Critical Context

Genet turned from fiction to drama in mid-career. It was for him a move from two-dimensional prose to three-dimensional action. His preference of cyclic (end-as-beginning) to linear (beginning-middle-end) movement is evident in the ring-compositional symmetry of his early novels. He continued to nurture this preference in developing his dramaturgy; he employed the dynamics of space in his attempt to create the theatrical equivalent of a space-time continuum.

In the first play Genet wrote, Haute Surveillance (pr., pb. 1949; Deathwatch, 1954), three male prisoners are affected by the unseen presence of a fourth prisoner, whose election of one of them to his affection predisposes the second of them to murder the third. The second play, Les Bonnes (pr. 1947; The Maids, 1954), is almost a mirror image of the first. It involves three women who are affected by the unseen presence of a man. Two of the women plot the murder of the third, who is their employer. When the plot is foiled by the employer’s winning of the affection of the man, one of the women takes the role of the employer and engineers her own murder. In both plays events curve back upon themselves in the manner of a Möbius strip.

In his last three plays, Genet plots his space-time continuum through inversions of illusion and reality. In Le Balcon (pb. 1956; The Balcony, 1957), mirrors and screens are used to achieve the identification of time with space and illusion with reality. In The Blacks, the identifications are wrought by masks, music, and the stage’s tiers, not to mention the distance-defeating equation of actors and audience. Les Paravents (pr., pb. 1961; The Screens, 1962) amplifies the complexity by using four tiers and some fifty screens. Genet’s drama has been categorized as avant-garde, existentialist, and absurdist; Jean-Paul Sartre’s argument that it is existentialist is particularly persuasive. Whatever his dramatic category, Jean Genet found his way into theatrical history as one of the most inventive and original playwrights of the twentieth century.