Genet, Jean (Vol. 14)
Genet, Jean 1910–
Genet is a French novelist, dramatist and poet. An abandoned child, he spent his youth in prisons and reform schools. Instead of reforming him, he claims, these institutions led him to defy society and to dedicate his life to the pursuit of evil. In his quest for identity, Genet aligned himself with criminals and homosexuals, choosing them as his heroes and their world as his. He posits that evil is superior to good because it is nothingness expressed in its purest form. Susan Sontag wrote of him that "only a handful of twentieth-century writers, such as Kafka and Proust, have as important, as authoritative, as irrevocable a voice and style." (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
David I. Grossvogel
Genet is an outcast amid outcasts, a criminal and a pederast—outlaw to society, female to the fraternity of outlaws. When he writes for the stage, he wants his writing not to be fiction, not to be entertainment, not to be a mirror held up to whatever the stage is supposed to mirror, but to be a genuine act of aggression; his play is the continuation of a gesture performed by an outlaw against society.
No social protest enters into this outrage; Genet needs the existing order of things. He is Lucifer turned Satan, an aristocrat of Evil—the inverted world in which he dwells—and cannot desire to right the social structure without jeopardizing that which confers upon him his titles of nobility…. For Genet, Evil is the resplendence of Lucifer, the criteria evidencing the beauty of an act, an object, or a human being. Society is a sealed package, familiar, drab, secure—scarcely the right climate for what should be alive, significant, beautiful. Beyond this closed and sterile world is another into which society cannot expand without disintegrating; that outer planet is its mystery, short of which there is no poetry—something which society is intent on destroying but which is also its secret fascination. The outlaw inhabits this exotic world, and this is his first virtue. His second virtue comes from being the only one possessed of "that will, that daring to pursue a destiny that is against all rules" ("The Criminal Child"). These...
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Leonard Cabell Pronko
There has always existed a certain kinship between the spirit of Eastern theater and that of Jean Genet. In the plays written after 1955, however, this affinity becomes much more evident. There is a sharp difference between the visual simplicity, for example, of Deathwatch and The Maids and the richness of later plays like The Balcony, The Blacks, and The Screens.
The appearance of monsters, masks, exaggerated costumes, music, the stress on ritual and ceremony, all indicate a fundamental change in technique. The Balcony, The Blacks, and The Screens show the triumphant use of Oriental theatrical devices which, consciously or unconsciously, Genet has appropriated and made peculiarly his own, transforming them in a way that is meaningful and effective within the framework of Western drama.
While the decors of the early plays are meant to suggest solid masonry, stone, or Louis XV frills and lace, The Balcony's set, with its false mirror reflecting what is obviously not in front of it, and its stable chandelier which remains when the scene shifts, establishes the stage as a purely theatrical milieu. Decor as decor is still present, however. In The Blacks we are confronted with the bare stage of Chinese opera, with the addition, however, of gallery, runway, and platforms. The catafalque in the center of the stage, we later discover, is, like Chinese stage walls,...
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Harry E. Stewart
In order to defend Lefranc as "hero" of Haute Surveillance, an examination of the structure of the criminal-religious hierarchy as Genet views it becomes imperative. Certainly the most accessible theme in Genet's early works is the theme of the criminal hierarchy, and this theme is stressed in … Haute Surveillance. Particularly revealing is the original title of the play, Préséances, which may be translated as "the right to assume a position above someone or to precede him."… Furthermore, the text of the play explicitly establishes this criminal hierarchy. (p. 365)
Coexisting with the criminal hierarchy is a religious hierarchy. Although Sartre [in Saint Genet] clearly distinguishes between the two opposing aspects of the eternal couple of the criminal and the saint, it is not at all certain that this distinction exists in Genet's mind. Indeed, it seems that Genet often blurs this distinction, that the saint and the criminal may sometimes have separate identities, but more often the murderer and the saint are merged into one figure with a dual, paradoxical nature. The explanation of Genet's attitude may be found in the Journal du Voleur where he says that his goal is saintliness, that saintliness is the moral procedure that leads to it (i.e., theft, betrayal, murder, solitude, etc.)….
