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Genet: The Balcony; The Blacks
Published by Brian on 2008/1/6 (4459 reads)

With Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet is the most important post-war dramatist, though his 'classic' plays are very few: Deathwatch, The Maids, written in the late 1940's) The Balcony. (1956) The Blacks, (1958) The Screens. (1961) THE BALCONY is his best known work and, though major, is not, I think, totally successful. It comes some years after THE MAIDS and represents Genet's entry into a form of political theater. It also represents a major expansion of his dramatic art that culminates in THE SCREENS.



Modern French theater can be divided into three distinct generations. The first is the generation of Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, the Dadaists and Surrealists, and towards the end, of Paul Claudel and Giradoux. The chief man of the theater was Jean Copeau, and his famous Théatre du Vieux Colombier. Copeau was followed by a procession of great directors, Jean Louis Barrault, Jean Vilar, etc. and Roger Blin who was to be strongly associated later with Beckett and Genet. The chief theorist, Antonin Artaud, staged very few productions. The plays of Cocteau and Giradoux, by the way, are excellent texts for directors, designers and actors.

The second generation of dramatists were the wartime writers: Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Jean Anouilh. They were far less flamboyant and experimental, probably reflecting the grimness of the war years in Occupied France. During this time, Artaud is institutionalized.

The third generation consists of Eugene Ionesco, from Romania, Samuel Beckett, from Ireland and Jean Genet, from France but really from nowhere definite - from his own strangely Calvinist or Jansenist kind of universe. Because Beckett hardly can be considered a French writer (any more than James Joyce) it is Jean Genet who represents the culmination of the French theater.

French theater is one of the most brilliant theaters of modern times. It had always been so, with the Comédie Français and with the melodrama and the well-made-play tradition of the nineteenth century.

Theater was culturally more established in France than in England or America. And, of course, Paris was the acknowledged cultural capital of the world during these years: in the dance, (Diaghelev and Stravinsky's Ballet Russe) in painting, in literature and film as well as theater. This is due to a great extent to the fact that artists from outside were attracted to Paris as to no other city, so that French provincialism and nationalism was always being healthily influenced by internationalism. Even someone like Genet, who despised French culture and entered into a personal war against it all his life, is very much a product of that culture, which has a long history of major outcast and scandalous writers: Villon, the Marquis de Sade, Rimbaud and Artaud.

With Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet is the most important post-war dramatist, though his 'classic' plays are very few: Deathwatch; The Maids; written in the late 1940's) The Balcony; (1956) The Blacks; (1958) The Screens. (1961) THE BALCONY is his best known work and, though major, is not, I think, totally successful. It comes some years after THE MAIDS and represents Genet's entry into a form of political theater. It also represents a major expansion of his dramatic art that culminates in THE SCREENS. In his early work, Jean Genet was militantly apolitical. Beginning with THE BALCONY his work takes in a ‘political’ but non-didactic, dimension.

DEATHWATCH, his first play, is closest in spirit to the novels Genet wrote in prison in its themes of criminality and homosexuality. It is set in a prison cell, with three inmates. They have established a hierarchy in the cell which is a miniature replication of the hierarchy among the prison population at large with a condemned man at its apex. In the cell. one prisoner, Le Franc, feels insignificant within this hierarchy and murders a younger prisoner to get recognition from the murderer, Green Eyes, who is at the apex of the cell's hierarchy: but the murder only confirms Le Franc’s inauthenticity and he remains isolated and rejected. Together with this sense of hierarchy, Genet, already in this first play, establishes a sense of ritual in his theater - which makes his plays difficult, at first, to bring off. They can’t be played ‘realistically’ but as if they are performing a ceremony, something he develops brilliantly with THE BALCONY.

This is even more true of his second play, THE MAIDS, in which two sisters, housemaids, Claire and Solange, re-enact their hierarchical relationship with the mistress they work for, creating murder as a form of ritual. Unable to murder the mistress, they recreate the maid-mistress relation for the last time, interchanging the roles of mistress and maid in which one sister, Solange, is ordered by the other sister, Claire, to give her a cup of poisoned tea. To emphasize the non-realistic aspect of the play, Genet wanted the roles of the maids to be played by boy actors.

With three major plays Genet, along with Beckett, became one of the modern dramatists who redefined the function and form of drama. He is a very interesting contrast with Beckett whose art, in a form of literary anorexia, got leaner and leaner until one felt only a version of the Cheshire Cat's grin would remain. Genet's theater, in total contrast, expanded and elaborated itself until it attained the huge total theater of THE SCREENS.

His two finest plays are also the result of collaboration with the French director, Roger Blin who directed many of Samuel Beckett's plays. Blin put on The Blacks in 1959 and The Screens in 1966. Together with The Balcony, the three plays represent the concept of 'total theater' which appears to combine the political 'epic' theater of Brecht with the theories of Antonin Artaud.

Richard Coe has said that Genet's treatment of the idea of illusion versus reality, both as a serious philosophical idea and as a theatrical method, makes Pirandello's treatment look like the work of a schoolboy. Genet demonstrates that the world is constructed by each of us locked in a system of identity-making, (a system of signifiers with no signifieds, of role-playing taken from role-playing), and expands the theme to take in psychological, social, political, racial and colonial dimensions of reality. All reality, all identity, all systems of power, are manipulated signs, signs countering signs like mirror images facing mirror images. Genet is a thoroughgoing semiotician which might be why his text appears side by side with that of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, in Jaques Derrida's Glas.

More than one critic has called Genet's novels and plays a world of reflecting mirrors, of consciousnesses gaining their identity from other consciousnesses and reflecting back the identity of the other in turn, ad infinitum - a progression without end as with the famous dialectic of Master and Slave in Hegel's The Phenomenology.

This is the theme of all of Genet's work. He takes further than any other writer this idea that our identities exist as the constructs of others, that we create rituals, ceremonies, of identity-making, sustaining each other’s identities together with all the conflicts that go with these. Though we are born as biological creatures we are immediately recreated as cultural creatures: constructed by language, habits, beliefs: a theme of Romanticism since Friedrich Schiller.

The Blacks, for example, is rooted in this dilemma. The concept 'black' exists only in opposition to the concept 'white': the two are locked in symbiotic relationship. Until whites arrived in Africa, such a black-white human antinomy did not exist: therefore, the concept ‘black’ did not exist. It came into creation with colonialism and slavery and immediately took on negative connotation. To affirm 'blackness', therefore, is already to accept the identity derived from the ‘gaze’ of whites.

How can one affirm (‘celebrate’) a black Identity which does not implicitly require, and therefore acknowledge, the white identity that made this a hegemonic terminology? How create a ‘blackness’ which is self-determined, self-generated and so authentic, not one that is dependent on the prior 'white' identity-giving. In white discourse, black has taken on pejorative and negative connotations, which cannot be eradicated from the discourse. It is a discourse that whites control, that gives them the advantage of being, when not racist, at least liberal, condescending, 'understanding'.

Much the same dilemma affects the European versus the Arab, Western vs. Oriental in Edward Said's ORIENTALISM, the colonialist versus the colonized native in The Screens.

For Genet, who himself despised bourgeois European and white culture, the very worst solution would be for blacks to be imitation whites, whites with black skins, accepting white liberal values along with white culture. This is often the 'gift' that whites claim they have brought to the colonized lands in exchange for the slaves, the rubber, the gold, the plantations. It is a dilemma described by Frantz Fanon in THE WRETCHED OF THE EARTH. To take on ‘white’ liberal values is to always be a white at a remove, a surrogate white.

