal and Roger express their love for each other among the rebels. Roger is a bit jealous that Chantal has become a female symbol of the rebellion. Several men want to remove her from Roger to use when the revolution takes the palace. Chantal is enthusiastic, but Roger is more reluctant. She goes, despite his pleas to stay.
Inside the brothel, Irma, George, and Carmen are gathered in the Funeral Studio, with the corpse of Arthur. Everything and everyone is in tatters, except the Court Envoy who is unharmed. Explosions rock the building. The Envoy is enigmatic in his description of the Royal Court, most of whom are dead or injured, including the Queen. The Envoy wants Irma to play the Queen for the populace so that they will feel safer and remain loyal. George is jealous that Irma might be above him, even if she is just playing a role. Irma accepts it.
Irma appears at the balcony of the brothel, accompanied by the clients who played the General, the Bishop and the Judge, as well as George. Chantal appears and is shot by an assassin.
In Irma’s room inside the brothel, the Bishop, the Judge and the General met. They talk about having to live their roles, and their recent public appearances. Photographers are present to take their pictures for posterity. The three men do not know how to act like their roles for the photographs. The Envoy and Irma, who is still playing the Queen, enter. The Envoy questions the men on their official decisions. Irma asks the kind of questions a queen would ask of her men.
George comes in. He wants to appear in the form of a phallus to impress the masses. The men continue to take their roles too seriously, and believe they have more power than George does. Irma and George try to put them in their place. They talk of Chantal who has been made a martyr for their cause. Irma, as the Queen, is still jealous, though she, too, is worshipped. Their ruminations over their future are interrupted by the entrance of Carmen.
Carmen reports that a man has come to the brothel, and he wants to play the role of the Chief of Police. George is ecstatic. They all go to the Mausoleum Studio, which was specifically designed for George. Roger, the plumber, has donned the outfit. After saving a slave (played by the man who was the beggar), the Chief’s praises are sung. When his fantasy has been fulfilled, Roger will not leave. Instead, he castrates himself.
Irma is upset at the damage Roger’s act does to her brothel. George decides to spend eternity in the tomb that has been constructed for him. He locks himself inside, as machine gun fire starts again. Irma dismisses the men who played that Bishop, Judge, and General. Even the Envoy leaves. Irma has Carmen lock up and she vows to start all over again at a later time.
Arthur (also known as The Executioner) works at the whorehouse, playing the Executioner and other roles in the male clientele’s fantasy. Irma was forced to hire him by George, the Chief of Police. Though she was reluctant at first, she came to rely on him. Arthur cares solely about his own interests and money. He goes to find George for Irma, only because she will give him money for silk shirts he has ordered. Arthur survives the rebellion in the street, only to be shot dead by a stray bullet when he returns to the Grand Balcony. He is laid out in the Funeral Studio inside the brothel.
The Bishop is one of the clients at the Grand Balcony. He is not actually a bishop, but a customer who plays one in his fantasy. As a client, he is rather fussy, concerned that the details of his fantasy are perfect and that he will survive in the streets after he leaves. Later, when Irma plays the Queen at the Envoy’s request to hold onto the loyalty of the people, the Bishop plays his role for real for a short time. He enjoys the power that comes with it, though he is totally unprepared. He is dismissed by Irma when the Chief of Police decides to entomb himself and the revolution heats up again.
Carmen is Irma’s most loyal and favorite employee. At one time, Carmen worked as a whore in the brothel, but now only keeps the books and assists in preparing the studios for the clients’ fantasies. Carmen realizes the futility of the fantasies and can no longer do it, though Irma offers her a choice assignment. Carmen has a daughter who lives in the country. She desperately wants to see and be with her child, but she cannot. Carmen stays at the Grand Balcony to the end, even after it is bombed and the Chief of Police locks himself in his tomb. She regards this place as her lot in life.
Chantal worked as a whore at the Grand Balcony at one time. She left the brothel with Roger to join the rebellion. Chantal and Roger became lovers. In scene six, it is revealed that she has become a symbol of the rebellion. Though Roger does not want her to go, Chantal is chosen to represent the revolution and goes with some men to be present when the Royal Palace falls. Later, Chantal is assassinated at the Grand Balcony when Irma makes her appearances as the Queen on the brothel’s balcony. In death, Chantal is made to be a martyred saint for Irma as Queen.
Chief of Police
The Chief of Police (also known as George) is Irma’s lover and protector. Rather self-centered, his primary focus is increasing his own power and importance. He does arrange to ensure the safety of the Grand Balcony. But he is upset through most of the play because no one who has come to the brothel has wanted to play him. George regards this as the ultimate symbol of his prestige in the eyes of the world. He has Irma build him a tomb, a preeminent symbol of honor for the kind of conqueror he aspires to be.
George does play a key role in putting down the rebellion, though he is annoyed that Irma, as the Queen, has a higher place than him. He is even more peeved that the men who play the Judge, the General, and the Bishop take their roles too seriously when they are forced to play them in real life as well. All these people cut into his “more real” power. After Roger comes in and asks to play the Chief of Police, George is satisfied, even though Roger castrates himself at the end. He decides to be locked in his tomb for 2,000 years, as the revolution begins again.
The Court Envoy
A hard-to-understand character, the Envoy appears in Scene Seven enigmatically describing the situation in the Royal Palace. It finally becomes clear that the Queen is dead, and the Envoy convinces
- The Balcony was adapted as a film in 1963. This version was produced by Lewis M. Allen, Ben Marlow, and Joseph Strick, and directed by Strick. It starred Shelley Winters as Irma.
Irma to take on that role as a symbol the people can rally around. When Irma plays the Queen, the Envoy makes certain that court etiquette is followed as much as possible. After the Chief of Police entombs himself, the Envoy accepts that this act is over and leaves.
The General is one of the clients at the Grand Balcony. He is not really a general, but a customer who plays one in the fantasy he acts out. As a client, the General tries to take charge, but he is very self-involved and pompous. Later, when Irma plays the Queen at the Envoy’s request, the General plays his role for real for a short time. He enjoys the power that comes with it, and tries (and fails) to act like a general should. He is dismissed by Irma when the Chief of Police decides to entomb himself and the revolution heats up again.
See Chief of Police
Irma (also known as The Queen) owns and runs the brothel, The Grand Balcony. She is first and foremost a businesswoman, concerned with keeping costs down while making customers happy. Irma is rather callous towards the feelings of her employees, as long as they are in fine physical form for their work. Her favorite employee is Carmen, who used to be a whore but now only does book-keeping and handles details. Carmen is a source of information and reliable ally for Irma.
