Jean Genet’s The Balcony (Le Balcon in original French) is considered by many to be the one of his masterpieces, though it was written after he said he would give up writing plays altogether. The Balcony was his first commercially successful play. Like many of Genet’s works, the play was inspired by Genet’s contempt for society and obsession with topics such as sex, prostitution, politics, and revolution. Set inside a brothel where common men play men of power in their sexual fantasies, The Balcony reflects on the emptiness of societal roles. Reality and illusion feed off each other in the difficult play. Dreams may make reality tolerable, but when they come true, as when the customers are forced to live the roles they play, it is not as satisfying.
The Balcony was first published in 1956, and was first produced in London on April 22, 1957, at the Arts Theatre Club. Genet did not like the production because it was done in a way that was too tasteful and realistic. His protests led to his banishment from the theater during the production. The play made its American debut in March 1960 at the Circle in the Square Theater, in New York City. There The Balcony ran for 672 performances and won an Obie Award for Genet. It was generally well received, though some critics thought it was hard to understand because of its complexity and reliance on illusion. The first French performance of The Balcony took place in May 1960. Since these initial performances, the play has been produced on a regular basis. As Donald Malcolm of the NewYorker wrote, “M. Genet’s vision of society is both perverse and private, and his play is a species of Grand Guignol—arresting, horrific, and trivial.”
Genet was born on December 19, 1910, in Paris, France. He was the illegitimate son of Gabrielle Genet, a prostitute, and an unknown father. He was abandoned at birth, and did not discover the name of his mother until he was twenty-one years old. Genet spent his early years in a state-run orphanage, before being sent to the country to live with foster parents at the age of seven. Caught stealing from the purse of his foster mother, Genet was labeled a thief. He embraced the label, and any subsequent accusations of criminal activity. By the time Genet was a teenager, he was a confirmed juvenile delinquent, and confined to a reform school. When Genet was twenty-one years old, he ran away and signed up for the French Foreign Legion. He deserted the military in short order, and spent the next ten years wandering Europe—including Nazi Germany—committing crimes. He continued to steal, as well as work as a male prostitute, pimp, and smuggler. Genet was arrested, imprisoned, and expelled from several countries.
When Genet returned to France during the German occupation in 1941, he was jailed for theft. It was while he was in prison that he began writing. Genet garnered the attention of Jean Cocteau, a leading French writer and artist, for his poem “Under the Sentence of Death.” The piece was written about another prisoner who was being executed for murder. Genet’s poetry was collected and published in 1948 under the title Poemes. Still a prisoner, Genet began work on a novel. His first pages were confiscated and burned, but Genet began again. The book, Lady of Flowers, was published in 1942 and made Genet a literary sensation. Genet wrote several more novels over the course of his life, including The Miracle of the Rose(1946) and The Thief’s Journal(1948). Many of his novels had an autobiographical element and concerned the seamier side of life.
In the mid-1940s, Genet turned to writing plays. The first two, Deathwatch and The Maids, were also about criminals. When The Maids—based on a true story of murdering sisters—was produced in 1947, Genet received some acclaim. Despite his success as a writer, Genet had not given up his life of crime. He was again convicted of theft, and it was only through a petition signed by France’s leading writers and artists that he avoided a life sentence in prison. Genet wrote his most celebrated and commercially successful plays in the late 1950s: The Balcony(1956) and The Blacks(1957). Both black comedies played well in Europe and the United States. In 1960, Genet wrote The Screens, which was not produced until the late 1960s in France. The Screens was ambitious: a five hour epic, a cast of at least forty was needed to perform it. Towards the end of his life, Genet also wrote nonfiction, though he produced nothing in his final decade. Genet died of throat cancer on April 15, 1986. Upon his death, he was celebrated as one of the most important and colorful figures in twentieth-century French literature.
The Balcony opens in a brothel, The Grand Balcony, that caters to the fantasies of its male clientele. Irma, the owner of the whorehouse, is arguing with a customer over a fee. He is dressed as a bishop, and is only interested in the revolution that is going on outside and the truthfulness of the sins the woman who serviced him has confessed to. Irma tries to hurry him, but he will not be rushed. He enjoys his role and continues to play it. He does not leave despite the fact that his safety is at risk outside.
