The respected drama critic Harold Clurman characterized The Screens as “epic nihilism,” while the distinguished scholar Raymond Federman called it the “theatre of hate.” Ostensibly, it concerns the historical exodus of the French colonials after 130 years of relentless exploitation of generations of Arabs in Algeria, and the bitter recriminations that resulted. The conflict nearly tore France apart as politicians attempted, unsuccessfully, to disengage France from the viper’s tangle of cultural, religious, political, and economic complications of its Algerian involvement. Jean Genet, while utilizing the historical time and place, is much more concerned with venting his hatred on the French colonials. His hatred spills over into the victims, the Arabs, also. His real target, however, is civilization itself, particularly modern civilization. One critic referred to The Screens as an “acid bath of loathing.”
Genet was undoubtedly influenced by the earlier French playwright Antonin Artaud and his concept of the Theater of Cruelty. Genet certainly subscribed to Artaud’s idea that the modern theater should seek to shock its audience into the realization that not only is the world a cruel and vicious place but indeed the world is “nothing.” For Genet, experience is process, and the process can be viewed only through a series of perceptions that form themselves into images; these images humanity mistakes for reality. The truth of experience is that there is no truth, merely illusions that groups of desperate people agree to call “truth” and “reality.” For Genet, there are two kinds of people: those who live in illusions or fictions and do not know it and those who recognize the fictiveness of their fictions and discard the possibility of establishing any kind of objective truth.
This particular play embodies that principle more than any of Genet’s other plays because it is about “screens”—that is, the settings or props that create the illusions of reality. Since this play is a vividly modernistic work, its form not only is an extension of its content but also is its content, since that is what life is: illusion based on nothing more than the human imagination and its infinite permutations. The major project of the play is to demonstrate the dynamics of this fictive process and to reiterate its major theme that life is no more than an aimless dialogue between light and dark and, therefore, nothing. For Genet, discussions of right and wrong, morality and immorality, and other seeming dichotomies are patently absurd, since everything can be reduced to mere phenomenological fluctuations. The primary image that recurs more consistently than any other in the play is the image of emptiness, and the emerging metaphor that finally dominates the play is that of cosmic emptiness. Indeed, at the conclusion of this epic, the stage is totally empty.