The Complex Depiction of Women in The Balcony

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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...

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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 do have power over them. They ultimately run their fantasies. Without them, there would be no fantasies.

One woman who lives a fantasy for herself in the course of The Balcony is Chantal. She has recently left the brothel with Roger, the plumber, and joined the rebellion that is going on outside. Chantal has much power. First, Roger is in love with her and would do anything for her. Chantal’s feelings for him are not as specific, giving her the upper hand in that relationship. With his reluctant consent, she leaves him and his unit to become a symbol and figurehead leader for the rebellion at large. As a whore, she was used to playing the role of a symbol and cannot resist playing it on a bigger scale.

Chantal becomes a rallying point for the movement. Chantal’s power in this sense is short-lived. She is assassinated (perhaps by the Bishop) when she visits the balcony of the Grand Balcony, where Irma has taken on the role of the queen. When Chantal is killed, the power of her image is further increased. She is co-opted by the other side and made into a saint. It is as if what Chantal stood for is both pure and sinful, a contradiction commonly ascribed to women. She could not live a long life as both a woman and a symbol because she might hold too much ‘‘real’’ power. By being killed, she (and her illusion) could be controlled.

Carmen is one of the only whores to see the problems with playing roles. She no longer plays subservient roles in the clientele’s fantasies, and is now the bookkeeper to Irma, the brothel owner and manager. No specific reason is given for Carmen’s choice, though she often played the Immaculate Mother. It seems that Carmen wants to play a real life role: as mother to her young daughter who lives in a nursery in the country. In an attempt to control Carmen, Irma emphasizes that such a role does not really exist for her. Carmen already accepts this by herself. She realizes that she has chosen her fate and will not leave the ‘‘house of illusions.’’ Reality will probably be worse, if not deadly. It is as if Genet is emphasizing that society believes that a woman’s place is in the home, even it is a brothel.

But this idea is turned on its head by Irma, the ultimate contradiction of women’s roles and power. The Grand Illusion is her’s in most every way. Irma controls how long fantasies are. She tells the Bishop in scene one that they are only two hours long, and gets peeved when he wants more. She oversees the purchasing of the costumes and props, makes sure the details are to her client’s liking, but arguing points when she feels she is correct. She puts off their complaints about the rebellion that is going on outside, appeasing the rebels but only to a point.

Irma also controls her workers. Carmen criticizes the fact that they always have to be serious. They cannot smile with clients, or have any hints of love because it would ruin the illusion that they are trying to create to keep the men happy. Irma will not let them talk about their work once it is done. She responds to Carmen’s criticisms by trying to further control her, and warning her not to cross her. Irma is rather cruel and callous, and will not compromise to make her employees happier in their work.

The only thing that Irma does care about is money and her jewels, though she does not perform in any of the fantasies to further her business. She worries about protection and management and the like. In this sense, she is very masculine. She even has a male body to rely on. Her former lover and current business partner the Chief of Police forced her to hire Arthur, the man who plays the executioner. At one point, Irma describes Arthur to George, the Chief of Police, in these terms: ‘‘I’m his man and he relies on me, but I need that rugged shopwindow dummy hanging on to my skirts. He’s my body, as it were, but set beside me.’’ However, Arthur is killed soon after she says this.

Therein lies the biggest contradiction about Irma. Though she is obviously in charge, she relies on the protection and support of the Chief of Police. Irma worries when he does not show up on time, and does much to feed his ego and his illusion of power. Yet, like Chantal, she also becomes a public symbol of power, greater in many ways than even George. When the Queen becomes incapacitated, Irma is asked by the Court Envoy to take her place, a physical symbol for the people to rally around.

Though George is momentarily jealous because she would be above him, he accepts her decision to play the role because it might benefit him. Irma succeeds for a short time, though her power is undermined by the three customers who take on the real roles of Bishop, Judge, and General, and by the resumption of the rebellion. Irma’s role as queen is short-lived, but she survives her moments as a symbol intact and stronger. If nothing else, Irma is a survivor.

In The Balcony, women often seem in power. A Queen runs their unnamed land. But she seems to be nothing more than a replaceable figurehead. Chantal plays the same role for the rebels. The whores play seemingly interchangeable roles for their clients. Even Irma, strong and powerful as she may be, is, in many ways, no more than the brothel’s figurehead for the Chief of Police. Women have no real control in Genet’s play. Like everything else in The Balcony, it is a (profitable) illusion.

