The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Screens, an epic drama that normally lasts five hours and contains ninety-eight characters, is divided into seventeen scenes or tableaux. The number seventeen probably symbolizes the return of the seventeen-year locust cycle, since Jean Genet, perhaps the twentieth century’s most pessimistic writer, viewed human time in exactly the same way that scientists view the cycles of nature. The first three scenes introduce the major characters: Saïd, Leila, and the Mother.

Scene 1 shows the hero of the play, Saïd, on his way to his marriage to the ugliest woman in that part of the Arab world, Leila. By using the names Saïd (which means both “mister” and “fortunate or lucky” in Arabic) and Leila (in Persian mythology, a woman renowned for her beauty—the counterpart to Juliet), Genet immediately activates a level of irony that the casual reader might overlook.

Saïd, a thoroughly unheroic character, seems to be marrying her simply because it is the conventional thing to do and she is the only partner he can afford. After they are married, she is so repulsive that he spends what little money he has in one of the many local bordellos in the area. His marriage so alienates him from his fellow Arabs that he decides to leave for France. First, however, he steals a coat from a friend, Taleb, and is sent to prison. Leila, deeply in love with him and demanding masochistic punishment at all times, also becomes a thief and follows him to prison so that she can continue to be humiliated by her husband. She is so ugly that Saïd insists that she wear a cloth bag over her face, with three holes for breathing and vision. Saïd so brutalizes her throughout the play that by the last act she has only one eye left. After scene 10, Saïd makes few appearances, but he does return in the last two acts to assume an increasingly important symbolic role.

As Saïd progresses from the role of outcast to thief to prisoner and finally to traitor, he also moves, on a symbolic level, to heroic dimensions in Genet’s inverted value system. The further he descends into his abjection, the greater he becomes in the eyes of both the women in the Algerian villages and the revolutionary Arab activists. Both groups adopt him as their emblem because they see the only hope of victory in men such as Saïd who deliberately choose violence and evil for their own sake.

The next important character is Saïd’s...

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The Screens Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Jean Genet’s directions at the beginning of the play are absolutely specific. All the characters, except Saïd, must wear garish makeup, false noses, and huge hairpieces, especially the prostitutes. If possible, most of them should wear masks, and no face should present anything even close to conventional beauty.

He specifies that the stage should be open-air and that there should be “an extremely varied set of stages, levels, surfaces.” Screens should be constantly moved on and offstage to establish the appropriate mise en scène. He insists, however, that there must be at least one “real object” on the stage, in contrast to the objects drawn in trompe l’oeil on each screen. He suggests a rock pile or wheelbarrow or other such objects so that the audience may determine what is “really” there and what only “appears” to be there.

The major dramatic devices become the major content of the play, since Genet perceives the world as nothing more than a stage with ever-changing perspectives. The actors use the screens as barriers to protect them from violent reality. They also draw on the screens, temporarily creating their own reality. Finally, the Dead burst through the screens to destroy their function and to establish once and for all that the only reality is the fact of death itself. The fact of death, that all life leads to a meaningless death, justifies Genet’s claim that life is nothing.

The Screens Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Brooks, Peter, and Joseph Halpern, eds. Genet: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979.

Coe, Richard N. The Vision of Jean Genet. New York: Grove Press, 1968.

Hammerbeck, David. Review of Los Bliombos/The Screens. Theatre Journal 50 (December, 1998): 525-529.

Knapp, Bettina L. Jean Genet. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

McMahon, Joseph H. The Imagination of Jean Genet. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963.

Parham, Sidney F. Review of The Screens. Theatre Journal 42 (May, 1990): 249-251.

Thody, Philip. Jean Genet: A Study of His Novels and Plays. New York: Stein and Day, 1968.

Webb, Richard C. Jean Genet and His Critics: An Annotated Bibliography, 1943-1980. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1982.

White, Edmund. Genet: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1994.