December 19, 1910– Jean Genet:
“I’m homosexual… ‘how and why’ are idle questions. It’s a little like wanting to know why my eyes are green.”
If you need an introduction to the life of Genet try Edmund White’s hefty, absorbing Jean Genet: A Biography, a highly readable tour of Genet’s brilliant, brutal mind.
Abandoned, arrested, and repeatedly jailed most of his life, Genet led a life that could be described as a tour of the 20th century underworld. Check out the 1982 Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed film of Genet’s novel Querelle starring Brad Davis. This film was my introduction to this important LGBTQ figure.
Genet’s work is marked by a nearly obsessive and unusually savage treatment of recurring themes: Desire, Death, and Domination. These ideas, central to Genet’s artistic voice, came directly from his travels, imprisonments, sexual and emotional relationships, and political entanglements and protests. Genet’s works have been hugely influential for a vast array of writers, filmmakers, choreographers, and directors. The life that he led is not only the source for his own work but also the inspiration of many important artists from the past 100 years.
Genet was born in Paris 107 years ago. Abandoned by his teenage mother when he was just 7-months-old, he was raised in government institutions. He was charged with his first crime when he was just 10-years-old. After spending his teenage years in jail, Genet joined the French Foreign Legion and he was sent to serve in Beirut and Damascus. This was his first witness of French colonialism, and what he experienced in the Middle East immediately resonated with the oppression he associated with being in prison. It was the only time in his life he acted as a representative of the French society that he despised. He later deserted, and turned to a life of theft and prostitution that resulted in more jail sentences, and eventually, a sentence of life in prison.
While incarcerated, Genet started to write poems and prose that combined pornography and an open celebration of the life of a scoundrel. His writing has an extraordinarily baroque, high literary style. On the strength of this writings, Genet was acclaimed by French literary luminaries like Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who all advocated for him to receive a Presidential pardon in 1948. Cocteau brought Genet’s works to the public and Sartre celebrated him.
Genet was an odd hybrid: half criminal and half literary celebrity. He was the talk of Paris, but his books had to be published underground. He moved freely from Cocteau’s fashionable Right Bank arty circles to Sartre’s Left Bank existentialist friends. In 1952, Sartre published his book Saint Genet: Actor And Martyr, making Genet a sort of secular saint with high religious overtones.
In the five years before his pardon, Genet wrote four novels: Our Lady Of The Flowers, Miracle Of The Rose, Funeral Rites, and, of course, Querelle, plus his scandalizing memoir, A Thief’s Journal.
In the 1950s, he devoted himself to theater, writing boldly experimental, politically charged plays: The Balcony, The Blacks, and The Screens where he explored identity and difference, illusion and authenticity, revealing the workings of those in power of a system he despised.
In the early 1950s, Genet fell in love with a young circus acrobat, Abdallah Bentaga. They were a couple for decade, but in 1964, Betenga committed suicide, and in 1967, a still despondent Genet tried to kill himself.
At the end of the 1960s, Genet threw himself into political activism. He refused to address his own works, only writing and speaking out in support of the Black Panthers and the plight of the Palestinians. But, Genet always held that when a revolution was accomplished, the new leaders would imitate their predecessors, and he stated that if the Palestinians gained their homeland he would no longer be taking their side. During that time he wrote political essays, and traveled to the Middle East, staying in Palestinian refugee camps.
He was almost always attracted to young straight dark-skinned guys, often financially supporting the men, their wives and their children.
Genet began his last book Prisoner Of Love in 1983. It was completed just before he put down his pen for good in 1986, in Paris, taken by cancer, just a few months after his play The Balcony had been staged at The Comédie-Française, the national theatre for the French.
His plays have been adapted to unlikely film versions, including The Maids (1974) with the great Glenda Jackson and Susannah York, and The Balcony (1963), starring Shelley Winters, Peter Falk, Lee Grant and Leonard Nimoy.
In the summer of 2014, Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert played the murderous sisters in a Broadway revival of Genet’s The Maids in a production from Blanchett’s Sydney Theatre Company. The production received rave reviews and played to sold-out crowds, proving Genet’s words still had power into the 21st century.
“To achieve harmony in bad taste is the height of elegance.”
Genet is buried in the Spanish cemetery outside Larache, Morocco.