Jean Genet 1910-1986
French playwright, novelist, and poet.
The following entry provides criticism on Genet's works from 1983 through 1998. See also Jean Genet Drama Criticism, Jean Genet Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 5, 10.
Genet was a member of the controversial and innovative generation of French writers that included Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Jean Cocteau. The author of several highly acclaimed novels, Genet remains best known for plays in which he utilized the stage as a communal arena for enacting personal fantasies involving sex and death. Genet, whom Cocteau dubbed France's “Black Prince of letters,” is linked to such literary figures as the Marquis de Sade and Charles Baudelaire for his use of rich, baroque imagery, his deliberate inversion of traditional Western moral values, and his belief that spiritual salvation may be attained through the pursuit of evil.
Born in Paris December 19, 1910, Genet was abandoned at birth by his mother, a prostitute, to a state orphanage run by the French Assistance Publique. At an early age Genet was sent to a boys' reformatory for stealing. There he embraced the role of convict and devoted himself to crime, subsequently spending much of his youth and young adult life in European prisons for such offenses as theft, smuggling, and male prostitution. While in prison, Genet began to write novels and produced what critics often regard as his finest work in that genre, most prominently Notre-dame-des-fleurs (1943; Our Lady of the Flowers). In 1948 he was deemed unreformable and threatened with life imprisonment by the French judicial system. Sartre and Cocteau, who discovered Genet's novels earlier in the 1940s, interceded, however, and with the aid of other prominent literary figures obtained a pardon for Genet from French president Vincent Auriol. Genet never again returned to prison. Indeed, he began to enjoy a degree of celebrity that led to the reissuing of his complete works thus far by the prestigious French publisher Gallimard. It was also at this time that Genet's first plays, Les bonnes (1947; The Maids) and Haute surveillance (1949; Deathwatch), were produced, earning Genet acclaim as a playwright. For approximately the next decade, Genet produced a series of dramatic works that were as daring and controversial as his novels had been. After that, however, Genet produced no further major works, devoting himself instead to various political causes, the most enduring being his association with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. He moved to Jordan in 1970 and lived with the Palestinians for the next fourteen years. According to critic Mary Ann Frese Witt, Genet had a “desire to abandon stasis for action, poetics for politics.” Genet died in 1986.
Genet's novels, which are filled with exotic imagery and metaphors, French street argot, and scatological language, all take the form of non-chronological, semi-autobiographical narratives that alternate between the first and third person. By rejecting the morality of what he perceived to be a repressive, hypocritical society that punishes its least-powerful social castes for crimes universal to all classes of humanity, Genet sought to create in his works what Sartre termed “a black ethic, with precepts and rules, pitiless constraints, a Jansenism of evil.” In Our Lady of the Flowers, Genet inverted traditional Western values to replace ideals of goodness with those of evil, courage with cowardice, and love with betrayal. In Genet's universe, to transgress against the bourgeois social order through theft, rape, or murder is to bring moral censure upon oneself; through a socially imposed sentence of death or imprisonment, the criminal is martyred by society and may thus attain the rank of sainthood. This proposition is explored in Genet's second novel, Miracle de la Rose (1946; Miracle of the Rose). Written in La Sante and La Tourelle prisons in 1943, the book describes in lyrical terms Genet's conversion from a submissively feminine “chicken” at the boys reformatory of the Colonie de Mettray to a dominant, masculine homosexual at the prison at Fontrevault, where he was later imprisoned for theft. In contrast with these early works, Genet's later novels do not use prison settings or themes. Querelle de Brest (1947; Querelle of Brest) is a light nouveau roman (“new novel”) belonging to a trend of the 1940s and 1950s in which French fiction writers pursued a highly formalistic style of writing. Journal du voleur (1949; The Thief's Journal) describes Genet's experiences in the criminal underworld of Spain, Belgium, and other European countries during the 1930s. In his last novel, Pompes funèbres (1947; Funeral Rites), Genet addresses the moral question of how he may mourn for his dead lover, a French Resistance fighter killed in 1944 by a Nazi collaborator, without violating his opposition to traditional ethics.
For Genet, the theater offered the most effective form for the incantatory expression of dream and ritual. His early plays, while true to the inverted universe detailed in his novels, reflect the influence of Sartre's drama No Exit and his dictum that “hell is other people” in their stylized portrayals of inescapable personal rivalries. Genet's first produced play, The Maids, is based on the actual murder of an upper-class mistress by her female servants. In Deathwatch, Genet blended naturalism and fantasy to relate the 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 as morally inferior. Contrasting with these works, Genet's later plays focus increasingly on the illusory nature of social roles as well as 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, making use of such theatrical devices as mirrors, masks, extravagant costumes, and choreographed gestures to carry their message. The main character 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, and are 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 client's fantasies emerge as realities. 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. Genet's last play, Les paravents (1961; The Screens), which is his longest and most ambitious work for the theater, uses colonialism in North Africa as a metaphor for humanity's worst traits. Although Genet indirectly condemned France's involvement in the Algerian War, the work is not revolutionary in intent. The major contribution of The Screens to contemporary drama lies in its innovative stage 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 controversy was ever-present throughout Genet's career as a novelist and playwright. Even after he became a well-known figure on the French literary scene, he was threatened with imprisonment and condemned in the press. On the other hand, in 1975 the French Ministry of Culture awarded him a prize, which Genet refused, for a screenplay he had written. In 1983 he received the Grand Prix National des Lettres, and two years later The Balcony, which had been notoriously rejected by several producers when it was initially offered for stage production, was included among the repertory of works performed by the Comédie Francaise, a bastion of French cultural respectability. Thus Genet, a one-time social pariah, had gained recognition and respect as a perverse cultural icon in France and as a major contributor to modern theater throughout the world.