'It is not the artist'snor is it the
poet'sfunction to find practical solutions for the problems of evil. Let
them acquiesce in being damned. If they lose their soul,.pro- vided they
possess- one, it matters little. But the work of art itself will be an active
explosion, an-act that. starts the public on its reaction, as it wishes to
react, as well as it can react. If the "good" is to appear in a work of art, it
will do so thanks to its power to sing; its vigour alone will be able to
enlarge the evil that has been exposed.'
Thus Jean Genet in the brief note with which
he prefaced the second version of 'The Balcony' in the French edition of 1960.
This series of engravings exemplifies most accurately what he meant. For these
haunting images represent one aspect of the reaction that the active explosion
ofthat play, that poem, that work of art, has set off in the mind of
another'artist of deep insight and powerful imagination; and Jean Genet's power
to sing, to transmute evil into good by the sweep and vigour of his singing,
can here be seen to have made a kindred spirit respond to his vision by
creating, in another medium, a new vision as haunting and as powerful as
These are not illustrations. These engravings
are variations on the themes of Genet's play, which itself is not an attempt at
putting any reality on the stage, but instead, an evocation of archetypal
images from the depths of the collective subconscious of mankindimages of
sex, power and domination. For Genet who spent his formative years as a
juvenile delinquent, thief, male prostitute and convict, the world of
respectable, bourgeois people has always appeared as a vast sham, an edifice of
fraud and make-believe; and all its brave talk about justice and benevolence a
mere cover for the exercise of naked power by the strong over the weak. This
view of the world, as seen from the perspective of the underdog, is by no means
original; it is little more than a cliche. But Genet, again through the
peculiar circumstances of his bitter experience, has added another, and deeper,
insight: those who spend their lives at the very bottom of the social ladder,
lower even than the criminals, and exploited by them, the inmates of brothels
and the streetwalkers, are constantly being made aware that there is a deep and
organic relationship between the sexual impulse and the urge to dominate, the
lust for power. What the prostitute's customer buys is not just sexual
satisfaction, but the right to impose his will on another human being, the
illusion of domination. And equally in the dreams,,nightmares or fantasies of
convicts in prison their sexual frustration is bound to mingle with
wish-fulfilment hallucinations of revenge and violence against society: there,
too, therefore sexual images and fantasies of power will tend to merge. That is
why to Genet the whole of bourgeois society appears as the product of a
sadist's daydreamsall the dignitaries who exercise power, judges,
generals, priests, policemen, merely indulging in the satisfaction of their
private sexual fantasies.
Hence the brothel'Le Grand Balcon' .was
the name of. a famous French brothel .. that really existed-is interchangeable
with society itself. When the revolution destroys the royal power of the
Queenher generals, her judges and her church the)little people
whose fantasies of sex and power Madame Irma's establishment caters for, can
take the; places of the real functionaries; and Madame Irma herself -
easily-steps into the shoes of the Queen. Indeed the ruthless police chief ,
who is the only one who exercises real power, is fully aware that vulgar
domination over people's bodies is' worthless: only when the role, of the
police- chief enters the storehouse of those archetypal images of power that
.alone can trigger off genuine sexual satis- faction, only when there are
customers at Madame Irma's establishment who want to play the part of the
secret policeman in their erotic make-believe world, only then will the modern
dictator be able to derive real satisfaction from his position. Genets
picture of the world, derived from his extreme .viewpoint at the deepest depths
of human society, may be a distortion. But from the. vantage points of the
uttermost depth; as from; those 'of the uttermost height, aspects of society
that are hidden to those who are right inside it, may well be more clearly
visible than from any other perspective. Hence Genets vision contains -an
element of profound insight I into the hidden mainsprings of :human nature and
the workings of man's social being; It is a measure of the ruthless integrity
of Genet's attitude in this play that he shows the counter-forces m society,
the revolutionaries who try to overthrow the traditional structure, as subject
to the same .weakness. They too, to-gain power,- must invent myth based on lust
and domination. They too need images, like that of the martyred girl
Chantal,-to fire their daydreams,. And in the end it-is the defeated
revolutionary leader who comes to Madame Irma's brothel to compensate for his
frustrated dream of power by wanting to play the role of the police-chief and
Madame Irma's brothel is a daydream dreamt by
the frustrated convict Jean Genet - a dream about the dreams of all of-us who
live in a society based on power; But lest we think that dreams are mere
illusions, that do not concern us, at the .end of the play Madame. Irma turns
to the-audience; and tells them :You must now-go home, where everything -
you can be quite sure - will be even falser, then here.