The religious hierarchy has levels of achievement analogous to those of the criminal...
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DORIS Y. KADISH and L. BRIAN PRICE
[Both "Le Balcon," a poem by Baudelaire, and Genet's play, Le Balcon,] contain forceful yet subtle images of sensuality and sexuality, presented in climactic terms and serving to express a transcendence of reality. This dramatic process is furthermore presented in both works on a backdrop of nocturnal obscurity. The complex mysteries and depths of space, present throughout the two works, create a tension between the worlds beyond and within the physical barrier of the balcony…. [Both] worlds are evoked in highly sensual and strangely similar terms and … both works present similar expressions of temporal and spatial movement…. (p. 331)
First impressions of the two works are obviously very different: generally sensual recollection of an individual woman as opposed to a blatantly sexual description of "perverted," impersonal acts; a warm and open evening atmosphere as opposed to an artificial and hermetic setting; a tone of tenderness and nostalgia as opposed to one of cruelty, eroticism and coldness. Although a balcony may be posed in the setting of both works, in Baudelaire's poem it would seem to open onto the "real" world seemingly denied by Genet's characters. Women may play a role in both works, but does any relationship exist between the seemingly cherished individual the poet recalls from his past and the paid strangers with whom Genet's clients play out their sexual fantasies in the present? (p. 332)
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Jean Genet's play The Blacks is preceded by the words: "One evening an actor asked me to write a play for an all-black cast. But what exactly is a black? First of all, what's his color?" What color is a black? And, by extension of this paradoxical question, an extension already implicit in its more ambiguous French phrasing, What color is black it-self? Or rather, if blackness is not a matter of complexion but a question of how one exists, what one is, then who among us is entitled to say that he is black? For Genet's play, played by black actors and designed to raise in excruciatingly direct ways the question of racial conflict, uses blackness as a metaphor for a condition more vast, more profound than a question of skin tones and genes; blackness, in Genet's play, has two meanings.
In the first meaning, blackness is the hallmark of all those who suffer exclusion, deprivation, degradation; all those who are oppressed, minorities of all kinds, men of all castes and classes; homosexuals and thieves as well as blacks and Jews; women; and all those whose role in society is to realize themselves as outsiders, alienated persons, those whose being in the world is one of abasement, exclusion and loss. All these are "black" and figure, behind the metaphor of blackness, as the protagonists of Genet's play. (p. 417)
[Blackness], again as expanding metaphor, embodies the nihilistic values that Genet, the creative...
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The gap between Les Bonnes (1947) and the journal (1948) on the one hand and Le Balcon on the other represents a turning point in [Genet's] life. The crisis was obviously of some magnitude and to a large extent it must have been prompted by [Sartre's] Saint Genet, whose revelations doubtless proved too much for a Genet unused to being the object of such sustained and merciless analysis—so much of it relating to Genet's private life as homosexual and criminal and all of it embarrassingly accurate…. Certainly, no one who has made a thorough study of Genet's work could doubt that Sartre's chart is at least very close to the truth. But Saint Genet follows Genet's progress only up to 1951 and, in Genet's later work, from 1956 onwards, it is clear that old preoccupations are still being aired, that the search for what I have termed "solitude" is far from over.
Genet is obviously dissatisfied with the impasse of Les Bonnes. Now he panics to the extent of questioning the possiblilty of a way out of his predicament. In Le Balcon he reasons in the following way. Granted that the basic issue is one of retaining the initiative over the Other, is it not true that, even as I struggle with my opponent, I am in fact reliant on his being there? Solitude, if it is attainable, means complete autonomy. But there can be no autonomy in the relation of the Look since, even if I escape being object and objectify...
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