Jean Genet Genet, Jean (Vol. 14) - Essay

David I. Grossvogel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Genet is an outcast amid outcasts, a criminal and a pederast—outlaw to society, female to the fraternity of outlaws. When he writes for the stage, he wants his writing not to be fiction, not to be entertainment, not to be a mirror held up to whatever the stage is supposed to mirror, but to be a genuine act of aggression; his play is the continuation of a gesture performed by an outlaw against society.

No social protest enters into this outrage; Genet needs the existing order of things. He is Lucifer turned Satan, an aristocrat of Evil—the inverted world in which he dwells—and cannot desire to right the social structure without jeopardizing that which confers upon him his titles of nobility…. For Genet, Evil is the resplendence of Lucifer, the criteria evidencing the beauty of an act, an object, or a human being. Society is a sealed package, familiar, drab, secure—scarcely the right climate for what should be alive, significant, beautiful. Beyond this closed and sterile world is another into which society cannot expand without disintegrating; that outer planet is its mystery, short of which there is no poetry—something which society is intent on destroying but which is also its secret fascination. The outlaw inhabits this exotic world, and this is his first virtue. His second virtue comes from being the only one possessed of "that will, that daring to pursue a destiny that is against all rules" ("The Criminal Child"). These words should not, however, imply volition: the criminal is the one necessary being, the one who has not been shaped with another end in view. His is a world of subversion and death and beauty. The "saintliness" of the criminal (the two terms are frequently linked by Genet) is his rigor in not returning to the blandness of society, in resisting its blandishments.

But it is not a systematic evil which Genet will pursue in his drama: this is not a moral theater, even in reverse. Genet has a string of prison sentences sufficiently long to evidence the sincerity of his criminal leaning. It is not the crime itself that he will propose as an artist, but the flavor of crime; not the subversion, but the beauty of an order subverted. The ritual of this stage, its properties and actors, will be the sacred objects that reveal the mystical horror, the dread, and the supreme beauty of that which is beyond the usual purlieus of man (sometimes simply because it is beyond those purlieus). To begin with, in the image suggested by Sartre, Genet will redeem for man those false objects which God cannot see (since they are false) and which only man can contemplate as beautiful. He is able in this way to assume a beauty that exists only for man, and he achieves in so doing the touch of the esthete that turns into something imaginary what would be otherwise real. Much that defines the world of Genet also defines poetry.

But such objects cannot have the stillborn dimension of static things. Their reality is in their symbiotic relation to man, meaningful only as long as a human being anticipates their promise and is frustrated by their refusal ever to keep that promise. Only man can provide such a victim for the never-familiar talisman that remains both human, because of its human respondent, and more than human, because of its own ultimate unresponsiveness. The sacred object on stage touches man only in that part of him that strains to transcend his human essence. Genet's is an esthetic drama in which the spectator remains conscious, in his identification, of his necessary detachment.

Analysis of a play by Genet is most difficult in its incipience: how does one enter Genet's maze of interreflecting mirrors? (pp. 137-40)

[The] physical level of [The Maids, Genet's first play to be performed, is] the part with which Genet is not truly concerned. It may indicate the lineaments of its action, but it fails to account for the protagonists, their circumstances, or the climate in which they move about. It does not even describe them. Who are these "maids"? At the level closest to reality, they are actresses playing a role which Genet has written for them. But that is precisely what Genet does not want. In the preface to the play, he complains that "the occidental actor does not try to become a symbol laden with symbols; he wants merely to identify himself with a character." A genuine maid on a stage would not be a stage-worthy person: the quality of her presence would not make of the stage a significant moment in the consciousness of an onlooker. If an actress—not a maid—plays a maid and if her "play" is to be more than the mere exhibition of what a maid might be off stage, the quality of this new maid (the actress-as-maid) must be derived in part from the spectator's inability to dismiss her presence with the statement, "She is a maid." Instead, she is a hybrid, part actress, part maid. As an actress, she is the half-goddess, the remote creature of beauty and of luxury, the emanation of the multiple desires of those who see her as such and inform her with their longing. On stage, she is more—she is the flesh-and-blood creature, a woman to whom a spectator (or a spectatress), also of flesh and blood, will respond through animal calling. Her impersonation of the maid is going to awaken a complex response in the spectator. A part of him goes out to the creature of his dreams, the star; another reaches to the woman, the scented and pulsating reality before him; a third is being drawn into the words and action upon which the character "maid" leaves her impress. The author, the director who believes that it is this last form of the "maid" who provides the most important of these stimuli, will subdue the star and the woman (to the extent that she is something besides a maid). Genet's intention is different. Maids exist outside the theater; so do women—and even actresses (though to a lesser extent, since their world carries forever with it at least a part of the stage). But only in the theater are these several realities blended within the irreality of the stage. It is the stage that Genet wants to preserve, a justified bias that defines an art form in terms of its ability to do what no other form can do as well, as totally, or in the same way.

