Jean Genet Drama Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5467

Although Jean Genet’s productive period as a dramatist covers a comparatively short period, his inspiration ranges much more widely. His aestheticism, his concept of the drama as a quasi-mystical experience relating the human to the transcendental by way of the ambiguity of symbols, his uncompromising anarchism, his richly exuberant sensuality—all these link him directly with the enthusiasms of the fin de siècle, and clearly he would have felt as much spiritual affinity with Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley as with Joris-Karl Huysmans and Joséphin Péladan. His subject matter, however, is rigorously contemporary. The problems he explores are those of the post-Hiroshima world, a world of tormented consciences and inverted values, of racism and revolution, of flamboyant sexuality and puritanical indoctrination. At the same time, recalling that he was creating his drama in the comparatively calm epoch of “the absurd,” with its emphasis on the ludicrous condition of humankind as viewed by the cold, ironic eye of indifferent eternity, his drama, in the violence of its revolt against the status quo, clearly anticipates that of the younger generation, a generation that still lay ahead of him. Genet was writing his drama in the decade of the Angry Young Men; however, while the causes of their anger are largely forgotten, those of Genet—a man who had much more to be angry about—are beginning only now to be appreciated.

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Genet’s five published plays fall into two distinct groups. The two earlier one-act dramas, The Maids and Deathwatch, have the economy of means, the tautness of construction, the close interdependence of characters, and the concentration within the rigid discipline of the three unities (time, place, and action) that are characteristic of all that is best in French classical and neoclassical theater. Their model and inspiration is almost certainly Sartre’s most effective play, Huis clos (1944; No Exit, 1946). Both, moreover, are fundamentally addressed to the intellect of the spectator. By contrast, the three later plays, The Balcony, The Blacks, and The Screens, depend at least as much on visual effects as on language. The three are broad, flamboyant canvases of loosely related episodes, panoramic rather than conventionally dramatic in structure, or rather (to use the term favored by Brecht, whose influence can be detected at every point), “epic.”

Deathwatch

Deathwatch was the first play that Genet wrote, although not the first to be produced; it is also the most directly autobiographical. The character of Lefranc is clearly a self-portrait of the playwright, representing an alternative direction that his life might have taken. The play evokes the prison world of Fresnes and Fontevrault, as they are described in his novel Miracle of the Rose. Dominating this world by the aura of his invisible presence is Snowball, a condemned murderer incarcerated somewhere in his death cell on some remote upper story. The French title for the play, Haute Surveillance, is one of Genet’s more ingenious ambiguities, resuming in itself the significance of the action on three different levels. If haute surveillance is the technical name for the peculiarly sadistic form of detention that French criminal law had prescribed for its condemned prisoners awaiting execution, the term also suggests the watch kept from above by Snowball, in his transcendental state of “death in life,” over the rest of the prison and all its myriad inmates. At the same time, and most important of all, it suggests the watch kept by God, who, from the high mansions of Heaven, looks down on the tragedies of humankind and makes or mars (generally mars in Genet’s world) his destiny.

Onstage, three men are confined in a cell that is open to the audience: Lefranc, a burglar, shortly due to be released; Maurice, a delinquent who, had he been only a few months younger, would probably have been packed off to Mettray; and Green-Eyes, another murderer, but one who, unlike Snowball, is awaiting trial and is still not condemned. Between these three men, with only rare interruptions from a warder, the entire action takes place in one cell and in the course of a single afternoon.

In the “normal” world, there is a hierarchy of virtue having, at its summit, the saint, the man or woman who, having pushed the totality of human experience beyond the limits of endurance, has come face to face with God. In the prison, there is a similar hierarchy, not so much of evil, as of its metaphysical equivalent, transgression. He who has transgressed beyond this limit is imbued with the same mystic aura of sanctity; he sheds the same brilliant transcendental light (or darkness) over more common mortals, as does the saint. Just as the seeker after virtue may calculate by what act of self-destroying asceticism and sacrifice he may aspire to sanctity, and yet, by the very fact of having calculated, forever exclude himself from the ranks of the elect, so may a sneak thief ponder the steps that would lead to the ineffable summit of transgression, and yet, by having pondered, condemn himself for all eternity to the lowly status of failed transgressor.

