Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 615

The Balcony is a play demonstrating how fine a line exists between illusion and reality. Madame Irma’s house of illusions, protected by the governing system of the day, offers men who are bored with the tedium of everyday reality an opportunity to abandon their drab existence for a depraved world of fantasy.

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No matter how perverted these illusions become, however, there is always an element of realism that exposes them as fantasy: Although the Bishop relishes forgiving sins, his playmate asks what he would do if hers were real; he shudders at the thought, saying, “If your sins were real, they would be crimes, and I’d be in a fine mess.” When Madame Irma offers Carmen the role of Saint Theresa, they discuss the “authentic detail” of the costume, the nun’s wedding ring establishing her as God’s bride, and the “fake detail,” the black lace under her skirt.

The two worlds also exist in bitter confrontation, and when they violate each other, there is chaos and misery. Carmen must renounce her real life (symbolized by her daughter in the country) for the life of illusion in the brothel. The Bishop laments being dragged from his life behind shutters and padded curtains into the light, where he will have to face reality, no longer able to hide in his illusion.

The rebels have savored temporary victories precisely because of their fervor to do away with an illusory life. Reality offers a drab existence, though, and the leaders, despite Roger’s objections, believe that they need to prod their men on to triumph. They surrender to the establishment’s games and exalt a former whore of Madame Irma’s brothel, Chantal, as their mascot. Roger laments, “Instead of changing the world, all we’ll achieve is a reflection of the one we want to destroy,” echoing what Carmen had prophesied: “It won’t take them long to get used to debauchery. Just wait till they get a little bored.” Genet seems to say that humankind is in need of illusions and cannot exist on reality alone. The revolution has Chantal, and the establishment has its figureheads in the Queen, Bishop, Judge, and General. It does not matter if they are real or not, for none of them possesses any true power.

The turning point of the revolution comes when Chantal is murdered and the fake Queen and her entourage ride through the city streets showing their faces. The establishment wins because it still has an illusion to project. Ironically, the only person to wield any real power is the Chief of Police, and he grieves because he has not been included in the repertoire of the brothel. His desire is to be an image of himself. Even Roger, the idealistic rebel, succumbs to illusion at the play’s end—and to the glory of the Chief of Police—when he impersonates him in the brothel. There are two reasons for Roger’s self-castration. One is that he symbolically mutilates the man responsible for his defeat, although he succeeds only in destroying himself, since the real Chief of Police is there and intact to play his own role. Also, Roger castrates himself because he realizes that this power in the brothel is fake and he has ended up embracing the life he had sought to destroy. Illusion dismantles not only his revolt but him as well.

Not wanting the audience to leave the theater in complacency, Genet speaks to them through Irma. When she tells them to go home, where everything “will be even falser than here,” the playwright is implying that they, too, are leading only illusory lives behind a facade of reality.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 703

Illusion and Reality
The primary theme in The Balcony is the tension between the illusions that rule inside the brothel and the intrusion of reality that rules on the outside. Common...

(The entire section contains 1318 words.)

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