Jean Genet

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Jean Genet
Vienna, Austria, December 1983
Born December 19, 1910(1910-12-19)
Paris, France
Died April 15, 1986 (aged 75)
Paris, France
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Jean Genet (French IPA: [ʒɑ̃ ʒə'nɛ]) (December 19, 1910(1910-12-19) – April 15, 1986), was a prominent, controversial French writer and later political activist. Early in his life he was a vagabond and petty criminal; later in life, Genet wrote novels, plays, poems, and essays, including Querelle de Brest, The Thief's Journal, Our Lady of the Flowers, The Balcony, The Blacks and The Maids.


  • 1 Life
  • 2 Genet's works
    • 2.1 Novels and Autobiography
    • 2.2 Plays
    • 2.3 Film
  • 3 Bibliography
    • 3.1 Novels and Autobiography
    • 3.2 Theatre
    • 3.3 Poetry
    • 3.4 Correspondance
    • 3.5 Complete works
  • 4 Further reading
  • 5 References
  • 6 External links


Genet's mother was a young prostitute who raised him for the first year of his life before putting him up for adoption. Thereafter Genet was raised in the provinces by a carpenter and his family, who according to Edmund White's biography, were loving and attentive. While he received excellent grades in school, his childhood involved a series of attempts at running away and incidents of petty theft (although White also suggests that Genet's later claims of a dismal, impoverished childhood were exaggerated to fit his outlaw image).

After the death of his foster mother, Genet was placed with an elderly couple but remained with them less than two years. According to the wife, he was going out nights "and also seemed to be wearing makeup." On one occasion he squandered a considerable sum of money that they had entrusted him for delivery on a visit to a local fair. At age 16 he was sent to the Mettray Penal Colony. In The Miracle of the Rose (1946), he gives an account of this period of detention, which ended when he joined the army at the age of 18. He was eventually given a dishonorable discharge on grounds of indecency (having been caught engaged in a homosexual act) and spent a period as a vagabond, petty thief and prostitute across Europe— experiences he recounts in The Thief's Journal (1949). After returning to Paris, France in 1937 Genet was in and out of prison through a series of arrests for theft, use of false papers, vagabondage, lewd acts and other offenses. In prison, Genet wrote his first poem, "Le condamné à mort," which he had printed at his own cost and the novel Our Lady of the Flowers (1944). In Paris, Genet sought out and introduced himself to Jean Cocteau, who was impressed by his writing. Cocteau used his contacts to get Genet's novel published and when in 1949 after ten convictions, Genet was threatened with a life sentence, Cocteau, joined by other key figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso, successfully petitioned the French President to have the sentence set aside. Genet would never again return to prison.

By 1949 Genet had completed five novels, three plays and numerous poems. His explicit and often deliberately provocative portrayal of homosexuality and criminality was such that by the early 1950s, his work was banned in the United States.[1] Sartre wrote a long analysis of Genet's existential development (from vagrant to writer) entitled Saint Genet comédien et martyr (1952) which anomalously was published as the first volume of Genet's complete works. Genet was strongly affected by Sartre's analysis and did not write for the following five years. Between 1955 and 1961 Genet wrote three more plays as well as an essay called "What Remains of a Rembrandt Torn Into Four Equal Pieces and Flushed Down the Toilet", on which hinged Jacques Derrida's analysis of Genet in his seminal work "Glas". During this time he became emotionally attached to Abdallah, a tightrope walker. However, following a number of accidents and Abdallah's suicide in 1964, Genet entered a period of depression, and attempted suicide.

From the late 1960s, starting with a homage to Daniel Cohn-Bendit after the events of May 1968, Genet became politically active. He participated in demonstrations drawing attention to the living conditions of immigrants in France. In 1970 the Black Panthers invited him to the USA where he stayed for three months giving lectures, attending the trial of their leader, Huey Newton and publishing articles in their journals. Later the same year he spent six months in Palestinian refugee camps, secretly meeting Yasser Arafat near Amman. Profoundly moved by his experiences in Jordan and the USA, Genet wrote a final lengthy memoir about his experiences, A Prisoner of Love, which would be published after his death. Genet also supported Angela Davis and George Jackson, as well as Michel Foucault and Daniel Defert's Prison Information Group. He worked with Foucault and Sartre to protest police brutality against Algerians in Paris, a problem persisting since the Algerian War of Independence, when beaten bodies were to be found floating in the Seine. In September 1982 Genet was in Beirut when the massacres took place in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila. In response, Genet published "Quatre heures à Chatila" (Four Hours in Shatila), an account of his visit to Shatila after the event. In one of his rare public appearances during the later period of his life, at the invitation of Austrian philosopher Hans Köchler he read from his work during the inauguration of an exhibition on the massacre of Sabra and Shatila, organized by the International Progress Organization in Vienna, Austria, on 19 December 1983. (Genet in Vienna)