Source: Annette Petruso, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 2001.

Society as a Brothel: Genet's Satire in The Balcony

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Genet’s plays, like Pirandello’s, have become a treasure house for the rococo critical imagination. As the visitor basks in the heady atmosphere—the mirrors, the screens, masks, grandiose costumes and cothurni, the role-playing, verbal efflorescence, and paradoxes—he burbles about the undecipherable nature of levels, dimensions, contexts, multiple images, loci, ritualism, and infinities of reflections. . . .

Genet takes for granted [in The Balcony the] confusion between sexual and social obsessions. In the brothel’s studios the devotees abandon themselves to sexual consecration; the house of pleasure is a house of worship. In it each man finds a contrary, double satisfaction: he acquires a feeling of potency from the clothes and the role he puts on; at the same time he abases himself in that role. Or rather, he abases the role and its clothing in order that it may serve his sexual satisfaction. There is then an element of masochism in each of the aberrants’ personalities. . . .

From the first Genet intermingles sexual and religious ceremonies. Scene One sets the tone by introducing us to the Bishop in a studio set that represents a sacristy. He wears robes of exaggerated size so that he looks larger than human, like a principal in a Greek tragedy. . . .

Now, although we are led to believe that this Bishop is played by a gas man, we never see the gas man, only the Bishop. There may be a gas man in the story but there is none in the action; and if a gas man in Bishop’s apparel differs dramatically from a bishop in bishop’s apparel, Genet declines to show us the difference; if we insist that this is a gas man metaphorically wearing a bishop’s mask, that mask then has the same lineaments as the face behind it— or else it is transparent—or else it is not a mask any longer but has become a face. . . .

[The other patrons of the brothel] seem to don roles the way some tribesmen assume charms, as a plea to heaven for virility and safety. But Genet shows us only the roles. These roles are the characters.

In [Pirandello’s] Six Characters in Search of an Author, the six characters are actually in search of an audience. An author may dream up the Father, but it takes a spectator to recognize him as that character. . . .

Genet introduces something like this reciprocity into the action of The Balcony. To be the Bishop, the character needs an ‘‘opposite,’’ a penitent, somebody who will confess to him and whose sins he will absolve, somebody who will certify him as the Bishop. . . . But if the function of the opposites is to take the kinkies seriously and attribute roles to them, the girls seem unable to take themselves seriously as opposites. They keep breaking out of their parts and virtually winking at the audience: in the Judge’s scene the Executioner does ‘‘exchange a wink with the Thief.’’ These girls are never anything but whores.

Later in the play the opposites become dispensable. When the Envoy asks the kinkies to drive through the city in a coach as the ‘‘real’’ Bishop, Attorney-General, and General, they feel nervous about abandoning their brothel scenarios and translating themselves from private images in Irma’s studios into public images in the world at large. . . . When their public performance begins, the only doubt that arises is whether they will sustain their parts convincingly or look like kinkies.

At this point, in the absence of the brothel girls, the task of being a collective ‘‘opposite’’ or roleconfirmer falls to the general public. We do not see this public, but we do learn subsequently that it accepted the Bishop, Judge, and General for real, without question. Possibly the public was blinded by the ‘‘gold and glitter’’ that surrounded the dignitaries. In any event, it responded favorably; it threw flowers and cheers at them; it even blew them kisses. And why not? We, the other ‘‘general public,’’ have already attributed these roles to the kinkies; to us they have become what they pretended to be.. . .

Irma is another case in point. The Envoy asks her to stand in for the missing queen. . . . Irma is not impersonating the queen, but extending her own personality. She is playing herself, and the Envoy, who later says she made a first-rate queen, functions as her opposite. As though to underscore this conclusion, at a certain point in the text Genet drops her name and starts calling her the Queen; it is the most natural thing in the world for this procuress to assume royalty.

What does Genet mean by this demonstration? That life is all pretext, appearances, theatre? I think he is driving us toward a narrower, sharper, and more satirical conclusion: bishops, judges, and generals are kinkies; queens are procuresses; opposites (the public) who take these figures at their dressedup value and serve them are whores: revolutionary slogans and symbols (Chantal) are whore-mongering.

