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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1939

Article abstract: Genet was one of the major innovators in French theater in the period following World War II. His work helped transform concepts of Western drama and marked one of the golden ages of theater.

Early Life

Jean Genet was born in Paris, France, on December 19, 1910. He...

(The entire section contains 1939 words.)

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Article abstract: Genet was one of the major innovators in French theater in the period following World War II. His work helped transform concepts of Western drama and marked one of the golden ages of theater.

Early Life

Jean Genet was born in Paris, France, on December 19, 1910. He was left in the care of the national foundling service and eventually was sent to foster parents. When he was twenty-one, he was given his birth certificate. He discovered that he was born in a maternity hospital in Paris and that his mother used the name Gabrielle Genet. His father remained unknown. His foster parents were peasant landowners in the Morvan region of France. Under Catholic tutelage he, at first, did well in school and was well liked. Then, for undetermined reasons, Genet began to steal. By his early teens, Genet found himself in a reformatory in Mettray. His time there only served to turn him into a hardened person. Genet escaped from the reformatory when he was twenty and joined the French Foreign Legion. He did so, though, only to collect the enlistment bonus and deserted after a few days.

At that time Genet’s adult criminal activities began. He was, at different times, a thief, counterfeiter, bootlegger, male prostitute, and dope smuggler. His life led him to experience jails in Spain, France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, and Germany. By 1948, he was sent to jail in France for the tenth time. The law was such that if one acquired ten arrests, one was condemned to prison for life. Having already begun writing, Genet had caught the attention of a circle of literati, among whom were Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre. These writers petitioned the President of France for a pardon for Genet, and it was granted. With his release, Genet left behind his life of crime and turned wholly to his writing.

Life’s Work

According to Genet, he began writing by chance when he heard the poem of a cell-mate which he thought poor. Challenged to do better, he wrote one of his own. Though it was not liked, it inspired him to continue writing. While in a prison south of Paris, he managed to publish “Le Condamné à mort” (1942; “The Man Condemned to Death,” 1965). It was a poem written to the memory of a friend, Maurice Pilorge, who had been executed earlier. Genet received encouragement, and he turned to writing novels.

Genet’s first novel, Notre-Dame des Fleurs (1944, 1951; Our Lady of the Flowers, 1949), was written in 1942. He had begun it on brown paper bags only to find that the bags were confiscated. The warden claimed that they were improper material for writing. Undaunted, Genet ordered notebooks and rewrote the fifty pages that he had written. The novel is the chronicle of the fantasies a man in jail has to bring himself to orgasm. Though not autobiographical, it is told in the first person and has references to Genet’s life.

Genet’s next two novels, Miracle de la rose (1946, 1951; Miracle of the Rose, 1966) and Pompes funèbres (1947, 1953; Funeral Rites, 1968), are also written in the first person. They are both semiautobiographical in that, though Genet is the narrator, he is describing memories and fantasies. The latter novel has, in fact, a setting outside jail. In this novel is first seen Genet’s political touch, a theme that would become more refined in his plays.

In Querelle de Brest (1947, 1953; Querelle of Brest, 1966), Genet is no longer in the work. The main character is Querelle, a sailor, and the action is set in Brest, a port city in northwest France. It is an exploration of sexuality and power through Querelle. Genet’s final novel was Journal du voleur (1949; The Thief’s Journal, 1954). This is the most autobiographical of Genet’s work and documents his early adult life. It remains, though, a narrative based on memory, which Genet concedes is not necessarily factual. Genet claimed that with this work he had said all he needed to say, and thus it would be his last. He fortunately came out, though, with five plays. It was in these plays that his writing became its strongest.

Genet’s writing to this point had been a contrast between the beauty of his style and the baseness of his message. His prose is almost poetic as it describes the elevation of evil. Genet was a thief and believed himself to be outside society. He saw two professions outside society—that of the criminal and that of the saint. The saint is the paragon of good; the criminal, of evil. As the saint was elevated from corrupt society, Genet set to elevating the criminal. The main problem was society, and Genet fought it in his writing. Many critics focused solely on the beauty of Genet’s language, because they found his message too profane. To a lesser extent, this remained true of Genet’s plays.

Genet’s first two plays, Les Bonnes (1947; The Maids, 1954) and Haute Surveillance (1949; Deathwatch, 1954), remain close, in general, to the theme of his novels. They are structured traditionally in that the action follows a logical progression of time and ideas. They both involve power relationships, the first between two maids and their mistress, who remains above them, the second between three convicts, one of whom is above the other two.

