The Balcony begins in Madame Irma’s house of illusions. It is an elaborate brothel which enables men of little stature to live out their most decadent fantasies.
In the first scene, a man masquerades as a bishop obsessed with the power to forgive sins. Irma tells him that it is time to pay her and go home. In scene 2, a man poses as a judge infatuated with the power of punishing a beautiful girl. Also in his control is the executioner, who, at his command, will whip a confession out of the girl. Authority is transferred, and the Judge is ordered to crawl on his belly and lick the girl’s feet. Throughout these escapades a threat of danger looms over the brothel. The streets are besieged by rebels, desiring to purge the city of its pomp and decay. The house of illusions is solely dependent upon the Chief of Police for its protection.
Scene 3 introduces a third impostor, a general. The General’s fantasy involves war, culminating in his own funeral. His brothel companion is an impertinent horse played by a stunning girl in a black corset and high heels. The fourth scene brings yet another pretender, a little man dressed as a beggar who has employed a woman in a leather corselet and boots to degrade him. He is ecstatic when handed a lice-infested wig.
Scene 5 opens with Carmen in Irma’s office, saddened that she no longer works as a whore but as a bookkeeper. A buzzer sounds and Irma pulls a switch, allowing her to peep through a viewfinder into any room she desires. As she watches the lewd proceedings, Irma offers Carmen the chance to work again. The executioner, Arthur, enters Irma’s office. Although he is having an affair with her, he seems more interested in the bookkeeping. He requires a substantial amount of money because he likes to buy women’s silk blouses.
The Chief of Police arrives and tells them that the Royal Palace is surrounded. He is certain that the rebellion will end today, leaving him either dead or a hero. His only hope of fulfillment would be for someone to enter the brothel and impersonate him. He discusses with Irma how Chantal, one of her prostitutes, was removed from the brothel by a rebel who came there posing as a plumber. (Prior to Irma’s affair with Arthur, she was romantically involved with the Chief of Police. In fact, it was he who forced Arthur upon her when he felt himself aging.) Arthur reenters the room and is fatally struck in the forehead by a bullet from the outside. Irma receives the Envoy, and Carmen prepares to slip into her Saint Theresa costume one last time.
Scene 6 takes place in a public square. Roger (the man who delivered Chantal from the brothel), a few rebels, and Chantal are arguing. Chantal wants to sing, not bandage the wounded. Most of the rebels already view her as their mascot; they believe that her singing and consequent fame would add to the men’s morale. Roger vehemently opposes this, wanting to keep Chantal for himself. Finally, he agrees to trade Chantal for “a hundred female diggers” from another section of the Revolution’s army. So it is decided that Chantal will embody the rebellion; she will sing and inspire the men. When news arrives that the palace has been blown up, Chantal is whisked away to address the people.
In scene 7, Irma, Carmen, and the Chief of Police are in the brothel room called the Funeral Studio. The Queen’s Envoy is there and proceeds to unveil...
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a bold plan. Since the palace and its dignitaries have been blown up, he wants Irma to pretend to be the queen and her clients the real Bishop, Judge, and General. It is the only way they can squelch the rebellion. The people need the image of the Queen and state figureheads to keep fighting. He warns them, however, that the revolution also has a figurehead in Chantal. The plan calls for the fake Queen and the other puppets to appear on the grand balcony of the house along with the real Chief of Police. The people will rally, and the leaders of the country will ride through the streets in a carriage, their images encouraging all.
Scene 8 implements the plan. They stand silently on the balcony, simply allowing themselves to be seen. Chantal appears and the Queen bows to her. A shot is heard and Chantal falls to the ground dead.
In scene 9 photographers arrange the figureheads for photographs. The photographs will solidify their tenuous, once-false positions into real, definitive images. In discussing their masquerade, the Bishop decides to assume the actual duties that come with being head of the church. All agree that it is time to assume the real roles they are impersonating.
The Queen enters. Government forces are now winning the war, and she is taking prisoners to do forced labor within the brothel. She is having a new studio built, an underground mausoleum. In listening to the conversations of the other figureheads, she reminds them that it was the Chief of Police who allowed them this public posture and it is he who wants the glory. The Chief of Police arrives. He reminds the others that they can never supersede him; their titles might be grander, but it is he who allotted them that power. The Bishop scolds the Chief of Police for having torn them away from their safe haven behind closed doors, where they could be what they wanted to be to “the point of rapture.” Now they will have to live in the light. The Chief wishes too that he could play a role and flee into an image.