Irma becomes increasingly worried about the bloody revolution that is going on in the streets. She is worried that it will affect her business, if not shut her down entirely. Her protector and lover, George, the Chief of Police, promises to protect her and her business, but employees are killed and the Grand Balcony is damaged.
Because the Queen is dead, the Court Envoy calls on Irma to play the Queen to appease the masses. She takes on the role, and some of her clients continue to play their lofty roles. Though this seems to quell the rebellion temporarily, the revolution flares up again. After the Chief of Police decides to lock himself up in his tomb, Irma realizes this role is over and closes up the brothel, and will start it up again later.
The Judge is one of the clients at the Grand Balcony. He is not actually a judge, but a customer who plays one in his fantasy. As a client, the Judge is very into his role—to the point that he scares the whore who plays the thief—though the revolution-related events outside clutter his conscience. Later, when Irma plays the Queen, the Judge plays his role for real for a short time. He enjoys the power that comes with it, though he is flustered and unsure of himself. He is dismissed by Irma when the Chief of Police decides to entomb himself and the revolution heats up again.
Roger was employed at the Grand Balcony as a plumber at one time. He became involved with Chantal, and is now part of the revolution. Though he supports that cause, he does not want Chantal to be the greater symbol of the rebellion. After she is assassinated and the revolution quelled (at least temporarily), Roger appears at the Grand Balcony. He wants to play the Chief of Police in his fantasy. He does so, but clumsily. He does not understand how he should act. When the fantasy is deemed over by Carmen, Roger refuses to end it and leave. He wants the destiny of the Chief of Police and himself to be intertwined. Roger castrates himself and is dragged out by Carmen.
Illusion and Reality
The primary theme in The Balcony is the tension between the illusions that rule inside the brothel and the intrusion of reality that rules on the outside. Common men pay money to live out their fantasies in The Grand Balcony. They primarily choose to be men in power (a judge, a bishop, a general), though some who are rich chose to be poor (a tramp). Details are important to these men: their costumes must be perfectly realistic for their fantasies to be enjoyed. Irma, the brothel owner, is concerned that everything meets their specifications, but within reasonable costs.
Irma goes to great lengths to keep reality out of The Grand Balcony. The walls and windows are somewhat soundproof, though the sounds of the revolution that is going on in the streets cannot be fully excised. The exclusion of the outside world is reinforced by the number of mirrors and screens that emphasize the illusion created for the customers. Eventually, though, the reality of the revolution marches into the brothel and takes it over. When the Queen and the Royal Palace are taken over, some of Irma’s clients are compelled by the Court Envoy to play their roles for real, while she plays the Queen. This is to keep the status quo in tact in the face of the rebellion, and works for a short time. But the desire for illusion conflicts with the realism of reality, and the experience is not satisfying for everyone concerned. For Genet, illusion is superior to reality, though the latter is necessary for illusion to exist.
An undercurrent of death permeates The Balcony. Though only two minor characters (Chantal and Arthur) actually die in the course of the play, death is used as a symbol of immortality. Irma’s clients often discuss its power. Chantal, a former prostitutes who leaves The Grand Balcony to join the rebellion with her lover, is chosen as a figure-head or symbol for the revolution, and she is assassinated on the balcony at the brothel. Upon her death, she is co-opted by the side of the royals and made a symbol of martyrdom for their side. Arthur’s death is by a stray bullet, though inside the brothel proper. He is laid out in the funeral room there.
Death is used slightly differently in The Balcony for the Chief of Police, George. He becomes upset during the course of the play when he learns that no one has asked to play him in their fantasy. He believes that when one is imitated, one becomes immortal. His memory and importance will live on because his role has become part of the canon. After the first man has chosen to play him—Roger in scene nine—George descends into the mausoleum that has been built for him by Irma. He intends to spend 2,000 years there. The mausoleum and the fact that customers will pay to play him are symbols of his greatness in life and death.
Value of Rituals and Symbols
Throughout The Balcony, rituals and symbols are depicted as both important and perverted representations of values. The clients of The Grand Balcony brothel insist that the rituals and symbols of the people they are depicting in their fantasies (judge, general, etc.) are as realistic as possible. In this sense, rituals and symbols are respected. Irma spends money to insure that these things are as accurate as possible. Rituals and symbols provide the realism needed to insure that illusion has substance.
When the Queen and the Royal Court are presumed dead, Irma and the clients who play the Judge, the General, and the Bishop assume these roles. They become symbols for the masses to rally around and believe in, yet they do not really know how to be these people. When photographs are taken of the Bishop, for example, he has no idea how he should really act. He finds the role too demanding, as do the others. Here, rituals and symbols are more empty and meaningless. They are used as a tool to manipulate people into remaining loyal to the royal side. When divorced from their fantasy element and forced into more realistic uses, rituals and symbols become perverted.
The Balcony is an absurdist play set in no specific time or place. Nearly all of the action of the play takes place inside The Grand Balcony, a brothel that serves the fantasies of its male clientele. The brothel has different rooms, or studios, that are set up to fulfill these fantasies. The studios shown in
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research the theories of Antonin Artaud and the Theater of Cruelty. Analyze The Balcony in this context.
- Compare and contrast The Balcony with Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit(1943). Especially focus on the characters of Irma in The Balcony and Inez in No Exit. How do the two women try to control their situation?
- Do sociological and psychological research into women who become prostitutes. Why do women like Carmen chose to stay at the brothel instead of going to find their daughters? Is the portrayal of prostitution in The Balcony accurate?
The Balcony include the Funeral Studio, where Arthur is laid out after his death, and the Mausoleum studio, which was specially built for the Chief of Police and those who wish to act as him in a fantasy. Irma also has her own room, with a video monitoring system so she can supervise action in the other rooms. Scene eight takes place on a balcony attached to the Grand Balcony. The only action that takes place outside of the Grand Balcony is scene six, which occurs in a public square held by the rebels. It is within viewing distance of the brothel.
Props, Costumes, and Scenic Decor
Key to the construction and themes of The Balcony are the props, costumes, and scenic decor, especially, the mirrors. To fulfill the fantasies of the clients and emphasize the illusionary element of the play, these costumes and other props must be as realistic as possible. Irma complains of the cost of creating such detail, but later, when she is pressed into service to play the Queen for the public and her clients assume their fantasy roles as well, they seem to have been accepted as the real thing. The studios shown in The Balcony include the Funeral Studio, where Arthur is laid out after his death. Props, costumes, and mirrors underscore the tension between illusion and reality in the play.
In the course of The Balcony, there are several smaller playlets that are acted out. These are the fantasies of the clients, with the men directing the course by their words and actions. The man who plays the Bishop had his whore confess her sins to him. The client who assumes the role of the Judge has his prostitute play a thief who must confess to her crimes and be struck by an executioner. After much pompous talk, the Judge is forced to crawl by the executioner. The General has his woman act like a horse, and rides her to what he hopes will be his heroic death.
