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.