Genet developed throat cancer and was found dead on April 15, 1986 in a hotel room in Paris. Genet may have fallen on the floor and fatally hit his head. He was buried in the Spanish Cemetery in Larache, Morocco.

Genet's works

Novels and Autobiography

Throughout his five early novels, Genet works to subvert the traditional set of moral values of his assumed readership. He celebrates a beauty in evil, emphasizing his singularity as he raises violent criminals to icons, enjoys the specificity of gay gesture and coding and depicts scenes of betrayal.

The first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers (1944), is a journey through the prison underworld, featuring a fictionalized alter-ego by the name of Divine, usually referred to in the feminine, at the center of a circle of tantes ("aunties" or "queens") with colorful sobriquets such as Our Lady of the Flowers, Mimosa I, Mimosa II and First Communion. The two auto-fictional novels, The Miracle of the Rose (1946) and The Thief's Journal (1949), describe Genet's time in Mettray Penal Colony and his experiences as a vagabond and prostitute across Europe. Querelle de Brest (1947) is set in the midst of the port town of Brest, where sailors and the sea are associated with murder, and Funeral Rites (1949) is a story of love and betrayal across political divides, written this time for the narrator's lover, Jean Decarnin, killed by the Germans in WWII.

A Prisoner of Love published in (1986), after Genet's death, is a memoir of his encounters with Palestinian fighters and Black Panthers; it has, therefore, a more documentary tone than his fiction.


Associated with the Theatre of Cruelty, Genet's plays present highly stylised depictions of ritual struggles between outcasts of various kinds and their oppressors. Social identities are parodied and shown to involve complex layering, as maids play each other or their mistress in The Maids (1949) or leading figures in society play out the role of victims in a brothel, surrounded by mirrors which both reflect and conceal in The Balcony (1956). Most strikingly, Genet takes further what Aimé Césaire called negritude, in The Blacks (1958), presenting a violent assertion of Black identity and anti-white virulence. His most ambitious play is The Screens (1963), an epic account of the Algerian War of Independence.

The Blacks was, after The Balcony, the second of Genet's plays to be staged in New York. The production was the longest running Off-Broadway non-musical of the decade. Originally premiered in Paris in 1959, this 1961 New York production ran for 1,408 performances. The original cast featured James Earl Jones, Roscoe Lee Browne, Louis Gossett, Jr., Cicely Tyson, Godfrey Cambridge, Maya Angelou and Charles Gordone.


In 1950, Genet directed Un Chant d'Amour, a 26-minute black-and-white film depicting the fantasies of a gay male prisoner and his prison warden.

Genet's work has also been adapted for film and produced by other filmmakers. In 1982, Rainer Werner Fassbinder released Querelle, his final film which is based on Querelle de Brest. It starred Brad Davis, Jeanne Moreau and Franco Nero. Genet never saw this film because he would not have been allowed to smoke in a movie theatre. Todd Haynes' homoerotic movie Poison was also based on the writings of Genet.

Several of Genet's plays were adapted into films. The Balcony (1963), directed by Joseph Strick, starred Shelley Winters, Peter Falk, Lee Grant and Leonard Nimoy.

Tony Richardson directed a film, Mademoiselle, which was based on a short story by Genet. It starred Jeanne Moreau with the screenplay written by Marguerite Duras.

His play, The Maids was made into a film starring Glenda Jackson, Susannah York and Vivien Merchant.


