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.
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.
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.