Martin Esslin

'It is not the artist's—nor is it the poet's—function 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 his.

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 mankind—images 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 daydreams—all 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 Queen—her 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. Genet’s 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 Genet’s 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 dictator.

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 Genet’s-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 design.

I  Le Balcon

Title page. Photogravure and line engraving.
The brothel seen from the outside against the flames of the revolution.

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.
The 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.

IV  Chantal

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?

Central triptych

V  Madame

Sugar aquatint.
At the centre of the vast hive of illusions Madame Irma's all-seeing eye dominates the dream world of'The Balcony'.

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 gasman.

VII  The Orator and the Crowds

Deepbite and letter punches.
Power 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

Line engraving.
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 the realm.

IX  Mausoleum for a Chief of Police

Line engraving and aquatint.
When the police-chief's ambition is finally realised - when his image at last takes its place among the power-fantasies of the brothel's customers—he plans to retire from the world into a vast mausoleum, the tomb that will enshrine his immortality.

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

Brushed aquatint.
The revolution which forms the background to the play, the framework to this pattern of images.