Genet likens this state of affairs to the performance of a play. But Irma’s much-quoted final speech, which compares her brothel with a theatre, has been frequently misunderstood:

In a little while, I’ll have to start all over again . . . put all the lights on again . . . dress up. . . . (A cock crows) Dress up . . . ah, the disguises! Distribute roles again . . . assume my own. . . . (She stops in the middle of the stage, facing the audience.) . . . Prepare yours . . . judges, generals, bishops, chamberlains, rebels who allow the revolt to congeal, I’m going to prepare my costumes and studios for tomorrow . . . You must now go home, where everything—you can be quite sure— will be even falser than here. . . .

She is not saying that life is less ‘‘real’’ than Genet’s theatre (or her brothel) is. To claim this on his behalf would be to deprive the play of its application to life. She is insisting that there are more disguises and pretense in life than in the theatre, and that in life the disguises are harder to discern. A play can show us, more clearly than a scrutiny of life can, what life is really about. It can reveal kinks and shams for what they are. It can do a sorting job, bring life into focus. It can make us laugh at these characters . . . until we realize that we are laughing at ourselves. For if we have accepted what the play says, we are the people who make bishops, judges, and generals out of kinkies, and queens out of whore-mistresses.

Most of the criticism of The Balcony fastens on to other aspects of it, in particular the rituals, disguises, and mirrors, which are constantly held up as prima-facie evidence of Genet’s contempt for reality: his masks beneath masks, reflections within reflections, screens behind screens, and other infi- nite recessions. . . .

What is a ritual? It is a prearranged ceremony. A church service is a ritual; so is a public parade. They go according to form, according to plan. There are no serious hitches, no divergences from the timetable or program. If a horse in a parade kicks an onlooker or if one of the ceremonial figures passes out, that part of the ritual resembles theatre. But ritual is the opposite of theatre, just as the girl who plays the Penitent is the opposite of the Bishop. She defines him, and ritual defines theatre; it marks one of theatre’s boundaries by being what theatre is not: predictable, self-contained, formal. . . .

[The screens, disguises and mirrors] are part of a device that Genet uses theatrically, not ritualistically. And far from telling us that nothing is real, they tell us that in the brothel, as in the playhouse, everything is adaptable. . . .

Irma thoughtfully provides a mirror for each studio. The Bishop gazes into his and is smitten with his image. . . . Up to now he has not tasted the power of being a bishop; he uses the image in the mirror for erotic stimulation, yet even as he does he appeases his power-lust by profaning the robes and ‘‘destroying’’ their ‘‘function.’’

The Judge, too, has a mirror available to him, but does not use it. Instead he looks at beefy Arthur, the male whore, and talks lovingly to him as though to an idealized version of himself, heavy wtih tangible musculature. . . .

The mirror in the General’s studio has the same purpose again. Admiring his image in it, the General sees shining back at him an historical validation: he is the hero of Austerlitz, Napoleon vanquishing the Austrians. . . . As in the two previous scenes, the kinky loves his image in the mirror because what he sees there is himself transfigured.

As an element in the stage design, the mirrors have a further purpose, suspense. Each one is angled to reflect to the audience part of Irma’s room. We will not see that room until Scene Five, but the mirrors forecast it. They alert us to Irma’s omnipresence as the brothel’s grandmistress, and they hint at the immensity of the premises. . . . By reflecting the studios and Irma’s room to each other, they enlarge the brothel and unify the scenes. They also enlarge the studios: mirrors make a room look artificially bigger.

Genet’s language serves as another means of enlargement and ratification. The Bishop says, ‘‘We must use words that magnify.’’ And most of the characters do. Their speeches move effortlessly out of conversation and into clusters and imagery. Genet sometimes handles images the way a writer like Shaw handles logic, with comic hyperbole. By exalting the dialogue, raising it beyond simple meanings, he frees it from the constraints of everyday banter and attains a language that can cope with complicated states of consciousness.

The brothel . . . seems to resemble a vast, rotating movie lot with the sound stages distributed around the hub of Irma’s office. Genet does not provide a full list of the studios, but if we visualize each one as a miniature of some activity outside the theatre and brothel, the brothel is a miniature of society as a whole. The mirrors in each scene reflect the world to itself. . . .

As a satire of society, The Balcony laughs at men in authority as they seek for images of themselves that they can love. It laughs more bitterly at men without authority who defer to those images (attribute them) and even worship them. Both groups are taking part in a game. X names himself a judge or bishop or general. He drapes himself in an awesome outfit, grows confident from the feeling of being dressed up and from the sight of his magnified reflection, and so enlarges himself artificially in the eyes of other men. His old self or personality fades away.

