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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 694 words.)

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