Jean Genet

Jean GenetFrench novelist, playwright and poet Jean Genet was born in Paris on December 19, 1910. Abandoned by his parents, he spent much of his youth in an institution for juvenile delinquents. At the age of ten, he was accused of stealing. Although innocent of the charge, having been described as a thief, the young boy resolved to be a thief. "Thus," wrote Genet, "I decisively repudiated a world that had repudiated me."

Between 1930 and 1940, he wandered through various European countries, living as a thief and male prostitute. Eventually, he found himself in Hitler's Germany where he felt strangely out of place. "I had a feeling of being in a camp of organized bandits. This is a nation of thieves, I felt. If I steal here, I accomplish no special act that could help me to realize myself. I merely obey the habitual order of things. I do not destroy it." So Genet hastened on to a country that still obeyed a more conventional moral code.

In 1943, after being imprisoned for theft, Genet began writing. Ignoring traditional plot and psychology, Genet's plays rely heavily on ritual, transformation, illusion and interchangeable identities. His experiences in prison would inform much of his work. The homosexuals, prostitutes, thiefs and outcasts of his plays are trapped in self-destructive circles. They express the despair and loneliness of a man caught in a maze of mirrors, trapped by an endless progression of images that are, in reality, merely his own distorted reflection.

Genet's first dramatic effort is a poignant examination of the oppressed and the oppressor. In Deathwatch he experiments with a murderer in the role of hero. The play revolves around three inmates who struggle for domination of a prison cell while an unseen fourth prisoner watches on.

In his next play; The Maids, Genet portrays a ritualistic act of two maids who take turns acting as "Madame," abusing each other as either servant or employer. The ceremony reveals not only the maids' hatred of the Madame's authority, but also their hatred of themselves for participating in the hierarchy that oppresses them.

First staged at a private club in London because it was considered too scandalous for Paris audiences, The Balcony is set in a brothel of "nobel dimensions," a palace of illusions in which men can indulge their secret fantasies, perhaps as a judge inflicting punishment on a beautiful thief, or as a dying Foreign Legionaire being succoured by a beautiful Arab maiden. But outside the brothel, the country is caught up in the throes of revolution, and these false roles become confused with the real roles of "bishop," "judge" and "general" until nothing is certain.

In The Blacks, a troupe of colored actors enacts before a jury of white-masked blacks the ritualistic murder of a white of which they have been accused. The last of Genet's plays to be produced during his lifetime, The Screens, is his comment on the Algerian revolution. Like all of Genet's works, these plays are grotesque, sometimes bewildering, savage, and haunting. Simultaneously cultivating and denouncing the stage illusion, they exude a strange ritualistic, incantatory quality that successfully transforms life into a series of ceremonies and rituals that bring stability to an otherwise unbearable existence.

In addition to his plays, Genet wrote several novels and film scripts. He also produced a silent picture, Un Chant D'Amour (1949). Genet died in Paris on April 15, 1986.

Genet's Plays  |  Other Works  |  Biographies/Studies


Genet's Plays

Other Works


Related Sites

French Theatre Index

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