And Genet's own life and his difficult identity as rebel-artist, made him especially sympathetic to the dilemmas of Africans and the colonized vis-à-vis the European culture. (In his later years he joined the Palestine Liberation Organization.) His prostitute mother abandoned Jean Genet, soon after birth and, after some time in an orphanage, a poor peasant family adopted him. He therefore lived on the gift or charity of his foster parents whom he loved and revered. He was deeply religious, worshiped sainthood, especially those saints who abandoned the world.

Genet never felt he really belonged to his peasant foster-parents, that their charity, though well meant, was a gift he did not have a right to. While being deeply religious, he was also given to stealing, not having the 'normal' attitude to things, property, for he felt he could never rightfully own them. One day, in J.P. Sartre's version of his biography, (Saint Genet) he was caught, branded as a thief, and known as such by the whole village. And he accepted that identity as a saint accepts a calling: all its degradation and humiliation: for he felt this was only just.

He accepted the code of morality that branded him as a thief: he was the mirror opposite and his acceptance of his ‘criminal’ identity confirmed that the world was moral. His cult of evil, which was to lead to long prison terms, and to a life sentence, was pursued with devotion. Genet seems to have detached himself utterly from the normal world: he had none of its tastes or materialist appetites. Though a thief he despised property and lived the austere life of a monk. He felt at home, to an extent, in prison.

Much of Sartre's version has been modified by Edmund White, in his extensive biography (1993), but White confirms the sordid circumstances of Genet's early life with its long years in reformatories and prisons, as a child and young adult. For his last offense, he faced the almost certain prospect of prison for life.

Typical of France, it was a group of French cultural leaders, Cocteau and Sartre and others who admired Genet's strange, poetic, lyrical novels of crime and violent homosexuality, who petitioned the government and got Genet paroled. (This is a long French tradition: W.B. Yeats mentions how one of the major British Decadent poets (Lionel Johnson or Edward Dowson) got into a fight in a French tavern. When the poet was convicted, his friends protested that he was a major poet. The judge said, "Quite right to remind me" and convicted the other man. This is the nation of the Academie Française.)

As a thief, Genet belonged to the underworld of society the despised, insulted and injured. As a frequently convicted and imprisoned thief, (evidently he was not a very good thief) he joins another underground society, that of the prisoners, with its own power structure, rules, codes, hierarchies, images, a mirror image of the outside world's. As a homosexual prisoner, however, he is even further apart, isolated, despised, within the 'negative hierarchy' of convicts (which is a mirror image of the law-abiding social community) into a further underground and negative community, with its own hierarchy.


The community of prisoners is a reverse-mirror reflection of the prison authorities and guards: it sets up a ‘hierarchy’ or power structure that resemble that of the authorities. (There was a similar situation in the Nazi concentration camps where many of the Jewish prisoners became 'Kapos' - and guarded the prisoners for the Nazis. Britain did the same in the colonies, appointing natives to become the policemen of the empire. Israel has set up a similar system of collaborators (kapos) in occupied Palestine, while the United States funds and trains the Palestinian Authorities police force to control the 'natives'.) Within the hierarchy of prisoners, the 'straight' community is locked in symbiotic relation to the homosexual: it gets its own idea of its (actually vulnerable) straightness from constructing its sexual opposite. ‘Macho’ convicts got their idea of their masculinity from sexually subordinate, ‘effeminate’ prisoners they make use of.

Genet sets out this dialectic in his novels and in his play DEATHWATCH. (It is the same dialectic as that between genders in Ibsen's A DOLL HOUSE - another play of identities as forms of reifying role-playing.) But this traps the macho prisoners in depending on their despised sex objects for their identity – as Torvald’s identity depends on Nora’s assenting to the 'game', or like the symbiosis of Master and Slave in Hegel.

This tendency of human communities to create hierarchies and mirror-opposites fascinated Genet whose plays and novels are filled with hierarchical structures: Church, Law, Military, Police, etc., each with its identities established through the artifices of costumes, rituals, ceremonies, and terminologies. Genet is very perceptive of the violence of power embedded in all hierarchies. Bourgeois society sees an outcast like Genet as a criminal, an undesirable Other. Its sense of its own identity is gratifyingly fortified in this way. Our very virtues depend, need, the presence of the opposite.

The identity of Judge is fortified by that of the Thief, the Bishop by the Sinner, The General by the enemy, in THE BALCONY. (In American military discourse this is reduced to "the good guys" vs. "the bad guys" - dispensing with inconvenient thinking.) Genet's view of the world is surprisingly similar to Ibsen's. Both share an awareness of the dialectical instability of all psychological, social and ideological structures of reality. Both Nora Helmer and her husband, Torvald, must learn that the identities they start out with at the beginning of the play, are illusions created by the false consciousness of human history. In GHOSTS, the priest, Pastor Manders depends on the sinner, Engstrand for his identity in the world just like the 'Bishop' in Genet's brothel. Without sinners, the Church would have no role or function. In THE MASTER BUILDER Hilda and Solness are mirrors each creating and recreating the other - and themselves in the other - in a mutually sustaining dialectic of ever-shifting identities.

Genet lived a completely austere life - more so than Samuel Beckett, who admired him. Though a thief, he had absolutely no interest in possessions. Any self-determination, self-perfection along conventional lines is barred to Genet. He will always be an outsider in conventional society, never a saint on its terms. Genet is after the perfection of his transgressive identity, not the sensible compromise most of us are willing to make. He seeks perfection, sainthood, so it must be perfection of his outsider-criminal identity, a rejection of conventional society at least as extreme as conventional society's rejection of him. Therefore Genet does not protest that he is innocent or unfairly discriminated against: he celebrates his outcast identity: he makes himself the mirror-opposite of virtuous society and then develops a philosophy, a metaphysic, even, around this commitment. His early novels, Our Lady of the Flowers, The Miracle of the Rose, Funeral Rites, Querelle of Brest are explorations of the metaphysics of criminality and evil, including murder.

Yet he has been considered a moralist as severe as Racine. (There is a similarity in his integrity to his outsider identity with that of John Ford’s Perkin Warbeck, or Giovanni and Annabella in 'Tis Pity She's A Whore' who create out of their incest a value by which they judge the world as defective). His novels obey their commitment to the metaphysics of evil with extraordinary integrity. The hero of Querelle of Brest is a multiple murderer and traitor; Said, of THE SCREENS seeks a perfect self-degradation as a form of integrity.

Genet despises compromise as severely as does a conventional saint. It is necessary to establish and explore the negation of goodness if goodness is to be established. Again this is quite close to mystical Christian thought: that undergoing a 'dark night of the soul', even to mortal sin, is better than a bland unawareness of the dialectics of spiritual reality. Many a Catholic saint, like Augustin, was first a supreme sinner.
(Oscar Wilde: “Every saint has a past: every sinner has a future”)

Saul, the persecutor of Christians becomes Paul, the founder of the Christian community. Just as the Christian sees his or her faith justified by the temptation of the evil that must be opposed, so Genet accepts the Manichaean world of the system that condemned him, and keeps his side of the bargain to the utmost. Thus he sets up, in opposition to society's hierarchy of good, his own hierarchy of exemplary evil which can find a place for such monsters as Hitler. (However, he was uncomfortable in Hitler's pre-war Germany: he felt that, in a country that had gone criminal, his criminal identity itself had become redundant).

Genet has been seen as a Mystic - as a 'saint' by Sartre. His early work has strong analogies with religious feeling. So the novels and the early plays, Deathwatch and The Maids are mystical celebrations, secret rites for necessarily limited audiences. They are mirror inversions of the worlds of the bourgeois audience, where all the values are transvalued.

