Apr 18, 2014

The Balcony: Jean Genet's Play of the Gay Underworld

Like Yukio Mishima and Quentin Crisp, Jean Genet belonged to the old school of gay writers who thought of sexuality, especially gay sexuality, in terms of darkness, disease, and corruption.

Our Lady of the Flowers (1942), written while in prison, is about members of the gay underworld, including the drag queen Divine and the male prostitute Darling, who aspire to an antithesis of the "normal" world, finding honor in betrayal, beauty in "sordid" same-sex acts, and virtue in murder.

His Thief's Journal (1949), written while in prison, suggests that the gay underworld is the antithesis of the "normal" world, finding a trinity of evil "virtues": same-sex acts, theft, and betrayal.

His play The Balcony (1957) is a further exploration of this moral inversion.  It is set in a brothel in an unnamed city in the midst of a revolution. Three clients take on the roles of a Judge, a Bishop, and a General, who perform their duties on prostitutes acting as a Criminal, a Penitent, and a Horse, while each is interrogated by the Torturer (a hustler named Arthur).

Meanwhile, everyone waits to hear from Roger, the brothel's former plumber, and Chantal, a prostitute who has gone "straight," renounced the sordid underworld and gone off to join the Revolution.

The madam, Irma, falls asleep and dreams of three young men who are wounded and dying, presumably casualties of the revolution -- but then they are revealed to be named Blood, Tears, and Sperm.  They are casualties of sex.

An Envoy (sometimes the Chief of Police) arrives and tells them that the real-life Judge, Bishop, and General have been killed.  Irma suggests that her three client take their place.  The deviant have become normal.

The Balcony has been staged many times, sometimes with all-male casts which emphasize the homoeroticism of the shadow world.

Most productions involve semi-nudity, especially from Arthur/The Torturer.  In the 2007 performance in Washington D.C., he was played by Rashard Harrison (top), and in the 2013 version directed by Rafael de Musa, by Francesco Andolfi (left).

There have been two operas and several film versions, notably a 1963 tv movie with future Columbo Peter Falk as the Chief of Police, future Spock Leonard Nimoy as Roger, and Shelley Winters as Irma.

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