Jean Genet’s Le Balcon (or The Balcony) is an absurdist play in which the main structure is the “philosophical battle between illusion and reality” (Savona 1983: 76) and this essay will investigate some of the levels of reality within an absurdist and existentialist context in Genet’s play. The play itself “offers a spectacularly theatrical exploration of the relationship between fantasy and reality” (Patterson 2005: 32) whilst also seeking “to negate reality itself” (Innes 2001: 438).
Whilst also attempting to transform reality into a fantasy world in which its characters can escape the dismay of daily life, it is “also designed to be a moving play which… keeps the audience aware that it is a play” they are watching and not allowing them to get lost in the world of illusion, fantasy and desire that the characters are trapped in (Reck 1962: 23). This echoes a technique used as part of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, and by keeping the spectator at a critical distance, they become observers and thus can learn something about their own lives and the world in which they live.
The play is set in Madame Irma’s Maison d’illusions (or house of illusions) which to the spectator is clearly a brothel, but not a brothel in the conventional sense. In the brothel, men of everyday walks of life (for example a plumber) act out sexual fantasies with the women that work there. Their sexual fantasies are by no means conventional either, for example the ‘clients’ of the brothel take on the personas of powerful men, namely a bishop, an executioner, a judge and a general.
From the exposition of the play, it is unclear that the bishop isn’t actually a bishop as the costume, dialogue and action of the bishop are completely authentic aside from the fact that the powerful characters “tower over all the other actors as well as the audience” (McMahon 1963: 110). This is visually unrealistic and takes the spectator away from realism right from the onset, yet somehow draws them into this world of illusion. The sexual acts were intended by Genet to contain meaning and not to be realistic.
They are merely projections, a series of images of man trapped in a hall of mirrors, not attempting to convey naturalism in the slightest (McMahon 1963: 176) and the characters’ “performance becomes reflections of reflections” (Innes 2001: 438). As Esslin states in his The Theatre of the Absurd, “there are no characters in the conventional sense…merely the images of basic urges and impulses” (Esslin 2001: 22). Image is of key importance in the play; it is everything “for the deeper one moves into images the less danger there will be of reality’s coming back to question the veracity of the images” (McMahon 1963: 162).
One of the key themes of the play is the escape from reality, and as T. S Eliot wrote “human kind cannot bear much reality” (1964: 69), one of the fundamental messages Genet is trying to portray in his play. There is a strong sense of the actor merging with the character in The Balcony (Savona 1983: 86), or the character merging with the fantasy characters they attempt to portray in the brothel, or characters they so long to be, even for just an hour or so.
This inauthentic relationship between reality and fantasy reflects human nature and life itself – we have all at some point aspired, or even wished that we could be someone else, someone with power or respect. However as McMahon suggests “there is no aspiration within the motivation of these people to be bishop, judge or general; the limit of their ambitions knows its range, and the cutting off point…is the thin line between pretence and reality” (1963: 160). The play takes a turn when the clients of the brothel are forced to take on the characters they are pretending to be for real.
It is at this point that the illusion is destroyed and the men of everyday life no longer want the roles they are playing. For them, the roles are now too realistic and there is no escape from them – the relationship between reality and fantasy has become authentic. When the characters are acting out their roles in the real world, they are no longer comforted by their imagination; they are faced with the harsh reality of life, the one thing that they have sought to escape in the first place.
This is reinforced by the fact the characters are reluctant to assist the chief of police and be “dragged from their dream world into the harshness and dangers of reality” (Thody 1970: 186-187). The revolution outside can be seen as a symbol of real life. “Were it not for the revolution, the various characters could continue to play their games in the enclosed a-historical atmosphere provided for them…but the revolution is there, and threatens at any moment to destroy their world of illusion completely” (Thody 1970: 179).
During the play, various sounds of gunfire can be heard in the background of the scenes – A threat from the real world outside reminding the characters they have tried to escape life and whilst this may be successful for the hour they are in the brothel, real life is still going out outside. “Machine gun fire attempts to undermine the magic of illusion created and reflects Brecht’s distancing effect” (Savona 1983: 89).
Once again Genet forces the spectator to remember that they are watching a play, but also when we all hide behind the facade of life, or try and escape reality, the real world is still very much at large in the background and we can’t ignore this! “The theme of illusion reaches its climax at the very end of the action, when Madame Irma comes to the front of the stage to remind the audience that they have, after all, only been watching a play” (Thody 1970: 185). The spectator is suddenly brought back to ‘the real word’ having witnessed actors playing characters, characters playing characters, characters playing people.
The audience has taken the journey through Madam Irma’s ‘house of illusions’, and has been presented with a theatrical projection of humanity through many planes of reality. She tells the audience “you must now go home, where everything – you can be quite sure – will be falser than here…You must now go” (Genet 1966: 96). She has highlighted that as humans we have a tendency to hide behind the facade of life, to go along with what we are told and what we see, thus taking life for granted.
We then think back to the characters in the play and realise how they are merely projections of ourselves. “Genet proclaims the illusion of reality and the reality of illusion” (Nelson 1963: 61). For the spectator and the characters “reality has become indiscernible from illusion” (Nelson 1963: 65) and the audience must ask themselves where does reality end and pretence begins. BIBLIOGRAPHY Eliot, T. S. , Murder in the Cathedral (Fort Washington PA: Harvest Books, 1964) Esslin, Martin, The Theatre of the Absurd, 3rd Edition (London: Metheun, 2001).
Genet, Jean, The Balcony (New York: Grove Press, 1966) Innes, Christopher, ‘Theatre After Two World Wars’, in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Theatre, ed. by John Russell Brown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 380-444. Macquarrie, John, Existentialism (Baltimore: Pelican Books, 1972) McMahon, Joseph H. , The Imagination of Jean Genet (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963) Nelson, Banjamin, ‘The Balcony and Parisian Existentialism’, The Tulane Drama Review, 7:3 (1963), 60-79.
Oswald, Laura, Jean Genet and the Semiotics of Performance (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989) Patterson, Michael, The Oxford Dictionary of Plays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) Reck, Rima Drell, ‘Appearance and Reality in Genet’s Le Balcon’, The New Dramatists, 29:1 (1962), 20-25. Savona, Jeannette L. , Jean Genet (London and Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press, 1983) Styan, J. L. , The English Stage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) Thody, Philip, Jean Genet: A Study of His Novels and Plays (New York: Stein and Day, 1970).