The novels attain their visionary states through the plots, characters and incidents of homosexual power struggles and assertions of exotic identity: these were the works that caught the attention of France's intellectuals who managed to get Genet's life sentence without parole [for his umpteenth burglary] commuted. Continually Genet's gift is to find the sacred, the miraculous, in the materials that conventional society find totally wicked and abhorrent - or dispensable. He glorifies pimps and murderers, even the most cold-blooded of killers. He seeks out the conventionally labeled vilest and abhorrent crimes in order to celebrate their criminality: e.g. the traitor, who does not even maintain honor among thieves. These characters revel in the horror with which others contemplate them, the disgust they inspire. Horror, disgust, fear, are at least genuine emotions; they force the world to live 'really' and not in a bland half-life.

Another Catholic writer, Flannery O'Connor, if not as extreme, is similarly discomfiting,. Her short stories force people into uncomfortable awareness, like having a beggar thrust his or her sores into your face. Genet refuses to be unobtrusive. If society wishes to live by a scheme of good and evil, in which evil is loathed, feared, imprisoned, put to death, and if it puts Genet into that category, he will live up to it to the full. If he wishes to be authentic, he has no other choice. He refuses to be a penitent.

There were saints, celebrated by the Catholic Church, (mentioned by Sartre) who performed actions we now would find abhorrent: such as the hospital nun who licked up the ejectamenta of [tubercular] patients. Much old Catholic iconography dwells on the disgusting: on emaciated, sore-covered bodies, on hideous tortures endured by saints. And much Christian writing reveals an overwhelming sense of self-disgust, of sinfulness, even of self-horror. Beside these uncomfortable people, the comfortable world of everyday middle-class life and its concerns can be made to seem overwhelmingly trivial, meaningless, appallingly oblivious.

As artist this integrity involving isolation takes on the aspect of an aesthetic principle. It was his total honesty, his commitment to total truth, making his life an 'example' upon which the truth of his situation could be tested, that prompted Sartre to pun the term 'Saint Genet [from St. Genest the saint of actors] Genet's 'truth' is the truth of his art, but to be true to his art means accepting a retreat into absolute isolation.

Yet Genet’s sympathies are with certain ‘others’: the victims of bourgeois western society: with criminals, whores, tramps, outcasts: and with the victims of western society in its colonial aspects: with the blacks, with colonized Arabs, especially the Palestinians about whom he has written in an autobiographical account of his last years with the P.L.O., 'Prisoner of Love'. Even in this account, he is critical of the P.L.O. leadership and its hierarchy, and most sympathetic with the anonymous young heroes who went to their certain deaths by trying to return to their home in Palestine.

What fascinated Genet was the way these young men performed their last rites: their ritual total cleansing, before going over the border from Jordan, so that their corpses would be impeccable. And the fascination comes from the absolute integrity: that whereas most of us do anything to cling to life, and see death as the ultimate evil to be put off with any means possible: by medicines, hospitals, doctors, surgery, cruises, here was a group to whom life in this sense meant nothing. Who lived almost in another dimension to us and much like the life of the saint or martyr.

Today, the 'suicide bomber' makes many uncomfortable. It is because of the suicide, not the bombing. Bombing other people is standard behavior. Our conventional fighters bomb on a more massive scale and more indiscriminately: as the death count of Vietnamese, Iraqis, Palestinians or Lebanese civilians attest. The fighter pilot or tank commander kills far more people and goes home after to his/her family for congratulation. The suicide bomber appalls because his or her indifference to personal life goes counter to our desire to perpetuate the self at all costs.

Genet created a symbolic and dialectical theatre which already, in advance, invalidates itself. In a theatre of symbolic reality the symbol is the actual thing, even the banal thing and at the same time the sacral, the miraculous; the miracle is the co-existence of the sacred and the banal or even trashy, where one level does not cancel out the other. Genet's ‘rituals’ are deliberately fake, manifestly garish and tacky: made up of deliberately unconvincing ‘props’. So his theaterfeatures not just characters, (like Beckett’s tramps) but things that society discards. His elaborate costumes are always deliberately in bad taste, as the scene directions for THE BLACKS, insist.

For Genet the miracle of the Elevation of the Host is that it is both believed to be the body of Christ and known not to be at the same time. If it actually was the body of Christ the rite would revert to the cannibalism it only (miraculously) signifies. It's miraculous truth lies in this contradiction. For Genet, that is the truth of great theater also. His novels' socially despised young heroes with such names as Divine, Darling, Our Lady, attain their states of grace though the most trashy means: and the conscious trashiness makes the ‘grace’ they achieve all the more miraculous There is an analogy with ‘camp’ art which flaunts its trashiness. Most ritual and ceremony, like that of the Catholic Church, easily can be rendered as camp.

Jean Paul Sartre quotes a passage in Our Lady Of The Flowers where the young murderer, Our Lady, looks at the judge who is sentencing him to death, and feels towards him the love that Genet could feel towards the world that rejected him:

"It is so sweet to love that he could not keep from dissolving into a feeling of sweet, trusting tenderness for the judge. 'Maybe he ain't a louse!' he thought."

It is Genet who creates this elaborate language of love that the young hoodlum could not possibly articulate, so that one gets the wonderfully comic, grotesque contrast between Genet's adequate style and the trashy, inadequate language of the murderer. The style tells the truth, not the inadequate language of the convict. This is how theater can surround a banal gesture or statement with an imagery that reveals its truth, as with the elaborate opening speeches of the Bishop in THE BALCONY.

Genet is a wonderfully comic, even Aristophanic, dramatist. In his plays, he creates onstage, solemn and serious rituals out of the tackiest make-believe (the whole theme of The Maids and The Balcony). The collision between the reverential and the tacky allows the 'epiphany' to occur because of the tackiness. This is the opposite of Beckett's 'Protestant' aesthetic of precision, authenticity. The result is dramatic incongruity, irony but it also is liberating. In 'The Blacks' Genet is careful to specify that the actors are dressed in trashy bad taste: they deliberately take on the negative idea the whites have of them and then reverse the situation, creating a ritual that exalts blackness and that mocks and destroys the whites values and ‘good taste’ they pretended ‘ignorantly’ to have offended.

Genet, then, has a ‘Catholic’ fascination with ceremony, display, uniforms, costumes, tacky rituals that attain grace, the attainment of authenticity by means of the inauthentic - unlike the severe search for unadorned authenticity as in Samuel Beckett. It is likely that whereas the Puritan Protestants despised the theatre because it was histrionic and impure, the Catholic Church condemned the theatre because it was a potent rival in histrionics. After taking his ritual world perhaps too reverently in his first two plays, Genet found a way to an extraordinary comic vision in the last three, The Balcony, The Blacks and The Screens.

Genet was discovered and then massively explained to the world by Sartre - a really crushing experience, which put an end to the first period of his writing, up to THE MAIDS;. It took him some years to find himself again, with The Balcony, in which he elects to become a political writer, to investigate the public rituals of power. From gratitude to his protectors, in part, he allies his art to the cause of the Left, borrowing from the theatres of Brecht and of Sartre. Genet's theater can be seen to be made up of the following elements:

(a) French neo-classical: Its Racinian 'fatalism' and, in his 'Classical' plays, its formalism. (Tradition, also, of Sartre: Both Deathwatch and The Maids are tautly neo-classical in structure. And this fits his rigorous inverted moral vision, its uncompromising ‘Jansenist’ toughness.

(b). The anti-realist tradition: Strindberg: Artaud’s ‘theatre of cruelty’, of spectacle, beginning with The Balcony and carried to its ultimate in The Screens. As far as I know, there is no evidence he read Artaud: but he must have "got the influence' from Roger Blin. He is the most ‘Artaudian’ of our dramatist.

© Brechtian theater, a dramaturgy directed at the audience, seeking to change it. (especially The Blacks and The Screens). This is a theater that admits its theatricality, admits it is performance, and so more true, more real, than realistic mimesis. It admits in advance its tackiness, its artificiality, its existence as theater performance: like the abject hero, Said, the theater of Genet in these two plays concedes in advance everything the realist might complain against it. And then, I think, it manages to be even more persuasive than Brecht's theater.

