His plays are concerned with expressing his own feeling of helplessness and solitude when confronted with the despair and loneliness of man caught in the hall of mirrors of the human condition, inexorably trapped by an endless progression of images that are merely his own distorted reflections—lies covering lies, fantasies battening upon fantasies, nightmares nourished by nightmares within nightmares.—Martin Esslin, “Jean Genet: A Hall of Mirrors,” in The Theatre of the Absurd
Jean Genet, one of the genuine revolutionaries of modern literature, was a dominating force in the experimental theater of the mid-20th century. A poète maudit in the French tradition of François Villon, Arthur Rimbaud, and Lautréamont, Genet was, in the estimation of Jean-Paul Sartre, who titled his appreciation of Genet’s life and works, Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, the embodiment of the existential hero who fully embraced his status as criminal and outcast that society deemed him and in so doing transcended all social and moral boundaries. Through Genet’s vision the marginalized and the alienated take center stage, and society’s most sacred truths are radically reassessed. As a playwright Genet the thief is still clearly in evidence, since his plays rob his audience of reassuring truths. Theater, for Genet, should be an assault, meant to disturb and provoke. Among his plays Le Balcon (The Balcony) is his most expansive view of the world as he saw it: a brothel dubbed the House of Illusions in which fantasies of power and control are enacted as a violent revolution explodes outside. The play blurs all distinctions between the real and the imagined, social and psychic, real life and theatricality in such a way that an audience has no choice but to confront the imperatives of power and illusion that define our lives. In fundamental ways The Balcony is a play about plays and the ways in which the theater is the ruling metaphor for the human condition.
Born in Paris in 1910, Genet was abandoned at the age of seven months to the public welfare system, then raised by a carpenter and his family in France’s Morvan region. Genet knew nothing about his origin until he was given his birth certificate when he turned 21, which indicated that his mother, Camille Gabrielle Genet, was single and a governess (she died in 1918). His father was not named. According to Sartre’s biographical account, Genet was a good student and member of the church choir who was caught stealing from his foster mother’s purse and called a thief. Considering the charge unjust Genet responded by taking pride in the designation and becoming a thief in earnest. Sartre regarded this as a defining existential decision. Genet himself analyzed his development by stating that “Abandoned by my family, I found it natural to aggravate this fact by the love of males, and that love by stealing, and stealing by crime, or complicity with crime. Thus I decisively repudiated a world that had repudiated me.” Confined to the correctional facility of Mettray as a teenager, Genet joined the army in 1929 to gain an early release. In 1936, after serving in Syria, Morocco, and Algeria, he deserted and traveled as a vagabond through Italy, Yugoslavia, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Nazi Germany, and Belgium, surviving as a male prostitute, pimp, smuggler, and petty thief. Returning to France in 1937 he spent the next seven years in and out of prisons, where he began to write. Reading the “idiotic and self-pitying” poems of a fellow convict, Genet “declared that I was able to make poems just as good. They dared me and I wrote the Condamné à Mort,” an elegy to the memory of a convict executed for murder. A powerful lyric combining Genet’s characteristic reversal of conventional morality and sanctification of the sordid and profane, the poem was published at Genet’s expense and came to the attention of Jean Cocteau, who became the first of Genet’s literary mentors and served as his advocate. Four narrative works followed—Notre Dame des fl eurs (1943; Our Lady of the Flowers), Miracle de la rose (1946; The Miracle of the Rose), Pompes funèbres (1947; Funeral Rites), and Querelle de Brest (1947; Querelle of Brest)—all published clandestinely and in limited editions. They have been described by scholar Martin Esslin as “erotic fantasies of a prisoner, the daydreams of a solitary outcast of society, who is resolved to live up to the pattern he feels society has imposed upon him” and “a curious mixture of lyrical beauty and the most sordid subject-matter.” With the exception of Journal du voleur (1949; The Thief’s Journal), his fictionalized memoir, Genet concentrated almost exclusively on drama for the remainder of his career. He died in 1986.
