The Books: “The Balcony” (Jean Genet)

Next book in my Daily Book Excerpt:

genet_jean3.jpgNext play on the script shelf:

The Balcony, by Jean Genet. The copy I have is translated by Bernard Frechtman.

I love Jean Genet. (Not as much as Emily does, perhaps … Genet is one of Emily’s passions, and through her posts on Genet, I have re-looked at the plays of his that I have. It’s been very fun.) I did The Maids in college, as my senior project, and it was one of the wildest weirdest most challenging experiences in my life. But also great great fun. Genet – a criminal, a thief, a subversive, a nocturnal wacko …. Emily can probably add to this. He was a fascinating and messed-up individual, but his plays are tour de forces of surrealism, and heightened realism. I find them quite frightening, actually. They take place in a world you really don’t want to visit.

The Balcony takes place in a brothel – but not your run-of-the-mill brothel, no. This is a brothel that caters to people who have nutso fantasies and want them to come true. This is a brothel dedicated to artifice, fantasy, role-playing. You see a General walking around on the stage … you don’t know if he’s REALLY a General, or if he is just acting out one of his sexual fantasies. The whole play is filled with characters like that, archetypes: The Bishop, the General, the Judge. Outside the walls of the brothel, a revolution rages. The brothel has become isolated from the rest of the rebel-controlled city. The fantasies being enacted and re-enacted in the brothel get more and more elaborate, more and more frightening and sacrilegious – you start to distrust the fact that there actually is a real world outside the brothel, where personalities are set in stone, where identity is not so fluid and malleable.

That’s one of Genet’s themes – it was in The Maids as well, which has incredibly long scenes of role-playing, where one of the maids pretends to be the Madame of the house, and they start to act out their increasingly violent revenge fantasies. At first you think: Oh, it’s good for the sweet little maids (ha!) to let off some steam when Madame is away! But then it becomes increasingly obvious that the fantasy is becoming more and more real, that the maids themselves are losing the ability to tell what is real and what is a game. Also, because the roles people like to take on in the brothel are, in general, important authority figures out in the real society (bishop, judge, etc.) – the society that is being torn apart by revolution – it’s a perfect device for Genet to make an attack on society as a whole. What is a “Bishop”? When does an individual man succumb and just be his title? When does the reality turn into an archetype? When do symbols become more important than what is really happening?

The Balcony was first presented in New York in 1960. It was directed by the great Jose Quintero.

The following scene takes place between the Chief of Police and Irma, the woman who runs the brothel. The revolution outside is reaching a critical point, and it’s far too dangerous for anyone to go outside. The Chief of Police interrogates Irma and Carmen (another whore) about the fantasies of the men who come to the brothel, and he wants to know if he appears in any of the fantasies. As a bad guy, a whipping boy, whatever … The thing is: once you have a role in society that is iconic enough to be “used” in fantasies at the brothel, you know you have really arrived. The Chief of Police, a vain man, wants to know if he has reached that stature yet.

hahaha Jean Genet was so messed UP. But brilliant too.

EXCERPT FROM The Balcony, by Jean Genet:

(The Chief of Police enters. Heavy fur-lined coat, hat, cigar. Carmen starts running to call Arthur back, the The Chief of Police steps in front of her.)

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. No, no, stay, Carmen. I like having you around. As for the gigolo, let him find me. (He keeps his hat and coat on, does not remove his cigar from his mouth, but bows to Irma, and kisses her hand.)

IRMA. Put your hand here. (on her breast) I’m all tense. I’m still wrought up. I knew you were on your way, which meant you were in danger. I waited for you all a-tremble … while perfuming myself …

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. (while taking off his hat, coat, gloves and jacket): All right, that’ll do. Let’s cut the comedy. The situation’s getting more and more serious — it’s not desperate, but it will be before long — hap-pi-ly! The Royal Palace is surrounded. The Queen’s in hiding. The city — it’s a miracle I got through — the city’s being ravaged by fire and sword. Out there the rebellion is tragic and joyous, whereas in this house everything’s dying a slow death. So, today’s my day. By tonight I’ll be in the grave or on a pedestal. So whether I love you or desire you is unimportant. How are things going at the moment?

IRMA. Marvellously. I had some great performances.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. (impatiently) What kind?

IRMA. Carmen has a talent for description. Ask her.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. (to Carmen) Tell me, Carmen, still …?

CARMEN. Yes, sir, still. Still the pillars of the Empire: the Judge …

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. (ironically) Our allegories, our talking weapons. And is there also …?