Many such minidramas take place within the Grand Balcony, all monitored by Irma. The most important play-within-a-play occurs in scene nine, when Roger asks to assume the role of the Chief of Police. As the chief, a hero, Roger is exalted by a male slave, who is one of many who has worked on his tomb. When the fantasy is deemed over, Roger refuses to leave and give up the illusion of power. He wants his destiny to merge with that of the chief, but when he is refused, he castrates himself. Such playlets emphasize the illusionary nature of the play, and, in a bigger sense, reality.
Addressing the Audience
At the end of The Balcony, after the revolution starts up again and the Chief of Police descends into his mausoleum to live for 2000 years, Irma and Carmen clean up the tattered brothel. As she does so, Irma breaks the illusion of the play and says a few lines directly to the audience. She promises to rebuild her house of illusions, but also tells her listeners that what they will find in their home is even more false than what they found here. Genet attacks bourgeois social values, pointing out how fake he believes they really are.
In the mid- to late-1950s, France was still recovering from World War II. During the much of the war, the country was occupied by Nazi Germany. While there were those who collaborated with the Germans—including the Vichy government, which ruled France under the direction of the Germans—an underground movement also existed. The French Resistance worked against the Germans. Under these conditions, France suffered greatly—politically, socially, and economically.
After the end of World War II, France returned to freedom and held free elections. When the so-called Fourth Republic came into existence in 1946, immense political change took place. The prewar government was rejected, in favor of parties that leaned to the left. Though the structure of the government remained generally the same, there were some reforms and the French people were more invigorated. By the mid-1950s, economic recovery came into its own, soon becoming the biggest economic boom in Europe. Despite inflation problems, France’s stature had increased in Europe and throughout the world.
One area that France had been playing a leading role in for many years was culture. The Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus came into vogue in the postwar period. Simone de Beauvoir was a leading novelist and philosopher, publishing Les Mandarins in 1954. In France, a new type of novel emerged in the mid-1950s, nontraditional in forms and ideas and philosophical in nature. Theater had been subsidized by the French government in the provinces since the late 1940s. Absurdism came to the fore at this time, with Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett being two of the best play-wrights in this genre. There was also a new movement in poetry, the so-called poetry of resistance.
France did have political problems, primarily related to their colonial holdings in Algeria and Vietnam. The situation in Vietnam had been heating for many years, and would get worse. Fighting in Vietnam began in 1946, with the advent of a nationalist movement headed by communist Ho Chi Minh. In 1954, the country was divided into north and south parts, as a temporary measure to end conflict. However, this eventually led to the Vietnam War, which would engulf much of world through the mid-1970s, when the communists won. France itself got out of the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s.
Another French colony was even more problematic. Algeria, located in North Africa, was a bigger and more immediate threat. In 1954, Algerian nationalists began rebelling against their French colonial overlords. Within four years, nearly 500,000 French soldiers had been sent there to keep the motherland’s hold on Algeria. The situation in Algeria led to two other North African colonies of France getting their freedom in 1956, Tunisia and Morocco.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1956: A nationalist movement has been tearing apart the French colony of Algeria for two years. France has sent a significant number of troops there to hold on to the colony and quell the rebellion.
Today: Algeria has been a free, independent country since 1962, but has suffered economic crises in the late 1980s and 1990s.
- 1956: France is a center of the intellectual world, with leading philosophers such as Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir internationally recognized for their writing.
Today: France’s stature in the intellectual community is greatly diminished. No French writer has come close to making the same impact Sartre and the like made in the 1940s and 1950s.
- 1956: France had a number of colonial holdings, including the troubled Algeria. Many countries, like Algeria, wanted their freedom from the motherland.
Today: France has few remaining colonial holdings.
- 1956: Television is just coming into its own as an entertainment medium. Video security does not really exist as a viable business.
Today: Television can be found in nearly every home in the United States. Video security is commonly found in many places of business. With the advent of the cheap, portable web camera, images can be recorded and seen over the Internet, any time, any where.
The Fourth Republic fell in 1958, primarily because of the situation in Algeria. That year, Charles de Gaulle, a French war hero and political leader, came back into power in the so-called Fifth Republic. Again, the face of the French political landscape changed. By the early 1960s, war with Algeria ended. Most of France’s colonies in Africa, including Algeria, achieved self-rule within a few years. For the moment, France was involved in no real conflicts.
Though The Balcony was Genet’s first commercially successful play, the playwright was intensely critical of its first production in London in 1957. Genet believed it was not true to his text; that it was too ordinary and small, whereas his text called for big, theatrical, and bawdy. Martin Esslin, in his book The Theatre of the Absurd, called it “a brave attempt in a small theatre and with modest means.” Genet was never happy with way the play was produced.
When The Balcony debuted in New York City in March 1960, critics were mixed in their reactions. While many believed that they were viewing a play with deep meaning and implications, they were somewhat confused by its complexities. As Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times wrote, “It would take a committee of alienists to define all the abnormalities contained in this witches’ cauldron, and a committee of logicians to clarify the meanings. But anyone can see that M. Genet is a powerful writer.”
Correctly guessing that The Balcony would have a long run in New York (it ended up being 672 performances at the Circle in the Square Theatre), Donald Malcolm of the New Yorker argued that the play “satisfies to a degree hitherto unknown our contemporary dramatic appetite for violence, perversion, and squalor... [T]hese qualities emerge, in the most natural way imaginable, from the story.” But Malcolm did not believe that Genet’s commentary on every day society was completely correct.
He pointed out that judges, for example, did not wield the kind of power that he claimed.
Others, including New Republic critic Robert Brustein, saw Genet’s social commentary as relevant, deep and complicated. He wrote “Fashioned by a genius of criminality and revolt, the play is absolutely stunning in its twists and turns of thought, and (despite occasional thefts from [Ugo] Betti, [Jean] Cocteau, and the Surrealists) highly original in its use of the stage. In its interpretation of history, it is both provocative and scandalous.” New York Times critic Atkinson also commented on the play’s symbolic complexities, calling them “a riddle wrapped in an enigma” and noting that “Everything means more than the author or the characters say.”
Harold Clurman of The Nation generally concurred with Brustein and Atkinson’s assessment of The Balcony’s complexities, but attributed them to Genet being more than an playwright. In Clurman’s estimation, Genet was an artist. Clurman wrote “The Balcony has its obscurities—no explanatory gloss will elucidate its every metaphorical twist—but in this it resembles every true work of art; true art always retains a certain elusiveness because the emanations of the artist’s unconscious project beyond the control of his will.”