Genet’s first work for the stage was Haute Surveillance (Deathwatch), begun in 1943, published in 1947, and first performed in 1949. Set in a prison cell, the play explores the perverse hierarchy among the convicts based on their crimes and their acceptance (or rejection) of the core truths revealed about their identity and integrity. Genet’s first produced play, Les Bonnes (The Maids), in 1947, is based on the actual murder of an upper-class mistress by her female servants. In Genet’s treatment two sisters assume the roles of sadistic employer and submissive maid to enact ritualized fantasies of power and control. When their attempts to kill their real mistress fail, the sisters must satisfy themselves with killing her image, and the play ends with one sister, assuming the role of mistress, drinking the poisoned tea prepared for her actual employer. As Genet biographer Edmund White has commented, “The Maids represents a real departure in modern theater: a new interest in ritual, exalted language, and the portrayal of psychological violence that may or may not stand for a veiled political struggle.” The Maids shows Genet moving beyond the prison setting of his previous work and expanding his exploration of sexuality and power in the context of the illusory nature of social roles and the relationship between fantasy and reality.
Genet’s most ambitious treatment of these themes is his third play, The Balcony, first published in 1956 and first performed in London in 1957. As the play opens a man dressed in the religious vestments of a bishop addresses a “penitent” wearing a lace dressing gown and another woman. The décor of the room suggests a sacristy, though a mirror reflects an unmade bed and an armchair on which pants, a shirt, and a jacket have been placed. The audience only gradually realizes that the woman is Madame Irma, proprietress of the Grand Balcony, a brothel catering to her customer’s various fantasies; the penitent is one of her prostitutes; and the bishop is a gas worker. Madame Irma’s “house of illusions” supplies the settings, furnishing, costumes, actors, and actresses for her customers to enjoy sexual fulfillment in the power scenarios they crave. Three other tableaux are enacted in other rooms. A judge crawls on his belly toward a half-naked woman who instructs him to lick her extended foot. Beside them a male employee of the brothel named Arthur is attired as an executioner to carry out the judge’s sentence on the “thief.” In another room a client playing a general rides his horse, played by a woman in black corset and stockings. In another room a client acts out his fantasy as a tramp, studying his reflection in three mirrors and completing the illusion by donning a wig with fleas. In all the scenarios images of power are enacted with an emphasis on the externals—costume, makeup, setting—that create the illusion of authority and command. Genet stressed that his play was not a satire but the “glorification of the Image and the Reflection.” According to the playwright, authority derives from externals wielded by those in power and the complicity of those without. The play shows, in Genet’s words, that “power cannot do without theatricality. . . . Power shelters behind some kind of theatricality, whether it is in China, the Soviet Union, England or France. . . . There is only one place in the world where theatricality does not hide power and that is in the theater.” Theatricality as the essence of power is the basis for Madame Irma’s establishment, as she clarifies in the play’s fifth scene in which she discusses her operation with one of her employees, Carmen. Justifying her elaborate staging of her customer’s fantasies, Irma explains:
They all want everything to be as true as possible. . . . Minus something indefinable, so that it won’t be true. . . . Carmen, it was I who decided to call my establishment a house of illusions, but I’m only the manager. Each individual, when he rings the bell and enters, brings his own scenario, perfectly thought out. My job is merely to rent the hall and furnish the props, actors, and actresses. My dear, I’ve succeeded in lifting it from the ground—do you see what I mean? I unloosed it long ago and it’s flying. I cut the moorings.
Breaking the illusion that Madame Irma assiduously labors to create are sounds of machine-gun fire and explosions signaling the revolution that is taking place outside, threatening both the operation of the Grand Balcony and the authority figures who play such a prominent role in the customers’ fantasies. The importance of those fantasies are underscored by Irma’s lover, the Chief of Police, who arrives to inquire whether anyone has requested to play him, the confirmation of his secure hold on power in the public’s imagination. Irma disappoints him with the news that “your function isn’t noble enough to offer dreamers an image that would console them. . . . You have to resign yourself to the fact that your image does not yet conform to the liturgies of the brothel.”