CARMEN. As every week, a new theme. (The Chief of Police makes a gesture of curiosity) This time it’s the baby who gets slapped, spanked, tucked in, then cries and is cuddled.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. (impatiently) Fine. But …

CARMEN. He’s charming, Sir. And so sad!

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. (irritably) Is that all?

CARMEN. And so pretty when you unswaddle him …

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. (with rising fury) Are you pulling my leg, Carmen? I’m asking you whether I’m in it?

CARMEN. Whether you’re in it?

IRMA. (ironically, though we do not know with whom she is ironic) You’re not in it.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. Not yet? (to Carmen) Well, yes or no, is there a simulation …

CARMEN. (bewildered) Simulation?

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. You idiot! Yes! An impersonaition of the Chief of Police?

(Very heavy silence)

IRMA. The time’s not ripe. My dear, your function isn’t noble enough to offer dreamers an image that would console them. Perhaps because it lacks illustrious ancestors? No, my dear fellow … You have to resign yourself to the fact that your image does not yet conform to the liturgies of the brothel.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. Who’s represented in them?

IRMA. You know who. You have your index cards. (She enumerates with her fingers. There are two kings of France with coronation ceremonies and different rituals, an admiral at the stern of his sinking destroyer, a dey of Algiers surrendering, a fireman putting out a fire, a goat attached to a stake, a housewife returning from market, a pickpocket, a robbed man who’s bound and beaten up, a Saint Sebastian, a farmer in his barn … but no chief of police … nor colonial administrator, though there is a missionary dying on the cross, and Christ in person.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. You’re forgetting the mechanic.

IRMA. He doesn’t come anymore. What with tightening screws, he’d have ended by constructing a machine. And it might have worked. Back to the factory!

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. So not a single one of your clients has had the idea … the remotest idea, the barest suggestion …

IRMA. No. I know you do what you can. You try hatred and love. But glory gives you the cold shoulder.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. (forcefully) My image is growing bigger and bigger. It’s becoming colossal. Everything around me repeats and reflects it. And you’ve never seen it represented in this place?

IRMA. In any case, even if it were celebrated here, I wouldn’t see anything. The ceremonies are secret.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. You liar. You’ve got secret peep-holes in every wall. Every partition, every mirror, is rigged. In one place, you can hear the sighs, in another the echo of the moans. You don’t need me to tell you that brothel tricks are mainly mirror tricks … (very sadly) Nobody yet! But I’ll make my image detach itself from me. I’ll make it penetrate into your studios, force its way in, reflect and multiply itself. Irma, my function weighs me down. Here, it will appear to me in the blazing light of pleasure and death. (Musingly) Of death.

IRMA. You must keep killing, my dear George.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. I do what I can, I assure you. People fear me more and more.

IRMA. Not enough. You must plunge into darkness, into shit and blood. (with sudden anguish) And must kill whatever remains of our love.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. (curtly) Everything’s dead.

IRMA. That’s a fine victory. So you’ve got to kill what’s around you.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. (very irritated) I repeat: I do what I can to prove to the nation that I’m a leader, a lawgiver, a builder …

IRMA. (uneasily) You’re raving. Or else you really do expect to build an empire. In which case you’re raving.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. (with conviction) When the rebellion’s been put down, and put down by me, when I’ve the nation behind me and been appealed to by the Queen, nothing can stop me. Then, and only then, will you see who I now am! Yes, my dear, I want to build an empire … so that the empire will, in exchange, build me

IRMA. … a tomb.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. (somewhat taken aback) But, after all, why not? Doesn’t every conqueror have one? So? (Exalted) Alexandria! I’ll have my tomb, Irma. And when the cornerstone is laid, you’ll be my guest of honour.

IRMA. Thank you. (to Carmen) Carmen, the tea.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. (to Carmen, who is about to leave) Just a minute, Carmen. What do you think of the idea?

CARMEN. That you want to merge your life with one long funeral, sir.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. (aggressively) Is life anything else? You seem to know everything — so tell me: in this sumptuous theatre where every moment a drama is performed — in the sense that the outside world says a mass is celebrated — what have you observed?

CARMEN. (after a hesitation) As for anything serious, anything worth reporting, only one thing: that without the thighs it contained, a pair of pants on a chair is beautiful, sir. Emptied of our little old men, our ornaments are deathly sad. They’re the ones that are placed on the catafalques of high dignitaries. They cover only corpses that never stop dying. And yet …

IRMA. (to Carmen) That’s not what the Chief of Police is asking.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. I’m used to Carmen’s speeches. (to Carmen) You were saying: and yet …?