This is the theme, and the action, of Deathwatch. At the very bottom of the hierarchy is Lefranc, the most insignificant of criminals, because, while he has violated the manmade laws of bourgeois society, he has left intact the major taboos of the race. Next comes Maurice, who, although still young, already possesses the flintiness, the inhumanity that promises great crimes in the future. Then comes Green-Eyes, the murderer, who has violated the most sacred of all taboos, that which decrees the sanctity of human life. Finally, at the summit, stands Snowball, in whom the cycle of crime and punishment (Genet at this stage owes much to Fyodor Dostoevski), of transgression and retribution, is complete. The range extends from petty lawbreaking to absolute evil. The immediate problem of the play is whether an essentially passive character, such as Lefranc (or such as Genet himself), having accepted the fact that the absolute, in his own case, can never be an absolute good and therefore must necessarily be an absolute evil, is capable of achieving this negative transcendence. The outcome is failure. Deliberately and gratuitously, Lefranc strangles the helpless Maurice, while Green-Eyes looks on, smiling sardonically; Lefranc then turns to Green-Eyes, believing that at last he has escaped his ignominious destiny and has earned his place among the elite. Green-Eyes, however, rejects him out of hand, and Lefranc discovers that it is not sufficient merely to be a murderer to shatter the walls that guard the transcendence of the spirit. His gratuitous crime is but one more failure added to the list of failures that constitute his life. He achieves his solitude, but it is Genet’s own solitude of degradation, not Snowball’s solitude of glory. The other path is closed to him forever.

Alone among the critics who saw the play at its first performance, François Mauriac grasped the work’s implications; Mauriac described Deathwatch as a modern reevocation of the doctrines of Calvinism (or, in a French context, of Jansenism): a statement of the futility of the individual against the predestined patterns ordained by God since the moment of the Creation. The Grace of God alone, and not the will of humankind, however well intentioned, determines the ultimate value of the act. From Lefranc, the Gift of Efficient Grace was withheld, and so, in the end, his only reward is a contemptuous “Bastard!” from Green-Eyes. All appearances to the contrary, Deathwatch embodies a theological proposition in a modern context.

The Maids

Genet’s second play, The Maids (his first play to be performed), is based on a real-life murder trial of 1933, in which two sisters, Christine and Léa Papin, were convicted of having murdered their mistress. The Maids contributed almost as much as Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pb. 1952, pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954) to exciting an international interest in the new French theater.

The sisters Christine and Léa have become the sisters Claire and Solange; their names alone, with suggestions of light and darkness, of sun and of angels, suffice to lift them out of the domain of sordid reality and to elevate them to the very center of Genet’s mythology. From the very first line of the dialogue, however, this secondary symbolism is supplemented by another, which is rooted in the nature of the drama itself: The simultaneous awareness, for the audience, of illusion and reality is presented so that the two opposites, far from either merging or canceling each other, subsist together in all their irreconcilable hostility, each a dynamic and irreducible force in its own right. As the curtain rises, Claire and Solange, within the general context of dramatic illusion, possess a degree of reality as maids. Within this general context, however, they create a domain of secondary illusion, a play within a play. Claire plays the part of Madame, a deliberately faulty illusion in her grotesque and borrowed dresses, with her gruesomely padded body that parodies Madame’s sexual attributes, whereas Solange, perfectly disguised as Solange, plays the part of Claire.

Thus, all reality is reduced to appearance, and all appearance to the status of a game. In terms of Genet’s dualist metaphysic, the confrontation of two incompatible dimensions, the two symbols play an essential part: that of the mirror and that of the double. The “real” is both itself as well as its transcendental reflection. Therefore, when Solange plays the part and takes on the character of Claire, the real Claire addresses the pseudo-Claire as “Claire,” even when she herself has temporarily slipped back out of her stage character as Madame and resumed her own reality as herself. The complexity of this doubling is further increased by Solange, who also slips back and forth from her role as Claire (in which case she is the maid, insulting and working herself up to a fury of hatred and vengeance against the mistress) to her reality as Solange. “In reality,” Solange is jealous of her sister and accuses her of having alienated the affections of her (Solange’s) lover, the Milkman. On both levels, reality and game, the hatred alone remains identical, but the transition from one level to another frequently takes place within a single speech, so that the dualities Claire/Solange and real-Claire/pseudo-Claire merge into each other and produce the fourfold mirror reflection of a single identity.