Other critics also saw The Balcony as more than just a play. Lionel Abel in a 1960 article in the Partisan Review believed that with The Balcony Genet wrote an excellent example of a metaplay. Abel argued that “[I]n a way Genet shares the weakness of his revolutionaries in The Balcony; he too would like to create something other than the kind of play he can make so magnificently; this master of the metaplay would like to create tragedy.”
Scholars began analyzing The Balcony from the beginning. Many compared it to other writers or theatrical movements (for example, the Marquis de Sade and Greek traditions), giving Genet’s work a context. One such scholar, Rima Drell Reck, argued in her 1962 article in Yale French Studies“Jean Genet deliberately and drastically creates plays which revolve about ritual and theatrical illusions designed at once to suggest the Attic theatre and point out the distance between it and our own age.”
Over the years, The Balcony continued to be performed and analyzed. Commentators often focused on the play’s shortcomings, many of which were the same as those criticized in 1960. For example, in Esslin’s book The Theatre of the Absurd, written in 1980, he noted its unevenness and lack of a coherent plot. Esslin wrote, “in The Balcony Genet is faced with the need to provide a plot structure that will furnish the rationale for his mock-liturgy and mock-ceremonial. And he has not quite succeeded in integrating plot and ritual.”
Annette Petruso is a freelance author and screenwriter in Austin, TX. In the following essay, Petruso explores the complex depiction of women in The Balcony.
Of Jean Genet’s The Balcony, Robert Brustein noted in the New Republic that “Genet is less interested in the titillations of pornography than its philosophical implications; and the erotic scenes are merely a prologue to his theaticalized version of society, of life, and of history.” Though The Balcony is absurdist, it is revealing in its contradictions about women and their place in the world. Genet’s version of women’s role in society is complex and paradoxical, as it was in the reality of his time and still is today. This essay explores these contradictions and the powerful role women play in The Balcony.
There are three major female characters: Irma, who runs and owns the brothel, the Grand Illusion; Carmen, Irma’s bookkeeper and former whore; and Chantal, another former whore in the brothel. There are also other various brothel prostitutes, who act the fantasies with the clientele. An interesting aspect of the play is that the actual implications of sex are minimal in the play. The prostitution at the Grand Illusion seems to be more about acting out men’s power fantasies than the actual sex act. This ever-shifting balance of power between men and women is a key to interpreting the role women play in The Grand Balcony.
On the surface, the women that are the least powerful seem to be the actual whores who service the Grand Illusion’s clients. There are several specifically depicted in the play and a few others talked about, only three of which are discussed here. Each of these three women plays a role for a male customer. The variety of roles reflect a spectrum of power. It is also important to note that the women work for another woman, Irma, who is discussed later in the essay.
In scene one, the prostitute has just played the role of a sinner who has confessed to a client who plays a Bishop and received his blessing. The Bishop is concerned with her honesty: he wants her sins to be real so that he has the power of forgiveness. She tells him what he wants to hear, though he knows the sins are probably not true. The women are there to help him believe he has power. Though subservient, the prostitute does have his vulnerabilities under her control. The possibility exists that she could hurt him. However, she is paid to be positive, and she does not do anything to really ruin the illusions he paid for.
Another whore plays a thief who is appearing before a judge in scene two. Also part of the fantasy is an executioner, played by a male employee of the brothel, Arthur. This scene contains a more overt power tug of war. The Judge is subservient at one moment—wanting to lick her foot—then domineering the next. She is new to the brothel, and does her best to support the reality he wants to create. He wants to be both a hero and a man who decides the fate of a woman. The Judge asks the executioner to hit her hard, so that he can intervene. Yet by the end
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- The Blacks (Les Núgres) is a play by Genet that was first published in 1958. In the play, there is also tension between the status quo and a rebellion. Here, the rebels, black actors, mock white colonial society and, to some degree, win some measure of revenge.
- The Visit, a play by Friedrich Durrenmatt that was first performed in 1960, concerns topics similar to The Balcony. The anti-capitalist play focuses on a woman who runs a brothel.
- Our Lady of the Flowers (Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs) is a novel published by Genet in 1943. It concerns the importance of criminal activity in society and its rituals.
- Tonight We Improvise is a play written by Luigi Pirandello in 1932. Here actors play roles in the play as well as in the play-within-the-play. The audience must play an active role, at least mentally, to separate the illusions.
- The Chairs is an absurdist play written by Eugene Ionesco in 1952. The very theatrical play concerns a couple whose world is constructed around an illusion, not reality.
of the scene, she is humiliating him again, making him crawl. As in the first scene, the woman plays what she is paid for, though she has a measure of control over how the Judge feels about himself. She could easily ruin his illusion of power.
In scene three, the whore does not even get to be human. She is a horse for a General, who rides her to his death and certain glory. Throughout the scene, he refers to her as if she is a horse and he is in complete command of her. Like the Judge, he also wants to be a hero. When he hears another woman scream, he wants to save her, but the demands of his fantasy take all his attention. Yet even the woman who plays the horse has some measure over power. She is the one who brings the general’s uniform in and dresses him in it. She directs the flow of his fantasy. Though all three of these women appear to be objectified by these men, they do have power over them. They ultimately run their fantasies. Without them, there would be no fantasies.
One woman who lives a fantasy for herself in the course of The Balcony is Chantal. She has recently left the brothel with Roger, the plumber, and joined the rebellion that is going on outside. Chantal has much power. First, Roger is in love with her and would do anything for her. Chantal’s feelings for him are not as specific, giving her the upper hand in that relationship. With his reluctant consent, she leaves him and his unit to become a symbol and figurehead leader for the rebellion at large. As a whore, she was used to playing the role of a symbol and cannot resist playing it on a bigger scale.
Chantal becomes a rallying point for the movement. Chantal’s power in this sense is short-lived. She is assassinated (perhaps by the Bishop) when she visits the balcony of the Grand Balcony, where Irma has taken on the role of the queen. When Chantal is killed, the power of her image is further increased. She is co-opted by the other side and made into a saint. It is as if what Chantal stood for is both pure and sinful, a contradiction commonly ascribed to women. She could not live a long life as both a woman and a symbol because she might hold too much “real” power. By being killed, she (and her illusion) could be controlled.
Carmen is one of the only whores to see the problems with playing roles. She no longer plays subservient roles in the clientele’s fantasies, and is now the bookkeeper to Irma, the brothel owner and manager. No specific reason is given for Carmen’s choice, though she often played the Immaculate Mother. It seems that Carmen wants to play a real life role: as mother to her young daughter who lives in a nursery in the country. In an attempt to control Carmen, Irma emphasizes that such a role does not really exist for her. Carmen already accepts this by herself. She realizes that she has chosen her fate and will not leave the “house of illusions.” Reality will probably be worse, if not deadly. It is as if Genet is emphasizing that society believes that a woman’s place is in the home, even it is a brothel.
