Jean Genet Genet, Jean (Drama Criticism) - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

Jean Genet 1910-1986

French novelist, playwright, and poet.

Genet is best known for his surreal poetic dramas in which he utilizes the stage as a communal arena for enacting bizarre fantasies involving dominance and submission, sex, and death. Genet, whom Jean Cocteau dubbed France's Black Prince of letters, is linked to such amoral, antitraditional writers as the Marquis de Sade and Charles Baudelaire by his use of rich, baroque imagery, his deliberate inversion of traditional moral values, and his belief that spiritual glory may be attained through the pursuit of evil. Although Genet first won international recognition for his lyrical novels about prison life, most critics contend that his dramas represent the most refined synthesis of his characteristic style and themes.

Biographical Information

Genet was born in Paris on December 19, 1910. He never knew his father, and he was abandoned by his mother, a prostitute, when he was just a few months old. He spent his early years in an orphanage before being sent to live with a peasant family in the Morvan region of France. The foster parents, who were paid by the state to raise him, accused him of theft, and sometime between the ages of ten and fifteen he was sent to the Mettray Reformatory, a penal colony for adolescents. After escaping from Mettray and joining and deserting the Foreign Legion, Genet began a period of wandering throughout Europe, making his living as a thief and male prostitute. It was during this time that Genet gleaned the experiences of the French underworld he later detailed in his dark autobiographical novel, Journal du voleur (1949; The Thief's Journal). From 1938 to 1942 Genet's life was marked by a series of petty thefts and subsequent short imprisonments, during which he began to write poetry as well as his first novel Notre-dame-des-fleurs (1944; Our Lady of the Flowers), all based on his criminal encounters. Quickly catching the attention of such literary figures as Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre, Genet's writing ultimately earned him the support of intellectual circles for his early release from prison in 1948 and a pardon for his crimes by French authorities. Genet thereafter abandoned his criminal activities in favor of his literary career, producing four novels, five plays, and numerous poems over the next two decades. In 1964, upon the sudden suicide of his long-time lover, he ceased his literary activities and destroyed all his manuscripts. He spent the remainder of his life engaged in social and political causes. Diagnosed with throat cancer in 1979, Genet died on April 15, 1986, in Paris, and was buried in Larache in Morocco.

Major Dramatic Works

While his earliest literary productions were poems and novels, for Genet, drama offered the most effective literary form for the incantatory expression of dream and ritual. His early plays, although true to the inverted universe he depicts in his novels, reflect the influence of Sartre's drama No Exit and his dictum, “Hell is other people,” in their stylized and abstract portrayals of inescapable personal rivalries. Genet's first produced play, Les bonnes (1947; The Maids), was based on the actual murder of an upper-class mistress by her female servants. In this ritualistic drama of uncertain identities, two sisters assume the roles of sadistic employer and submissive maid in enacting their fantasies of power and revenge. When their attempts to kill their real mistress fail, the sisters must satisfy themselves with killing her image, and the play ends with the dominant sister committing suicide as her submissive counterpart reads a eulogy. This conclusion echoes Genet's contention, expressed in The Thief's Journal, that acts must be carried through to their completion. Whatever the point of departure, the end will be beautiful. Genet blends naturalism and fantasy in Haute surveillance (1949; Deathwatch), about the ritualistic efforts of a petty criminal, trapped in a cell with two killers, to achieve the saintly designation of murderer. Because, unlike his cellmates, he has not killed without reason or motive, he is ridiculed for his immoral inferiority.

Genet's later plays center increasingly on the illusory nature of social roles as well as on the rituals of the theater and their relationship to reality. These works, which are generally regarded as Genet's masterpieces, reveal the influence of Antonin Artaud's Theater of Cruelty in their emphasis on violence and sadism and make use of such theatrical devices as mirrors, masks, exaggerated costumes, and choreographed gestures to reveal symbolic meaning. The protagonist of Le balcon (1957; The Balcony), is Madame Irma, the opportunistic proprietress of a brothel known as the Grand Balcony, where clients act out their fantasies of authority, sex, and power. As a revolution occurs offstage, Irma's clients assume the roles of bishop, judge, general, and police chief; they are subsequently persuaded by government officials to assume their fantasy roles in public to restore order among the populace. As the old regime retains its power through these new leaders, Madame Irma's establishment comes to represent a microcosm of society in which her clients' fantasies emerge as reality. Uncertain and changing identities are again central to Les nègres: Clownerie (1959; The Blacks: A Clown Show). In this drama, fantasies of racial revenge are enacted by Black actors, half of whom, painted in whiteface and occupying the stage's highest point, represent white society as Blacks view them—pompous, hypocritical, and repressive. The remaining Blacks are positioned at the stage's lowest point to reflect how they regard themselves and how white society views them. As a revolution rages offstage, the Blacks enact the ritualized rape and murder of a white woman and escape to a cannibalistic existence in the jungle. Although the Blacks overthrow their white oppressors, they finally reinstate the major authority figures of the previous government, illustrating that repressiveness and hypocrisy are not racially defined qualities. Genet's last play, Les paravents (1961; The Screens), his longest and most ambitious work for the theater, utilizes colonialism in North Africa as a metaphor for humanity's worst traits. Although Genet indirectly condemns France's involvement in the Algerian War, the drama is nonrevolutionary in intent. The major contribution of The Screens to contemporary drama lies in its innovative staging technique. As the scenes progress, settings are suggested by camera projections onto a series of folding screens or are sketched on canvases by actors.