The play’s sixth scene, the only one that takes place outside the Grand Balcony, shows the revolutionaries who are intent on challenging the ruling authority figures and thereby breaking their psychic hold on the citizenry. Yet even they are unable to proceed without their own substitute images of power. Roger, a leader of the revolt, is shown arguing with his lover, Chantal, one of Madame Irma’s girls who has left because she could no longer stand playing her assigned roles and wants instead to live in so-called reality. The revolutionaries, however, claim that Chantal is needed for their cause as a symbol representing liberty, self-sacrifice, and heroism. Having played her parts in the house of illusion, Chantal is offered but another instead of the reality she craves. Rather than overthrowing the symbols of power that coerce and repress the revolutionaries are simply replacing them with other images equally unreal. Chantal accepts her new role knowing that by doing so she not only must give up her lover but her life as well. “In order to fight against an image,” Roger bitterly realizes, “Chantal has frozen into an image. The fight is no longer taking place in reality, but in a closed field. . . . It’s the combat of allegories. None of us know any longer why we revolted.” The unbreakable hold of images on the populace is made clear when, after the palace has been blown up and the queen and her administration have perished, a surviving Court Envoy, to halt the revolution, requests that Madame Irma take on the role of the queen herself and her customers should play their roles as bishop, judge, and general in “reality” to reassure the populace that the symbols of authority and power remain intact. On the balcony Irma and her clients, appropriately attired, show themselves to the crowd. After a Beggar shouts, “God Save the Queen,” Chantal appears on the balcony and is shot dead, signaling the defeat of the revolution.
In the play’s final scene all retreat back inside the Grand Balcony to review the parts they have played and the challenge of actually becoming the people they have pretended to be. The Chief of Police arrives confident that now with his victory over the revolutionaries someone will want to impersonate him. To assist he is having a giant mausoleum built. “I want my image to be both legendary and supreme,” he asserts. “I have been advised to appear in the form of a gigantic phallus.” By completing the link between sex and power upon which the Grand Balcony depends, the Chief of Police will not be “the hundred-thousandth-reflection-within-a-reflection in a mirror, but the One and Only, into whom a hundred thousand want to merge.” His prediction is realized when Madame Irma announces that Roger has arrived and asked to impersonate the Chief of Police. Donning the Chief’s uniform, Roger proceeds with the scenario of empowerment, declaring that “I’ve got a right to lead the character I’ve chosen to the very limit of his destiny . . . no, of mine . . . of merging his destiny with mine.” In a gesture both of violation and self-sacrifice, Roger subverts the expected scenario by castrating himself. The Chief of Police, watching the enactment, is, however, delighted by what he sees: “Well played. He thought he had me. . . . Though my image be castrated in every brothel in the world, I remain intact.” Rather than destroying the Chief of Police’s power and authority Roger has secured them by his action, a martyr to authority’s total control. The Chief of Police then descends into the tomb he has constructed claiming, “I’ve won the right to go and sit and wait for two thousand years. You! Watch me live and die. For posterity. . . . I’ve won!” The play closes with a burst of machine-gun fire suggesting that the revolution has recommenced and the cycle of order and disorder has resumed. Madame Irma is left alone readying her establishment for the next day’s business. “In a little while,” she says, “I’ll have to start all over again . . . put all the lights on again. . . . Dress up . . . ah, the disguises! Distribute roles again . . . assume my own.” She then addresses the audience directly: “You must now go home, where everything—you can be quite sure—will be falser than here. . . . You must go now. You’ll leave by the right, through the alley. . . . It’s morning already.”
In Genet’s phantasmagorical allegorical fable, the distinctions between substance and shadow, reality and illusion, power and pretense are subverted. William Shakespeare’s contention that all the world’s a stage is underscored in the distorted mirror world of The Balcony. Different from Samuel Beckett’s reductio absurdum, Genet offers a proliferation of fantasies, a dizzying performance in which the disorientation is primary. All the components of the theatrical experience in The Balcony unite to drive home the point that role-playing and our susceptibility to illusion are inescapable. Instead of Beckett’s minimalist void, Genet’s version of the absurd is, in Sartre’s phrase, a “whirligig of reality and illusion.”
Source: Daniel S. Burt The Drama 100 A Ranking of the Greatest Plays of All Time