Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1697
Of Jean Genet’s The Balcony, Robert Brustein noted in the New Republic that ‘‘Genet is less interested in the titillations of pornography than its philosophical implications; and the erotic scenes are merely a prologue to his theaticalized version of society, of life, and of history.’’ Though The Balcony is absurdist, it is revealing in its contradictions about women and their place in the world. Genet’s version of women’s role in society is complex and paradoxical, as it was in the reality of his time and still is today. This essay explores these contradictions and the powerful role women play in The Balcony.
There are three major female characters: Irma, who runs and owns the brothel, the Grand Illusion; Carmen, Irma’s bookkeeper and former whore; and Chantal, another former whore in the brothel. There are also other various brothel prostitutes, who act the fantasies with the clientele. An interesting aspect of the play is that the actual implications of sex are minimal in the play. The prostitution at the Grand Illusion seems to be more about acting out men’s power fantasies than the actual sex act. This ever-shifting balance of power between men and women is a key to interpreting the role women play in The Grand Balcony.
On the surface, the women that are the least powerful seem to be the actual whores who service the Grand Illusion’s clients. There are several specifically depicted in the play and a few others talked about, only three of which are discussed here. Each of these three women plays a role for a male customer. The variety of roles reflect a spectrum of power. It is also important to note that the women work for another woman, Irma, who is discussed later in the essay.
In scene one, the prostitute has just played the role of a sinner who has confessed to a client who plays a Bishop and received his blessing. The Bishop is concerned with her honesty: he wants her sins to be real so that he has the power of forgiveness. She tells him what he wants to hear, though he knows the sins are probably not true. The women are there to help him believe he has power. Though subservient, the prostitute does have his vulnerabilities under her control. The possibility exists that she could hurt him. However, she is paid to be positive, and she does not do anything to really ruin the illusions he paid for.
Another whore plays a thief who is appearing before a judge in scene two. Also part of the fantasy is an executioner, played by a male employee of the brothel, Arthur. This scene contains a more overt power tug of war. The Judge is subservient at one moment—wanting to lick her foot—then domineering the next. She is new to the brothel, and does her best to support the reality he wants to create. He wants to be both a hero and a man who decides the fate of a woman. The Judge asks the executioner to hit her hard, so that he can intervene. Yet by the end of the scene, she is humiliating him again, making him crawl. As in the first scene, the woman plays what she is paid for, though she has a measure of control over how the Judge feels about himself. She could easily ruin his illusion of power.
In scene three, the whore does not even get to be human. She is a horse for a General, who rides her to his death and certain glory. Throughout the scene, he refers to her as if she is a horse and he is in complete command of her. Like the Judge, he also wants to be a hero. When he hears another woman scream, he wants to save her, but the demands of his fantasy take all his attention. Yet even the woman who plays the horse has some measure over power. She is the one who brings the general’s uniform in and dresses him in it. She directs the flow of his fantasy. Though all three of these women appear to be objectified by these men, they...
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