Genet constructs an even more elaborate THEATRICAL superstructure over his ‘story’ than does BRECHT. While Brecht creates a theater that conveys to us a ‘truth’ outside the theatre, GENET insists there is no truth outside theatrical performance: that the performance is all there is.

THE BALCONY is a metaphor, but it is a metaphor about life as theatre, as histrionics: so that there is no ‘truth’ outside the play. The play is as much truth we are ever going to get, as Mme. IRMA tells us in her last speech: (95-96) Whereas, for Brecht, Marxism was a “saving truth’ for Genet it is only another of the fictions for our role-playing: so that the REBELS in THE BALCONY are not provided by Genet with any identifiable cause: they are the “role of REBEL’ that humanity will continually play over and over again, along with the roles of AUTHORITY.

BRECHT insisted his method was the alienation effect: to de-familiarize the stage world, to make its situations unexpectedly strange, unacceptable. But he did this, in order that we would want to change the world in a way Brecht desired: so his 'estranging effect' really was rooted in an idea of human normality that would be achieved by revolution. In Brecht there is a strong sense of the way things should be.

GENET does not believe in any ideology of normality. He condemns the given world outside the theatre as strongly as Brecht: but he also distrusts the ideology that Brecht espouses. Genet, the product of institutions and prisons, the man condemned and convicted by society, has no interest in revolution (or even reform). All a revolution would do is change the nature of the oppressive order, giving us commissars instead of capitalist bosses. His stage world of outcasts, criminals, the insulted and injured, would have no place in a socialist utopia, either. Genet, really is an anarchist, like Ibsen, not a Marxist, and for him reality is more about role-playing: constructing and sustaining identities. The ‘conflicts’ merely keep the dialectic of identities going. Mme. Irma and Dr. Relling (of The Wild Duck) each runs a House of Illusions. In both plays, the characters will take up their roles, again after the catastrophe.

Genet by a brilliant stroke, is able to give back to the theatre its icons of Monarchs. Bishops, Judges, Generals - all that Realism has discounted, by locating these icons as elements of human imagination played out by ludicrously undignified men and women in a fantasy brothel - which stands for the human mind. GENET detaches these icons from specific history and makes them into free-floating archetypes of the general imagination: the strong implication being that all of our human reality is nothing more than such a system of reified symbols and images, a ghost-drama.

He takes this idea further as a theatrical metaphor: his stage identities have a huge, ritualistic aspect that float free of the human beings who temporarily embody them. And their seeming conflicts onstage are only a shadow play or, as he likes to present it, as a play of mirrors. His theater is close to ‘Camp’ in the way that it mocks its own means of presentation, and mocks the audience for being taken in. It goes beyond Camp because Genet develops this into a serious analysis of human reality. Camp is a playful substitute for reality.

Like Camp, there is an ‘absurdity’ in the way the BISHOP, JUDGE, GENERAL create precious sounding rituals out of their tacky costumes and make-up: but just when the audience might be tempted to ridicule the performers, it discovers that the situation is very uncomfortably like the world they take as ‘serious’ and ‘real’ outside the theatre. In THE BALCONY the revolution’s Disorder is a mirror reversal of the fake Order set up in the Brothel: and it is very doubtful if there is a revolution going on at all: whether that, too, isn't being 'staged' by Mme. IRMA'S brothel, as an alternative set of fantasy-identities to take on. CHANTAL, then, by going over to the rebels, would merely be going to another area in the brothel. (Genet mockingly leaves this possibility open to invalidate the entire seeming action of the play.

(Something similar happens in THE BLACKS) In this sense, Genet demolishes the Brechtian aesthetic, as if, in THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE, the Governor the Princes and the Weaver’s rebellion, the 'good' Grusha and Azdak, were all on the same level of play-acting: or as if Galileo and the Inquisition were dividing roles in a mere game of hegemony. By setting up Edmund Burke's hierarchic order of society (of QUEEN, BISHOP, JUDGE, GENERAL - all the powers that Burke invokes), the brothel dialectically brings into being the Tom Paine reaction to it.[cf. 'Revolution and the Romantic Theater' in the Ibsen Course on this website).

GENET continually used the image of the BROTHEL as an image of art. The prostitute, like art, is sterile; (“my sterile girls”, Mme. IRMA calls them) not ‘productive; an image existing for itself in its own unique medium. The world of politics and utlility wants to make use of the brothel (ART) to co-opt it, because it carries power, it affects men's minds; it is a source of potent images. But art, as Schiller long ago insisted, must never be useful, must never pretend to be real: must be a substitute for reality, an alternative perspective on reality.

While the actual world continually compromises, corrupts, the ideal truth of reality, Art preserves that truth which the corrupted world can revisit and rediscover. In the brilliant opening scene of the play, THE BISHOP makes that clear:.....p.11 - 12

Our need for illusion, and the way we make our illusions into cruel devices we use against others, is the enemy he is attacking. We hve a tendency to (unconsciously) construct identities for ourselves that then enable us to indulge in cruel power games. Beginning with who has better '‘taste', better ‘class’, better justice, better ‘faith’ or ‘revelation’
all of which not only give us the illusion of identity: they allow us to dominate other identities, as in the hierarchies of society or prison.
(T.S.Eliot continually suggested a hierarchy of better humility!)

In WAITING FOR GODOT Vladimir desperately needs Godot, despite the fact that it is the need for Godot that subjects him and Estragon to the torture of futile waiting, for ever; for it is only Godot who gives them identity. “Who are we? We are those who are waiting for Godot” That, like all faiths, that gives us meaning, purpose, drama, identity. Without it, the terrifying silence that always threatens to take over Beckett’s play. Genet’s desperate role-players in THE BALCONY are more elaborate versions of this condition.

Another point: GENET does not want our sympathy for his criminals and outcasts. Genet despises us too much for that. His misfits don't want to join us or be 'understood' by us. (Genet would be a nightmare patient for a psychiatrist!) The characters in his novels unashamedly live by their own bizarre and violent codes of conduct and don't bother to justify themselves to us.

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS also has a cast of outcasts but the playwright expects some sympathy for his "fugitive kind.” Genet’s 'strange' or 'alienating' and criminal world is proud of itself and has contempt for our bourgeois normality and no time for our sympathy. So he is not concerned to "let us into" his world: if we don't understand it, too bad for us! It is the same with his theatre: we have to accept it on its terms (even more in the BLACKS and THE SCREENS.

With THE BALCONY, for example, we are thrown off guard from the beginning: we are ‘trained’ in the theatre to accept the identity we are shown, and we seem to be shown an actual Bishop speaking ceremoniously, as we expect Bishops to do. We might notice that his costume and make-up seems a bit tacky: that the stage set looks odd, with its mirror reflecting a (recently used) bed but it will take us a little while to realize we are being ‘had’ – and when we do we discover there are more depths to this fakery: that the fakery represents attitudes we don’t usually associate with ‘camp’; we are being led by Genet into a completely alien or mirror reversal of our world – that challenges ours by its own self-knowledge, integrity and cynical awareness of OUR self-deceptions.

The BISHOP explains himself to himself in the mirror to satisfy his own sense of logic, as he revels in an identity he does not need to justify to us, the audience. The logic of his brothel identity of Bishop, as ‘pure’ fantasy, with those of the Judge and the General, is that these do not have to justify themselves by action in the world. They are Platonic ideal identities, the pure icons the world worships beyond the individual in the robes. The mystique of royalty or the papacy already precedes and then envelops the specimens of aging, eating, defecating, dying flesh and blood inhabiting the potent robes.. “The King is dead, long live the King”

To be a Bishop in the actual world would mean having to do all kinds of things that would compromise the identity of 'Bishop': political intrigue, covering up for transgressive priests, hiding one's own proclivities, hiding one's doubts about doctrine, etc., etc. In the brothel the actor can be the pure idea of Bishop and rescue it from the world's contamination. The sexual arousal that goes along with this potency is a bonus that does not have to dissimulate itself as piety.