It is the quality "actress" that Genet wishes to emphasize, not the quality "maid." These will thus be actresses acting—not actresses enacting maids, as this would start a descending line away from the theatrical illusion. They are playing at being, in an ascending line, maids who are in fact actresses and maids who think of themselves as actresses "laden with symbols," only the first of which is the inverted social order which they "represent."

The actress who plays at being a maid justifies one part of her being—she is a woman playing a woman. The tension provided by the equivocal actress-woman-maid breaks down at the point where "woman" and "maid" fuse. Genet has required for this play that the tension be carried forward along another upward spiral: the two maids are to be played by two young boys. Now the actor cannot identify himself immediately with any part of his creation. Or can he? For the ambiguity of the stage does not confine itself to the relation of the actor to his role; there is still another point of view represented by the spectator, a part of whom responds to the physical truth of an animal like himself, whatever its role and attributes. And the maids, young boys disguised as women, are acting out a strange, inverted relationship [as they also pretend to be mistress and maid] that involves the spectator directly in this stifling hothouse of flowers, phantasms, and the pomp of a weird ceremony.

The relationship of the maids is homosexual; is not a homosexual someone consciously enacting a role? The dress which each maid wears is part of an inverted sex-play which is not confined to the unreal stage, for beyond that stage the participant actors and spectators have been directly contaminated. But then, are these two figures? They are "sisters," they look alike to the extent that they can exchange roles—the homosexual polarity requiring two similar partners. Up to a point they are indeed distinct. Claire, the luminous one, incarnates the esthetic half of the homosexual act; she is the female principle within the male. Solange, the angel now in heaven, now fallen, is generally the male or destructive principle, the antiesthetic; she will destroy the symbol Claire. For a while, both performers are willing to conform to these parts. Solange is "in adoration" of Claire, and Claire acts the distant, detached, and desirable figure who is both the hierarchical and sexual mistress of Solange. She is haughty ("avoid touching me"), ironic, and cruel (Solange: "Madame is forgetting herself, Madame…"; Claire: "And what about your hands? Don't you forget your hands"), and these imperatives rouse the desire of Solange while confirming Claire in her role as an object of desire that is conscious of its empire.

But even as she is playing the role of the maid, Solange is drawn into the intensity of its significance and becomes the destroyer—the avenger of all servants, the immolating male. In those moments, the love relationship becomes one of hatred on the part of Solange who turns from active lover to executioner, while Claire, at that very same time, asserts the depth of her own meaning. She is beauty against which the slap of Solange and her hatred are unavailing; they can provide only a supplementary glow to her beauty: "Danger is my halo …; and you, you dwell in darkness …". Thus, by merely extending in depth the significance of the principle which each symbolizes, the sexual and spiritual love that informs these principles turns into reciprocal and bitter hatred. (pp. 142-45)

The homosexual singleness of the two maids has already been alluded to—they are in reality one…. The entire ritual, their dialogue with its crises and its depressions, is a monologue, or, in Sartre's definition, the lonely and isolated sexual experience of the invert…. The patterns of this drama are like the sterile turgescence and deflation of the homosexual act, conceived in loneliness and fraud and ending in deception. This is also the way in which each of Genet's plays is constructed. (pp. 148-49)

[The] ultimate significance of the maids is in their recurrent frustration, failure, and, withal, their comprehension of that which they cannot achieve. They exist only to perform a ritual that will never become more than just that. They have a sacred concept of their performance. (p. 149)

