Jean Genet‘s (1910 – 1986) 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. His 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 112 years ago. Abandoned by his teenage mother when he was just seven-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 his writing, Genet was acclaimed by the very best and most creative French literary luminaries of the era: Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, all who 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: part criminal and part 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, 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.
He was almost always attracted to young straight dark-skinned guys, often financially supporting the men, their wives and their children. 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.
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 queer figure.
In the late 1960s, Genet became a political activist. He participated in demonstrations drawing attention to the living conditions of immigrants in France. Genet was censored in the USA in 1968 and he was expelled when after he was refused a visa.
In 1970, the Black Panthers invited him to the USA, where he stayed for three months giving lectures, attended the trial of Black Panther leader, Huey Newton, and published articles in their journals. In 1971, he spent six months in Palestinian refugee camps, secretly meeting Yasser Arafat. Profoundly moved by his experiences. Genet wrote a final lengthy memoir about his experiences, Prisoner Of Love. 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 of France. He was found dead at Jack’s Hotel where his photograph and books remain. He is buried in the Larache Christian Cemetery in Morocco.
His plays have been adapted to some very unlikely film versions, including The Maids (1974) with the great Glenda Jackson, and The Balcony (1963), starring, I’m not making this up, Shelley Winters, Peter Falk, Lee Grant and Leonard Nimoy.
The Blacks was staged in New York City. This production was the longest running Off-Broadway non-musical of the 1960s, running for four years and 1,408 performances. The original cast featured James Earl Jones, Roscoe Lee Browne, Louis Gossett, Jr., Cicely Tyson (they share a birthday), and Maya Angelou. Performed at the St. Marks Playhouse, the premiere of The Blacks had an astounding impact on New York City’s theatrical and cultural history. Genet’s profane and violent meditation on race and colonialism was incredibly controversial; and forever changed Off-Broadway theatre with its unparalleled commercial success, grossing over $500,000 (that’s $4.5 million in 2021 dollars).
In the summer of 2014, Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert played 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.