The miracle occurs when the corrupted object can become the pure thing. The robes and incense and statuary and music of the church (or the theatre) are no more 'real' than the tacky costumes of Mme. Irma's brothel: both are miraculous when a pure transubstantiation takes place.

Church, Judiciary, Army, Monarchy are theatrical suppliers of icons, images that float free of their utilitarian social function’ and of the temporarily sanctioned individuals who inhabit the roles. In the most radical sense, "all the world's a stage", and the rebel is no more - and no less - true than the order he/she rebels against. In THE BALCONY, Genet has take up the quarrel of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine and used their contending symbols, their metaphors - on his stage:

1. The hierarchical society of Burke with its tragedy queen at it's head.
2. The revolutionaries "storming the Bastille: that Tom Paine described so ardently.
(Cf. ‘Revolution and the Romantic Theater’ in the Ibsen Course on this website)

In THE BALCONY the rebellion is possibly just another of the brothel's ritual shows - which invites the audience, both reactionaries and radicals - to join in, and then continually mocks it for doing so. THE BALCONY is divided into five parts, and nine scenes

1.] Scenes 1 - 5 : The chief identities of the hierarchical Order ‘ritually’ enacted in the brothel, supervised by Mme. IRMA, who is the theatre itself: the supplier of potent images society is moved by. (The BURKE group)

2.] Scene 6. The counter-scene (opposite scene) of CHANTAL and the REBELS (The TOM PAINE group). The problem with the rebels is that because their identity is defined by the thing they rebel against: they are not free - and idea explored in greater depth in THE BLACKS and THE SCREENS.

3.] (Scene 7 The envoy from the Palace and his proposition to the brothel) As the ‘real life’ hierarchy has been destroyed in the revolution, the ‘pure’ icons of the Brothel should take over.

4.] Scene 8 The Balcony or brothel patrons take over the social roles
presumably overthrown in the revolution. (p. 70)

5,] Scene Nine They now must suffer the contamination of their 'essential' identities by the world. (p. 80) The Bishop insists it is their power as images that must be accepted by the Chief of Police. (80)

6.] For the Chief of Police, his problem is to get his unglamorous identity accepted as a brothel fantasy so it can become a potent image apart from the individual - as with the Others. It can then
become a power in the world on its own, bestowing its power on
the wearer of the role who need make no effort: the image does the work. But first, it needs to be 'wanted' by the people who want the other icons.

7] The play ends with the defeated revolutionary, ROGER, asking to take on the iconic role of CHIEF OF POLICE, thus HE is conferring power on IT. But, by castrating himself in this new role, he makes it an impotent image. Though the Chief of Police is relieved that he still possesses his own balls, (94) his identity still lacks iconic potency. It is still too bound up with utilitarian practicality and so has to jusitfy itself by 'works' not by image. As an image it is not transformed into symbol as a potent cultural identity independent of the occupant of the role. This might take centuries to join the ‘PANTHEON’ of icons.

It is true that this is a very abstract argument, where the characters of the play articulate the aspects of the argument they represent: but, by making the argument one about role-playing and iconic identity Genet makes brilliant theatre of it.

Above all is his sense of theatre as CEREMONY. In THE BLACKS and THE SCREENS the characters are less ‘schematic’ but he keeps to the same idea of theatre as opulent ceremony: in its way it is an insight as fundamental as Beckett’s sense of theatre as stringent game.

THE BALCONY is a ceremonial clash or conflict of images and symbols fighting probably without bloodshed in the fantasy brothel, just like stage battles in the theatre. The sense of ceremony makes the conflicts highly ironic: as much as in CORNEILLE and RACINE the actions of the play are governed by a sense of deorum - though made out of elements (trash) that would have startled Racine.

By not trying to serve practical ends, like working for a socialist utopia, GENET'S theatre keeps itself pure, uncontaminated: - a "great theatre of the world" of tacky but miraculous ceremonies.
And by admitting its own artificiality it is able to be almost outrageously THEATRICAL.


In THE BLACKS Genet maintains the same ceremonial theatre of mirrors, a mocking CLOWN SHOW, as he calls it: but goes more directly against his audience - a white audience, as he insists.
Something similar occurs in the ideas of black and white, colonialist and colonized, oppressors and rebels, clean military vs. unclean 'terrorists', law, crime, policeman-criminal. Establishing a human identity that is not a network of contradictions, negations, a dialectical reality, seems impossible, though Genet seems to hold onto the possibility: in the attempt of the lovers, Village and Virtue in THE BLACKS, to invent a new language of love, and, above all, in Said's determination, in The Screens to reject all 'acceptable' terms of identity, to be a form of independent absolute negativity an absolute pariah (and pharmakos) that has no place even in the afterlife. He and his wife Leila, after their deaths, are the only characters not to end up among the Dead

As with Brecht in his 'great' period - Mother Courage; Galileo Genet's best plays are great because of their contradictions and difficulties. The problem of The Blacks is how to 'exorcise' the white identity from black consciousness, to create a liberated consciousness free of the contamination of the oppressor's identity.

It is this serious investigation of dialectics that drew Genet to the 'Theater of commitment of Bertolt Brecht. Beginning with The Balcony he took from Brecht, a whole set of 'alienation' devices: of the frank theatricality of theater, of increasingly exposing the 'props' and devices that show the mise en scène to be a theatrical construct. As much as Brecht, Genet found a way to exploit all the devices of theater: exotic costume, sets, mirrors, music, sounds, masks..

In contrast to Beckett’s theatre Genet's flourishes in frank inauthenticity, in rituals of theatrical chicanery and fake show. As we noted, for Genet a true miracle is the combination of mystic presence in the demonstrably fake. This 'releases' a whole theatrical vocabulary for Genet to use: he also used this vocabulary in his novels. One might say that Genet goes beyond 'camp' to real profundity. 'Camp' does not believe in the ultimate authenticity of its fake gestures: Genet believes in them with grave devotion. This, to me, is a major revolution in the theater.

As Beckett's theatre narrowed down to increasingly minimalist statements of the same dilemma of human consciousness, Genet's theatre progressively enlarged itself to monstrous, even Artaudian, proportions. With absurdist influence, too, this was to 'open up' his plays enormously: masks, music, non-realist props and role-playing; elements of circus, (clown shows), open artificiality, non-realistic characters, the absence of a logical plot or any of the aspects of 'Aristotelian theater. In fact the closest thing to The Blacks and The Screens is Aristophanic Comedy

Beckett works to create a theatre of absolute authenticity; of precision Genet's is a theater of flagrant inauthenticity: of fake identities, elaborately false costumes, theatrically over-life-sized gestures that can take in imprecision, especially in The Balcony, The Blacks and The Screens. Yet he is as concerned with authenticity of identity and of expression as is Beckett.. The declared inauthenticity of the ritual in The Blacks is supposed to be a 'screen' [fooling the white audience] for the actual political action of killing the black traitor 'offstage'. A decisive stage is reached in a revolutionary struggle when the guerrillas eliminate collaborators and informers, an essential stage of a resistance movement's self-creation, its firmer sense of identity. In the play, of course, the offstage execution is yet another layer of theatrical 'trickery' - a metaphor for an ideal authentic action outside the theater.

Yet one senses that Genet isn't wholehearted about this execution, for the 'traitor' is another form of underdog, worthy of Genet's sympathy for outcasts: and the 'organization' that executes is, like all organizations, hostile to absolute individuality.
Therefore, he evolves the character of Said in THE SCREENS.