Dreams about dreams have one- drawback: they
are very difficult to stage in real solid, three-dimensional theatres.
Genet 'himself has always been dissatisfied with his work in production.
The scenes if the brothel should be presented with. the solemnity of a
Mass in a most beautiful cathedral he has been reported to have
,demaned. Clearly it will be very difficult, ever to live up to such ambitions,
Hence; it may well be that it is only the freely ranging idiom of modern art,
where repre- sentational "elements merge .into, archetypal symbols, and
archetypes into abstract patterns, that can do full justice to the-pictorial
side of Genet's imagination; To archetypal: forms-and structures our,
subconscious responds directly without the intervention of conceptual thought.
That is why the mind of an artist like Agathe. Sorel may-have-responded so
powerfully and so directly to Genets-vision and why :surges of
emotion-and flashes of insight are released in those who allow the forms,
colours and symbols of these engravings to make their full impact on their
eyes, and their imagination'.
Notes on the Plates
The eleven engravings are so conceived that, put side by side,
they form a single strip of composition merging the development of the story
and the images of the states of mind it contains into a one all-embracing
I Le Balcon
Title page. Photogravure and line engraving.
The brothel seen from the outside against the flames of the
II The General
Line engraving and aquatint.
The bank clerk
who finds satisfaction in dreaming that he is a general worshipped by his noble
horse a girl dressed up with horse's mane and tail, watched by the eyes
of the television cameras that enable Madame Irma and her lover, the police-
chief, to watch everything that goes on in the brothel. Flames suggest the
revolution raging outside.
III The Judge
Line engraving and soft ground etching.
opening of scene two of the play: Madame Irma's customer who dresses as a
judge, licks the foot of the 'girl prisoner' whom he will brutally punish as a
thief, begging her to confess her crime.
Line engraving and brushed aquatint.
Chantal, one of the
inmates of the brothel, has joined the revolutionaries and will be turned by
them into a power-symbol of their own. She is to be the flag and banner of the
revolution, its emblem on the postage stamps of the new state. To become a
martyr-symbol, a Joan of Arc, she must be killed. Was it really a stray bullet
that hit her?
At the centre of the vast hive of illusions
Madame Irma's all-seeing eye dominates the dream world of'The
VI The Bishop
Line engraving and aquatint.
In his mitre and
robes the little gasman who indulges in this fantasy imposes penance 'on a
naked girl-'sinner'. The setting has the awe-inspiring grandeur of a cathedral;
seen from the outside it is a cheap studio-set; and in the dressing room his
seedy everyday clothes will transform the bishop back into the
VII The Orator and the
Deepbite and letter punches.
symbolised by a confrontation of the rulers and the vast crowd of the ruled is
the dream both of the established order and the revolutionaries. The orator on
the dais looks down on. the mass surrounded by the instruments of demagogy:
loud- speakers and powerful reflectors.
VIII The Queen
The real Queen. Does she
REALLY exist? It is a question that it may be impossible to answer. For the
Queen is the myth of myths; the real woman who was born into the function is of
negligeable importance compared to the function itself, the abstraction of
sovereignty and power. What does the real woman who carries the function do?
Whenever the palace officials are asked that question they answer: she is
embroidering a handkerchief. Her image goes from hand to hand on the coins of
IX Mausoleum for a Chief of
Line engraving and aquatint.
the police-chief's ambition is finally realised - when his image at last takes
its place among the power-fantasies of the brothel's customershe plans to
retire from the world into a vast mausoleum, the tomb that will enshrine his
X Everyday Irreality
Sugar aquatint - a photograph transferred to the
plate by silk screen - and mirror collage.
When the play is over the
audience will return to face themselves in their own mirror image as well as
their everyday reality, which may seem solid, but is, as Madame Irma fells them
at the end of the performance, even falser than the world .of lies in theatre
or brothel. And so they are faced with the ultimate question as we are
all whether to go on indulging in illusions about themselves, or whether
they can find the strength and courage to confront the stark truth about them-
selves as they realty are.
XI The Fire
The revolution which forms
the background to the play, the framework to this pattern of