The purpose of the ritual killing that stands at the center of this drama is twofold. Death is first a form of splendor. Solange genuinely loves Claire, as her alter ego, as an embodiment of beauty, and in her role as the male immolator. Therefore, her words to Claire that confess her desire to murder her are significant: "I wanted to free you. I couldn't bear it any longer. It made me suffocate to see you suffocating…." Solange does not want to free Claire romantically from the clutches of her mistress, but to give her, with death, a splendor that will elevate her above her mistress, that will allow her a conclusive triumph…. But why, then, is there only a play-murder in this play? Here again, the answer lies in the esthetic concern of the maids, and to them is added still another dimension: they are the ordainers and the officiants of the dramatic act, the esthetic commentary…. The symbol of sacredness is not required to create, but merely to convince. The maids, no more than the theater, need produce the corpse of their victim. Their responsibity is only to make the spectator feel that he has witnessed a murder in that he felt the splendor of the act and thrilled to its mystery. For this to happen, the ritual must remain sterile. The reality of a corpse turns the play away from ritual as the spectator moves from awe to identification, as the mystery of an act becomes the reality of that corpse. Horror unalloyed must not be allowed to replace the more subtle feeling that blends with horror the image of beauty and the stirring of a singular experience. That is why the maids fail, why Solange is carried away from her homicidal act into the dream of homicidal magnificence. That is why it is also safe to assume that the climactic moment when the curtain comes down on Claire drinking the poisoned tea is a murder performed only in the spectator's intimation of it, but no more real for its priestesses than were any of their previous gestures. (pp. 150-151)

[Deathwatch recalls] Sartre's No Exit and that play's comment, "Hell is the others." But whereas in the play by Sartre each person exists as a witness to the incompletion of the others and exercises his destruction as part of a cooperative set of constants, each executioner [in Deathwatch: Green Eyes, Maurice, and Lefranc] is an independent and fluctuating quantity in the play by Genet. (p. 151)

[Green-Eyes, on trial for murder,] is he-who-is. He has killed, or rather, a part of him has killed while another part of...

(The entire section is 5386 words.)

Leonard Cabell Pronko

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There has always existed a certain kinship between the spirit of Eastern theater and that of Jean Genet. In the plays written after 1955, however, this affinity becomes much more evident. There is a sharp difference between the visual simplicity, for example, of Deathwatch and The Maids and the richness of later plays like The Balcony, The Blacks, and The Screens.

The appearance of monsters, masks, exaggerated costumes, music, the stress on ritual and ceremony, all indicate a fundamental change in technique. The Balcony, The Blacks, and The Screens show the triumphant use of Oriental theatrical devices which, consciously or unconsciously, Genet has...

(The entire section is 762 words.)

Harry E. Stewart

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In order to defend Lefranc as "hero" of Haute Surveillance, an examination of the structure of the criminal-religious hierarchy as Genet views it becomes imperative. Certainly the most accessible theme in Genet's early works is the theme of the criminal hierarchy, and this theme is stressed in … Haute Surveillance. Particularly revealing is the original title of the play, Préséances, which may be translated as "the right to assume a position above someone or to precede him."… Furthermore, the text of the play explicitly establishes this criminal hierarchy. (p. 365)

Coexisting with the criminal hierarchy is a religious hierarchy. Although Sartre [in Saint Genet]...

(The entire section is 1129 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Both "Le Balcon," a poem by Baudelaire, and Genet's play, Le Balcon,] contain forceful yet subtle images of sensuality and sexuality, presented in climactic terms and serving to express a transcendence of reality. This dramatic process is furthermore presented in both works on a backdrop of nocturnal obscurity. The complex mysteries and depths of space, present throughout the two works, create a tension between the worlds beyond and within the physical barrier of the balcony…. [Both] worlds are evoked in highly sensual and strangely similar terms and … both works present similar expressions of temporal and spatial movement…. (p. 331)

First impressions of the two works are obviously very...

(The entire section is 889 words.)

Neal Oxenhandler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jean Genet's play The Blacks is preceded by the words: "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 color?" What color is a black? And, by extension of this paradoxical question, an extension already implicit in its more ambiguous French phrasing, What color is black it-self? Or rather, if blackness is not a matter of complexion but a question of how one exists, what one is, then who among us is entitled to say that he is black? For Genet's play, played by black actors and designed to raise in excruciatingly direct ways the question of racial conflict, uses blackness as a metaphor for a condition more vast, more profound than a...

(The entire section is 1824 words.)

L.A.C. Dobrez

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The gap between Les Bonnes (1947) and the journal (1948) on the one hand and Le Balcon on the other represents a turning point in [Genet's] life. The crisis was obviously of some magnitude and to a large extent it must have been prompted by [Sartre's] Saint Genet, whose revelations doubtless proved too much for a Genet unused to being the object of such sustained and merciless analysis—so much of it relating to Genet's private life as homosexual and criminal and all of it embarrassingly accurate…. Certainly, no one who has made a thorough study of Genet's work could doubt that Sartre's chart is at least very close to the truth. But Saint Genet follows Genet's progress only up to 1951...

(The entire section is 3570 words.)