Deathwatch, written first, depicts Green Eyes, who, because he has murdered without cause, is above the other inmates. One inmate wants to worship him and the other wants to be him. The latter murders the former, but because he does it for recognition, he does not achieve the status of Green Eyes. In The Maids, the maids are sisters. While their mistress is gone, they act out their desire to kill her. With the conflict between reality and imagination, the sister who acts in the place of the mistress drinks poison and thus elevates the other. The language of the plays is almost lyrical. The writing is clear and naturally rhythmic, as it is in all Genet’s writings. The speeches, though, are above the capabilities of the characters. They reveal what the characters feel and are not a reflection of their backgrounds. Like Genet’s novels, there is distortion of fact when it suits the purpose of the author.

Genet’s last plays are his best work. They reflect a change in his attitude toward society. He originally wanted to attack and shock society, but he became more interested in a search for truth—something that existed not in society or in a reaction against it, but despite it. Genet’s language came to suit his purposes even more, and his themes shifted from the individual to the universal. His language found a natural medium in the theater.

Le Balcon (1956; The Balcony, 1957) was his most successful play in the United States. It takes place in a whorehouse, where the prostitutes cater to the clients’ illusions of grandeur. Customers dress up as generals, bishops, and judges. When a revolution destroys the current regime, the clients are used to replace their real counterparts. The switch, of course, succeeds with ease. Les Nègres (1958; The Blacks, 1960) is another award-winning play. Blacks put on a “clown show” for the audience while in reality, down the street, a revolutionary meeting is taking place. The cast is all black, with half the characters portraying whites. There is a conflict between the white colonialists and the blacks, but it is secondary to the ideas of the play.

Genet’s last play, Les Paravents (1961; The Screens, 1962), is his most extensive and theatrical play. Visually and thematically, action occurs on many different levels. It is based on the war between the Algerians and the French. The play’s bent is toward Algeria, and it portrays the French as fools. In the subtext is the theme of order versus anarchy. A segment of the Algerians brings in a new order and in essence replaces the French. Genet examines world politics, individualism, sexuality, and racism.

Though Genet promised more work, none was ever produced after The Screens. From 1960 until his death in 1986, Genet remained an outcast. He felt little in common with the society made available to him by his success, and yet that success barred him from the life he had led prior to his writing. He kept no permanent address. At times he would live in luxury hotels, at other times he would live in squalor. The royalties from his work allowed him this lifestyle. He died alone in a Paris hotel room at the age of seventy-five.

Summary

Jean Genet’s life remains a mystery. Little is known of his early life but what he wished to tell through his novels. There are only theories as to why he became a criminal. More of a question is what moved him to write. With little formal training and little education, Genet clearly and beautifully expressed philosophical truths. His work won for him recognition and praise from some of the top scholars of his day.

Indeed, Genet’s work has been assimilated by the society against which he defined himself. Along with works by such contemporaries as Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco, his plays have been required reading at many colleges and universities since the 1960’s. The outlaw has been canonized. The extent to which Genet endures as a writer will thus depend not on his themes (which can already be seen as commonplace for their time), not on his critique of society, but on the lasting power of his language and his quasireligious theatrical vision.

Bibliography

Choukri, Mohamed. Jean Genet in Tangier. Translated by Paul Bowles. New York: Ecco Press, 1974. A recounting of Choukri’s encounters with Genet in Tangier, Morocco, from 1968 to 1969. A short work, it gives a view of Genet the man.

Coe, Richard N. The Vision of Jean Genet. London: Peter Owen, 1968. From the author’s note, “This book is not a biography of Jean Genet; it is a study of his ideas, his art, his imagery and his dreams . . . as he has chosen to give them to us in his [work].” Coe, in this work, intended, perhaps, for scholars, examines Genet’s works through the theme of solitude.

Driver, T. F. Jean Genet. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. In this study of Genet and his works, Driver brings his Christian background to bear. Driver finds in Genet’s works a movement from the pornographic to the spiritually uplifting. The brevity of the work, combined with a short but informative biography, makes for an interesting perspective when compared to other critical works.

Knapp, Bettina. Jean Genet. New York: Twayne, 1968. This book contains some of the better biographical information on Genet as well as an examination of Genet’s novels and plays. Includes notes, a bibliography, and an index. This is a good objective source of Genet, not intended for the scholar.

McMahon, Joseph H. The Imagination of Jean Genet. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963. McMahon studies Genet’s works and puts forth the argument that, whereas Genet’s ideas are of little worth, his presentation—his language and theatrical techniques—is of lasting value. He defends well his theory of the ambiguity of Genet’s genius.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr. Translated by Bernard Frechtman. New York: George Braziller, 1963. In one of the great books of the twentieth century, Sartre examines Genet as the manifestation of the existentialist man. He shows the choices that Genet made and explains Genet’s works in this light. There are Genet’s “acts” and then his “martyrdom” by society. Sartre uses Genet as a vehicle to examine his society.

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