The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 1214 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 669 words.)

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 523 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The Balcony is an absurdist play set in no specific time or place. Nearly all of the action of the play takes place...

(The entire section is 599 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1956: A nationalist movement has been tearing apart the French colony of Algeria for two years. France has sent a significant number...

(The entire section is 205 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the theories of Antonin Artaud and the Theater of Cruelty. Analyze The Balcony in this context.

Compare and...

(The entire section is 92 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 31 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

The Blacks (Les Nègres) is a play by Genet that was first published in 1958. In the play, there is also tension between the status...

(The entire section is 167 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Abel, Lionel, ‘‘Metatheater,’’ in Partisan Review, Spring, 1960, pp. 324-30.


(The entire section is 267 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.


(The entire section is 119 words.)