These games are what gives the play its unity of tone, games such as I’ll-be-bishop-and-you-be-penitent. But they are games played in earnest; games propelled by desperate intentions; games that are liable, because of their peculiarities, to invoke the unexpected; games of life and death.

Now, games are play and the gerund playing has two principal meanings: it means enjoyment, as in a house of pleasure; it also means mimesis. . . . The Bishop begins by masturbating or ‘‘playing’’ with himself; he ends by wishing to play with other men’s lives, to move them about like pieces: ‘‘Instead of blessing and blessing and blessing until I’ve had my fill, I’m going to sign decrees and appoint priests.’’ . . .

Theatre, as an arena for games, plays by heightening its effects. In his playhouse-brothel Genet takes this heightening to a personal extreme. He pours into his drama a sumptuous language, bulks out his conceptually big characters with padded costumes; and seizes other theatrical opportunities, such as keeping visible that token of the post- Renaissance, indoor theatre, the chandelier.

As part of the heightening procedure he plants contradictions in the characters’ desires: they feel pulled between playing games of sex (the mastery of themselves) and games of authority (the mastery of others). Genet marries the contradictions, without trying to resolve them, in an ingenious way: he implies that power over oneself and power over others can be achieved simultaneously by playing games of death.

In the early scenes he seems to show us the brothel as a theatricalization of life, of real life, with a real bishop, judge, and general giving rein to their all-too-real kinks in order to live at the top of their bent. But there are plenty of hints that death is a more attractive game for them to play than life is. . . .

At last it is the turn of the gaudiest character in The Balcony to play the game of death. He is the Police Chief, Georges by name, the ultimate provenience of power in the state. . . .

Genet’s exquisite irony intensifies. Georges decides that his ideal memorial, his death-in-life, would be for somebody to impersonate him in the brothel. While the impersonator mimics him, he will mimic death by disappearing to ‘‘wait out the regulation two thousand years,’’ the equivalent of the Christian era. The two millennia will sanctify him, much as the Church (the Bishop), the Law (the Judge), and the Military (the General) have been sanctified by the two millennia since the death of Christ and the decline of Rome. He will, we assume, mimic resurrection too when he feels like it, and reemerge as top dog in the state. . . .

Fortunately for Georges, Roger the defeated revolutionary comes into the brothel expressly to impersonate him. No sooner is he inside a studio (which is got up to look like a mausoleum) than Roger is awarded his ‘‘opposite,’’ a slave, to attribute to him the role of Police Chief. But Roger is still secretly a rebel. And in him the revolution twitches its final, futile defiance.

He ends his scenario by making ‘‘the gesture of castrating himself.’’ With this gesture he hopes to mutilate the image of the Police Chief as a man of power. . . . For the purposes of the play, he is dead. And his gesture has gone awry. Trying to discredit Georges, he has succeeded only in becoming Georges’ opposite, an impotent, and in confirming Georges. . . .

Georges, Genet’s most savage portrait in the play, is so unmanned that he cannot play out his own fantasies. He must wait until somebody does the job for him by proxy—anybody, no matter who, an avowed revolutionary if necessary—just so long as he does not get hurt. Now he can go into his twothousand- year hibernation. A studio has been prepared. It is a mocked-up replica of a tremendous piece of architecture still in the planning stage. It incorporates law courts, opera houses, railroad staT tions, pagodas, monuments. . . . But this edifice is no less than a magnification of the brothel, right down to the mirrors. Like the brothel, a floating balcony, it will ‘‘sail in the sky’’ on top of its mountains. Here Georges’s image will live on with its wound, while he plays the game of death in a brothel mausoleum. The image will evoke the images we retain of other symbolically castrated heroes: the shorn Samson, the blinded Oedipus, Philoctetes and his rotting foot, Christ crucified.

A magnified image in a magnified brothel. So much, says Genet, for your saints and heroes. . . .

Source: Albert Bermel, ‘‘Society as a Brothel: Genet’s Satire in ‘The Balcony,’’’ in Modern Drama, September, 1976, pp. 265–80.

Jean Genet: The Difficulty of Defining and Postscript

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The balcony [in Genet’s dramas] is a stage upon Genet’s stage, a place of sumptuousness, triumph, and make-believe.

