Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524

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The Balcony falls midway, both chronologically and thematically, between Genet’s earlier two plays, Haute Surveillance (pr., pb. 1949; Deathwatch, 1954) and Les Bonnes (pr. 1947; The Maids, 1954), and his later two, Les Nègres (pb. 1958; The Blacks, 1960) and Les Paravents (pr., pb. 1961; The Screens, 1962). Although each of these deals specifically with the confrontation between illusion and reality, the conflict really begins to simmer in The Balcony.

In Genet’s works there is a profound and fervent hatred of social values. In Deathwatch, he demonstrated his disregard for mainstream society by ignoring it altogether. Confrontation in this play is between social misfits: a petty thief and a hard-core murderer. In The Maids, the characters also remain detached from society. Nothing that happens in the outside world will have any effect upon the characters in these two plays; they are encased in a world of their own.

Genet’s early work depicts a world in which the aristocracy cannot be shaken; it is only through fantasy that the common man can hope to triumph. It is not until The Balcony that Genet allowed a political reality to threaten the established order of things. If not for the encroaching revolt, the characters inside the brothel could continue in their perverse games unhampered. At one point, the Revolution even threatens to destroy the brothel completely. Arthur might play at being dead in Madame Irma’s brothel, but to have a real bullet enter the house from the outside and strike a mortal blow is a flagrant violation of the house rules.

With each successive play, Genet showed the reality of the outside world—the revolution—gaining momentum. In The Balcony, it makes an appearance but has no possibility of victory. The rebels are divided, and by giving in to the ways of the establishment and exalting the illusory power of the whore Chantal, they become only a reflection of what they were seeking to destroy. In Genet’s following play, The Blacks, victory seems a real prospect for the revolutionaries. They still embrace fantasy in their nightly portrayal of the murder of a white woman, but they are completely serious about their objectives. However, it is only in Genet’s final play, The Screens, that the revolt—however ignobly it is portrayed—is finally victorious.

There is no question that Genet’s unconventional life as a bastard son, thief, homosexual, and prisoner contributed to his complete rejection of society’s values. His earlier plays demonstrated his belief that only through fantasy can one overcome the society and authorities that he abhorred. In The Blacks, he identified with the struggling rebels, although they do not succeed in their efforts. This identification is short-lived, and in this aspect, Genet seemed to regress in The Screens. Although there the revolution succeeds, Genet’s hero is a man who chooses perverse evil purely for its own sake, never attempting to rationalize it as being for the good of the revolution. Genet may have agreed with those who believe in violent revolt, but he ended his playwriting career demonstrating as complete a disdain for their values as he professed for those of the established order.

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Critical Overview