Bastard. Thief. Prostitute. Iconoclast. Homosexual. Anarchist. Vagabond. Prisoner. Jean Genet is probably one of the most provocative, enigmatic and scandalous playwrights to have ever lived.
Abandoned by his mother as a baby in Paris in 1910, Genet spent most of his life in and out of French prisons for petty crimes. He was, meanwhile, one of the hottest and most respected novelists and playwrights of his time, revered by French intellectuals such as Jean Cocteau and Jean Paul Sartre (who would later save him from a sentence of life imprisonment).
A tale from Genet’s childhood describes how he was accused of stealing. He was innocent of the crime, but was punished for it anyway. This early incident would lead to lifelong obsessions with crime, justice, power, the corruption of authority, the hypocrisy of society, the specter of totalitarianism, and the continuous battle between illusion and reality. Indeed, one is not even sure that this early story of false accusation actually occurred, or was just another part of an elaborate personal mythology created by Genet himself.
Written in 1957 and first produced in London in 1959, The Balcony is considered by many to be Genet’s theatrical masterpiece. Set in a fantastical brothel where the clients act out elaborate power-based fantasies with its whores while a revolution smolders outside, The Balcony’s early productions caused both scandal and outrage. Genet himself leapt onstage during rehearsals of its London premiere and had to be forcibly removed from the theatre. The production, he insisted, needed to be “vulgar, violent and in bad taste” and assured the director, Peter Zadek, “if anybody tells you that you have produced this play in good taste, you will have failed. My tarts must look like the worst prostitutes in the world.” At the same time, the scenes in the brothel needed to be presented “with the solemnity of a Mass in a most beautiful cathedral.” Martin Esslin, in his classic work, The Theatre of the Absurd, concurs: “[The Balcony] illuminates the essence of Genet’s whole approach – the deep inner tension arising from his search for something absolute, beautiful, a sacramental element in an inverted system of values in which evil is the greatest good, and the beautiful blooms in a soil of excrement and sordid crime.”
While I have always been fascinated and inspired by this play’s history, I have attempted to approach The Balcony as a brand new play. The surveillance systems of the brothel are contemporary, the music is pop, the clothes echo a fashion runway, the gender of The General (typically a male role) has been reversed to mirror a world where women may also be powerful and where anyone might be exploited. The brothel itself resembles a blasted sound stage on which many images may be projected, magnified and distorted. The idea of revolution - and whether one is possible in a mind-controlling world of TV, fast food and iPhones - is quite resonant. Themes of corruption, power and greed seem fresh in a country where a small percentage of the population possesses the majority of its wealth.
At the same time, I tried to remain true to Genet’s notion that everything – both onstage and off - is false. The meta-theatricality of the play remains intact and – I hope - goes beyond the stage and into the audience. There is nothing safe here, and I hope you will be provoked and challenged as well as entertained by The Balcony.
I have also tried to adhere to Genet’s sense of dream-like absurdity: these characters are non-realistic; abstractions and symbols of power and desire. Thus we have a “Fluid Ballet” of Blood, Tears and Sperm (imagined from an earlier draft of the play that Genet rewrote), enormous phalluses, and guys running around in furry costumes.
The world that Genet has created – to put it tersely – is weird.
Beautifully, poetically, disturbingly weird.
We have tried to embrace that weirdness.
(These are my notes for the program. We open tomorrow! Very excited.)