CARMEN. And yet, I’m sure that the sudden joy in their eyes when they see the cheap finery is really the gleam of innocence …

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. People claim that our house sends them to Death. (suddenly a ringing. Irma starts. A pause.)

IRMA. Someone’s opened the door. Who can it be at this hour? (to Carmen) Carmen, go down and shut the door.

(Carmen exits. A rather long silence between Irma and the Chief of Police, who remain alone.)


IRMA. It was I who rang. I wanted to be alone with you for a moment. (A pause, during which they look into each other’s eyes seriously) Tell me, George … Do you still insist on keeping up the game? No, no, don’t be impatient. Aren’t you tired of it?

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. But … In a little while I’ll be going home.

IRMA. If you can. If the rebellion leaves you free to go.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. The rebellion is a game. From here you can’t see anything of the outside, but every rebel is playing a game. And he loves his game.

IRMA. But supposing they let themselves be carried beyond the game? I mean, if they get so involved in it that they destroy and replace everything. Yes, yes, I know, there’s always the false detail that reminds them that at a certain moment, at a certain point in the drama, they have to stop, and even withdraw … But what if they’re so carried away by passion that they no longer recognize anything and leap, without realizing it, into …

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. You mean into reality? What of it? Let them try. I do as they do, I penetrate right into the reality that the game offers us,a nd since I have the upper hand, it’s I who score.

IRMA. They’ll be stronger than you.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. Why do you say “they’ll be”? I’ve left the members of my bodyguard in one of your studios. So I’m always in contact with my various departments. All right, enough of that. Are you or aren’t you the mistress of a house of illusions? Good> If I come to your place, it’s to find satisfaction in your mirrors and their trickery. (Tenderly) Don’t worry. Everything will be just as it’s always been.

IRMA. I don’t know why, but today I feel uneasy. Carmen seems strange to me. The rebels — how shall I put it? — have a kind of gravity …

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. Their role requires it.

IRMA. No, no … of determination. They walk by the windows threateningly, but they don’t sing. The threat is in their eyes.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. What of it? Supposing it is, do you take me for a coward? Do you think I should give up and go home?

IRMA. (pensively) No. besides, I think it’s too late.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. Do you have any news?

IRMA. From Chantal, before she lit out. The power-house will be occupied around 3 a.m.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. Are you sure? Who told her?

IRMA. The partisans of the Fourth Sector.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. That’s plausible. How did she find otu?

IRMA. It’s through her that there were leaks, and through her alone. So don’t belittle my house …

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. Your cat-house, my love.

IRMA. Cat-house, whore-house, bawdy-house. Brothel. Fuckery. Call it anything you like. So Chantal’s the only one who’s on the other side … She lit out. But before she did, she confided in Carmen, and Carmen’s no fool.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. Who tipped her off?

IRMA. Roger. The plumber. How do you imagine him. Young and handsome? No. He’s forty. Thick-set. Serious, with ironic eyes. Chantal spoke to him. I put him out: too late. He belongs to the Andromeda network.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. Andromeda? Splendid. The rebellion’s riding high, it’s moving out of this world. If it gives its sectors the names of constellations, it’ll evaporate in no time and be metamorphosed into song. Let’s hope the songs are beautiful.

IRMA. And what if their songs give the rebels courage? What if they’re willing to die for them?

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. The beauty of their songs will make them soft. Unfortunately, they haven’t yet reached the point of either beauty or softness. In any case, Chantal’s tender passions were providential.

IRMA. Don’t bring God into …

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. I’m a freemason. Therefore …

IRMA. You? You never told me.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. (solemnly) Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret.

IRMA. (ironically) You, a brother in a little apron! With a hood and taper and a little mallet. That’s odd. (A pause) You too?


IRMA. (with mock solemnity I’m a guardian of far more solemn rites. (suddenly sad) Since that’s all I am now.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. As usual, you’re going to bring up our grand passion.

IRMA. No, not our passion, but the time when we loved each other.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. Well, would you like to give a historical account of it and deliver a eulogy? You think my visits would have less zest if you didn’t flavour them with the memory of a pretended innocence?