The news finally comes that someone is trying to impersonate the Chief of Police at the brothel. All face the rear of the stage, where two mirrored panels draw apart to reveal the mausoleum studio. Carmen is descending a stairway and drawing behind her Roger, who is dressed like a statuesque chief of police. He seems somewhat inept, requiring Carmen to show him which end of a cigar to light. They continue their charade, and the beggar appears, his sole job to worship the chief of police. Watching, the real Chief of Police comments that he has finally made it. When Carmen tries to persuade Roger that his time is up and he must leave, he causes a ruckus. He pulls out a knife and, with his back to the audience, castrates himself. Carmen drags him offstage. He announces he wants the kitchens to send him enough food to last two thousand years. He is, at last, a figurehead. With that, he begins his descent into the mausoleum.
Amid new machine-gun fire, Irma tells the other three figureheads that they are free to go home. Left alone onstage, she switches off the light in all the studios except the one occupied by the Chief of Police. She stops in the middle of the stage, faces the members of the audience, and tells them that they must return to their homes now, where everything “will be even falser than here.” Then she extinguishes the last light to a final burst of machine-gun fire.
The Balcony employs a number of visual and audio devices in order to emphasize the relationship between the real and the illusory. Every scene of the play is staged with mirrors or screens, reflecting the images of the real or the fake. Genet called The Balcony “the glorification of the Image and of Reflection.”
Mirrors are essential to a house of illusions. The impersonators in the first four scenes do not feel fulfilled without seeing their reality in a mirror. In the fifth scene, Irma and Carmen appear to represent the real by being the directors of the charade. A closer look, though, reveals that for Carmen reality is the roles she plays; she tells Irma that the mirrors are her life. Genet’s stage directions suggest that Irma is just as fake; her tone of voice is supposed to be “equivocal” and “not quite right.” She is only a reflection of what a madam is imagined to be. Her boudoir even resembles the brothel studios, with the same chandelier hanging overhead.
Another technique Genet employs is theater within a theater. When the play opens, the audience assumes that it is seeing a real bishop and dignitaries instead of insignificant men who have shed reality to enter their own imaginary world. When Irma and these men are forced to take these illusions into the outside world, they are finally presenting theater to an audience. They have stepped out of the wings to perform in the light of the stage.
Nothing in The Balcony is as it appears. Not only do the men impersonate statuesque figures, but they do it unrealistically. The men walk on cothurni, large laced boots, and wear broad and padded costumes to make them appear larger than life. It is important to realize that these men do not want to become the people they portray. They want to be them in appearance only. They are more interested in being than doing because once they accept the role as real, they must accept its responsibilities as well.
The prostitutes take on roles such as thief, sinner, and horse but do not necessarily stay in character. The thief demands that the Judge lick her feet, the horse talks back to the General, and Arthur, who plays the muscular executioner, in reality likes to wear women’s silk blouses.
Reality and illusion are constantly intruding upon each other. Fantasies at Madame Irma’s brothel are interrupted by the sound of machine-gun fire from outside; Arthur is eventually struck in the head by one of the bullets. Later, the encroachment is reversed. The fake figureheads intrude upon the outside world, parading their illusion before an audience “blinded” by “the gold and glitter.”
It is appearance which finally wins when the symbol of the Revolution, Chantal, is shot down. Without a figurehead, the rebels cannot succeed. Able to step in with replacement figureheads, the establishment stifles the rebellion. The new figureheads realize their importance and decide to transform their appearance into reality. They know that they have a chance at seizing power so long as the Chief of Police is not represented in the brothel. After all, they are symbols; he is not. Genet employs photographers as a metaphor for the crystallization of the men’s images. It is the photographers, therefore, who ultimately have the real power. What they represent as real, through their images, will be unquestioningly accepted by the masses.
The imagery of Roger’s castration reconciles him to his defeat not only in reality but also in illusion. Since he cannot assault the Chief of Police in reality, he does so in fantasy, but all he achieves is his own pain and mutilation.
As the play comes to an end, the audience is informed that they too are part of this theater. In fact, they are looking at a reflection of themselves on the stage. They, like the Bishop, Judge, and General, will go home to a world that is just as fake as the one portrayed.
In the mid- to late-1950s, France was still recovering from World War II. During the much of the war, the country was occupied by Nazi Germany. While there were those who collaborated with the Germans— including the Vichy government, which ruled France under the direction of the Germans—an underground movement also existed. The French Resistance worked against the Germans. Under these conditions, France suffered greatly—politically, socially, and economically.