Critical Reception

Recognized by his contemporaries for his artistic originality and subversive view of current issues, Genet was continually lauded in academic circles. However, at the time of publication, many of Genet's works were considered disturbing and scandalous. His works sparked controversies and censorship throughout Europe, and many of his dramas were banned from public playhouses. The Balcony, his first commercially successful play, was originally staged in London, as it was prohibited in France. The play was well received and three years later its American debut earned Genet an Obie Award. The playwright became an acknowledged icon for the radical Beats of the 1950s, as his works defied conventional literature and inspired revolutionary insights into the possibilities of dramatic illusion and distortion. His work eventually earned him the Grand Prix des Arts et Lettres in 1983. Today Genet's works are generally recognized as masterpieces for their ingenuity. However, his plays often prove difficult to stage as a result of their reliance on surrealism and illusion. Similarly, untrained audiences struggle to comprehend much of his abstract, enigmatic approach to plot development and characterization. Nevertheless, Genet's ingenious, surreal literary revelation has secured his reputation in the modern theater.

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)

Les bonnes [The Maids] 1947

Haute surveillance [Deathwatch] 1949

Le balcon [The Balcony] 1957

Les nègres: Clownerie [The Blacks: A Clown Show] 1959

Les paravents [The Screens] 1961

Notre-dame-des-fleurs [Our Lady of the Flowers] (novel) 1944

Miracle de la rose [Miracle of the Rose] (novel) 1946

Pompes funèbres [Funeral Rites] (novel) 1947

Querelle de brest [Querelle of Brest] (novel) 1947

Journal du voleur [The Thief's Journal] (novel) 1949

Oeuvres complètes. 5 vols. (novels, plays, and poetry) 1951-79

The Complete Poems of Jean Genet (poetry) 1981

Treasure of the Night: The Collected Poems of Jean Genet (poetry) 1981

Un captif amoureux [Prisoner of Love] (novel) 1986

Criticism: Overview

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Katz, Leslie. “Jean Genet: ‘Une Solitude Mortelle.’” Raritan 16, no. 49 (fall 1996): 65-85.

[in the following essay, Katz explores Genet's personal involvement in his work, providing a comprehensive background on the author's perspective.]

In the art of the tightrope walker, Jean Genet discovered a metaphor for a particular kind of theatricality: at once grand and furtive, flamboyant and private. In his essay, “Le Funambule,” he writes, “It was not a whore we went to see at the circus, but a solitary lover in pursuit of his own image. … It was Narcissus who danced.” Through the reference to Narcissus, Genet may wish to capture the performer's...

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Cynthia Running-Johnson (essay date May 1990)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Running-Johnson, Cynthia. “Genet's ‘Excessive’ Double: Reading Les Bonnes through Irigaray and Cixous.” French Review 63, no. 6 (May 1990): 959-66.

[In the following essay, Running-Johnson examines Genet's use of the principle of duality throughout The Maids, incorporating Luce Irigaray's and Hélène Cixous's feminist interpretations of the work.]

Critics discussing Jean Genet have named the configuration of the double as one of the major elements of his work. They have examined the form as it appears in the relationships between characters, in the dual narrative structures of his writing, and in the thematic organization of his texts,...

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Gene A. Plunka (essay date September 1991)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Plunka, Gene A. “A Source for Jean Genet's Les Bonnes: Jean Cocteau's ‘Anna la bonne.’” Notes on Contemporary Literature 21, no. 4 (September 1991): 2-3.

[In the following essay Plunka suggests an alternative source of inspiration for The Maids.]

For years, critics have cited the 1933 murders committed by Christine and Léa Papin of their mistress and her daughter in Le Mans, France, as the source of Jean Genet's Les Bonnes (Décines: Marc Barbezat, 1947). Genet, an avid reader of Détective, would have acquired his information on the Papin sisters as a result of their appearance on the cover of that magazine (9 February 1933)...

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Gary Day (essay date 1994)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Day, Gary. “Artaud and Genet's The Maids: Like Father, Like Son?” In Twentieth-Century European Drama edited by Brian Docherty, pp. 146-61. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Day considers the influence of Antonin Artaud on Genet with regard to The Maids.]

At least two commentators have claimed that Antonin Artaud was an important influence on Jean Genet. Ronald Harwood says this influence was ‘enormous’1 while John Russell Taylor classifies Genet as a ‘follower’2 of Artaud. Such views represent the received wisdom and, like all received wisdom, it needs to be questioned. The purpose of this...

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Brian Gordon Kennelly (essay date spring 1996)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Kennelly, Brian Gordon. “The Unknown Role of Madame in Genet's Les Bonnes.Romance Notes 36, no. 3 (spring 1996): 243-52.

