by Jean Genet
Genet’s new play is objectionable—but it is not morally objectionable. To be sure, the play smells; but it does not smell of badness, crime, or evil, which, because of their metaphysical connotations, may be thought of as having pure or elegant odors. Did not Baudelaire call his poems of evil “flowers”?
In his new work, though, Genet seems to have dropped his past aim of justifying aesthetically the morally unjustifiable. His present hero is not heroic in crime; in face, he has no virtues of any kind. In glorifying criminals, Genet was led until now into presenting them as more energetic, more physically attractive, more powerful, decisive, and interested in what they do than most people are. Thus his glorification of criminals made them seem virtuous—his justification of crime and the criminal was unvaryingly changed into praise of the good; of the criminal as good. For it is good to be attractive, energetic, powerful, decisive, and interested in what one is about.
All this Sartre pointed out brilliantly in the book he devoted to Genet, Saint Genet, Comedien et Martyr. Sartre showed very clearly that anyone who wants to do evil, or who wants to praise evil for its own sake, is bound to fail; and he showed that to make a career of these aims one must consent to fail: to fail first of all in doing evil, and then to fail in praising evil simply for being evil. The love of evil and evil-doers is vowed to a contradiction; this contradiction, according to Sartre, Genet has incarnated.
But now Genet has tried, perhaps in order to answer Sartre, a new shift: the glorification of the character who is simply low, and who is lacking in energy, sexual attractiveness, power, will, and even in any interest in what he does. The protagonist of The Screens is Said, a miserable Arab from the lowest class of Algerian Arabs, who is without money, sex, scruples, force, will, or character. He marries Leila, the ugliest girl of his village, simply because he cannot afford a better wife. Leila’s ugliness prompts him to steal, and to steal not from the French, but from his Arab neighbors, who revile him and cast him out. He is arrested. So is Leila, who, to be as low as her husband, becomes a thief, also. Finally, Said betrays the Arab combattants against France to his French gaolers. It must be noted that there is no particular sense of progress in his passing from a bad marriage to theft and treason. Did not Gide write of one of his characters: He went from bad to worse; first he committed a murder, then he began to tell lies? But Said does not go from bad to worse, nor from bad to better. He cannot fall. When the play begins he has already fallen; he has fallen like a turd. The only thing he can do from then on is smell, physically and morally, and this he does—à l’outrancefrom the beginning to the end of The Screens. What else is he capable of ? Said is human crap, socially and morally. And Genet wants us to have a good whiff of him whenever he is on stage.
Here is an example of how Said expresses his feeling for Leila:
It’s dark in my cell, too. The only light I get comes form your decayed teeth, your dirty eyes, your dull skin…Are there any places in you that could be bowed to?…
There must be, but the one who bows to them—boyohboy!—has to have a strong stomach….You’ve never beaten me, Said.
And Said replies:
I spend all my nights training. As soon as I get out you’ll get it in the puss.
Here is another of his love declarations to Leila:
There’s not much you lack now: you were ugly, idiotic, a thief, a beggar, and now you’re crippled.
What a man! But Genet want us to see him as a thorough stinker. At the end of the play, after Said has put out one of Leila’s eyes—à la Edmund in Lear—everyone wants to glorify him, not only the living Algerian combattants whom he has betrayed, but also the dead Arabs who, having died in the struggle with France, want Said to deny the meaning of any kind of honor. Both sides solicit him, and at the culminating point of his life, solicited by both the living, and the dead, Said expresses what he himself is, and what the whole play is about: “…to all of you, I say shit.” What else could he have said?
When the protagonist of a play lacks interest—as Said does—the playwright is likely to concentrate on the decor or setting. In The Screens Genet’s hero is nothing, but Genet’s decor is original and interesting. Said smells; the decor Genet has invented for his story is subtle and delicate. Certainly the one real theatrical invention of this play is the substitution of screens—sometimes brought onto the stage already painted, sometimes painted on during the action by the characters—for conventional props. But the screens in The Screens do not really hide the quality of the protagonist nor that of the action in which he is caught. We may think of screens as interposing their delicate structures between us and what we would not like to see, hear, or smell. In this play, though, Genet is determined to make smells triumph over even what is one of the best human ruses against ugliness: screens. When the old and dead Arab woman, Kadidja, calls on the Arabs to shout with pride the crimes they have committed against their French masters, one of the Arabs, Abdesselem, claims to have cut off feet. Kadidja says, “Set them down,’ and Abdesselem draws four feet on a screen. But Kadidja is not satisfied. She asks, “What about the smell? Let’s see the smell….” And Abdesselem draws above the four feet a few spirals. In The Screens we are meant not only to smell what smells, but even to see it, and on the very screen interposed between it and us…
In order to make the ignoble Said acceptable, Genet has apparently chosen to regard all persons—humanity, if you like—as crappers of two kinds: crappers in uniform or costume, and crappers tout court, crappers without uniforms, costumes, medals, or decorations, which might disguise what they are and what they do: they are crap and what they do is to crap. In The Screens there is a sergeant, a fine soldier, who shoots his own lieutenant. Why? The sergeant is taking a crap. He is unbuttoned, hence not really in uniform, and thus can kill his superior officer, for whom he would die if his pant were on, his fly buttoned. The sergeant’s final words are:
My beauty grew with my cruelty, the one heightening the other. And the rays of their love, when I took off my pants, gilded my behind!
Napoleon once said, “Hide your crap” (Cache ta merde). One wonders why the remark was repeated, though it was certainly not meant literally. No doubt Napoleon was implying that we are not crap fundamentally, even if we are not all emperors or generals. Hence we have a right to hide what we eliminate. But what about the contrary injunction, suggested by this new play of Genet’s: Show you crap, expose it, promote it, exalt it? Finally, Genet seems to be saying—but I think he says it in a bad, forced lyricism, which is not song at all: Sing your crap. My answer is: It can’t be done.
Even Genet, if this new play of his may be taken as evidence, can’t do it.
Letter June 1, 1963