|19 December 1910
|15 April 1986
Jean Genet (December 19, 1910 – April 15, 1986), was a prominent, sometimes infamous, French writer and later political activist. Early in his life, he was a vagabond and petty criminal; later in life, Genet wrote novels, plays, poems, and essays, including Querelle, The Thief's Journal, Our Lady of the Flowers, The Balcony, The Blacks, and The Maids. Genet's works represent a critique of values, turning them on their head. The Balcony takes place in a brothel between prostitutes and patrons. The Maids is based on the infamous Papin sisters, who murdered their employer and daughter in a scandalous affair in 1933. The Thief's Journal is a fictional autobiographical account of Genet's journeys across Europe, structured around a series of homosexual affairs. Genet was a minor cause celebre for his challenge to social norms.
Genet's mother was a young prostitute who raised him for the first year of his life before putting him up for adoption. Thereafter, Genet was raised in the provinces by a carpenter and his family, who according to Edmund White's biography, were loving and attentive. While he received excellent grades in school, his childhood involved a series of attempts to run away and incidents of petty theft (although White also suggests that Genet's later claims of a dismal, impoverished childhood were exaggerated to fit his outlaw image).
In any event, he was eventually detained at the youth prison of Mettray. In The Miracle of the Rose (1946), he gives a fictionalized account of this period of detention which ended at age 18, when he joined the army. He was eventually given a dishonorable discharge on grounds of indecency (having been caught engaged in a homosexual act) and spent a period as a vagabond, petty thief, and prostitute traveling across Europe, which he later gave a fictionalized treatment in The Thief's Journal (1949). After returning to Paris, France, in 1937, Genet was in and out of prison through a series of arrests for theft, use of false papers, vagabondage, lewd acts, and other offenses. In prison, Genet wrote his first poem, "Le condamné à mort," which he had printed at his own cost, and the novel, Our Lady of the Flowers (1944). In Paris, Genet sought out and introduced himself to Jean Cocteau, who was impressed by his writing. Cocteau used his contacts to get Genet's novel published and when in 1949, after ten convictions, Genet was threatened with a life sentence, Cocteau, joined by other key figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso, successfully petitioned the French President to have the sentence set aside. Genet would never again return to prison.
By 1949, Genet had completed five novels, three plays, and numerous poems. His explicit and often deliberately provocative portrayal of homosexuality and criminality was such that by the early 1950s, his work was banned in the United States. Sartre wrote a long analysis of Genet's existential development (from vagrant to writer) entitled, Saint Genet comédien et martyr (1952), which anomalously was published as the first volume of Genet's complete works. Genet was strongly affected by Sartre's analysis and did not write for the following five years. Between 1955 and 1961, Genet wrote three more plays as well as an essay called "What Remains of a Rembrandt Torn Into Four Equal Pieces and Flushed Down the Toilet," on which hinged Jacques Derrida's analysis of Genet in his seminal work Glas. During this time he became emotionally attached to Abdallah, a tightrope walker. However following a number of accidents and Abdallah's suicide in 1964, Genet entered a period of depression, attempting suicide.
From the late 1960s, starting with a homage to Daniel Cohn-Bendit after the events of May 1968, Genet became politically active. He participated in demonstrations drawing attention to the living conditions of immigrants in France. In 1970, the Black Panthers invited him to the U.S. where he stayed for three months giving lectures, attending the trial of their leader, Huey Newton, and publishing articles in their journals. Later the same year he spent six months in Palestinian refugee camps, secretly meeting Yasser Arafat near Amman. Profoundly moved by his experiences in Jordan and the U.S., Genet wrote a final lengthy novel about his experiences, A Prisoner of Love, which would be published after his death. Genet also supported Angela Davis and (Black Panther) George Jackson, as well as Michel Foucault and Daniel Defert's Prison Information Group. He worked with Foucault and Sartre to protest against police brutality against Algerians in Paris, a problem persistent since the Algerian War of Independence, when beaten bodies were to be found floating in the Seine. In September 1982, Genet was in Beirut when the massacres took place in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila. In response, Genet published "Quatre heures à Chatila" (Four Hours in Shatila), an account of his visit to Shatila after the massacres.
Genet developed throat cancer and was found dead on April 15, 1986, in a hotel room in Paris. Genet may have fallen on the ground and fatally hit his head. He was buried in the Spanish Cemetery near Larache, Morocco.
Throughout his five early novels, Genet works to subvert the traditional set of moral values of his assumed readership. He celebrates a beauty in evil, emphasizing his singularity as he raises violent criminals to icons, enjoys the specificity of gay gesture and coding and depicts scenes of betrayal.
The first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers (1944), is a journey through the prison underworld, featuring a fictionalized alter-ego by the name of Divine, usually referred to in the feminine, at the center of a circle of tantes ("aunties" or "queens") with colorful sobriquets such as Our Lady of the Flowers, Mimosa I, Mimosa II and First Communion. The two auto-fictional novels, The Miracle of the Rose (1946) and The Thief's Journal (1949), describe Genet's time at Mettray Reformatory and his experiences as a vagabond and prostitute across Europe. Querelle de Brest (1947) is set in the midst of the port town of Brest, where sailors and the sea are associated with murder and Funeral Rites (1949), is a story of love and betrayal across political divides, written this time for the narrator's lover, Jean Decarnin, killed by the Germans in WWII.
A Prisoner of Love published in 1986, after Genet's death, is written in an entirely different tone from that of his earlier, more provocative fiction.
Associated with the Theatre of Cruelty, Genet's plays present highly stylized depictions of ritual struggles between outcasts of various kinds and their oppressors. Social identities are parodied and shown to involve complex layering, as maids play each other or their mistress in The Maids (1949) or leading figures in society play out the role of victims in a brothel, surrounded by mirrors which both reflect and conceal in The Balcony (1956). Most strikingly, Genet takes further what Aimé Césaire called negritude, in The Blacks (1958), presenting a violent assertion of Black identity and anti-white virulence. His most ambitious play is The Screens (1963), an epic account of the Algerian War of Independence.
The Blacks was, after The Balcony, the second of Genet's play to be staged in New York. The production was the longest running Off-Broadway non-musical of the decade. Originally premiered in Paris in 1959, this 1961 New York production ran for 1,408 performances. The original cast featured James Earl Jones, Roscoe Lee Browne, Louis Gossett, Jr., Cicely Tyson, Godfrey Cambridge, Maya Angelou, and Charles Gordone.
In 1950, Genet directed Un Chant d'Amour, a 26-minute black-and-white film depicting the fantasies of a gay male prisoner and his prison warden.
Genet's work has also been adapted for film and produced by other filmmakers. In 1982, Rainer Werner Fassbinder released Querelle, his final film which is based on Querelle de Brest. It starred Brad Davis, Jeanne Moreau and Franco Nero. Genet never saw this film because he would not have been allowed to smoke in a movie theater. Todd Haynes' homoerotic movie Poison was also based on the writings of Genet.
Several of Genet's plays were adapted into films. The Balcony (1963), directed by Joseph Strick, starred Shelley Winters, Peter Falk, Lee Grant, and Leonard Nimoy.
Tony Richardson directed a film, Mademoiselle, which was based on a short story by Genet. It starred Jeanne Moreau with the screenplay written by Marguerite Duras.
His play, The Maids, was made into a film starring Glenda Jackson, Susannah York, and Vivien Merchant.
Jean Genet, Œuvres completes (Paris: Gallimard, 1952-)
All links retrieved May 1, 2018.
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