Jean Genet
Jean Genet in 1983
Jean Genet in 1983
Born(1910-12-19)19 December 1910
Paris, France
Died15 April 1986(1986-04-15) (aged 75)
Paris, France
  • Novelist
  • dramatist
  • political activist
  • poet
  • philosopher
GenreTheatre of Cruelty, erotic, theatre, absurdist
SubjectCrime, homosexuality, sadomasochism, existentialism
Literary movementTheatre of the Absurd
Notable worksOur Lady of the Flowers (1943)
The Thief's Journal (1949)
The Maids (1947)
The Balcony (1956)

Jean Genet (French: [ʒɑ̃ ʒənɛ]; (1910-12-19)19 December 1910 – (1986-04-15)15 April 1986) was a French novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, and political activist. In his early life he was a vagabond and petty criminal, but he later became a writer and playwright. His major works include the novels The Thief's Journal and Our Lady of the Flowers and the plays The Balcony, The Maids and The Screens.[1]


Early life

Genet's mother was a prostitute who raised him for the first seven months of his life before placing him for adoption. Thereafter Genet was raised in the provincial town of Alligny-en-Morvan, in the Nièvre department of central France. His foster family was headed by a carpenter and, according to Edmund White's biography, was 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.

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, which they had entrusted him for delivery elsewhere, on a visit to a local fair.

Detention and military service

For this and other misdemeanors, including repeated acts of vagrancy, he was sent at the age of 15 to Mettray Penal Colony where he was detained between 2 September 1926 and 1 March 1929. In Miracle of the Rose (1946), he gives an account of this period of detention, which ended at the age of 18 when he joined the Foreign Legion. 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).

Criminal career, prison, and prison writings

After returning to Paris 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 offences. 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 in 1949, when Genet was threatened with a life sentence after ten convictions, Cocteau and other prominent figures, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso, successfully petitioned the French President to have the sentence set aside. Genet would never return to prison.

Writing and activism

By 1949, Genet had completed five novels, three plays, and numerous poems, many controversial for their explicit and often deliberately provocative portrayal of homosexuality and criminality. Sartre wrote a long analysis of Genet's existential development (from vagrant to writer), entitled Saint Genet (1952), which was anonymously published as the first volume of Genet's complete works. Genet was strongly affected by Sartre's analysis and did not write for the next 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, Genet became emotionally attached to Abdallah Bentaga, a tightrope walker. However, following a number of accidents and his suicide in 1964, Genet entered a period of depression, and even attempted suicide himself.[2]

From the late 1960s, starting with an 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. Genet was censored in the United States in 1968 and later expelled when they refused him a visa. In an interview with Edward de Grazia, professor of law and First Amendment lawyer, Genet discusses the time he went through Canada for the Chicago congress. He entered without a visa and left with no issues.[3]

In 1970, the Black Panthers invited him to the United States, where he stayed for three months giving lectures, attended the trial of their leader, Huey Newton, and published 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 the United States and Jordan, Genet wrote a final lengthy memoir about his experiences, Prisoner of Love, which would be published posthumously.

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.[citation needed] Genet expresses his solidarity with the Red Army Faction (RAF) of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, in the article "Violence et brutalité", published in Le Monde, 1977.

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.[4]


Genet developed throat cancer and was found dead at Jack's Hotel in Paris on 15 April 1986 where his photograph and books remain. Genet may have fallen on the floor and fatally hit his head. He is buried in the Larache Christian 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, emphasizes his singularity, raises violent criminals to icons, and enjoys the specificity of homosexual gesture and coding and the depiction of scenes of betrayal. Our Lady of the Flowers (Notre Dame des Fleurs 1943) is a journey through the prison underworld, featuring a fictionalized alter-ego named Divine, usually referred to in the feminine. Divine is surrounded by tantes ("aunties" or "queens") with colorful sobriquets such as Mimosa I, Mimosa II, First Communion and the Queen of Rumania. The two auto-fictional novels Miracle of the Rose (Miracle de la rose 1946) and The Thief's Journal (Journal du voleur 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 port town of Brest, where sailors and the sea are associated with murder. Funeral Rites (1949) is a story of love and betrayal across political divides, written for the narrator's lover, Jean Decarnin, killed by the Germans in WWII.

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

Art criticism

Genet wrote an essay on the work of the Swiss sculptor and artist Alberto Giacometti titled L'Atelier d'Alberto Giacometti. It was highly praised by major artists, including Giacometti and Picasso. Genet wrote in an informal style, incorporating excerpts of conversations between himself and Giacometti. Genet's biographer Edmund White said that, rather than write in the style of an art historian, Genet "invented a whole new language for discussing" Giacometti, proposing "that the statues of Giacometti should be offered to the dead, and that they should be buried."[5]


Genet's plays present highly stylized depictions of ritualistic struggles between outcasts of various kinds and their oppressors.[6] Social identities are parodied and shown to involve complex layering through manipulation of the dramatic fiction and its inherent potential for theatricality and role-play. Maids imitate one another and their mistress in The Maids (1947), ; the clients of a brothel simulate roles of political power before, in a dramatic reversal, actually becoming those figures, all surrounded by mirrors that both reflect and conceal, in The Balcony (1957). Most strikingly, Genet offers a critical dramatisation of what Aimé Césaire called negritude in The Blacks (1958), presenting a violent assertion of black identity and anti-white virulence framed in terms of mask-wearing and roles adopted and discarded. His most overtly political play is The Screens (1964), an epic account of the Algerian War of Independence. He also wrote another full-length drama, Splendid's, in 1948 and a one-act play, Her (Elle), in 1955, though neither was published or produced during Genet's lifetime.