But this idea is turned on its head by Irma, the ultimate contradiction of women’s roles and power. The Grand Illusion is her’s in most every way. Irma controls how long fantasies are. She tells the Bishop in scene one that they are only two hours long, and gets peeved when he wants more. She oversees the purchasing of the costumes and props, makes sure the details are to her client’s liking, but arguing points when she feels she is correct. She puts off their complaints about the rebellion that is going on outside, appeasing the rebels but only to a point.
Irma also controls her workers. Carmen criticizes the fact that they always have to be serious. They cannot smile with clients, or have any hints of love because it would ruin the illusion that they are trying to create to keep the men happy. Irma will not let them talk about their work once it is done. She responds to Carmen’s criticisms by trying to further control her, and warning her not to cross her. Irma is rather cruel and callous, and will not compromise to make her employees happier in their work.
The only thing that Irma does care about is money and her jewels, though she does not perform in any of the fantasies to further her business. She worries about protection and management and the like. In this sense, she is very masculine. She even has a male body to rely on. Her former lover and current business partner the Chief of Police forced her to hire Arthur, the man who plays the executioner. At one point, Irma describes Arthur to George, the Chief of Police, in these terms: “I’m his man and he relies on me, but I need that rugged shop-window dummy hanging on to my skirts. He’s my body, as it were, but set beside me.” However, Arthur is killed soon after she says this.
Therein lies the biggest contradiction about Irma. Though she is obviously in charge, she relies on the protection and support of the Chief of Police. Irma worries when he does not show up on time, and does much to feed his ego and his illusion of power. Yet, like Chantal, she also becomes a public symbol of power, greater in many ways than even George. When the Queen becomes incapacitated, Irma is asked by the Court Envoy to take her place, a physical symbol for the people to rally around.
“THE PROSTITUTION AT THE GRAND ILLUSION SEEMS TO BE MORE ABOUT ACTING OUT MEN’S POWER FANTASIES THAN THE ACTUAL SEX ACT.”
Though George is momentarily jealous because she would be above him, he accepts her decision to play the role because it might benefit him. Irma succeeds for a short time, though her power is undermined by the three customers who take on the real roles of Bishop, Judge, and General, and by the resumption of the rebellion. Irma’s role as queen is short-lived, but she survives her moments as a symbol intact and stronger. If nothing else, Irma is a survivor.
In The Balcony, women often seem in power. A Queen runs their unnamed land. But she seems to be nothing more than a replaceable figurehead. Chantal plays the same role for the rebels. The whores play seemingly interchangeable roles for their clients. Even Irma, strong and powerful as she may be, is, in many ways, no more than the brothel’s figurehead for the Chief of Police. Women have no real control in Genet’s play. Like everything else in The Balcony, it is a (profitable) illusion.
Source: Annette Petruso, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 2001.
In this excerpt from “Society as a Brothel: Genet’s Satire in ’The Balcony,”’ Bermel explores the implementation of imagination to portray satire.
Genet’s plays, like Pirandello’s, have become a treasure house for the rococo critical imagination. As the visitor basks in the heady atmosphere—the mirrors, the screens, masks, grandiose costumes and cothurni, the role-playing, verbal efflorescence, and paradoxes—he burbles about the undecipherable nature of levels, dimensions, contexts, multiple images, loci, ritualism, and infinities of reflections....
Genet takes for granted [in The Balcony the] confusion between sexual and social obsessions. In
“A PLAY CAN SHOW US, MORE CLEARLY THAN A SCRUTINY OF LIFE CAN, WHAT LIFE IS REALLY ABOUT. IT CAN REVEAL KINKS AND SHAMS FOR WHAT THEY ARE. IT CAN DO A SORTING JOB, BRING LIFE INTO FOCUS. IT CAN MAKE US LAUGH AT THESE CHARACTERS... UNTIL WE REALIZE THAT WE ARE LAUGHING AT OURSELVES.”
the brothel’s studios the devotees abandon themselves to sexual consecration; the house of pleasure is a house of worship. In it each man finds a contrary, double satisfaction: he acquires a feeling of potency from the clothes and the role he puts on; at the same time he abases himself in that role. Or rather, he abases the role and its clothing in order that it may serve his sexual satisfaction. There is then an element of masochism in each of the aberrants’ personalities....
From the first Genet intermingles sexual and religious ceremonies. Scene One sets the tone by introducing us to the Bishop in a studio set that represents a sacristy. He wears robes of exaggerated size so that he looks larger than human, like a principal in a Greek tragedy....
Now, although we are led to believe that this Bishop is played by a gas man, we never see the gas man, only the Bishop. There may be a gas man in the story but there is none in the action; and if a gas man in Bishop’s apparel differs dramatically from a bishop in bishop’s apparel, Genet declines to show us the difference; if we insist that this is a gas man metaphorically wearing a bishop’s mask, that mask then has the same lineaments as the face behind it—or else it is transparent—or else it is not a mask any longer but has become a face....
[The other patrons of the brothel] seem to don roles the way some tribesmen assume charms, as a plea to heaven for virility and safety. But Genet shows us only the roles. These roles are the characters....
In [Pirandello’s] Six Characters in Search of an Author, the six characters are actually in search of an audience. An author may dream up the Father, but it takes a spectator to recognize him as that character....
Genet introduces something like this reciprocity into the action of The Balcony. To be the Bishop, the character needs an “opposite,” a penitent, somebody who will confess to him and whose sins he will absolve, somebody who will certify him as the Bishop.... But if the function of the opposites is to take the kinkies seriously and attribute roles to them, the girls seem unable to take themselves seriously as opposites. They keep breaking out of their parts and virtually winking at the audience: in the Judge’s scene the Executioner does “exchange a wink with the Thief.” These girls are never anything but whores.
Later in the play the opposites become dispensable. When the Envoy asks the kinkies to drive through the city in a coach as the “real” Bishop, Attorney-General, and General, they feel nervous about abandoning their brothel scenarios and translating themselves from private images in Irma’s studios into public images in the world at large.... When their public performance begins, the only doubt that arises is whether they will sustain their parts convincingly or look like kinkies.
At this point, in the absence of the brothel girls, the task of being a collective “opposite” or role-confirmer falls to the general public. We do not see this public, but we do learn subsequently that it accepted the Bishop, Judge, and General for real, without question. Possibly the public was blinded by the “gold and glitter” that surrounded the dignitaries. In any event, it responded favorably; it threw flowers and cheers at them; it even blew them kisses. And why not? We, the other “general public,” have already attributed these roles to the kinkies; to us they have become what they pretended to be....