In the last two plays he aligns his art to a cause outside the theater: to the colonized Africans and African Americans and to the Arabs of Algeria under French colonial rule. This commitment of his art creates a collision between integrity to his art and integrity to the cause: for each speaks not only a different, but an opposite, equally urgent language. Art's integrity is not to be useful to a cause but to be honest to itself: Political integrity is to subordinate everything to the political cause. Genet's preoccupations as artist are radically different from his political sympathies.

The language of art has to be Absolute Authenticity however uncomfortable. The language of politics, including left politics, has to be expediency: usable truth, slogans, simplifications, like the figure of Chantal in The Balcony or as with Brecht, one of Genet's (ambivalent) models for his later plays In Genet, the dramatist's radical doubt about the authenticity, the desirability of any form of organized commitment, any subordination of the individual self to a 'larger' identity creates a creative tension.

This clash between commitment to the art and commitment to the cause was to lead to Genet’s giving up art altogether and throwing in his lot with the P.L.O. not a simple commitment, as he records in Prisoner of Love. In other words, Genet did not turn to a polemical art, as Brecht did. Believing, as much as Beckett, that art had to concern itself only with its own integrity, he gives up art. The Balcony, The Blacks and The Screens transcended their political causes by transforming the political material into ceremony and ritual. That could be done once or twice, three times at the most, only.

The Blacks
1. As exorcism
2. As dialectic
3. As 'clown show' and theatrical illusion: the play of mirrors.
4. As dilemma of liberated identity. How is it to be attained?

Jean Genet's The Blacks is a collective rebellion, by the African race, against oppressive forms of 'racist' identification and colonial oppression. Genet believes truth to be integrity to one's potentiality, which is yet to be established: self-determination, in other words. He is aware of the traps in this endeavour: of allowing one's oppressors to define one's identity, of settling for an imitation of what one is throwing off; of settling for too little or of settling into false identity. Like Ibsen, he shows not what this free identity is but all the forms of what it isn't. Like Ibsen's play, Genet's ends with the problem of true identity still to be solved - by all of us, not just by blacks. In his play the false 'oppressive' white identity is destroyed. For Europe and all its culture, arose out of colonial exploitation: it is the product of Africa and Asia, that is why the white identities can be played by blacks. And so it, too, is a false identity that has to be dialectically worked through to its death.

In a free world the whites would need to create a free new identity, that does not have its origins in exploitation through such figures as the Queen, the Missionary, the Judge, the Governor the Valet. We cannot say what that new white identity will be like - only that it will be quite unlike its present form. And because this is the real problem for the future, for both black and white, the performance of the old identities of prejudice and hatred are really only a smokescreen. The real 'offstage' actions on which the blacks are embarked is creating their collective self-identity which Genet, as a white, will not presume he is qualified to present. So he presents a "clown show" of the situation as the whites understand it, but one that the blacks have superseded.

Scene, Characters, Actions, Dialogue and Props/Costumes
The Scene is the theater stage itself, which seems to be set up to re-enact a ritual murder of a white woman before a 'Court' of Whites who will judge and condemn the action. This Scene seems to give the power-advantage to the 'whites' as Queen Governor, Missionary, Judge and Valet. So these hierarchical figures, strangely masked and costumed, are set apart and above the other actors. This re-enacts the traditional historical relationship between whites and blacks, where whites are always at the advantage: as the dispensers of power and justive, both in the colonial world and in the racially divided world of the United States. It is for the whites to judge, not the blacks, it is for the whites to decide punishement or mercy: for the whites to 'grant' rights and liberties.

The space below is the space of the blacks, of the crime to be enacted and then judged. But this space will end up being one of new power, where the whites will be destroyed. By leaving the upper space, and descending to die the white court acts out the end of white colonialism and supremacy. This is decided from the very beginning of the play where the Governor begins to read his letter of being killed, only to put it away until the moment of his execution at the end of the play.

But the Scene also is divided between stage and auditorium, between black actors and (hopefully) white audience and we will find that the audience is a more important focus of aggression that the white court. The play awakens the consciousness of the white audience, forces it to look at its own prejudices and myths, to be embarrassed as some of its own fantasies (killing of the White Woman) are brought to life in front of its eyes. (Remember, this was written in the 1959, at the time of Mississippi burning, of extremely open racism (it now has gone discreetly underground) and of open and violently oppressive colonialism. The scene of the play looks beyond, to the victory of the blacks.

They divide into
a) two mirror-reflecting groups, court and criminals, powered and powerless, 'official' roles (Queen, Governor, Judge, Missinary, Valet) and blacks without 'official' roles - only anonymous workers. Yet we see at once this division is an artificial one, as both groups are black. The fact that blacks in real life cannot have the Court roles, rubs in the nature of white-black relations. The official structure of society is a white structure.In the action of the play, the roles will be reversed, and the Court will be judged and condemned by the lower level.

b) a deeper division, between actors and their roles: the actors again and again detach themselves from their roles, setting out their roles as fake and temporary identities - identities for the purpose of the performance. These roles, both of the Court and of the Criminals, are deliberately deceptive, part of the plan to deceive and confuse the white audience. By adopting these roles, white and black, the black actors reveal they have mastered them, that they already are 'beyond' the conflict they are pretending to act out.

But, by continually 'breaking role' and showing they are independent of their roles, they also hint at the fundamental irrelevance of what they are doing: it is a 'clown show' - a game in which uncomfortable or poetic or alarming truths momentarily emerge. It is a sort of "letting off steam" by revolutionaries who are really interested in more important things than theater. It is the whites, locked in their fantasies and fears and prejudices, who might believe this stage action is important: that it represents a 'truth' about the blacks. The Blacks expose the unreality of this supposed truth. It is a white hangup and a white problem only.

They are pretending to act out this drama to conceal the actual, offstage drama (presumably in the same building, under the noses of the white audience) - that of identifying, judging and condemning the real division in their collective identity - the traitor within the group whom the group alone will judge. Whites have absolutely no role in this drama. At the most, they might learn a lesson in the dialectics of race relations: the now irrelevant stage of this dialectic which the blacks, as revolutionaries, have outgrown. So towards the end the play blatantly discards all its characters as illusions, as not serious even as dramatic roles.

Towards the end of the play (p. 112;114) Newport News explains how they have been 'fooling' the audience all along:

Our aim is not only to corrode and dissolve the idea they'd
like us to have of them" (the performance) "we must also
fight them in their actual persons, in their flesh and blood."
(the struggle outside the theater, in the real world)
"As for you, you were present only for display....

That is, the performance has been working through the ideas of the relations between the races that the whites, those in power, would like to think the blacks have. By working through these ideas, parodying them they confirm that they already have got rid of them, have exorcised them. And Archibald, a little later, explains that they will not let the white audience know their real actions behind the scenes: their political strategies, their organizing of their collective identity and so on: (114)

As we could not allow the Whites to be present at a deliberation
nor show them a drama that does not concern them, and, as in
order to cover up, we had to fabricate the only one that does
concern them, we've got to finish this show and get rid of the planned.

So the action of the play is as teasing as the identity of the Characters: it is always 'negating itself', keeping the white audience at the mercy of the black actors if it wants to know what is going on. The 'superior' vantage point of understanding more than the actors know, (typical of drama from Aeschylus to Brecht) is taken away from the audience. All the actors know more about the situation than anyone in the audience. The audience does not even know what the actors are doing, or whether to take their actions and speeches (and characters) ‘seriously’ - hence the disconcerting laughter the cast keeps breaking into.

We seem to be invited to watch the Court's demand that the black criminals re-enact the murder of a white girl, so that they can judge and condemn:. The blacks seem to be turning this into a ritual of getting Village to create a murder uncontaminated by secret affection or love for the victim.and also into an exorcism with voodoo elements. But we will learn this, too, is just a 'screen', a fake action in which they are not really interested - neither the Court nor the criminals.