After the end of World War II, France returned to freedom and held free elections. When the socalled Fourth Republic came into existence in 1946, immense political change took place. The prewar government was rejected, in favor of parties that leaned to the left. Though the structure of the government remained generally the same, there were some reforms and the French people were more invigorated. By the mid-1950s, economic recovery came into its own, soon becoming the biggest economic boom in Europe. Despite inflation problems, France’s stature had increased in Europe and throughout the world.
One area that France had been playing a leading role in for many years was culture. The Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus came into vogue in the postwar period. Simone de Beauvoir was a leading novelist and philosopher, publishing Les Mandarins in 1954. In France, a new type of novel emerged in the mid-1950s, nontraditional in forms and ideas and philosophical in nature. Theater had been subsidized by the French government in the provinces since the late 1940s. Absurdism came to the fore at this time, with Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett being two of the best playwrights in this genre. There was also a new movement in poetry, the so-called poetry of resistance.
France did have political problems, primarily related to their colonial holdings in Algeria and Vietnam. The situation in Vietnam had been heating for many years, and would get worse. Fighting in Vietnam began in 1946, with the advent of a nationalist movement headed by communist Ho Chi Minh. In 1954, the country was divided into north and south parts, as a temporary measure to end conflict. However, this eventually led to the Vietnam War, which would engulf much of world through the mid-1970s, when the communists won. France itself got out of the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s.
Another French colony was even more problematic. Algeria, located in North Africa, was a bigger and more immediate threat. In 1954, Algerian nationalists began rebelling against their French colonial overlords. Within four years, nearly 500,000 French soldiers had been sent there to keep the motherland’s hold on Algeria. The situation in Algeria led to two other North African colonies of France getting their freedom in 1956, Tunisia and Morocco.
The Fourth Republic fell in 1958, primarily because of the situation in Algeria. That year, Charles de Gaulle, a French war hero and political leader, came back into power in the so-called Fifth Republic. Again, the face of the French political landscape changed. By the early 1960s, war with Algeria ended. Most of France’s colonies in Africa, including Algeria, achieved self-rule within a few years. For the moment, France was involved in no real conflicts.
SettingThe Balcony is an absurdist play set in no specific time or place. Nearly all of the action of the play takes place inside The Grand Balcony, a brothel that serves the fantasies of its male clientele. The brothel has different rooms, or studios, that are set up to fulfill these fantasies. The studios shown in The Balcony include the Funeral Studio, where Arthur is laid out after his death, and the Mausoleum studio, which was specially built for the Chief of Police and those who wish to act as him in a fantasy. Irma also has her own room, with a video monitoring system so she can supervise action in the other rooms. Scene eight takes place on a balcony attached to the Grand Balcony. The only action that takes place outside of the Grand Balcony is scene six, which occurs in a public square held by the rebels. It is within viewing distance of the brothel.
Props, Costumes, and Scenic Decor Key to the construction and themes of The Balcony are the props, costumes, and scenic decor, especially, the mirrors. To fulfill the fantasies of the clients and emphasize the illusionary element of the play, these costumes and other props must be as realistic as possible. Irma complains of the cost of creating such detail, but later, when she is pressed into service to play the Queen for the public and her clients assume their fantasy roles as well, they seem to have been accepted as the real thing. The studios shown in The Balcony include the Funeral Studio, where Arthur is laid out after his death. Props, costumes, and mirrors underscore the tension between illusion and reality in the play.
Play-within-a-Play In the course of The Balcony, there are several smaller playlets that are acted out. These are the fantasies of the clients, with the men directing the course by their words and actions. The man who plays the Bishop had his whore confess her sins to him. The client who assumes the role of the Judge has his prostitute play a thief who must confess to her crimes and be struck by an executioner. After much pompous talk, the Judge is forced to crawl by the executioner. The General has his woman act like a horse, and rides her to what he hopes will be his heroic death.
Many such minidramas take place within the Grand Balcony, all monitored by Irma. The most important play-within-a-play occurs in scene nine, when Roger asks to assume the role of the Chief of Police. As the chief, a hero, Roger is exalted by a male slave, who is one of many who has worked on his tomb. When the fantasy is deemed over, Roger refuses to leave and give up the illusion of power. He wants his destiny to merge with that of the chief, but when he is refused, he castrates himself. Such playlets emphasize the illusionary nature of the play, and, in a bigger sense, reality.
