Some critics find Jean Genet’s works offensive in their inversion of good and evil and in their pessimistic view of the human condition; others applaud his literary and theatrical skills. His poems, novels, and plays explore similar themes: the isolation of the individual, the impossibility of knowing oneself or others, the transcendent nature of fantasy, the continuum of criminality and saintliness, the ambiguity of reality and illusion, the ultimate liberation of death. He attacks the traditional values of bourgeois morality; his characters are outcasts; his imagery is sensual and at times scatological; his style is theatrical.
Genet’s five plays are linked in subject and theme. In The Maids and the prison drama Haute Surveillance (pr., pb. 1949; Deathwatch, 1954) both one-acts written in the late 1940’s, the central figures are trapped in unacceptable identities; they take refuge in fantasy and find freedom only in death. Le Balcon (pb. 1956; The Balcony, 1957) expands upon these themes. In an elaborate house of illusions, a brothel, clients act out their erotic fantasies, transforming their daily existence just as the maids transform theirs. Extravagant costumes emphasize the illusion; mirrors reflect the appearances. The play echoes The Maids in its exploration of fantasy and in its dramatic use of the trappings of the theater. Genet’s last two plays, Les Negres: Clownerie (pb. 1958; The Blacks: A Clown Show, 1960) and Les Paravents (pr., pb. 1961; The Screens, 1962), ostensibly move beyond interior concerns to the world of politics and social injustice. The themes, however, remain the same. The Blacks is a game, a performance by blacks for other blacks dressed and masked as whites; they are Genet’s usual outcasts, those who as nonparticipants in the activity of the real world must find their identities in ritual, fantasy, and theater. The Screens is a complex narrative of seventeen scenes based on events of France’s involvement in the Algerian war. Once again, the central figures are outcasts in a repressive society, struggling for an identity that can be achieved only in death.
In his literary rebellion and poetic use of language, Genet belongs to the literary tradition of le poete maudit (the outcast or accursed poet), which includes such writers as Francois Villon, the Marquis de Sade, Charles Baudelaire, and Arthur Rimbaud, who achieved recognition through their attacks upon accepted society. He also belongs to the postwar group of writers who, influenced by the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, despair of the future of humanity and question the significance of existence. Genet, along with Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, exemplifies the short-lived movement of the late 1940’s and 1950’s known as the Theater of the Absurd.