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...

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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.

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.

Themes

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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 men pay money to live out their fantasies in The Grand Balcony. They primarily choose to be men in power (a judge, a bishop, a general), though some who are rich chose to be poor (a tramp). Details are important to these men: their costumes must be perfectly realistic for their fantasies to be enjoyed. Irma, the brothel owner, is concerned that everything meets their specifications, but within reasonable costs.

Irma goes to great lengths to keep reality out of The Grand Balcony. The walls and windows are somewhat soundproof, though the sounds of the revolution that is going on in the streets cannot be fully excised. The exclusion of the outside world is reinforced by the number of mirrors and screens that emphasize the illusion created for the customers. Eventually, though, the reality of the revolution marches into the brothel and takes it over. When the Queen and the Royal Palace are taken over, some of Irma’s clients are compelled by the Court Envoy to play their roles for real, while she plays the Queen. This is to keep the status quo in tact in the face of the rebellion, and works for a short time. But the desire for illusion conflicts with the realism of reality, and the experience is not satisfying for everyone concerned. For Genet, illusion is superior to reality, though the latter is necessary for illusion to exist.

Death
An undercurrent of death permeates The Balcony. Though only two minor characters (Chantal and Arthur) actually die in the course of the play, death is used as a symbol of immortality. Irma’s clients often discuss its power. Chantal, a former prostitutes who leaves The Grand Balcony to join the rebellion with her lover, is chosen as a figurehead or symbol for the revolution, and she is assassinated on the balcony at the brothel. Upon her death, she is co-opted by the side of the royals and made a symbol of martyrdom for their side. Arthur’s death is by a stray bullet, though inside the Death is used slightly differently in The Balcony for the Chief of Police, George. He becomes upset during the course of the play when he learns that no one has asked to play him in their fantasy. He believes that when one is imitated, one becomes immortal. His memory and importance will live on because his role has become part of the canon. After the first man has chosen to play him—Roger in scene nine—George descends into the mausoleum that has been built for him by Irma. He intends to spend 2,000 years there. The mausoleum and the fact that customers will pay to play him are symbols of his greatness in life and death.

Value of Rituals and Symbols
Throughout The Balcony, rituals and symbols are depicted as both important and perverted representations of values. The clients of The Grand Balcony brothel insist that the rituals and symbols of the people they are depicting in their fantasies (judge, general, etc.) are as realistic as possible. In this sense, rituals and symbols are respected. Irma spends money to insure that these things are as accurate as possible. Rituals and symbols provide the realism needed to insure that illusion has substance.

When the Queen and the Royal Court are presumed dead, Irma and the clients who play the Judge, the General, and the Bishop assume these roles. They become symbols for the masses to rally around and believe in, yet they do not really know how to be these people. When photographs are taken of the Bishop, for example, he has no idea how he should really act. He finds the role too demanding, as do the others. Here, rituals and symbols are more empty and meaningless. They are used as a tool to manipulate people into remaining loyal to the royal side. When divorced from their fantasy element and forced into more realistic uses, rituals and symbols become perverted. brothel proper. He is laid out in the funeral room there.

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