Addressing the Audience At the end of The Balcony, after the revolution starts up again and the Chief of Police descends into his mausoleum to live for 2000 years, Irma and Carmen clean up the tattered brothel. As she does so, Irma breaks the illusion of the play and says a few lines directly to the audience. She promises to rebuild her house of illusions, but also tells her listeners that what they will find in their home is even more false than what they found here. Genet attacks bourgeois social values, pointing out how fake he believes they really are.
1956: A nationalist movement has been tearing apart the French colony of Algeria for two years. France has sent a significant number of troops there to hold on to the colony and quell the rebellion.
Today: Algeria has been a free, independent country since 1962, but has suffered economic crises in the late 1980s and 1990s.
1956: France is a center of the intellectual world, with leading philosophers such as Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir internationally recognized for their writing.
Today: France’s stature in the intellectual community is greatly diminished. No French writer has come close to making the same impact Sartre and the like made in the 1940s and 1950s.
1956: France had a number of colonial holdings, including the troubled Algeria. Many countries, like Algeria, wanted their freedom from the motherland.
Today: France has few remaining colonial holdings.
1956: Television is just coming into its own as an entertainment medium. Video security does not really exist as a viable business.
Today: Television can be found in nearly every home in the United States. Video security is commonly found in many places of business. With the advent of the cheap, portable web camera, images can be recorded and seen over the Internet, any time, any where.
The Balcony was adapted as a film in 1963. This version was produced by Lewis M. Allen, Ben Marlow, and Joseph Strick, and directed by Strick. It starred Shelley Winters as Irma.
Sources Abel, Lionel, ‘‘Metatheater,’’ in Partisan Review, Spring, 1960, pp. 324-30.
Atkinson, Brooks, review of The Balcony, in The New York Times, March 20, 1960, section 2, p. 1.
———, ‘‘Work by Genet Opens at Circle in Square,’’ in The New York Times, March 4, 1960, p. 21.
Brustein, Robert, ‘‘The Brothel and the Western World,’’ in The New Republic, March 28, 1960, pp. 21-22.
Clurman, Harold, review of The Balcony, in The Nation, March 26, 1960, pp. 282-83.
Esslin, Martin, The Theatre of the Absurd, Penguin Books, 1980, pp. 215-23.
Genet, Jean, The Balcony, Grove Press, 1966.
Malcolm, Donald, ‘‘Now Go Home,’’ in The New Yorker, March 12, 1960, pp. 117-19.
Reck, Rima Drell, ‘‘Appearance and Reality in Genet’s Le Balcon,’’ in Yale French Studies, Spring-Summer, 1962, pp. 20-25.
Further Reading Jacobsen, Josephine, and William R. Mueller, Ionesco and Genet: Playwrights of Silence, Hill & Wang, 1968. This study of absurdist theater focuses on the plays and themes of Genet and Eugene Ionesco.
Sartre, Jean-Paul, and Bernard Fechtman, trans., Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, Pantheon Books, 1963. This biography, by one of France’s leading intellectuals and friend of Genet, created and perpetuated many of the myths about Genet’s life. This book allegedly gave Genet writers block for several years.
Thody, Philip, Jean Genet: A Study of His Novels and Plays, Stein and Day, 1968. This book is a critical work which includes commentary on Genet’s life and frequent themes in his works, as well as extensive criticism of each of his major plays and novels.
White, Edmund, Genet: A Biography, Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. This in-depth biography of Genet tries to separate the fact from the myths that Genet and others created about himself.
Sources for Further Study
Brooks, Peter, and Joseph Halpern, eds. Genet: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979.
Coe, Richard N. “Genet.” In Forces in Modern Drama, edited by John Fletcher. New York: Ungar, 1972.
Driver, Tom. Jean Genet. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.
Jacobsen, Josephine, and William Mueller. Ionesco and Genet: Playwrights of Silence. New York: Hill and Wang, 1968.
Knapp, Bettina L. Jean Genet. Indianapolis: Macmillan, 1989.
Plunka, Gene A. The Rites of Passage of Jean Genet: The Art and Aesthetics of Risk Taking. Teaneck, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992.
Rugen, Barbara. Review of The Balcony. Theatre Journal 38 (December, 1986): 473-475.
Thody, Philip. Jean Genet: A Study of His Novels and Plays. New York: Stein and Day, 1968.