Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 694

Though The Balcony was Genet’s first commercially successful play, the playwright was intensely critical of its first production in London in 1957. Genet believed it was not true to his text; that it was too ordinary and small, whereas his text called for big, theatrical, and bawdy. Martin Esslin, in his book The Theatre of the Absurd, called it ‘‘a brave attempt in a small theatre and with modest means.’’ Genet was never happy with way the play was produced.

When The Balcony debuted in New York City in March 1960, critics were mixed in their reactions. While many believed that they were viewing a play with deep meaning and implications, they were somewhat confused by its complexities. As Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times wrote, ‘‘It would take a committee of alienists to define all the abnormalities contained in this witches’ cauldron, and a committee of logicians to clarify the meanings. But anyone can see that M. Genet is a powerful writer.’’

Correctly guessing that The Balcony would have a long run in New York (it ended up being 672 performances at the Circle in the Square Theatre), Donald Malcolm of the New Yorker argued that the play ‘‘satisfies to a degree hitherto unknown our contemporary dramatic appetite for violence, perversion, and squalor . . . [T]hese qualities emerge, in the most natural way imaginable, from the story.’’ But Malcolm did not believe that Genet’s commentary on every day society was completely correct. He pointed out that judges, for example, did not wield the kind of power that he claimed.

Others, including New Republic critic Robert Brustein, saw Genet’s social commentary as relevant, deep and complicated. He wrote ‘‘Fashioned by a genius of criminality and revolt, the play is absolutely stunning in its twists and turns of thought, and (despite occasional thefts from [Ugo] Betti, [Jean] Cocteau, and the Surrealists) highly original in its use of the stage. In its interpretation of history, it is both provocative and scandalous.’’ New York Times critic Atkinson also commented on the play’s symbolic complexities, calling them ‘‘a riddle wrapped in an enigma’’ and noting that ‘‘Everything means more than the author or the characters say.’’

Harold Clurman of The Nation generally concurred with Brustein and Atkinson’s assessment of The Balcony’s complexities, but attributed them to Genet being more than an playwright. In Clurman’s estimation, Genet was an artist. Clurman wrote ‘‘The Balcony has its obscurities—no explanatory gloss will elucidate its every metaphorical twist— but in this it resembles every true work of art; true art always retains a certain elusiveness because the emanations of the artist’s unconscious project beyond the control of his will.’’

Other critics also saw The Balcony as more than just a play. Lionel Abel in a 1960 article in the Partisan Review believed that with The Balcony Genet wrote an excellent example of a metaplay. Abel argued that ‘‘[I]n a way Genet shares the weakness of his revolutionaries in The Balcony; he too would like to create something other than the kind of play he can make so magnificently; this master of the metaplay would like to create tragedy.’’

Scholars began analyzing The Balcony from the beginning. Many compared it to other writers or theatrical movements (for example, the Marquis de Sade and Greek traditions), giving Genet’s work a context. One such scholar, Rima Drell Reck, argued in her 1962 article in Yale French Studies ‘‘Jean Genet deliberately and drastically creates plays which revolve about ritual and theatrical illusions designed at once to suggest the Attic theatre and point out the distance between it and our own age.’’

Over the years, The Balcony continued to be performed and analyzed. Commentators often focused on the play’s shortcomings, many of which were the same as those criticized in 1960. For example, in Esslin’s book The Theatre of the Absurd, written in 1980, he noted its unevenness and lack of a coherent plot. Esslin wrote, ‘‘in The Balcony Genet is faced with the need to provide a plot structure that will furnish the rationale for his mock-liturgy and mock-ceremonial. And he has not quite succeeded in integrating plot and ritual.’’

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