Irma is another case in point. The Envoy asks her to stand in for the missing queen.... Irma is not impersonating the queen, but extending her own personality. She is playing herself, and the Envoy, who later says she made a first-rate queen, functions as her opposite. As though to underscore this conclusion, at a certain point in the text Genet drops her name and starts calling her the Queen; it is the most natural thing in the world for this procuress to assume royalty.
What does Genet mean by this demonstration? That life is all pretext, appearances, theatre? I think he is driving us toward a narrower, sharper, and more satirical conclusion: bishops, judges, and generals are kinkies; queens are procuresses; opposites (the public) who take these figures at their dressed-up value and serve them are whores: revolutionary slogans and symbols (Chantal) are whore-mongering.
Genet likens this state of affairs to the performance of a play. But Irma’s much-quoted final speech, which compares her brothel with a theatre, has been frequently misunderstood:
In a little while, I’ll have to start all over again... put all the lights on again... dress up.... (A cock crows) Dress up... ah, the disguises! Distribute roles again... assume my own.... (She stops in the middle of the stage, facing the audience.)... Prepare yours... judges, generals, bishops, chamberlains, rebels who allow the revolt to congeal, I’m going to prepare my costumes and studios for tomorrow... You must now go home, where everything—you can be quite sure—will be even falser than here....
She is not saying that life is less “real” than Genet’s theatre (or her brothel) is. To claim this on his behalf would be to deprive the play of its application to life. She is insisting that there are more disguises and pretense in life than in the theatre, and that in life the disguises are harder to discern. A play can show us, more clearly than a scrutiny of life can, what life is really about. It can reveal kinks and shams for what they are. It can do a sorting job, bring life into focus. It can make us laugh at these characters... until we realize that we are laughing at ourselves. For if we have accepted what the play says, we are the people who make bishops, judges, and generals out of kinkies, and queens out of whore-mistresses.
Most of the criticism of The Balcony fastens on to other aspects of it, in particular the rituals, disguises, and mirrors, which are constantly held up as prima-facie evidence of Genet’s contempt for reality: his masks beneath masks, reflections within reflections, screens behind screens, and other infinite recessions....
What is a ritual? It is a prearranged ceremony. A church service is a ritual; so is a public parade. They go according to form, according to plan. There are no serious hitches, no divergences from the timetable or program. If a horse in a parade kicks an onlooker or if one of the ceremonial figures passes out, that part of the ritual resembles theatre. But ritual is the opposite of theatre, just as the girl who plays the Penitent is the opposite of the Bishop. She defines him, and ritual defines theatre; it marks one of theatre’s boundaries by being what theatre is not: predictable, self-contained, formal....
[The screens, disguises and mirrors] are part of a device that Genet uses theatrically, not ritualistically. And far from telling us that nothing is real, they tell us that in the brothel, as in the playhouse, everything is adaptable....
Irma thoughtfully provides a mirror for each studio. The Bishop gazes into his and is smitten with his image.... Up to now he has not tasted the power of being a bishop; he uses the image in the mirror for erotic stimulation, yet even as he does he appeases his power-lust by profaning the robes and “destroying” their “function.”
The Judge, too, has a mirror available to him, but does not use it. Instead he looks at beefy Arthur, the male whore, and talks lovingly to him as though to an idealized version of himself, heavy wtih tangible musculature....
The mirror in the General’s studio has the same purpose again. Admiring his image in it, the General sees shining back at him an historical validation: he is the hero of Austerlitz, Napoleon vanquishing the Austrians.... As in the two previous scenes, the kinky loves his image in the mirror because what he sees there is himself transfigured.
As an element in the stage design, the mirrors have a further purpose, suspense. Each one is angled to reflect to the audience part of Irma’s room. We will not see that room until Scene Five, but the mirrors forecast it. They alert us to Irma’s omnipresence as the brothel’s grandmistress, and they hint at the immensity of the premises....
By reflecting the studios and Irma’s room to each other, they enlarge the brothel and unify the scenes. They also enlarge the studios: mirrors make a room look artificially bigger.
Genet’s language serves as another means of enlargement and ratification. The Bishop says, “We must use words that magnify.” And most of the characters do. Their speeches move effortlessly out of conversation and into clusters and imagery. Genet sometimes handles images the way a writer like Shaw handles logic, with comic hyperbole. By exalting the dialogue, raising it beyond simple meanings, he frees it from the constraints of everyday banter and attains a language that can cope with complicated states of consciousness.
The brothel... seems to resemble a vast, rotating movie lot with the sound stages distributed around the hub of Irma’s office. Genet does not provide a full list of the studios, but if we visualize each one as a miniature of some activity outside the theatre and brothel, the brothel is a miniature of society as a whole. The mirrors in each scene reflect the world to itself....
As a satire of society, The Balcony laughs at men in authority as they seek for images of themselves that they can love. It laughs more bitterly at men without authority who defer to those images (attribute them) and even worship them. Both groups are taking part in a game. X names himself a judge or bishop or general. He drapes himself in an awesome outfit, grows confident from the feeling of being dressed up and from the sight of his magnified reflection, and so enlarges himself artificially in the eyes of other men. His old self or personality fades away.
These games are what gives the play its unity of tone, games such as I’ll-be-bishop-and-you-be-penitent. But they are games played in earnest; games propelled by desperate intentions; games that are liable, because of their peculiarities, to invoke the unexpected; games of life and death.
Now, games are play and the gerund playing has two principal meanings: it means enjoyment, as in a house of pleasure; it also means mimesis.... The Bishop begins by masturbating or “playing” with himself; he ends by wishing to play with other men’s lives, to move them about like pieces: “Instead of blessing and blessing and blessing until I’ve had my fill, I’m going to sign decrees and appoint priests.”...
Theatre, as an arena for games, plays by heightening its effects. In his playhouse-brothel Genet takes this heightening to a personal extreme. He pours into his drama a sumptuous language, bulks out his conceptually big characters with padded costumes; and seizes other theatrical opportunities, such as keeping visible that token of the post-Renaissance, indoor theatre, the chandelier.
As part of the heightening procedure he plants contradictions in the characters’ desires: they feel pulled between playing games of sex (the mastery of themselves) and games of authority (the mastery of others). Genet marries the contradictions, without trying to resolve them, in an ingenious way: he implies that power over oneself and power over others can be achieved simultaneously by playing games of death.
In the early scenes he seems to show us the brothel as a theatricalization of life, of real life, with a real bishop, judge, and general giving rein to their all-too-real kinks in order to live at the top of their bent. But there are plenty of hints that death is a more attractive game for them to play than life is....
