The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1128

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...

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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 actually pink or yellowy.

The members of the court—Valet, Governor, Missionary, Judge, and Queen, in that order—reappear in what is now taken to be Africa and proceed, in their roles as whites, to preside over the judgment of the rapist-murderer. The contrast of black and white is now heightened by the meeting of night and day: As Félicité announces that it is dawn, Archibald imitates the crowing of a cock; shortly thereafter, the Valet does the same. The “white” court and the blacks bow to each other, while the white dolls that represent the court remain in full view. The ensuing black-white confrontation is deeply imbued with racial hatred, and white tolerance of blacks is satirized by the Judge’s concession that all Africa cannot be held responsible for the death of one white woman.

The trial is interrupted by Ville de Saint-Nazaire’s report of the revolutionary traitor’s execution. At his appearance, the members of the court remove their masks and stand forth as blacks. Presently, the actors who have played the court decide, along with the other blacks, to resume the play within the play. The members of the court put their masks back on. Instead of arriving at a judgment and sentence, however, the court, led by the Queen, chooses to die so as to deny the blacks l’orgueil du triomphe (the pride of triumph—that is, a sense of moral victory). Village then mimes the shooting of the Governor, and all the blacks laughingly imitate the crowing of a cock. The Judge is shot next, and again the blacks sound out the crowing.

As Village and Vertu begin to exchange intimate recollections and avowals of love, the Missionary, the Valet, and finally the Queen are executed. The dying Queen comments on the allegory of the play within the play: In order to become the allegorical image, it was necessary to live and suffer. The comment, taken with various religious images in the play and the instances of cock-crowing, clearly alludes to the betrayal of Christ. Archibald notes that the allegory has lacked the Mother and tells Diouf that tomorrow he will play “the admirable Mother of the Heroes who died in the belief that they were killing us, and who were eaten up by our ants and our rage.” All the characters leave the stage except Vertu and Village, who argue briefly and settle their remaining differences. The backdrop curtains are raised to disclose all the blacks, including the now-unmasked court, standing about a catafalque. As the minuet from Mozart’s Don Giovanni is again heard, Village and Vertu turn their backs on the audience and walk toward the blacks. The proscenium curtain closes over the stage.

The Blacks is not divided into acts. The discrete but continuous scenes between the opening and closing of the proscenium curtain lead away from traditional dramatic structure; they rather create an effect of constant circularity. The circularity is also reflected in the concentricity of three plays in counterpoint to one another. The central circle is the play within a play, the ritual of the rape-murder and trial. Outside this circle is the main play, which consists of characters performing the ritual and portrays the effect that the performance has upon the love affair of Vertu and Village. Outside this circle is the offstage drama of blacks in revolt against whites and the trial and execution of a black by blacks; this largest circle eventually overwhelms the other two. Ripples flow in both directions among these circles. There is a movement from murder (of a white woman) to trial (of her murderer) to execution (of the treasonous black). There is also an escalating opposition of blacks to whites: one black against one white, black actors against a white court and a white audience, and (in the revolution) blacks, as a race, against whites.

Dramatic Devices

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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.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 140

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.

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