The Balcony is a conscious stage from the first. . . . But this stage is also . . . ‘‘the most artful, yet the most decent house of illusions.’’ A house of illusions is the traditional French name for a brothel, a place for the creation and enjoyment of intimate fancies. . . . No problem, says Genet, should be resolved in the imaginary realm, especially since the dramatic solution is an indistinct part of the closed social structure. It is rather the play that should bring its reality to the spectator. And so Genet has placed a mirror on the right-hand wall of his set which reflects an unmade bed that would be, if this stage room had a normal extension, in the midst of the orchestra’s spectators. The playgoer does not enter into The Balcony with impunity— once the curtain is up, he is in a bawdyhouse.

But he is also in the theater. The set appears to represent ‘‘a sacristy,’’ formed by three folding screens of blood-red cloth: The sacristy is where the priest puts on the holy vestments, the alchemist’s kitchen (in The Maids, the scullery was referred to as the sacristy). Note that the setting merely appears to represent; this is a stage, not the real thing. The spectator must not attempt to fool himself; if he makes of this a real sacristy, it loses its virtues of staginess and mystery, and the wellspring of ritual turns into a dressing room. It is made of folded screens [a later play is called Folding Screens], those tenuous walls that are suggestion, not sub- stance. And finally, the set is blood red, the color of the sacrificial and the sexual acts—the sacred ritual of death and rebirth as life, or as beauty, according to its moment. . . .

[There are in The Balcony] moments of illusion . . . for the private enjoyment of certain people on stage who are not so very different from the spectator— that participant watching the proceedings from behind a peephole that has the full dimensions of the proscenium. The half-naked girls in the sadistic sex play are exhibited to the spectator as well as to the actor in his role as brothel customer—bishop, judge, general, and so on. The world which these create in the stage privacy of their own mind is just as much the spectator’s; the objective stimuli are the same.

To this dimension which incriminates him, the spectator is asked to add another for which the evidence is less explicit: it is that of the revolution [taking place outside the brothel], echoed in the gunfire and the concerns of the principals on stage. The contaminated spectator participates immediately in only one level of the actor’s reality, for the actor on stage plays a role concerned with events other than merely those of the brothel. . . .

[Genet] contrasts with the sealed world of the Balcony the world of the revolutionaries. These are by definition the ones who don’t play; they are . . . the reality of their action. The brothel is their symbolic enemy since its life principle—esthetic distance that separates the performer from his act— would be their death; for them, ‘‘hand-to-hand fighting eliminates distance.’’ These priests of factuality are solemn. The danger to their revolution does not come from want of strength; it comes from lack of purity. The moment their solemnity is in doubt, the moment their action takes on the appearance of a game, they will find themselves defeated even in victory, having merely replaced the old order by another image of itself. Theirs is the struggle of the purposeful against the purposeless; when they have won, they will organize their freedom and their relaxation, their festivities and their ritual. Their greatest victory has been won not in the streets but through conversion: one of the revolutionary leaders, Roger, has brought over to their side a prostitute from the Balcony—the singer Chantal. And it is out of that victory that defeat will spread to the revolutionary camp. Chantal becomes the illusion which even the revolutionaries now require in the fire of action, the myth—a symbol singing on the barricades. The revolutionary image must die, confused with the image of that against which it was directed, in order for the revolution to succeed. . . .

The Balcony is largely an expository play, a commentary upon the nature of reality and illusion and upon the function of the stage. The Blacks . . . is the play based on that theory. . . . In The Blacks, Genet demands a public of whites. He is insistent upon this to the extent of asking for at least one ceremonial white spectator if the play were performed for an audience of blacks, in which case the entire performance would be addressed to that single figure. Lacking even that single sacrifice, the blacks would have to wear white masks. ‘‘And if the blacks refuse the masks, then a dummy will have to be used.’’ Thus the magic object has now moved beyond the footlights into the hitherto privileged realm of the spectator. This play forces implementation of Genet’s admonition: ‘‘Let no problem be resolved in the imaginary world.’’

The stage of Genet is more important than the spectator since it requires a specific spectator and, barring that, a spectator disguised. (If the stage should have to settle for a dummy white, Genet will have succeeded in inverting completely the order of things: the performers will then be playing for only themselves.) The play is first of all a game, a diversion whose full meaning will be made clear later on; on stage, it is a performance put on by blacks for the benefit of other blacks dressed and masked as whites. It will be, as conceived by blacks, a definition of blacks by whites for the benefit of an exclusively white audience. Its paraphernalia will be the customary flowers and a coffin, the sacred objects in a ritual concerned with beauty and death.