Inside a room in the brothel, a client plays out a fantasy as a Judge. His whore plays a thief who is about to be executed by the executioner, played by a male employee of the establishment named Arthur. The Judge also relishes his role-play. Every outside noise, however, upsets him. He worries about the revolution, sharing the latest information with the other two. When he returns to his role, he can enjoy it too much, scaring the woman. Mostly, the Judge is the one who is humiliated by the other two for his pleasure.
In another room, Irma arranges the setting for the liking of a client who plays a General. Though he is concerned about his safety, he is equally obsessed about the details of his fantasy, and wants them followed to the letter. The General’s whore is nearly naked and acts like his horse.
Another client acts out his fantasy as a tramp. He looks at his reflection in three mirrors, and is very happy when his whore hands him a wig with fleas to wear. Sounds of machine gun fire are heard in the background.
Inside Irma’s room, she is going over accounts with her bookkeeper Carmen, who used to be one of her whores. Irma worries that her lover, George, who is also the Chief of Police, has not shown up yet. She notices that Carmen has changed recently. Carmen tells her she is not happy. She did not like the rules that Irma set up for the women that work at the brothel. They cannot talk about what they do or laugh. Carmen also misses her daughter.
While they talk, Irma checks in on her clients via a device similar to a closed-circuit monitoring system. Irma is rather callous towards Carmen’s feelings. She only cares about her business and her material possessions. Carmen tries to explain her problems with the roles she has been required to play, but Irma does really care. She is preoccupied by the revolution going on outside, and the imminent appearance of George.
Irma attempts to appease Carmen by offering her a role as Saint Theresa for a nice client. Carmen is flattered, but only sees the futility of their work. Irma talks proudly about the power of her “house of illusions” and tells Carmen that she is one of the best of her employees. Sounds of fighting between the rebels and the army grow louder. Irma worries about what will happen if the rebels win. She wants Carmen to die with her, but Carmen only wants to flee and find her daughter.Carmen reports about the other girls to Irma. Irma asks particularly about Chantal, who left the brothel to join the rebellion. Irma worries that her brothel is being watched. Their conversation is interrupted by Arthur, who plays the Executioner. His work is finished, and he wants money to pay for silk shirts he has ordered. Irma says she will give him funds if he goes and looks for George at his headquarters. She also wants to know what is going on in the streets. Arthur goes, despite his fears.
Just after Arthur leaves, the George (Chief of Police) shows up. George reports that the palace is surrounded and the Queen is in hiding. He is ambivalent about that situation because he is more concerned about the fantasies being acted out in the whorehouse. He wants to know if anyone has wanted to imitate him. He becomes angry when the answer is negative, though Irma tries to soothe his ego. George vows to prove his worth as a leader and keep killing so that clients will want to be the Chief of Police in their fantasy. Irma confides to George her fears about the rebellion and what the rebels might do to her studio. He assures her that he has taken every precaution. Irma passes on information obtained from Chantal, who apparently has left the brothel for the rebellion. Irma reveals that her former plumber, Roger, is a rebel, and he and Chantal took off together. Arthur finally returns, and reports about the increasing violence outside. His speech is interrupted by a bullet entering from the outside that kills him.
Near the Grand Balcony, Chantal and Roger express their love for each other among the rebels. Roger is a bit jealous that Chantal has become a female symbol of the rebellion. Several men want to remove her from Roger to use when the revolution takes the palace. Chantal is enthusiastic, but Roger is more reluctant. She goes, despite his pleas to stay.
Inside the brothel, Irma, George, and Carmen are gathered in the Funeral Studio, with the corpse of Arthur. Everything and everyone is in tatters, except the Court Envoy who is unharmed. Explosions rock the building. The Envoy is enigmatic in his description of the Royal Court, most of whom are dead or injured, including the Queen. The Envoy wants Irma to play the Queen for the populace so that they will feel safer and remain loyal. George is jealous that Irma might be above him, even if she is just playing a role. Irma accepts it.
Irma appears at the balcony of the brothel, accompanied by the clients who played the General, the Bishop and the Judge, as well as George. Chantal appears and is shot by an assassin.
In Irma’s room inside the brothel, the Bishop, the Judge and the General met. They talk about having to live their roles, and their recent public appearances. Photographers are present to take their pictures for posterity. The three men do not know how to act like their roles for the photographs. The Envoy and Irma, who is still playing the Queen, enter. The Envoy questions the men on their official decisions. Irma asks the kind of questions a queen would ask of her men. George comes in. He wants to appear in the form of a phallus to impress the masses. The men continue to take their roles too seriously, and believe they have more power than George does. …