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...
(The entire section is 995 words.)