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Society as a Brothel: Genet's Satire in The Balcony ALBERT BERMEL • A MAN IN general's full-dress uniform lies suspended between two chairs. In front of the chair bearing his feet a beautiful girl with red hair whinnies and, without leaving the spot, begins to trot like a horse. The General is a client at a brothel, pretending to be a dead hero. The Girl is a whore with equine and narrative talents: she imitates the General's redmaned warhorse, a mare named Dove who hauls his bier; she also describes the scenery along the funeral route: THE GIRL. The procession has begun ... We're passing through the city ... We're going along the river. I'm sad ... The sky is overcast . The nation weeps for that splendid hero who died in t battle ... THE GENERAL. (starting): Dove! THE GIRL. (turning around, in tears): Sir? THE GENERAL. Add that I died with my boots on .... I The mimesis has charm; it delivers one of the most memorable vignettes in this memorable play. But why does the General pretend to be dead? If the man gets his kicks from taking on the status of a general, why not a live one? Is this his way of spiting the ungrateful world, of telling it, "You'll be sorry when I'm gone?" Is it an expression of the death instinct, repeated with or without variations every time he goes to the brothel? The General is not the only character in The Balcony who flirts with death and regards it as a consummation of sorts. But in order to examine 265 266 ALBERT BERMEL the motif of death in the action and characterization of the play, one must brush aside much of the elaborate tissue of criticism that clings to Jean Genet and makes his work seem little more than self-indulgent pranks. Genet's plays, like Pirandello's, have become a treasure house for the rococo critical imagination. As the visitor basks in the heady atmosphere -. the mirrors, the screens, masks, grandiose costumes and cothurni, the role-playing, verbal efflorescence, and paradoxes -. he burbles about the undecipherable nature of levels, dimensions, contexts, multiple images, loci, iitualism, and infinities of reflections. I do not want to counter with a no-nonsense interpretation of The Balcony. It does deal with pretense; it does include dressing-up and make-believe on subsidiary stages. Mirrors do figure in six of its nine scenes. At the same time, brothels with amenities like the ones in this play exist; so do masochistic deviants (or, as the British call them, "kinkies") like the General, who unbottle their fantasies there; so do madams like its proprietor, the stately lesbian Irma; and so do whores like her assistant Carmen, who dreams of a wholesome country life en famille. In some ways The Balcony represents a modern approach to the documentary theatre. It is much more mettlesome than any of the later examples of so-called "theatre of fact," and more factual.2 Genet's brothel may have no direct historical antecedents; one of its sources is his own novel Querelle de Brest. Nor does the revolution in the play reproduce any particular revolution in history. But the brothel and the revolution are no less "true" for not having literal referents. Genet treats them as two historical essences or social forces which he sends into battle. The conflict becomes apparent in the early scenes. Four clients - a Bishop, a Judge, the General, and a Beggar - are working hard at their "scenarios" in different studios within the brothel, but the clatter of machine -gun fire outside is audible: the revolution has begun to penetrate the brothel's isolation. Then a bullet smacks through a window and kills the brothel's only male employee, a beefy male whore named Arthur. The bullet is our introduction to the revolutionaries. They are a mixed group who have taken over a cafe for their headquarters . Roger, a humorless, ineffectual, fortyish plumber, feels sure the revolution can carry the day only if it "'despises make-believe and complacency." He has fallen in love with one of the girls from the brothel named Chantal, who is now...


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pp. 265-280
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