Nightly, in their ritual-sacrificial game of exchanged identities, Claire and Solange ceremonially enact the murder of Madame. As always in Genet’s work, the contents of the dream spill over into waking life, for there is a real Madame, and the maids have planned her real murder, with a poison dissolved into her evening potion of lime tea. The plan, however, goes wrong. Madame has a lover, Monsieur, whom Claire has denounced to the police for some nameless felony, having first manufactured sufficient evidence to ensure that he will be convicted. The police are hesitant, and, just before Madame returns home, a telephone call informs the maids that Monsieur has been released on bail. Certain now that their treachery will be discovered, the maids realize not only that their dream of murdering Madame must become a reality if they are to escape the consequences of their denunciation but also that it must be realized immediately. Madame returns, the poison is ready, but then Claire and Solange, human beings who have betrayed another human being, are in their turn betrayed by the active malevolence of the inanimate world. The whole of the ritual is on the point of discovery when Claire reveals that it was Monsieur who had telephoned. Delirious with excitement, Madame rushes off to meet him, leaving her lime tea untasted; Claire and Solange remain alone once more, their dream of murder having evaporated, with one final sacrificial ritual for their only consolation.

For the last time, they go through their exchange of identities. This time, Solange dresses as Madame but, by her words and gestures, acts the part of Claire the maid, while Claire remains dressed as Claire (or perhaps Solange), but acts the part of Madame. As the curtain falls, it is Claire/Madame who shifts even this “reality” out of time into eternity by herself drinking the lime tea. Thus, truth and falsehood become forever indistinguishable in the wordlessness of death. The poison was intended for Madame; Claire is Madame and, now that she can no longer speak her name, will remain so for all eternity.

This extraordinary play, with its perfect one-act structure, its overwhelming dramatic tension, and its density of thought and symbolism, is rightly considered one of the masterpieces of the contemporary theater. It is a play about masks and doubles, about the evanescence of identity. It is also, marginally, a play about social injustice. In the plays that follow, this secondary preoccupation emerges ever more menacingly.

The Balcony

The Balcony, the first of Genet’s plays in the Brechtian-epic (as opposed to the Sartrian-classical) tradition, was perhaps the most controversial of those that he had so far published. The very term “Brechtian” implies a degree of social commitment, and indeed the play shows the symbolic representatives of a threatened bourgeoisie (a Bishop, a General, a Judge, a Chief of Police) acting out in merciless caricature their erotic-masochistic fantasies in a luxurious Second-Empire brothel (“The Balcony”), while the hostile forces of the Revolution are actively engaged in occupying every point of vantage in the city. Yet in Genet’s own introduction to the play, he denied most emphatically that it represents a satire or a parody of anything, calling it merely “the glorification of the Image and the Reflection.” He was furious when, in the world premiere of the play at the Arts Theatre Club in London, the director, Peter Zadek, portrayed the Queen as a caricature of the British monarchy. In an interview granted only a few days later, however, he declared that “my starting-point was Spain, Franco’s Spain; and the revolutionary who castrated himself was the symbol of all Republicans who have acknowledged their defeat.”

The Balcony epitomizes the problems of interpretation arising when a dramatist uses social or political themes for both asocial and apolitical purposes. On the realistic level, both reactionaries and revolutionaries are equally unacceptable to Genet’s ideal of “pure poetry,” for both represent the disciplined forces of anti-individualism that are repugnant to him. The difference is that the first group represents a society that has already excluded him, whereas the second group represents a movement from which he would rather exclude himself. He is strongly attracted by the archaic mysticism of reaction yet is repelled by the individuals who incarnate it. On the other hand, he is on the whole attracted by individual revolutionaries yet disgusted by their materialistic ambitions and disciplinarian methods.

In The Balcony, Genet reveals himself as an anarchist of the most classical variety. He has defined his own intrinsic attitude again and again. He is not in revolt against any particular society; he has simply opted out of all societies, which position, in the long run, presents him with a far more difficult attitude to sustain. Genet diligently abstracts his heroes from their social context, shows them as negative, individualistic, and concerned only with sanctity and with transcendental absolutes. With equal diligence, the audience replaces them where they came from and persists in interpreting them as positive heroes or victims in a relative social or political setting. The essence of Genet’s dilemma as a dramatist consists in that although he refuses to create a socialist theater, inevitably his negative revolt will be interpreted as some sort of socialism.

These are the ambiguities that plague The Balcony and that make of it at once the most successful and at the same time the least convincing of Genet’s dramas. The Balcony is another of his symbolic-suggestive titles. As the throne (Heaven, altar, or condemned cell) from which an isolated consciousness looks down on humanity and bears away the weight of its sins, the Balcony is a brothel of a special type. It is a microcosm, a mirror reflection of the real world, in which all appearances become reality. It provides costumes, props, accessories, and endless mirrors; each customer acts out, in an erotic ritual of pure appearances, the part in which he or she would like to see himself. Inside the elaborate decor of these tiny closed worlds of absolute illusion, prostitutes and customers together enact the rituals of make-believe.

