The Balcony (French: Le Balcon) is a play by the French dramatist Jean Genet. Since Peter Zadek directed its first production at the Arts Theatre Club in London in 1957, the play has attracted many of the greatest directors of the 20th century, including Peter Brook, Erwin Piscator, Roger Blin, Giorgio Strehler, and JoAnne Akalaitis. Set in an unnamed city that is experiencing a revolutionary uprising in the streets, most of the action takes place in an upmarket brothel that functions as a microcosm of the regime of the establishment under threat outside. The play’s dramatic structure integrates Genet’s concern with meta-theatricality and role-playing and consists of two central strands: a political conflict between revolution and counter-revolution and a philosophical one between reality and illusion. Genet suggested that the play ought to be performed as a “glorification of the Image and the Reflection.” His biographer, Edmund White, writes that with The Balcony, along with The Blacks (1959), Genet re-invented modern theatre. The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan described the play as the rebirth of the spirit of the classical Athenian comic playwright Aristophanes, while the philosopher Lucien Goldmann argued that despite its “entirely different world view” it constitutes “the first great Brechtian play in French literature.” Martin Esslin has called The Balcony “one of the masterpieces of our time.”
Most of the action takes place in an upmarket brothel in which its madam, Irma, “casts, directs, and co-ordinates performances in a house of infinite mirrors and theaters.” Genet uses this setting to explore roles of power in society; in the first few scenes patrons assume the roles of a bishop who forgives a penitent, a judge who punishes a thief, and a general who rides his horse. Meanwhile, a revolution is progressing outside in the city and the occupants of the brothel anxiously await the arrival of the Chief of Police. Chantal, one of the prostitutes, has quit the brothel to become the embodiment of the spirit of the revolution. An Envoy from the Queen arrives and reveals that the pillars of society (the Chief Justice, the Bishop, the General, etc.) have all been killed in the uprising. Using the costumes and props in Irma’s “house of illusions” (the traditional French name for a brothel), the patrons’ roles are realised when they pose in public as the figures of authority in a counter-revolutionary effort to restore order and the status quo.
Analysis and criticism
The philosopher Lucien Goldmann suggests that the themes of The Balcony may be divided between those that are essential and primary and those that are non-essential and secondary. Those that we may recognise from Genet’s earlier work—the double, the mirror, sexuality, dream-death vs. reality-impure life—belong to the secondary level, he argues, while the play’s essential theme is a clear and comprehensible analysis of the transformation of industrial society into a technocracy. Genet relates the experiences of his characters “to the great political and social upheavals of the twentieth century,” Goldmann argues, particularly important among which is “the collapse of the tremendous hopes for revolution.” He discerns in the play’s dramatic structure a balance of three equal movements—”established order, threat to order, and order again re-established.” The first section of the play dramatises the way in which the prestigious images of the established order—the Bishop, the Judge, the General—belie the actual bearers of power in modern society:
The Balcony Characters
Arthur (also known as The Executioner) works at the whorehouse, playing the Executioner and other roles in the male clientele’s fantasy. Irma was forced to hire him by George, the Chief of Police. Though she was reluctant at first, she came to rely on him. Arthur cares solely about his own interests and money. He goes to find George for Irma, only because she will give him money for silk shirts he has ordered. Arthur survives the rebellion in the street, only to be shot dead by a stray bullet when he returns to the Grand Balcony. He is laid out in the Funeral Studio inside the brothel.
The Bishop is one of the clients at the Grand Balcony. He is not actually a bishop, but a customer who plays one in his fantasy. As a client, he is rather fussy, concerned that the details of his fantasy are…