The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

At the beginning of The Blacks, the proscenium curtain is drawn to reveal a backdrop of black velvet curtains and various tiers, the highest of which, in the far rear, comes to be occupied by “the court.” Four black men and four black women dance around a catafalque (an ornamental structure containing a coffin) to a minuet by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The members of the court are black but wear white masks so as to represent onstage an extension of the white audience in the theater. To both the court and the audience, Archibald introduces himself, then introduces Village, Bobo, Ville de Saint-Nazaire, Neige, Félicité, Vertu, and Diouf. Archibald and Félicité are the directors of the other blacks, who will present an enactment of the rape-murder of the white woman whose body now lies in the catafalque. This enactment, which the audience is told is performed every night, will constitute a play within the play. There is also a “play” occurring outside the play: Archibald sends Ville de Saint-Nazaire offstage to attend to important matters, which will later be disclosed as the trial and execution of a black by the black comrades he has betrayed—comrades in an antiwhite revolution.

The play within the play begins as Village takes leave of Vertu, a black prostitute to whom he professes his love, to play the role of the rapist-murderer. Félicité assigns to Diouf the role of the white woman. He is given a blond wig, a white mask, balls of wool, a knitting needle, and white gloves. Finally, Félicité removes her skirt, and Diouf is put into it. Village undertakes his seduction of the white woman, named Marie, while addressing his words to Vertu, who in consternation begs him to stop. Remaining within the main play, Vertu is suddenly jealous of the white woman in the inner play and fears losing Village to her.

In the next segment of the inner play, Bobo acts as a midwife. She produces—from under Diouf’s shirt—five white dolls, one after the other; they represent the Governor, the Valet, the Judge, the Missionary, and the Queen—the members of the white court. Village then carries out his seduction as the court looks on. At this point Ville de Saint-Nazaire reenters with a report on the progress of the treason trial in the play outside the play. Comparing notes, Village and Ville de Saint-Nazaire bring the two plays into junction. The members of the court leave the stage to visit the world of the dead.

Diouf then, both as himself and as the murdered white woman, speaks from the world of the dead. Looking down from a tier, he describes his experience of being impregnated by Village and relates his God-vision of the white world that is hated by the blacks. Diouf explains that whites are not really white but...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Genet employs the symbolic mask of ancient Greek drama, and his masks serve three purposes. They represent whites; they emphasize the fact that blacks are playing whites; and they symbolize, along with the white dolls, the superficies and fallacies of prejudice. They are also devices of inversion: The masks do not conceal, but reveal.

Similarly, dramatic distancing is inverted. In his opening address to the audience, Archibald insists that he and his fellow actors are, through pomp and stylistic behavior, increasing the distance between audience and actors; yet he reminds the white audience—and white it must be, even if limited to a white-masked black or a white dummy—that the black actors are only acting and will revert after their performances to the populace outside the theater that encompasses both blacks and whites. Distance is further defeated when, during the “murder” ritual, Village calls a member of the white audience to the stage to hold the knitting of the “white woman” (Diouf); in an inversion of conventional positions the white is immediately transformed into the menial of a black, whose whiteness is a role and whose blackness is as real as the white’s whiteness.

While the audience member is holding the knitting, Diouf plays a Johann Strauss melody on the piano. The Blacks begins and ends (or, ends and begins) with blacks dancing to the minuet from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The Mozart-Strauss-Mozart cycle functions as a representation of the elegant white society of eighteenth and nineteenth century Vienna; the ironic inversion is the appropriation of the music by blacks. The irony is compounded by the fact that Mozart’s opera presents a seducer who is also a murderer, includes a masquerade, and has a dead person (like Diouf’s white woman) address the living.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Cetta, Lewis T. Profane Play, Ritual, and Jean Genet: A Study of His Drama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1974.

Coe, Richard N., ed. The Theater of Jean Genet: A Casebook. New York: Grove Press, 1970.

Esslin, Martin. “Jean Genet: A Hall of Mirrors.” In The Theatre of the Absurd. 3d ed. London: Methuen, 2001.

Knapp, Bettina L. Jean Genet. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Martin, Graham Dunstan. “Racism in Genet’s Les Nègres.” Modern Language Review 70 (July, 1975): 517-525.

Pronko, Leonard C. “Jean Genet: Theater as Ritual.” In Avant-Garde: The Experimental Theater in France. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962.

Savona, Jeannette L. Jean Genet. London: Macmillan Press, 1983.

Swander, Homer D. “Shakespeare and the Harlem Clowns: Illusion and Comic Form in Genet’s The Blacks.” Yale Review 55 (December, 1965): 209-226.

Zimbardo, R. A. “Genet’s Black Mass.” Modern Drama 8 (December, 1965): 247-258.