Jean Genet Essay - Critical Essays

Jean Genet Drama Analysis

Although Jean Genet’s productive period as a dramatist covers a comparatively short period, his inspiration ranges much more widely. His aestheticism, his concept of the drama as a quasi-mystical experience relating the human to the transcendental by way of the ambiguity of symbols, his uncompromising anarchism, his richly exuberant sensuality—all these link him directly with the enthusiasms of the fin de siècle, and clearly he would have felt as much spiritual affinity with Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley as with Joris-Karl Huysmans and Joséphin Péladan. His subject matter, however, is rigorously contemporary. The problems he explores are those of the post-Hiroshima world, a world of tormented consciences and inverted values, of racism and revolution, of flamboyant sexuality and puritanical indoctrination. At the same time, recalling that he was creating his drama in the comparatively calm epoch of “the absurd,” with its emphasis on the ludicrous condition of humankind as viewed by the cold, ironic eye of indifferent eternity, his drama, in the violence of its revolt against the status quo, clearly anticipates that of the younger generation, a generation that still lay ahead of him. Genet was writing his drama in the decade of the Angry Young Men; however, while the causes of their anger are largely forgotten, those of Genet—a man who had much more to be angry about—are beginning only now to be appreciated.

Genet’s five published plays fall into two distinct groups. The two earlier one-act dramas, The Maids and Deathwatch, have the economy of means, the tautness of construction, the close interdependence of characters, and the concentration within the rigid discipline of the three unities (time, place, and action) that are characteristic of all that is best in French classical and neoclassical theater. Their model and inspiration is almost certainly Sartre’s most effective play, Huis clos (1944; No Exit, 1946). Both, moreover, are fundamentally addressed to the intellect of the spectator. By contrast, the three later plays, The Balcony, The Blacks, and The Screens, depend at least as much on visual effects as on language. The three are broad, flamboyant canvases of loosely related episodes, panoramic rather than conventionally dramatic in structure, or rather (to use the term favored by Brecht, whose influence can be detected at every point), “epic.”


Deathwatch was the first play that Genet wrote, although not the first to be produced; it is also the most directly autobiographical. The character of Lefranc is clearly a self-portrait of the playwright, representing an alternative direction that his life might have taken. The play evokes the prison world of Fresnes and Fontevrault, as they are described in his novel Miracle of the Rose. Dominating this world by the aura of his invisible presence is Snowball, a condemned murderer incarcerated somewhere in his death cell on some remote upper story. The French title for the play, Haute Surveillance, is one of Genet’s more ingenious ambiguities, resuming in itself the significance of the action on three different levels. If haute surveillance is the technical name for the peculiarly sadistic form of detention that French criminal law had prescribed for its condemned prisoners awaiting execution, the term also suggests the watch kept from above by Snowball, in his transcendental state of “death in life,” over the rest of the prison and all its myriad inmates. At the same time, and most important of all, it suggests the watch kept by God, who, from the high mansions of Heaven, looks down on the tragedies of humankind and makes or mars (generally mars in Genet’s world) his destiny.

Onstage, three men are confined in a cell that is open to the audience: Lefranc, a burglar, shortly due to be released; Maurice, a delinquent who, had he been only a few months younger, would probably have been packed off to Mettray; and Green-Eyes, another murderer, but one who, unlike Snowball, is awaiting trial and is still not condemned. Between these three men, with only rare interruptions from a warder, the entire action takes place in one cell and in the course of a single afternoon.

In the “normal” world, there is a hierarchy of virtue having, at its summit, the saint, the man or woman who, having pushed the totality of human experience beyond the limits of endurance, has come face to face with God. In the prison, there is a similar hierarchy, not so much of evil, as of its metaphysical equivalent, transgression. He who has transgressed beyond this limit is imbued with the same mystic aura of sanctity; he sheds the same brilliant transcendental light (or darkness) over more common mortals, as does the saint. Just as the seeker after virtue may calculate by what act of self-destroying asceticism and sacrifice he may aspire to sanctity, and yet, by the very fact of having calculated, forever exclude himself from the ranks of the elect, so may a sneak thief ponder the steps that would lead to the ineffable summit of transgression, and yet, by having pondered, condemn himself for all eternity to the lowly status of failed transgressor.

This is the theme, and the action, of Deathwatch. At the very bottom of the hierarchy is Lefranc, the most insignificant of criminals, because, while he has violated the manmade laws of bourgeois society, he has left intact the major taboos of the race. Next comes Maurice, who, although still young, already possesses the flintiness, the inhumanity that promises great crimes in the future. Then comes Green-Eyes, the murderer, who has violated the most sacred of all taboos, that which decrees the sanctity of human life. Finally, at the summit, stands Snowball, in whom the cycle of crime and punishment (Genet at this stage owes much to Fyodor Dostoevski), of transgression and retribution, is complete. The range extends from petty lawbreaking to absolute evil. The immediate problem of the play is whether an essentially passive character, such as Lefranc (or such as Genet himself), having accepted the fact that the absolute, in his own case, can never be an absolute good and therefore must necessarily be an absolute evil, is capable of achieving this negative transcendence. The outcome is failure. Deliberately and gratuitously, Lefranc strangles the helpless Maurice, while Green-Eyes looks on, smiling sardonically; Lefranc then turns to Green-Eyes, believing that at last he has escaped his ignominious destiny and has earned his place among the elite. Green-Eyes, however, rejects him out of hand, and Lefranc discovers that it is not sufficient merely to be a murderer to shatter the walls that guard the transcendence of the spirit. His gratuitous crime is but one more failure added to the list of failures that constitute his life. He achieves his solitude, but it is Genet’s own solitude of degradation, not Snowball’s solitude of glory. The other path is closed to him forever.