Novels and Autobiography

Year Original French English Translation
1944 Notre Dame des Fleurs (Lyon: Barbezat-L'Arbalète, 1948) Our Lady of the Flowers trans. By Bernard Frechtman with introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre (London: Paladin, 1963, 1998)
1946 Miracle de la Rose (Paris: Gallimard, 1951) The Miracle of the Rose trans. by Bernard Frechtman (London: Blond, 1965)
1947 Pompes Funèbres (Paris: Gallimard, 1953) Funeral Rites trans. by Bernard Frechtman (London: Blond, 1969; London: Faber and Faber, 1990)
1947 Querelle de Brest (Paris: Gallimard, 1953) Querelle of Brest trans. by Gregory Streatham (London: Blond, 1966; London Faber, 2000)
1949 Journal du voleur (Paris: Gallimard, 1949) The Thief's Journal trans. by Bernard Frechtman (London: Blond, 1965)
1986 Un Captif Amoureux (Paris: Gallimard, 1986) Prisoner of Love trans. by Barbara Bray with introduction by Edmund White (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1992)


  • Haute surveillance (1947) - not published until 1949
  • Les Bonnes (1946)
  • Deathwatch (1947)
  • Le Balcon (1956)
  • The Blacks/ Les Nègres (1955)
  • The Screens (1955-58)
  • "Elle" (1989), édition posthume
  • Le Bagne (1994), édition posthume
  • Théâtre Complet (2002) - Bibliothèque de la Pléiade "édition présentée, établie et annonté par Michel Corvin et Albert Dichy"


  • Le Condamné à mort (1942)


  • Lettres à Roger Blin (1966)
  • Lettres à Olga et Marc Barbezat (1988)
  • Lettres au petit Franz (2000)

Complete works

Jean Genet, Œuvres completes (Paris: Gallimard, 1952-)

  • Volume 1: Saint Genet: comédien et martyr (by J.-P. Sartre)
  • Volume 2: Notre-Dame des fleurs - Le condamné à mort - Miracle de la rose - Un chant d’amour
  • Volume 3: Pompes funèbres - Le pêcheur du Suquet - Querelle de Brest
  • Volume 4: L’étrange mot d’. - Ce qui est resté d’un Rembrandt déchiré en petits carrés - Le balcon - Les bonnes - Haute surveillance -Lettres à Roger Blin - Comment jouer ’Les bonnes’ - Comment jouer ’Le balcon’
  • Volume 5: Le funambule - Le secret de Rembrandt - L’atelier d’Alberto Giacometti - Les nègres - Les paravents - L’enfant criminel
  • Volume 6: L’ennemi déclaré: textes et entretiens

Further reading

  • Barber, Stephen (2004) Jean Genet Reaktion Books, London, ISBN 1-86189-178-4 - biography and critique;
  • Coe, Richard N. (1968) The Vision of Genet Grove Press, New York;
  • Driver, Tom Faw (1966) Jean Genet Columbia University Press, New York;
  • El Maleh, Edmond Amran (1988) Jean Genet, Le captif amoureux : et autres essais Pensée sauvage, Grenoble, ISBN 2-85919-064-3 ;
  • Eribon, Didier (2001) Une morale du minoritaire: Variations sur un thème de Jean Genet Librairie Artème Fayard, Paris - critique, ISBN 2-213-60918-7;
  • Hubert, Marie-Claude (1996) L'esthétique de Jean Genet SEDES, Paris ISBN 2-7181-9036-1
  • Jablonka, Ivan (2004) Les vérités inavouables de Jean Genet Éditions du Seuil, Paris - critique, ISBN 2-02-067940-X;
  • Knapp, Bettina Liebowitz (1968) Jean Genet Twayne Publishers, New York;
  • McMahon, Joseph H. (1963)The Imagination of Jean Genet Yale University Press, New Haven;
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul (1952) Saint Genet, comédien et martyr Gallimard, Paris;
  • Webb, Richard C. (1992) File on Genet Methuen Drama, London, ISBN 0-413-65530-X - a general introduction;
  • White, Edmund (1993) Genet: A Biography Chatto and Windus, London, ISBN 0-88001-331-1

  1. ^ Edward de Grazia, An Interview with Jean Genet. Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Autumn, 1993), pp. 307-324.
  • Prisoner of Hate: Jean Genet and Palestine A review of Edmund White's biography of Genet by Martin Kramer
  • The Ontological Priority of Violence: On Several Really Smart Things About Violence in Jean Genet's Work By William Haver
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