At last it is the turn of the gaudiest character in The Balcony to play the game of death. He is the Police Chief, Georges by name, the ultimate provenience of power in the state....
Genet’s exquisite irony intensifies. Georges decides that his ideal memorial, his death-in-life, would be for somebody to impersonate him in the brothel. While the impersonator mimics him, he will mimic death by disappearing to “wait out the regulation two thousand years,” the equivalent of the Christian era. The two millennia will sanctify him, much as the Church (the Bishop), the Law (the Judge), and the Military (the General) have been sanctified by the two millennia since the death of Christ and the decline of Rome. He will, we assume, mimic resurrection too when he feels like it, and re-emerge as top dog in the state....
Fortunately for Georges, Roger the defeated revolutionary comes into the brothel expressly to impersonate him. No sooner is he inside a studio (which is got up to look like a mausoleum) than Roger is awarded his “opposite,” a slave, to attribute to him the role of Police Chief. But Roger is still secretly a rebel. And in him the revolution twitches its final, futile defiance.
He ends his scenario by making “the gesture of castrating himself.” With this gesture he hopes to mutilate the image of the Police Chief as a man of power.... For the purposes of the play, he is dead. And his gesture has gone awry. Trying to discredit Georges, he has succeeded only in becoming Georges’ opposite, an impotent, and in confirming Georges....
Georges, Genet’s most savage portrait in the play, is so unmanned that he cannot play out his own fantasies. He must wait until somebody does the job for him by proxy—anybody, no matter who, an avowed revolutionary if necessary—just so long as he does not get hurt. Now he can go into his two-thousand-year hibernation. A studio has been prepared. It is a mocked-up replica of a tremendous piece of architecture still in the planning stage. It incorporates law courts, opera houses, railroad stations, pagodas, monuments.... But this edifice is no less than a magnification of the brothel, right down to the mirrors. Like the brothel, a floating balcony, it will “sail in the sky” on top of its mountains. Here Georges’s image will live on with its wound, while he plays the game of death in a brothel mausoleum. The image will evoke the images we retain of other symbolically castrated heroes: the shorn Samson, the blinded Oedipus, Philoctetes and his rotting foot, Christ crucified.
A magnified image in a magnified brothel. So much, says Genet, for your saints and heroes....
Source: Albert Bermel, “Society as a Brothel: Genet’s Satire in ’The Balcony,’” in Modern Drama, September, 1976, pp. 265-80.
David I. Grossvogel
In this excerpt, David I. Grossvogel relates “The Balcony “to “a house of illusions.”
The balcony [in Genet’s dramas] is a stage upon Genet’s stage, a place of sumptuousness, triumph, and make-believe.
The Balcony is a conscious stage from the first.... But this stage is also... “the most artful, yet the most decent house of illusions.” A house of illusions is the traditional French name for a brothel, a place for the creation and enjoyment of intimate fancies.... No problem, says Genet, should be resolved in the imaginary realm, especially since the dramatic solution is an indistinct part of the closed social structure. It is rather the play that should bring its reality to the spectator. And so Genet has placed a mirror on the right-hand wall of his set which reflects an unmade bed that would be, if this stage room had a normal extension, in the midst of the orchestra’s spectators. The playgoer does not enter into The Balcony with impunity—once the curtain is up, he is in a bawdyhouse.
But he is also in the theater. The set appears to represent “a sacristy,” formed by three folding screens of blood-red cloth: The sacristy is where the priest puts on the holy vestments, the alchemist’s kitchen (in The Maids, the scullery was referred to as the sacristy). Note that the setting merely appears to represent; this is a stage, not the real thing. The spectator must not attempt to fool himself; if he makes of this a real sacristy, it loses its virtues of staginess and mystery, and the wellspring of ritual turns into a dressing room. It is made of folded screens [a later play is called Folding Screens], those tenuous walls that are suggestion, not substance.
“THE STAGE OF GENET IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE SPECTATOR SINCE IT REQUIRES A SPECIFIC SPECTATOR AND, BARRING THAT, A SPECTATOR DISGUISED.”
And finally, the set is blood red, the color of the sacrificial and the sexual acts—the sacred ritual of death and rebirth as life, or as beauty, according to its moment....
[There are in The Balcony] moments of illusion... for the private enjoyment of certain people on stage who are not so very different from the spectator—that participant watching the proceedings from behind a peephole that has the full dimensions of the proscenium. The half-naked girls in the sadistic sex play are exhibited to the spectator as well as to the actor in his role as brothel customer—bishop, judge, general, and so on. The world which these create in the stage privacy of their own mind is just as much the spectator’s; the objective stimuli are the same.
To this dimension which incriminates him, the spectator is asked to add another for which the evidence is less explicit: it is that of the revolution [taking place outside the brothel], echoed in the gunfire and the concerns of the principals on stage. The contaminated spectator participates immediately in only one level of the actor’s reality, for the actor on stage plays a role concerned with events other than merely those of the brothel....
[Genet] contrasts with the sealed world of the Balcony the world of the revolutionaries. These are by definition the ones who don’t play; they are... the reality of their action. The brothel is their symbolic enemy since its life principle—esthetic distance that separates the performer from his act—would be their death; for them, “hand-to-hand fighting eliminates distance.” These priests of factuality are solemn. The danger to their revolution does not come from want of strength; it comes from lack of purity. The moment their solemnity is in doubt, the moment their action takes on the appearance of a game, they will find themselves defeated even in victory, having merely replaced the old order by another image of itself. Theirs is the struggle of the purposeful against the purposeless; when they have won, they will organize their freedom and their relaxation, their festivities and their ritual. Their greatest victory has been won not in the streets but through conversion: one of the revolutionary leaders, Roger, has brought over to their side a prostitute from the Balcony—the singer Chantal. And it is out of that victory that defeat will spread to the revolutionary camp. Chantal becomes the illusion which even the revolutionaries now require in the fire of action, the myth—a symbol singing on the barricades. The revolutionary image must die, confused with the image of that against which it was directed, in order for the revolution to succeed....
The Balcony is largely an expository play, a commentary upon the nature of reality and illusion and upon the function of the stage. The Blacks... is the play based on that theory.... In The Blacks, Genet demands a public of whites. He is insistent upon this to the extent of asking for at least one ceremonial white spectator if the play were performed for an audience of blacks, in which case the entire performance would be addressed to that single figure. Lacking even that single sacrifice, the blacks would have to wear white masks. “And if the blacks refuse the masks, then a dummy will have to be used.” Thus the magic object has now moved beyond the footlights into the hitherto privileged realm of the spectator. This play forces implementation of Genet’s admonition: “Let no problem be resolved in the imaginary world.”