Genet begins this act of play by eliminating the stage. The curtain does not come up mechanically, but is drawn—the human hand, portent of human mystery, replaces the machine. Thereafter, Genet adds the aspect of reality that ultimately defiles the mystery of the figureheads in The Balcony by making the reality of their first vision dependent upon the vision of someone else: these blacks are played by Negroes. At this level of reality, the spectator cannot detach himself from the stage. . . .

Having stated the primacy of the stage-asreality, Genet proceeds to subvert that reality in order to make of the stage the place of magic and mystery which it must also be if it is to sustain a genuine ritual; something is going on somewhere beyond this stage—an emissary occasionally breaks into the play with news from a world alien to the one of the play. The pseudo-whites on the dais are obviously actors, and not very good ones. Those who are below, performing for them, although they are ostensibly actors and spectators in a yet unspeci- fied ritual are likewise learning their parts as actors and spectators. On each of these levels, the actual reality is being transformed into an artifact—something which will acquire a dimension other than that of its immediacy as existence.

The ‘‘whites’’ upstairs have come to witness the ritual murder of one of their number. The ‘‘organizer,’’ who is a central performer in every one of Genet’s plays, is a black by the name of Archibald, and he begins the ritual. This is built around a catafalque on center stage which supposedly contains the remains of a white savagely murdered by the blacks. The play is defined by Archibald as ritual: tonight again, the play goes on, the scene is to be enacted once again. The theater is asserting its own reality; these blacks are ideas of blacks—white pictures interpreted by the blacks themselves. Although they are Negroes, they now exist at their own level of the stage. In addition to being the generic reprobates, the outcasts that people each of Genet’s stages, they are the shoeshine blacks, badsmelling, lustful, murderous, childish—and, withal, exotic symbols because of these nonwhite attributes and because of their physical power and beauty. The whites are similarly mental images, though less complex. They are the black’s notion of white authority. . . .

These ‘‘whites’’ try to see themselves as a necessary radiance; they are the born masters whose being legislates and justifies. The blacks, in addition to their own definition of themselves, are able to legitimate their personal feelings by this view of the ‘‘whites’’: their ‘‘black’’ hatred, their desire to possess and kill, rape, and obliterate those who need not justify their own rule over them, returns the stage gradually to the reality of that which encompasses even the stage. Genet is transferring to these blacks the prerogatives of the criminals, the perverts, and the inverts of his plays and novels. They are automatic forces attempting to become more consciously and more hugely themselves, in order to ‘‘deserve [the whites’] reprobation . . .’’. . . .

The ritualistic killing . . . (for what is in the coffin is of little importance, ‘‘an old horse will do, or a dog or a doll’’), that symbolic gesture, must thus not only destroy an individual, aiming at the destruction of a historical moment, but also the mask which that individual wears—the black hatred worn by the white. . . .

This grisly tribal dance of passion and murder is suddenly broken short by Genet; the esthetic and voodoo object is cast aside. News comes from the outside which all the blacks gather about to hear, including those on the dais who remove their false white faces. . . . [An emissary announces that a] congress has elected the one who is on his way to organize the fight: ‘‘Our aim is not only to corrode and dissolve the idea they’d like us to have of them, we must also fight them in their actual persons, in their flesh and blood.’’ The Negroes on stage were real as ‘‘blacks,’’ not as actors in their various roles. Now Genet actualizes even the roles which they were playing. Not only were the blacks representing to the symbolic whites on the dais the metaphor of an off-stage reality, but it turns out that the real plot is being performed beyond the theater. Blacks are rising the world over . . . , while these blacks on stage were providing a screen with their ritualistic actions . . . , with whites drowsing in the illusion of a play as blacks rise to action before their sinking figures. . . .

This drama is fraudulent. The white spectator (any spectator) who has seen The Blacks, or any play by Genet, has been deceived. He has seen a conjurer, or what Sartre calls an elegant ballet which is the orchestration of those interreflecting mirrors. At the moment of his most intense perception, that which he derives from the human revelation of the magical object, he has been concerned with only a small part of man, the part giving the illusion status as an essential human perplexity. But the human perplexity is far more complex. Man does not live by any single anguish—nor, incidentally, by the raptures of an esthetic experience. . . . [A] single fiber, however vibrant, does not de- fine man. . . .

Source: David I. Grossvogel, ‘‘‘Jean Genet: The Difficulty of Defining’ and ‘Postscript,’’’ in Four Playwrights and a Postscript, Cornell University Press, 1962, pp. 135–74, 175–99

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Critical Overview