Paper: “The Balcony, The Pope, and The Screens: Jean Genet’s Unsettling Perspectives on the Society of the Spectacle.”

Paper: “The Balcony, The Pope, and The Screens: Jean Genet’s Unsettling Perspectives on the Society of the Spectacle.”

On October 26, I presented the paper “The Balcony, The Pope, and The Screens: Jean Genet’s Unsettling Perspectives on the Society of the Spectacle” for the “Theatre and Society” Panel at the PAMLA Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association Conference “Shifting Perspectives,” in Portland, OR.

Jean Genet (1910–1986) found recognition by shocking conventional French society. In this paper I analyze his three plays that more pointedly critiqued “the society of the spectacle” (Guy Debord), the degradation of authentic social connections in favor of relations between their images.

In The Balcony (1955), the brothel of the title appears as a high-scale establishment dedicated to enacting perverse scenarios by regular men who seek the thrill of absolute power. Stage manager of this “house of illusions” is Madame Irma, who surveils its 38 studios. However, because her clients’ reenactments are nothing but simulacra of power, fundamentally blunting any desire to act in the real world, the bordello acts as one of the status quo’s institutions, against which a popular revolution is brewing. In the end, the rebels fail because, even after the real Royal Palace is blown up, a confrontation of allegories is displayed from the brothel’s balcony, with Irma and her clients silently embodying the archetypes of power just destroyed and yet desired by the masses as guarantors of order. When Irma dismisses the audience in the same way as her clients, hinting at a new rebellion the next day, she implicates the voyeuristic spectators as acquiescent to the mechanisms of power through spectacle.

With The Pope (1955), Genet applies his analysis to the highest position in the Catholic Church. In this playful and irreverent short piece, a photographer has made an appointment to capture the Pontiff’s ideal image for worldwide distribution, but this highly self-conscious Pope regrets gradually shedding all his “interior density” to finally become an empty vessel reduced to a “definitive image.” Indeed, he enters in the expected “long white robe […] a tall papal miter and a cross on his chest” but does so gliding on roller skates, while his behind remains naked because never officially visible.

Finally, combining his scathing assessment of white colonialism and the discourse on power achieved through simulacra, The Screens (1961) offers a sprawling, polyphonic epic that obliquely alludes to the Algerian war of independence (1954–1962), in which both sides rely on simulacra. On the one hand, the ruthless racist colonizers count on their constructed image to dominate the territory, such as wearing a fat suit to look more imposing, while the French soldiers seem more preoccupied with looking good than having better weapons; on the other hand, the insurgents – though able to win the war – simply substitute the older with their own oppressive power structures. This similar approach becomes evident once all warring characters end up in the same metaphysical “place” after death. The only way to escape this society of the spectacle is suggested by the Nettles family, when Saïd dies but does not reappear among the dead, so he will never be fixed in a hero’s image.

Overall, Genet’s work displays a gusto for defying expectations, an eagerness to contradict the assumptions of bourgeois morality, and a constant reminder of the power and fragility of simulacra in the private and political arena.