Two realities lie behind all this aesthetic sublimation: the Revolution and, less obtrusive but more significant, a “theory of functions.” In the last analysis (this is the essence of the play), both establishment and revolution emerge as “functions” of each other. If a judge exists, he exists only as a function of a potential criminal: Were there no criminals, there would be no judges. Similarly, were there no bourgeoisie, there would be no revolution. The proletariat depends on the bourgeoisie for its very definition, its very existence. The one is the mirror reflection of the other; as always in Genet, the reflection is more real than the image. (Once the Queen is dead, and Madame Irma, the “Madame” of the Brothel, “plays” the Queen, the “real” revolution is crushed immediately.) By destroying the establishment, the Revolution destroys its own identity, which was defined and given existence by its function, which was that of opposing the establishment. Similarly, the Chief of Police (the most enigmatic figure in the play) is defined as the opponent of the Revolution. In annihilating the Revolution, he destroys his own function and thus annihilates himself, leaving himself only the brothel as an ultimate refuge, with his quest for his own mausoleum, whereby he might perpetuate his own nonfunctional existence as a myth.

The Balcony is the most complex of Genet’s plays, the most ambiguous, and yet one of the most impressive. In a social situation, a person is what he or she is seen to be by others. This other-created self is given substance by the individual’s appearance—his or her uniform, robes, vestments. These props are the power symbols that constitute the person’s essence, yet power is defined by the object over which that power may be exercised. Remove that object, and both the power and the symbol of power, hence the identity, evaporate into nothingness. A “function” must function; where there is no context in which functioning is possible, the power is thrown back on itself. To be, the image can only contemplate its own reflection in the mirror. Therefore, in a sense, the first four mirror scenes of The Balcony should also recur at the end. Had the play been written by Beckett, this might have happened. As it is, there are suggestions: “In a little while, I’ll have to start all over again,” says Madame Irma in her concluding monologue, “put all the lights on again . . . dress up . . . distribute roles again . . . assume my own.” Basically, the structure of Genet’s later plays is too Brechtian-linear to allow this type of cyclical conclusion to be fully developed. The Balcony is a transitional play, and the experimental audacities of its form are not quite adequate to express the sophistication of its content.

If Genet, together with many of his contemporaries, refused absolutely to commit himself to any ideology of the Left, this was for literary as well as for political reasons. To the poet, the most repulsive feature of the established Left was its reliance on platitudes and slogans. It needed the freakish genius of a Vladimir Mayakovsky to transmute slogans into poetry. For the rest, it is the seemingly irrevocable mission of the Left to crush poetry into slogans.

The Blacks

Genet’s reply to this, both in The Blacks and in The Screens, was to reverse the accepted order of moral values accorded to either side in his confrontation of ideological opposites, thus giving the conventional platitudes a startling and shocking originality when bestowed on the right side for the wrong reason or on the wrong side for the right reason. In the drama of the political platitude (as in the melodrama, from which such drama springs), there are heroes and villains; the revolutionary heroes are good, while the reactionary villains are bad. In Genet’s variant, the revolutionary “heroes” are bad (degraded, murderous, and treacherous), while the reactionary “villains” are good (beautiful, idealistic, and constructive).

The structure of The Blacks is that of a total theater—that is, of a theater employing all the media that contribute to the dramatic impact of the spectacle. It uses music, dance, rhythm, and ritual; contrasts masks and faces, illusion and reality; and employs different levels, exploiting a multiplicity of stage dimensions (Antonin Artaud’s “poetry in space”). It borrows its techniques from the jazz band and the jam session, from the church service and from the music hall, from the circus, and even, in the episodes of orchestrated laughter, from the stylized, cadenced mockery of the Aristophanic chorus. In such a context, the chief function and dramatic value of language is realized as a medium of incantation. This play has more in common with music than with normal drama, wherein representation has given way to abstraction. The aim of convincing an audience, assumed to be intellectual, has been replaced by that of rousing it to a state of mystical or hysterical delirium, using means that the high priest shares with the demagogue and the jazz trumpeter, with the snake charmer. The final effectiveness of the piece lies in the fact that it is by no means devoid of ideas. The dialectic is there, but it is conveyed by implication rather than by statement.