The Maids was the first of Genet's plays to be staged in New York, produced by Julie Bovasso at Tempo Playhouse in New York City in 1955. The Blacks was, after The Balcony, the third 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 homosexual male prisoner and his prison warden. Genet is also credited as co-director of the West German television documentary Am Anfang war der Dieb (In the Beginning was the Thief) (1984), along with his co-stars Hans Neuenfels and François Bondy.

Genet's work has been adapted for film and produced by other filmmakers. In 1982, Rainer Werner Fassbinder released Querelle, his final film, based on Querelle of Brest. It starred Brad Davis, Jeanne Moreau and Franco Nero. Tony Richardson directed Mademoiselle, which was based on a short story by Genet. It starred Jeanne Moreau with the screenplay written by Marguerite Duras. Todd Haynes' Poison was 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 as Madame Irma, Peter Falk, Lee Grant and Leonard Nimoy. The Maids was filmed in 1974 and starred Glenda Jackson, Susannah York and Vivien Merchant. Italian director Salvatore Samperi in 1986 directed another adaptation for film of the same play, La Bonne (Eng. Corruption), starring Florence Guerin and Katrine Michelsen.

In popular culture

Genet made an appearance by proxy in the pop charts when David Bowie released his 1972 hit single "The Jean Genie". In his 2005 book Moonage Daydream, Bowie confirmed that the title "...was a clumsy pun upon Jean Genet".[7] A later promo video combines a version of the song with a fast edit of Genet's 1950 film Un Chant d'Amour.

The song "Les Boys" from Dire Straits' 1980 album Making Movies contains a reference to Genet.

Avant-garde musician/composer John Zorn's 1992 album, Elegy, was inspired by and dedicated to Genet. The liner notes include an excerpt from Genet's The Thief's Journal.

A scene featuring Michael Douglas and Robert Downey Jr. from the 2000 film Wonder Boys makes reference to Genet.

Genet is mentioned twice in the lyrics to the song "A Cocaine Christmas and an Alcoholic's New Year" by the English band Money on their 2016 studio album Suicide Songs.

List of works

Novels and autobiography

Entries show: English-language translation of title (French-language title) [year written] / [year first published]


Entries show: English-language translation of title (French-language title) [year written] / [year first published] / [year first performed]



Collected in Œuvres complètes (French) and Treasures of the Night: Collected Poems by Jean Genet (English)

Spitzer, Mark, trans. 2010. The Genet Translations: Poetry and Posthumous Plays. Polemic Press. See


Two of Genet's poems, "The Man Sentenced to Death" and "The Fisherman of the Suquet" were adapted, respectively, as "The Man Condemned to Death" and "The Thief and the Night" and set to music for the album Feasting with Panthers, released in 2011 by Marc Almond and Michael Cashmore. Both poems were adapted and translated by Jeremy Reed.

Essays on art

Collected in Fragments et autres textes, 1990 (Fragments of the Artwork, 2003)

Essays on politics

Collected in L'Ennemi déclaré: textes et entretiens (1991) – The Declared Enemy (2004)




Other collected essays


Collected in volume
Collected in Théâtre Complet (Editions Gallimard, 2002)
Collected in Portrait d'Un Marginal Exemplaire

See also



  1. ^ Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 45 By Daniel G. Marowski, Roger Matuz. Gale: 1987 p. 11. ISBN 0-8103-4419-X.
  2. ^ Brian Gordon Kennelly, Unfinished Business: Tracing Incompletion in Jean Genet's Posthumously Published Plays (Rodopi, 1997) p22
  3. ^ de Grazia, Edward; Genet, Jean (1993). "An Interview with Jean Genet". Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature. 5 (2): 307–324. doi:10.2307/743530. JSTOR 743530.
  4. ^ "Jean Genet with Hans Köchler -- Hotel Imperial, Vienna, 6 December 1983".
  5. ^ Kirili, Alain. "Edmund White" Archived 19 November 2011 at the Wayback Machine. BOMB Magazine. Spring 1994. Retrieved 25 July 2011.
  6. ^ See Martin Esslin's book for one perspective on Genet's relationship both to Artaud's 'Theatre of Cruelty' and to Esslin's own Theatre of the Absurd. Not all critics agree that Artaud is Genet's most significant influence; both Bertolt Brecht and Luigi Pirandello have also been identified.
  7. ^ David Bowie & Mick Rock (2005). Moonage Daydream: pp. 140–146
  8. ^ Spitzer, Mark, trans. 2010. The Genet Translations: Poetry and Posthumous Plays. Polemic Press. See


Primary sources

In English
In French
Individual editions
Complete works

Secondary sources

In English
In French