This seeming inability of Village to commit a murder of 'pure' hate seems to be getting in the way of Village and Virtue's ability to achieve authentic love. Virtue, too, in one scene, (p. 44) seems possessed by the spirit of the sleeping White Queen, and, a little later, the Queen and Virtue chant the same lines together (45). That is, it is the experience of both the colonized and the oppressed to begin to think and feel in the terms of their oppressors, to secretly identify with them and so turn against and lose their own authentic identity. This is a stage that has to be 'exorcised' for it is having a collaborator or traitor within even more dangerous than the offstage collaborator. This past and already overcome condition is re-enacted in the performance by both Village and Virtue.

This action of spirit-possession then swerves into one of a communal exorcism, of the blacks exorcising identification with the whites from their consciousness (the scene with the voodoo dolls). The action of Crime and Punishment, which the play seemed to be setting out, is superseded by that of ritual exorcism. Not just Village, but all the blacks on the lower level re-enact this. When they succeed, it seems that they can now turn upon, judge, condemn and destroy the Court. But this is really a clown show, for this state of being possessed by or identification with, the values of the whites, belongs to the past. What is acted out is a threat that no longer exists.

For all this is only another 'screen' hiding the 'offstage' trial and judgment, and the revolutionary actions which, at the end of the play, it is hinted ALL the actors are really engaged in outside in society. (This was the late fifties -sixties). The play turns into a manual for black revolutionaries instead of an entertainment for whites.

All through the performance, these layers of action interrupt each other, contradict each other, letting the alert in the audience see that a number of different things are going on at the same time. It is much like Cubist painting, where we see objects from different perspectives which can't, in 'real life observation' be seen simultaneously. Hence the great difficulty, in reading the play to know just what is happening. A performance would make this all much clearer. The play is not as difficult as it looks. It is just that, for the first time, we are confronted with theater that admits it's 'only' theater, only a 'show'.

In a play like An Enemy of the People we see the stages of the dialectic in clear succession, as they unfold: Thomas's innocent love of his community in Act One, and his belief he will be its hero; his surprise and anger with his brother in Act Two, and his preparation to attack the reactionaries; his shock and disillusion in Act Three, at the newspaper office; his fury at the townspeople in Act Four and their rage at him; his determination to stick his ground and fight in Act V.

Genet's method in the blacks is like playing all these stages of the dialectic at the same time, shifting from one to the other. He is not interested in carefully taking us through the process of how the mood of Act V. say, was arrived at, but to start at the end of Act V., with the new enlightened spirit, and then to go over the earlier stages, having his actors mocking them, parodying them. In other words, while Ibsen is ahead of his character, Thomas, and allows us to see the stages of his enlightenment, Genet has his characters sharing his own enlightened mockery from the beginning. If the white audience is puzzled, perplexed, that is part of the play's strategy of agression from the standpoint of superiority - something whites in the theater are definitely not used to.

The aggressiveness of this attack upon the audience and its mind set does not leave any 'liberal' consolation that, after all, we can all get along together with minor adjustments in social policies. There is no action of bringing an unenlightened white to repentance and ennobling guilt: there is a more fundamental division that has to be faced. An action of Crime and Punishment would have been more comfortable for us. If the characters had drawn us sympathetically into the reality of their anger and hatred against oppression we would have empathized and enjoyed a drama of 'understanding' that would have fortified our liberal sympathies, or would have been dismissed by us as a 'distortion of the facts', as understandable but extreme. You can never win THAT game: any attempt to act out 'real' suffering and indignation can ALWAYS be comfortably contained with the argument, "Of course it is all very dreadful: but then, drama always has to exaggerate. It wasn't quite like that really." Realism in the theater can never meet the demand for absolute fidelity to actual events. It can ALWAYS be charged with being selective, of leaving out things. And by trying to be absolutely faithful to reality, you are already being deflected from the main, aggressive function of a radical art.

By saying that our liberal sympathies or conservative dismissal is of no interest, that it has more important things to think about, the play is really more alarming to a white audience. All the concessions we would have been willing to make "Of course, it is a little exaggerated..." are beside the point. Exaggeration, distortion, is part of the game the drama is playing, the way it gets us to see and hear what we would rather not see and hear.

The final attack attack upon the whites in the play, leading to their comic destruction, is itself only a screen. Real revolutionaries are searching for ways of re-ordering the world outside the terms of the old white-black conflict. This is the more fundamental quest of the search for a collective identity, free of the old, discredited conflict. As the 'Governor' realizes, this makes the blacks more dangerous - that they no longer obsess about killing a white. They are not 'locked in' the old, and energy-wasting conflict. The play ends with the hope that the blacks can create identities and goals in which the whites are totally unneeded, irrelevant, a thing of the past, at most to be remembered in a 'clown show'. This is not 'forgiveness' - it is a going beyond. This is the meaning of the last dialogue of Village and Virtue. The play ends with the characters regrouping round a new catafalque, as if about to start another fake performance.

The dialogue is able to act out more modes of speech, from gross vulgarity to poetry, than any of the plays we have read so far. As none of the modes of speech is the authentic one, the play can take up any mode it likes: imperial pride., military jingoism and gruffness, condescending love, outrage, confrontation, hatred, humor, ritual incantation, jungle noises, mock-terror (accompanied by stylized 'shaking') - all in forms of parody, mockery, self-mockery (with the exception of the 'serious' speech of the offstage action) and in disconcerting contradiction: an actor will speak his role 'seriously' and then, without warning, break role and comment, as professional actor, upon his/her performance as performance.
The characters of the blacks on the lower stage speak as individuals and as chorus, urging on Village, for instance, or representing the sounds of Africa.

By mastering all these modes of speech, playing with and parodying them, the black actors show they have mastered and transcended the terms of the white-black conflict - that they have reached a stage of consciousness above all these modes: whereas white members of the audience might be trapped into only a small portion of this multi-leveled, multi-roled language. The language of the clown-show is the language of a superiority that does not have to proclaim itself, but only to enjoy its own comedic enlightenment. It is a language that is already beyond the moods it pretends to act out (in the way that the text of the Phenomenology ‘acts out’ (revisits) stages of consciousness it already has transcended). . If it reveals the falsity of its expressions, it also reveals consciousness of this falsity. These modes of speech might express past attitudes, but the fact they can be parodied proves they are past, that they have been overcome. That means NONE of the statements we hear in the play means what it says. The play is playing with the audience. The actors act out of a position of amused superiority.

It is one of Genet's brilliant methods to admit the fakeness of theater, to flaunt his costumes and props as tacky, fake, unreal, and then to make good theater out of this. Just as his actors don't try to be convincing characters, so their costumes and props don't try to be "real things". The masks and robes of the 'white' court are deliberately unconvincing, the catafalque turns out to be a sheet over two chairs (the fact the chairs are 'missing' is mentioned at the beginning of the play). The pink knitting wool and knitting needles of Diouf can be oversized, voodoo dolls very crudely made.

This is the opposite of the convincing realism of costumes and props in Brecht. Brecht uses costumes and props brilliantly, but they are meant to be convincing: in GALILEO, the astronomical model of the old universe, the telescope of the new universe, the costuming of Pope Barberini, the bridal linen of Virginia, have to have a convincing reality. But in Genet they only need a theatrical presence, as theater props with no other reality. The only real object is - the gun. And that will be reported as being used offstage, where we don't see its reality.