The Blacks has little or no coherent story. Rather, it has a theme (the theme of black and white) and a structure that gradually reveals itself as having significance on different and unsuspected levels. The actors are black actors. They are introduced as a group of blacks with ordinary, everyday backgrounds—cook, sewing maid, medical student, prostitute—but have now come together to produce an entertainment, a “clown-show.” Meanwhile, entombed on the stage in a white-draped, flower-covered catafalque lies the corpse of a murdered white woman. Around this, a further dimension of illusion is developed: the rhythms, rituals, and ceremonies of hatred and violence. Observing this, high up in their gallery, sit five blacks masked as whites: the Queen, the Missionary, the Governor, the Judge, and the Valet, providing yet a further dimension, an audience for the clownery of the others. What precisely is this audience? For the actors below them on the stage, the court both is and is not an audience. It watches them, listens to them, applauds them, yet it is composed of actors acting as an audience, an unreal mirror reflection of the “real” audience in the pit and stalls facing them. It is also a chorus and, in symbolic form, the enemy. So the play develops for more than half its length, working out permutations and combinations with the elusive material of dimensions, of plays within plays and audiences within audiences, until suddenly, with the dramatic entry of Ville-de-Saint-Nazaire, the whole delicate structure collapses with the revelation of still another dimension: a play outside the play. Ville-de-Saint-Nazaire is not concerned with any dream of village love or of ritually murdered whites. He is a real political agitator (but what, at this point, is “real”?) who has been attending a secret meeting “just up the street outside the theater,” at which not a white but another black has been condemned to execution for having betrayed the clandestine Society for Black Rights.

Meanwhile, all the others—actors, audience, true or false, black whites, and white blacks—disintegrate into dreams. The whole evening’s clownery was merely a deliberate diversion (as Archibald warned from the beginning), a smoke screen to keep the audience’s attention fixed while the executive committee got on with its job. The white court strips off its masks, the others strip off their personalities, and for an instant, they are any group of real blacks having an urgent political discussion. The former Valet, that erstwhile masked caricature of the bourgeois intellectual or artist in capitalist society, is now revealed as the cell leader, whose orders are obeyed instantly and without question. Eventually, he commands his combat section to take up their parts again and to resume the act; thus the audience is back in the dimensions of illusion. The victory, however, lies with Genet. In the closing scenes, when the audience knows that all is merely a “clown-show,” the hard, political play outside the play moves even further from reality than the actors portraying actors of the play itself. In yet another dimension, there is more reality—immediate political reality this time—in the notion of an armed and organized Direct Action Committee for Negro Rights than there is in ritualistic dances about the imaginary catafalque of an imaginary murdered white. Which is real and which is illusion? Compared with The Blacks, Luigi Pirandello’s experiments with the same problem seem almost childish. Ultimately, since there must be an end, the whole masked court of whites makes its way reluctantly toward the “infernal regions,” enveloped in a rain of muddled colonialistic platitudes. There is neither triumph nor fear on either side. What must be, must be. For the blacks, their victory over the whites is scarcely worth a comment; it is all in the day’s work. Their real problems lie elsewhere.

In this play, masks reveal even more than they hide of the reality beneath. Among these, for the blacks, the most disquieting is the mask of language. These blacks, for all their blackness, are speaking with the language of the whites, not even Creole or petit-nègre (pidgin French), but the purest, most classical language of the Princesse de Clèves. The face masks can be removed easily enough, the language mask, never. Thus, when Village makes love to Vertu, he makes love to her in white language, and his black love for a black girl is transmuted into a white love for a white girl and thus becomes, even in its purest poetry, a pure falsehood. The Judge, the Governor, and the Missionary are gone, but the language remains: the irremovable trace of servitude imposed by a benevolent paternalism. In the final analysis, the black imitates more than the white: He imitates the very language that condemns his imitation. Such is the conclusion of The Blacks and the ultimate tragedy of colonialism.

The Screens

Written in 1959-1960, at the climax of France’s catastrophic conflict with Algerian nationalism, it was inconceivable that The Screens, a play that ridiculed French patriotism and that caricatured as ludicrous buffoons conscript members of the French Army on active service, should be performed in Paris—or indeed anywhere within metropolitan France. Fragmented versions in translation were presented in Berlin and in London; the true world premiere was given in Stockholm in Swedish. Only some four years after the war had concluded had the accompanying emotions subsided sufficiently to allow a tentative, carefully spaced run at the Théâtre National de l’Odéon in Paris; even then, there were “incidents.”

