The Screens Essay - Critical Essays

Jean Genet

Critical Context

The Screens was the last play written by Jean Genet, and in many ways it is the culminating statement of this important playwright. Genet never repeated himself thematically, although his characters and situations are unmistakable products of his unique sensibility. Each of his plays is a major development of certain key concerns that do, however, surface in all of his plays. In his two earliest plays, Les Bonnes (pr. 1947, pb. 1948; The Maids, 1954) and Haute Surveillance (pr., pb. 1949; Deathwatch, 1954), he explored the possibility of the canonization of evil in the former and the ritual switching of roles in the latter. In perhaps his most famous play, Le Balcon (pb. 1956, pr. 1960; The Balcony, 1957), he entertained notions of the world as a vast bordello run by Madame Irma, a demonic version of the imagination, in which humanity might view itself in a bizarre hall of mirrors, thus reversing the terms of the so-called civilized world. In Les Nègres (pb. 1958; The Blacks, 1960), Genet plays off the American minstrel show in an outrageous role reversal by actual black actors with their faces painted white in order to mock and satirize the white power structure.

The Screens, then, was a fitting culmination and summation of all these themes; the specific Algerian historical setting serves as an accurate representation of the violent and arbitrary nature of reality. Present, however, in all Genet’s plays is his penchant to lyricize whatever he finds or creates, since, as an artist, the creation of “the Song” is the only freedom that he possesses. There is a compelling magnificence to the “abyss that is existence,” and Genet, perhaps better than any other modern artist, registers the terror of that recognition while simultaneously celebrating the grandeur of annihilation.