IRMA. It’s a question of tenderness. Neither the wildest concoctions of my clients nor my own fancies nor my constant endeavour to enrich my studios with new themes nor the passion of time nor the gilding and crystals nor bitter cold can dispel the moments when you cuddled in my arms or keep me from remembering them.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. Do you really miss them?

IRMA. (tenderly) I’d give my kingdom to relive a single one of them! And you know which one. I need just one word of truth — as when one looks at one’s wrinkles at night, or rinses one’s mouth …

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. It’s too late. Besides, we couldn’t cuddle each other eternally. You don’t what I was already secretly moving towards when I was in your arms.

IRMA. I know that I loved you.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. It’s too late. Could you give up Arthur?

IRMA. It was you who forced him on me. You insisted on there being a man here — against my better judgment — in a domain that should have remained virgin …. You fool, don’t laugh. Virgin, that is, sterile. But you wanted a pillar, a shaft, a phallus present — an upright bulk. Well, it’s here. You saddled me with that hunk of congested meat, that milksop with wrestler’s arms. He may look like a strongman at a fair, but you don’t realize how fragile he is. You stupidly forced him on me because you felt yourself ageing.


IRMA. And you relaxed here through Arthur. I need him now. I have no illusions. I’m his man and he relies on me, but I need that rugged shop-window dummy hanging on to my skirts. He’s my body, as it were, but set beside me.

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. What if I were jealous?

IRMA. Of that big doll made up as an executioner in order to satisfy a phony judge? You’re kidding, but the spectacle of me under the spectacle of that magnificent body never used to bother you … Let me repeat …

THE CHIEF OF POLICE. (he slaps Irma, who falls on the sofa) And don’t blubber or I’ll break your jaw, and I’ll send your joint up in smoke. I’ll set fire to your hair and bush and I’ll turn you loose. I’ll light up the town with blazing whores. (very gently) Do you think I’m capable of it?

IRMA. (in a panting whisper) Yes, darling.

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6 Responses to The Books: “The Balcony” (Jean Genet)

  1. Linus says:

    Heh. I played Roger/The Police Chief once in a production of The Balcony that was mounted in The Tunnel – the old disco, remember? – on four consecutive Saturdays. It was very strange.

    I had my Police Chief monolog using a floor strip of Mylar (the inevitable Trashy Production Default Design Choice) and I got to roar some. Good fun. Donal Logue was in the show with me, before he got famous and all.

  2. red says:

    Linus – that is SO COOL! Sure, I remember the Tunnel.

    Do you have any pictures of your performance?

    Is my analysis of him correct, do you think? He’s a very scary character to me, only interested in artifice and power. What do you think?

  3. Emily says:

    What scares me the most about Genet is the flowery way he writes with beautiful language that you get lost in to the point where he could be writing about the most fucked up thing you’ve ever heard of and you catch yourself finding it lovely. I bet that guy could make a guy taking a crap in a public part sound like poetry.

    Have you ever read much about the real Papin sisters? Genet was a socialist pillock, so he always put everything down to class struggle and I never really liked his take on the actual story (though as a play alone, I liked it). Mamma, these chicks were *weird*, but that quiet weird. The kind that went to church and did good work, like the serial killer that all the neighbors describe as a normal guy after cops find 80 heads in his basement.

  4. Linus says:

    Well, during the scene you quote, I was playing the guy whose fantasy role is being a beggar, and who asks his whore “And the lice?” – I was Roger, the fake Police Chief, although ultimately I’m taken for the real one since I’m wearing the relevant wardrobe.

    And I fulfill the Chief’s greatest fantasy by fantasizing that I am the Chief – or do I? Is it really just a vast setup by Irma, to give the Chief what he wants? Is there even a revolution at all?

    I didn’t do character work on this, since I was playing a bit part until the previous Roger left the show three days before opening. I stepped into the role, we glossed the part and ran it on adrenaline. It went pretty well. I don’t think there are any pix, more’s the pity, it would have been in my dashing period.

    The real Police Chief is a character that Genet approached with real loathing – I agree. He’s the ultimate perversion of power, using the tools of justice to set him apart from other criminals not to be better or different but to be the boss of the bosses. And beyond that – Genet is a raging writer, unchecked and full of childish desires – he’s as vain and weak and frail as all the rest, under his clothes.

  5. red says:

    Yes, yes, it’s all about wearing “the relevant wardrobe”, isn’t it? Artifice ends up equalling reality.

  6. The Balcony

    When Culture Gets That Tangy Taste

    Sheila posted a good review of the Jean Genet play ‘The Balcony’ on her blog the other day.

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