[In the following essay, Kennelly examines the role of Madame in The Maids, specifically noting discrepancies in the text and Madame's differing character in two versions of the drama.]

“«Madame», il ne faut pas l'outrer dans la caricature. Elle ne sait pas jusqu'à quel point elle est bête, à quel point elle joue un rôle, mais quelle actrice le sait davantage, même quand elle se torche le cul?”

“Comment jouer Les Bonnes

The text...

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Paula Kamenish (essay date June-December 1997)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Kamenish, Paula. “The Theory of Games and Dramatic Behavior: Uncovering Patterns of Dominance in Les Bonnes.Studies in the Humanities 24, nos. 1-2 (June-December 1997): 85-99.

[In the following essay, Kamenish analyzes the psychological strategies of both the characters and audience of The Maids in terms of game theory.]

… play is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is “different” from “ordinary life.”...

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Carol Rosen (essay date December 1992)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Rosen, Carol. “The Structure of Illusion in Genet's The Balcony.Modern Drama 35, no. 4 (December 1992): 513-19.

[In the following essay, Rosen appraises the image of the brothel as a venue for political, philosophical, and symbolic commentary in The Balcony.]

Although in fact a brothel is more likely to resemble a nondescript rooming-house than an ornate pleasure dome, popular literature favors fancy rather than reality. And the brothel, an institution of tabooed sexuality, is an especially inviting premise, promising to substantiate forbidden dreams. So in fiction, heroes have been regularly seduced into submission and then metamorphosed into...

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Christine Bokyo-Head (essay date August 2002)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Bokyo-Head, Christine. “Mirroring the Split Subject: Jean Genet's The Balcony.Consciousness, Literature, and the Arts 3, no. 2 (August 2002).

[In the following essay, Boyko-Head investigates how characters in The Balcony fail to reconcile the split between their perceived images and their true identities.]

Una Chadhuri defines avant-garde theatre as “performance under-erasure … a radical, total disunity. In semiotic terms … it is a fall into the abyss between signifier and signified” (1990, 39). Jean Genet's literary work celebrates the abyss as a parallel universe for the decentralized, and the socially subverse. While writing about...

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David Bradby (review date 1988)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Bradby, David. “Blacking Up—Three Productions by Peter Stein.” In A Radical Stage: Theatre in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, edited by W. G. Sebald, pp. 18-30. Oxford: Berg Publishers Limited, 1988.

[In the following review, Bradby assesses three productions of The Blacks directed by Peter Stein.]

‘One evening an actor asked me to write a play for an all-black cast. But what exactly is a black? First of all, what's his colour?’1 With these words Genet introduced his play The Blacks, adding a further note in which he insisted that the play must be performed to an audience of whites. If by chance there were to be no white...

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Derek F. Connon (essay date October 1996)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Connon, Derek F. “Confused? You Will Be: Genet's Les Nègres and the Art of Upsetting the Audience.” French Studies 50, no. 4 (October 1996): 425-38.

[In the following essay, Connon discusses the role of the audience in The Blacks, focusing on Genet's direct implication of its racial composition and his intentional creation of discomfort.]

Whilst Les Nègres is the play which Genet wrote to be performed by black actors, this is really the only sense in which it is a play written for blacks. In every other sense it is a play written against whites, even if Genet's double question ‘Qu'est-ce que c'est donc un noir? Et...

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Brian Gordon Kennelly (essay date 1998)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Kennelly, Brian Gordon. “Less or More Black and White? Reassessing Genet's Les nègres in Light of Both Published Versions.” Dalhousie French Studies 44 (1998): 123-33.

[In the following essay, Kennelly studies the changes Genet made to the text of The Blacks in its two versions, concentrating on the issue of ambiguity.]

Je suis furieux. Je me donne depuis 15 jours tant de mal pour corriger cette pièce et la rendre possible, et vous me compliquez tout. […] Envoyez-moi le manuscrit. J'ai besoin de contrôler, mais avec cette imbécile manie de vouloir me conserver les manuscrits, je ne peux jamais corriger. À quoi...

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Debby Thompson (essay date summer 2002)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Thompson, Debby. “‘What Exactly Is a Black?’: Interrogating the Reality of Race in Jean Genet's The Blacks.Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 26, no. 2 (summer 2002): 395-425.

[In the following excerpt, Thompson provides a broad discussion of race within The Blacks, arguing that the purpose of the play is not the determination of “blackness,” but the dramatization of white guilt and how to embrace the issue of racial relations.]

The Negro is not. Any more than the white man.

—Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks


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Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Akstens, Thomas. “Representation and De-realization: Artaud, Genet, and Sartre.” In Antonin Artaud and Modern Theater, edited by Gene A. Plunka, pp. 170-82. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1994.

Offers an assessment of the similarities between Antonin Artaud and Genet and an examination of the influence of both on Jean-Paul Sartre.

Bradby, David. “Genet, the Theatre and the Algerian War.” Theatre Research International 19, no. 3 (autumn 1994): 226-37.

Examines Genet's role in dramatizing and recording the Algerian War through The Balcony, The Blacks, and The Screens....

(The entire section is 610 words.)