Insofar as Brecht must be considered a major influence on Genet’s later drama, The Screens is the most purely Brechtian of all his plays. Explicit argument is reduced to a minimum, and traditional psychology has dwindled to the vanishing point. Instead, the dramatic effect is created by a series of brilliant visual images, stylized and simplified almost to the point of primitivism, by violence, slogans, caricature, deliberate vulgarity, and by the overwhelming impression of hatred that remains in the atmosphere long after the actors of each individual scene have vanished. Most of the more obsessive themes and problems of Genet’s earlier dramas are present but are now reduced to their visual equivalent, acted out in front of the four levels of screens on the stage, on which the performers roughly chalk in a symbolic decor as required (a technique derived from cabaret shows of the period). Beneath this camouflage of primitivism, parody, and purely dramatic spectacle, traces of ideas reveal that Genet’s complex vision of the world has by no means ceased to evolve.

The “hero” of the drama is Saïd, the most abject, cowardly, debased, and unlovable of all the fellahin, and the “heroines” are Warda and Malika, the ritualistically costumed and painted whores of the brothel. The “villains” are, on the one hand, the European colonists and the French Army of Occupation; on the other hand, and rather more ambiguously, they are the Arab militant insurgents, armed and disciplined, the very mirror reflection of the European occupiers whom they are driving back into the sea. In this respect, but only in this respect, The Screens recapitulates the argument of The Blacks; to maintain their identity in the face of the power of the white peoples, the oppressed of the Third World must assimilate the technology and master the efficiency of the Europeans and, in so doing, destroy forever the authentic heritage of those whom they are seeking to defend. It is a dilemma from which there is no escape, one of the profoundest tragedies of the modern world.

Beneath the conflict of French and Arabs that forms the obvious subject of the play lies a much profounder and, for Genet, more immediately relevant conflict: that between anarchy and organization. If the main division of the characters is into white and brown, there is also a secondary division that cuts right across the first. On the one hand are anarchists, the reversers of conventional values so dear to Genet’s heart—Saïd; his mother; Leïla, his wife; Kadidja; and Ommu—and on the other, the orthodox forces of political reality. These include not only the colonials and the Légionnaires but also the disciplined Arab combatants themselves, who, in the final moments of the play, execute Saïd and, in so doing, relegate Genet’s dreams to where they belong: to the world of poetry, which, in political terms, is the world of acquiescent nonfunction, the world of death.

When the audience first meets Saïd, he is on his way to his wedding, accompanied by his mother. Like that of Genet himself, Saïd’s authenticity resides in his abjection. He plunges downward into “sanctity” through his experiences of degradation and of evil. Leïla, his bride (the Arabic word means “night”), has only one outstanding individual characteristic: her ugliness. She is “the ugliest woman in the next town and all the towns around.” Progressively her ugliness becomes, for herself, for Saïd, and for his mother, the symbol of a total negativity, a total rejection of “accepted” values, aesthetic or otherwise. Meanwhile, Saïd progresses through ever more categoric stages of negation. From an outcast he becomes a thief; from a thief, a jailbird; from a jailbird, a traitor. His treachery is his final negation of positive values because he is betraying not only his own but also his creator’s committed cause; however, it is all so useless. As had happened with the prostitute Chantal in The Balcony, the Revolution seizes on his image and elevates it into that of a hero. It transforms him into a symbol of himself, thus condemning him to the dimension of death and of unreality, even while he is yet alive. Just as Genet himself had been transformed from a criminal into the Poet (and thus transmuted from an ignominious life into a glorious death while alive), so Saïd is transmuted from his rebellious and abject self into a Glorious Cause. Death, after that, is a relief.

The death of Saïd, however, is no solution to Genet’s own problem; it merely places Genet himself in the position of having to abandon either politics or poetry, having failed successively, through The Balcony, The Blacks, and The Screens, in his attempt to reconcile the two. “Certain truths are not applicable, otherwise they’d die,” says Ommu toward the end of The Screens. “They mustn’t die, but live through the songs they’ve become.” Poetry, in fact, is one thing, and politics, another. One is life, and the other is death. The only question is, which is which? Such is the insoluble problem left hanging in the air at the end of The Screens. “It’s dead we want you, dead,” says Ommu to Saïd. “That’s leaving me dead alive,” replies Saïd. After the writing of The Screens, Genet, caught finally in the trap of politics, would appear to have existed “dead alive.”

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Jean Genet Long Fiction Analysis