Alone among the critics who saw the play at its first performance, François Mauriac grasped the work’s implications; Mauriac described Deathwatch as a modern reevocation of the doctrines of Calvinism (or, in a French context, of Jansenism): a statement of the futility of the individual against the predestined patterns ordained by God since the moment of the Creation. The Grace of God alone, and not the will of humankind, however well intentioned, determines the ultimate value of the act. From Lefranc, the Gift of Efficient Grace was withheld, and so, in the end, his only reward is a contemptuous “Bastard!” from Green-Eyes. All appearances to the contrary, Deathwatch embodies a theological proposition in a modern context.

The Maids

Genet’s second play, The Maids (his first play to be performed), is based on a real-life murder trial of 1933, in which two sisters, Christine and Léa Papin, were convicted of having murdered their mistress. The Maids contributed almost as much as Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pb. 1952, pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954) to exciting an international interest in the new French theater.

The sisters Christine and Léa have become the sisters Claire and Solange; their names alone, with suggestions of light and darkness, of sun and of angels, suffice to lift them out of the domain of sordid reality and to elevate them to the very center of Genet’s mythology. From the very first line of the dialogue, however, this secondary symbolism is supplemented by another, which is rooted in the nature of the drama itself: The simultaneous awareness, for the audience, of illusion and reality is presented so that the two opposites, far from either merging or canceling each other, subsist together in all their irreconcilable hostility, each a dynamic and irreducible force in its own right. As the curtain rises, Claire and Solange, within the general context of dramatic illusion, possess a degree of reality as maids. Within this general context, however, they create a domain of secondary illusion, a play within a play. Claire plays the part of Madame, a deliberately faulty illusion in her grotesque and borrowed dresses, with her gruesomely padded body that parodies Madame’s sexual attributes, whereas Solange, perfectly disguised as Solange, plays the part of Claire.

Thus, all reality is reduced to appearance, and all appearance to the status of a game. In terms of Genet’s dualist metaphysic, the confrontation of two incompatible dimensions, the two symbols play an essential part: that of the mirror and that of the double. The “real” is both itself as well as its transcendental reflection. Therefore, when Solange plays the part and takes on the character of Claire, the real Claire addresses the pseudo-Claire as “Claire,” even when she herself has temporarily slipped back out of her stage character as Madame and resumed her own reality as herself. The complexity of this doubling is further increased by Solange, who also slips back and forth from her role as Claire (in which case she is the maid, insulting and working herself up to a fury of hatred and vengeance against the mistress) to her reality as Solange. “In reality,” Solange is jealous of her sister and accuses her of having alienated the affections of her (Solange’s) lover, the Milkman. On both levels, reality and game, the hatred alone remains identical, but the transition from one level to another frequently takes place within a single speech, so that the dualities Claire/Solange and real-Claire/pseudo-Claire merge into each other and produce the fourfold mirror reflection of a single identity.

Nightly, in their ritual-sacrificial game of exchanged identities, Claire and Solange ceremonially enact the murder of Madame. As always in Genet’s work, the contents of the dream spill over into waking life, for there is a real Madame, and the maids have planned her real murder, with a poison dissolved into her evening potion of lime tea. The plan, however, goes wrong. Madame has a lover, Monsieur, whom Claire has denounced to the police for some nameless felony, having first manufactured sufficient evidence to ensure that he will be convicted. The police are hesitant, and, just before Madame returns home, a telephone call informs the maids that Monsieur has been released on bail. Certain now that their treachery will be discovered, the maids realize not only that their dream of murdering Madame must become a reality if they are to escape the consequences of their denunciation but also that it must be realized immediately. Madame returns, the poison is ready, but then Claire and Solange, human beings who have betrayed another human being, are in their turn betrayed by the active malevolence of the inanimate world. The whole of the ritual is on the point of discovery when Claire reveals that it was Monsieur who had telephoned. Delirious with excitement, Madame rushes off to meet him, leaving her lime tea untasted; Claire and Solange remain alone once more, their dream of murder having evaporated, with one final sacrificial ritual for their only consolation.

For the last time, they go through their exchange of identities. This time, Solange dresses as Madame but, by her words and gestures, acts the part of Claire the maid, while Claire remains dressed as Claire (or perhaps Solange), but acts the part of Madame. As the curtain falls, it is Claire/Madame who shifts even this “reality” out of time into eternity by herself drinking the lime tea. Thus, truth and falsehood become forever indistinguishable in the wordlessness of death. The poison was intended for Madame; Claire is Madame and, now that she can no longer speak her name, will remain so for all eternity.

This extraordinary play, with its perfect one-act structure, its overwhelming dramatic tension, and its density of thought and symbolism, is rightly considered one of the masterpieces of the contemporary theater. It is a play about masks and doubles, about the evanescence of identity. It is also, marginally, a play about social injustice. In the plays that follow, this secondary preoccupation emerges ever more menacingly.

The Balcony

The Balcony, the first of Genet’s plays in the Brechtian-epic...

(The entire section is 5467 words.)