The stage of Genet is more important than the spectator since it requires a specific spectator and, barring that, a spectator disguised. (If the stage should have to settle for a dummy white, Genet will have succeeded in inverting completely the order of things: the performers will then be playing for only themselves.) The play is first of all a game, a diversion whose full meaning will be made clear later on; on stage, it is a performance put on by blacks for the benefit of other blacks dressed and masked as whites. It will be, as conceived by blacks, a definition of blacks by whites for the benefit of an exclusively white audience. Its paraphernalia will be the customary flowers and a coffin, the sacred objects in a ritual concerned with beauty and death.
Genet begins this act of play by eliminating the stage. The curtain does not come up mechanically, but is drawn—the human hand, portent of human mystery, replaces the machine. Thereafter, Genet adds the aspect of reality that ultimately defiles the mystery of the figureheads in The Balcony by making the reality of their first vision dependent upon the vision of someone else: these blacks are played by Negroes. At this level of reality, the spectator cannot detach himself from the stage....
Having stated the primacy of the stage-as-reality, Genet proceeds to subvert that reality in order to make of the stage the place of magic and mystery which it must also be if it is to sustain a genuine ritual; something is going on somewhere beyond this stage—an emissary occasionally breaks into the play with news from a world alien to the one of the play. The pseudo-whites on the dais are obviously actors, and not very good ones. Those who are below, performing for them, although they are ostensibly actors and spectators in a yet unspecified ritual are likewise learning their parts as actors and spectators. On each of these levels, the actual reality is being transformed into an artifact—something which will acquire a dimension other than that of its immediacy as existence.
The “whites” upstairs have come to witness the ritual murder of one of their number. The “organizer,” who is a central performer in every one of Genet’s plays, is a black by the name of Archibald, and he begins the ritual. This is built around a catafalque on center stage which supposedly contains the remains of a white savagely murdered by the blacks. The play is defined by Archibald as ritual: tonight again, the play goes on, the scene is to be enacted once again. The theater is asserting its own reality; these blacks are ideas of blacks—white pictures interpreted by the blacks themselves. Although they are Negroes, they now exist at their own level of the stage. In addition to being the generic reprobates, the outcasts that people each of Genet’s stages, they are the shoeshine blacks, bad-smelling, lustful, murderous, childish—and, withal, exotic symbols because of these nonwhite attributes and because of their physical power and beauty. The whites are similarly mental images, though less complex. They are the black’s notion of white authority....
These “whites” try to see themselves as a necessary radiance; they are the born masters whose being legislates and justifies. The blacks, in addition to their own definition of themselves, are able to legitimate their personal feelings by this view of the “whites”: their “black” hatred, their desire to possess and kill, rape, and obliterate those who need not justify their own rule over them, returns the stage gradually to the reality of that which encompasses even the stage. Genet is transferring to these blacks the prerogatives of the criminals, the perverts, and the inverts of his plays and novels. They are automatic forces attempting to become more consciously and more hugely themselves, in order to “deserve [the whites’] reprobation...”....
The ritualistic killing... (for what is in the coffin is of little importance, “an old horse will do, or a dog or a doll”), that symbolic gesture, must thus not only destroy an individual, aiming at the destruction of a historical moment, but also the mask which that individual wears—the black hatred worn by the white....
This grisly tribal dance of passion and murder is suddenly broken short by Genet; the esthetic and voodoo object is cast aside. News comes from the outside which all the blacks gather about to hear, including those on the dais who remove their false white faces.... [An emissary announces that a] congress has elected the one who is on his way to organize the fight: “Our aim is not only to corrode and dissolve the idea they’d like us to have of them, we must also fight them in their actual persons, in their flesh and blood.” The Negroes on stage were real as “blacks,” not as actors in their various roles. Now Genet actualizes even the roles which they were playing. Not only were the blacks representing to the symbolic whites on the dais the metaphor of an off-stage reality, but it turns out that the real plot is being performed beyond the theater. Blacks are rising the world over... , while these blacks on stage were providing a screen with their ritualistic actions... , with whites drowsing in the illusion of a play as blacks rise to action before their sinking figures....
This drama is fraudulent. The white spectator (any spectator) who has seen The Blacks, or any play by Genet, has been deceived. He has seen a conjurer, or what Sartre calls an elegant ballet which is the orchestration of those interreflecting mirrors. At the moment of his most intense perception, that which he derives from the human revelation of the magical object, he has been concerned with only a small part of man, the part giving the illusion status as an essential human perplexity. But the human perplexity is far more complex. Man does not live by any single anguish—nor, incidentally, by the raptures of an esthetic experience.... [A] single fiber, however vibrant, does not define man....
Source: David I. Grossvogel, ’“Jean Genet: The Difficulty of Defining’ and ’Postscript,’” in Four Playwrights and a Postscript, Cornell University Press, 1962, pp. 135-74, 175-99
Abel, Lionel, “Metatheater,” in Partisan Review, Spring, 1960, pp. 324-30.
Atkinson, Brooks, review of The Balcony, in The New York Times, March 20, 1960, section 2, p. 1.
______, “Work by Genet Opens at Circle in Square,” in The New York Times, March 4, 1960, p. 21.
Brustein, Robert, “The Brothel and the Western World,” in The New Republic, March 28, 1960, pp. 21-22.
Clurman, Harold, review of The Balcony, in The Nation, March 26, 1960, pp. 282-83.
Esslin, Martin, The Theatre of the Absurd, Penguin Books, 1980, pp. 215-23.
Genet, Jean, The Balcony, Grove Press, 1966.
Malcolm, Donald, “Now Go Home,” in The New Yorker, March 12, 1960, pp. 117-19.
Reck, Rima Drell, “Appearance and Reality in Genet’s Le Balcon,” in Yale French Studies, Spring-Summer, 1962, pp. 20-25.
Jacobsen, Josephine, and William R. Mueller, Ionesco and Genet: Playwrights of Silence, Hill & Wang, 1968.
This study of absurdist theater focuses on the plays and themes of Genet and Eugene Ionesco.
Sartre, Jean-Paul, and Bernard Fechtman, trans., Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, Pantheon Books, 1963.
This biography, by one of France’s leading intellectuals and friend of Genet, created and perpetuated many of the myths about Genet’s life. This book allegedly gave Genet writers block for several years.
Thody, Philip, Jean Genet: A Study of His Novels and Plays, Stein and Day, 1968.
This book is a critical work which includes commentary on Genet’s life and frequent themes in his works, as well as extensive criticism of each of his major plays and novels.
White, Edmund, Genet: A Biography, Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
This in-depth biography of Genet tries to separate the fact from the myths that Genet and others created about himself.