The Play

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The Screens, an epic drama that normally lasts five hours and contains ninety-eight characters, is divided into seventeen scenes or tableaux. The number seventeen probably symbolizes the return of the seventeen-year locust cycle, since Jean Genet, perhaps the twentieth century’s most pessimistic writer, viewed human time in exactly the same way that scientists view the cycles of nature. The first three scenes introduce the major characters: Saïd, Leila, and the Mother.

Scene 1 shows the hero of the play, Saïd, on his way to his marriage to the ugliest woman in that part of the Arab world, Leila. By using the names Saïd (which means both “mister” and “fortunate or lucky” in Arabic) and Leila (in Persian mythology, a woman renowned for her beauty—the counterpart to Juliet), Genet immediately activates a level of irony that the casual reader might overlook.

Saïd, a thoroughly unheroic character, seems to be marrying her simply because it is the conventional thing to do and she is the only partner he can afford. After they are married, she is so repulsive that he spends what little money he has in one of the many local bordellos in the area. His marriage so alienates him from his fellow Arabs that he decides to leave for France. First, however, he steals a coat from a friend, Taleb, and is sent to prison. Leila, deeply in love with him and demanding masochistic punishment at all times, also becomes a thief and follows him to prison so that she can continue to be humiliated by her husband. She is so ugly that Saïd insists that she wear a cloth bag over her face, with three holes for breathing and vision. Saïd so brutalizes her throughout the play that by the last act she has only one eye left. After scene 10, Saïd makes few appearances, but he does return in the last two acts to assume an increasingly important symbolic role.

As Saïd progresses from the role of outcast to thief to prisoner and finally to traitor, he also moves, on a symbolic level, to heroic dimensions in Genet’s inverted value system. The further he descends into his abjection, the greater he becomes in the eyes of both the women in the Algerian villages and the revolutionary Arab activists. Both groups adopt him as their emblem because they see the only hope of victory in men such as Saïd who deliberately choose violence and evil for their own sake.

The next important character is Saïd’s mother, known as “the Mother” throughout the remainder of the play. She dedicates herself unrelentingly to helping her son reach his heroic status. She is as cruel to Leila as is her son, though she and Leila do work together to help him attain his emerging heroic reputation. She also serves the role of nostalgically recalling her son’s childhood and mourns the untimely death of her husband.

Rather than a chronological series of actions, the play consists of scenes that depict the gradually growing consciousness within certain groups of the apocalyptic end of the French presence and power in Algeria. Scenes 4 and 10 show the colonials, Sir Harold and Mr. Blankensee, blithely ignoring the inevitability of their expulsion by the Arab rebels. Mr. Blankensee distracts himself by tending his rose garden, while Sir Harold promises to sacrifice even his own son for the sake of the family legacy.

The most important scenes, however, take place in or just outside the many bordellos depicted in the play. The most colorful and honest characters in the play are the magnificent prostitutes Warda and Kadidja....

(This entire section contains 995 words.)

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Both the French soldiers and the Arab men, as they emerge from behind the many screens onstage, are constantly buttoning up their trousers as they pick up their weapons of war. Besides the Dead, the prostitutes are the only members of the cast who understand what drives men to perform deeds of violence and cruelty; they articulate the connection between sex and aggression, power and self-destruction.

The scenes shift without any discernible motivation; Genet celebrates the confusion and suggests that, except for the first five or six scenes and the last two, they could be arranged randomly. The themes are so insistent and compelling that any arrangement would serve to reveal them. Besides the bordello, recurring settings include fields, the prison, the cemetery, the village square, and, most important, the final scene in the Underworld or the land of the Dead.

If the arrangement of the first sixteen scenes seems random and arbitrary, the last scene is a masterpiece of organization. It is the longest scene by far in the play, and it is divided into three levels of three sections. Genet seems to be suggesting the nine circles of the Underworld of Dante’s Inferno (c. 1320). The first three levels depict the underworld and, consistent with Genet’s ironic intent, rest on the highest part of the stage, which is bathed in light. The next two represent the prison and the grocery shop, while the last four show the brothel, the village square, the interior of a house, and the ground floor of the stage itself. Everyone in the play is dead; all are waiting for the return and apotheosis of the hero, Saïd. The story of Saïd has become “a song”—that is, he has moved into the realm of myth and legend within what the venerable Ommu calls the “esthetics of decease.” All the assembled dead await the wisdom of Saïd as he passes from life to the Land of the Dead. His final pronouncement on the entire enterprise is, “To the old gal, to the soldiers, to all of you, I say shit.”

In some ways the play’s conclusion is ambiguous. The audience never knows whether Saïd is actually dead; the irony is that there is virtually no difference between life and death in any case.

Dramatic Devices

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Jean Genet’s directions at the beginning of the play are absolutely specific. All the characters, except Saïd, must wear garish makeup, false noses, and huge hairpieces, especially the prostitutes. If possible, most of them should wear masks, and no face should present anything even close to conventional beauty.

He specifies that the stage should be open-air and that there should be “an extremely varied set of stages, levels, surfaces.” Screens should be constantly moved on and offstage to establish the appropriate mise en scène. He insists, however, that there must be at least one “real object” on the stage, in contrast to the objects drawn in trompe l’oeil on each screen. He suggests a rock pile or wheelbarrow or other such objects so that the audience may determine what is “really” there and what only “appears” to be there.

The major dramatic devices become the major content of the play, since Genet perceives the world as nothing more than a stage with ever-changing perspectives. The actors use the screens as barriers to protect them from violent reality. They also draw on the screens, temporarily creating their own reality. Finally, the Dead burst through the screens to destroy their function and to establish once and for all that the only reality is the fact of death itself. The fact of death, that all life leads to a meaningless death, justifies Genet’s claim that life is nothing.


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Sources for Further Study

Brooks, Peter, and Joseph Halpern, eds. Genet: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979.

Coe, Richard N. The Vision of Jean Genet. New York: Grove Press, 1968.

Hammerbeck, David. Review of Los Bliombos/The Screens. Theatre Journal 50 (December, 1998): 525-529.

Knapp, Bettina L. Jean Genet. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

McMahon, Joseph H. The Imagination of Jean Genet. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963.

Parham, Sidney F. Review of The Screens.Theatre Journal 42 (May, 1990): 249-251.

Thody, Philip. Jean Genet: A Study of His Novels and Plays. New York: Stein and Day, 1968.

Webb, Richard C. Jean Genet and His Critics: An Annotated Bibliography, 1943-1980. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1982.

White, Edmund. Genet: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1994.


Critical Essays