This use of tacky props and material is somewhat similar to camp and to drag: except that Genet's dramatic actions, though unreal and parodic like camp, are serious, are getting at truth behind the theatrical show. This is one of the reasons why a performance of The Blacks would be far less difficult than reading the script: the mixture of camp and seriousness, parody and meaning, can come across brilliantly . The illustrations of the production in our volume suggest how effective that performance must have been.
Three actions are performed to end the condition whereby the Blacks are a negative of the whites: [for in a colonial relation, the mirror-relation is always the subordinate one] thus. [Identity is always negation]
to end mirror-relationship and perhaps dialogue between the two groups.

1. The ritual murder of the white girl: to evoke hatred and judgment from the whites. And to confirm to the whites that this sort of action is typical of blacks, what they would like to do. It also raises the value of the 'white woman' as the secret object of black desire. The blacks, therefore, have to perform the ritual with no trace of such desire, no 'contamination' by desire for whites. This affirms black hatred of whites: affirms the incompatibility of the two worlds, as against 'accommodation'.

2. To decontaminate black 'love' for whites in the Village-Virtue duel.
a. Village must be able to purely kill the white woman without lust, envy, etc. An act that is not infected with white influence. But white influence has contaminated both Village and Virtue. Even the concept 'Love' in the modern sense, which Village and virtue struggle to achieve is a European concept. [It arose in about the 11th century, in Provence, possibly under Arab influence. It developed from 'Courtly Love' [cf.Chaucer] to romantic love. It is also connected with the European concept of Individualism, of unique individual worth.

b. Diouf and his relations to white people, of reconciliation. This is to be rejected for unmitigated hatred. Diouf seems to be the 'menace within the group' but later we learn this is part of the clown show and that the 'real' menace is the offstage traitor. (Who, of course, also does not 'really' exist - Genet's hall of receding mirrors.

3. The trial and punishment of black by black, indicating ending of the white-black dialectic: an action from which whites are excluded. [Cf. stage of intifada when the rebels must condemn traitors and informers. Similarly the French Underground under German occupation, had to identify and deal with its own traitors as well as with the occupiers.]

1. As Exorcism
Here, the aim is to expel the presence of the white from black consciousness, like the exorcism of a demon: for, by colonial conquest and all its attendant imagery of the 'savage' versus the 'civilized' whites have injected a race dialectic into black consciousness. Those aspects of the play that work the exorcism use 'black' devices like the voodoo-like dolls of the white court, Felicity's summoning of 'Dahomey'; the black actors' imitation of African noises, etc.

Yet this exorcism is a 'fraud' for white audiences. It is a piece of deliberately fake Artaudianism, a theater of 'cruelty' exoticism and savagery. It seems to provide a marvelous theatric 'base' to the play but it is a theatrical superstructure, a clownerie or clown show to be discarded for the second stage, the dialectic. Because The Blacks secretly is a modern political play - or, rather, it disguises a modern political situation.

2. The dialectic
Here the theatre of mirrors is social-philosophic. The actors dress as the whites imagine they would imitate white culture: in bad taste. They thus reproduce and 'master' the mirror image whites have of them: of being black studs, killers, or of wishing to 'join' white culture but being unable to 'bring it off'. Here is the dialectic of Village's 'purely black' murder of the white girl, in which the black actors seem so urgently interested, insisting that Village 'do it right': that is, do it as a 'free act', an act of pure violence, for political ends, not out of black compulsion to possess as well as kill whites. [Cf. Eldrige Cleaver's confession, in Soul on Ice, of being obsessed with possessing a white girl]

This becomes an emblem of what is needed for all revolutionary action.It must spring from the objective needs of the movement which are not infected by [and thus still dominated by] negative identification with the 'enemy'. To create a world of black consciousness, the white girl must be only an obstacle, an object, to be removed.

'Blacks' are aware of living within the dominant white's ideas of them, so that their rebellion is in danger of being fixed at this 'lower level' of conflict. Their hatred of whites must be totally without envy, [wishing to be like them] and totally outside white categories: new ones have to be invented. They must be able to act as if the whites did not exist, as if they already have been annihilated. The whites must be killed off perfunctorily, as a now unimportant stage of the struggle.

The play must make clear the nature of the situation and the nature of the action needed to meet the situation.

But this, too, is something of a fraud, for the 'actors have already got beyond this stage of the dialectic.

3. Thus, again, the play becomes a clown show.
The 'white court' before which the exorcism and the dialectic are performed is actually made up of blacks. This tells us that the onstage action cannot be a 'really' serious one: it is, in effect, a retrospective charade, acting out stages already passed.
The presented situation, where blacks act out before whites the whites' idea of them, turns out to be a play in which the blacks are acting out their idea of the whites, and of the whites' idea of them: an idea they already have mastered and gone beyond. By 'appropriating' and parodying, as well as 'appreciating' the white roles, only to reject them, they have gone beyond the colonizeds' envy and secret admiration for the dominant culture: [e.g. the Indian British public schoolboy]
By showing the whites' idea of the blacks to be irrelevant, already superseded, the play shows it represents an advanced stage of revolutionary consciousness beyond that it is openly admitting.

It invalidates the action it has played [as in Ibsen]. Now we understand the 'clowning' in so much of the play: that the 'liberated consciousness' kept breaking through the pretence of the exorcism and the 'lower dialectic'. This is almost a unique theatrical method, anticipated by Ibsen in e.g. A Doll House, and Ghosts- plays that invalidate their own melodramas.

The next stage is for the blacks to create their own, new concepts in which whites don't exist, in which black consciousness is liberated from white presence. - e.g. the discovery of a new love language by Village and Virtue.

4. The offstage trial and execution.
And, in fact, we are told that the 'real drama' is not this one, acted out, ideally, before a white audience, but an offstage [backstage] one where whites are not part of the situation{ it's an internal one for black's only, and therefore an action liberated from white presence.

In this new twist a stage 'prop' - Village's pistol, turns out to be a 'real' gun to be used for the real execution., offstage Yet, ultimately, this too is only a piece of theatre, a metaphor, a contrived offstage shot. The dialectic action, presumably, must go beyond this, in the real world beyond theater: Genet's theatre clearly is pointing outside itself for ultimate reality: and this will be a problem for Genet the artist and for Genet the individualist.

The Blacks is a play that parodies being a play, in a theatre that invalidates the theater. It makes a brilliant use of a fact that applies to all rehearsed theatre: that the 'subject' [the story the play is telling] is finished, and over with, before the rehearsals - or auditions - begin. If it has a new life it is only as theater, as a theatrical miming of an already completed argument.

Much more than the Prologue to Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle, then, the play tells its audience that the 'real work' is to be done outside the theatre, that this is just entertainment, a clown show. Built into the structure of the play, I think, is the [ideally white] audience's dawning sense, probably by halfway through, that it is being 'had', that it has been taking the wrong things seriously. And that the really serious things are more alarming than it suspected. In fact, the play contemptuously 'annihilates the audience" showing it is irrelevant to the revolutonary matters on hand. This, I think, is at least as radical a theatric method as Beckett's - probably more so.

The mirrors:
On the stage is a 'white' audience facing the preferably white audience in the auditorium: between are a group of black actors putting on a show playing black actors putting on a show. Whites are the mirrors in which blacks see themselves reflected, and vice-versa. But onstage these mirror reflections are grotesque distortions: the white court is a parody of white power: Queen, Governor, Missionary, Valet. These do not even attempt to be realistic or to hide the fact they are being played by blacks. The black actors make a parody of negritude: the shoe-shine box (black servility) contains blacking which the blacks apply to themselves, as a parody of white ideas of black. Both groups on stage are parodies, therefore, a pair of distorting mirrors. The preposterous costumes of the blacks fit their white-derived names. Outside the auditorium is a real political world which is mirrored in the offstage action where a 'traitor' is executed. In The Screens [open air] Genet takes the dialectic still further. (The play was considered an act of treachery and could not be performed in France while the Algerian War was continuing.


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