It is no accident that Barrault supported Genet; nor that Roger Blin, who had worked with both Artaud and Barrault, was the first director of Genet’s plays. As Genet’s English translator, Bernard Frechtman, was the first to point out, he ‘is endeavouring to create a theatre which is ceremony. In The Blacks and The Balcony, ceremony is achieved through the behaviour of characters who enact a ritual. ’ 1 The concept of performance as a rite is similar to Barrault’s approach, while the political radicalism of Genet’s plays was also congenial.
However, Genet’s politics are even more ambiguous. On the surface his dramatic subjects seem to be revolution and repression, class hatred and racial conflict, colonialism and Third World liberation. But any attempt to analyse his work in these terms inevitably leads to the conclusion that the plays are empty of significance—or, as Norman Mailer put it, ‘White and Black in mortal confrontation are far more interesting than the play of shadows Genet brings to it’—although Lucien Goldmann contends that their ‘mental structures’ reflect the radical pessimism of the disillusioned European left. 2
In fact Genet’s rejectionism is far more extreme. His work, which has links with the expressionists and surrealists, presents social reality itself as illusory, and the human need for illusion as being so strong that no social order can be based on reality. Even revolutions are no more than ‘someone dreaming’; and (as the final words of The Balcony make explicit) the audience’s daily life is falser than the ‘house of illusions’ represented by Genet’s brothel, or in wider terms by the theatre itself. If ‘being’ (in Sartre’s terms) is defined as ‘doing’, but all action on the social level is self-deception, then only the achievement of a state of ‘non-being’, the negation of the self, can be authentic. Hence Genet’s plots always centre on death, while his characters are roles, not personalities defined by a coherent set of internal qualities, but masks giving shape to a void or reflected images in a receding perspective of mirrors. Pirandello was the first to show the