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Spaces of revolution
Author: Carl Lavery

Jean Genet has long been regarded as one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. Since the publication of Jean-Paul Sartre's existential biography Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr in 1952, his writing has attracted the attention of leading French thinkers and philosophers. In the UK and US, his work has played a major role in the development of queer and feminist studies, where his representation of sexuality and gender continues to provoke controversy. This book aims to argue for Genet's influence once again, but it does so by focusing uniquely on the politics of his late theatre. The first part of the book explores the relationship between politics and aesthetics in Genet's theatre and political writing in the period 1955 to 1986. The second part focuses on the spatial politics of The Balcony, The Blacks and The Screens by historicising them within the processes of modernisation and decolonisation in France of the 1950s and 1960s. The third part of the book analyses how Genet's radical spatiality works in practice by interviewing key contemporary practitioners, Lluís Pasqual, JoAnne Akalaitis, and Ultz and Excalibah. The rationale behind these interviews is to find a way of merging past and present. The rationale so explores why Genet's late theatre, although firmly rooted within its own political and historical landscape, retains its relevance for practitioners working within different geographical and historical contexts today.

Carl Lavery

This chapter looks at how Jean Genet's 1958 play The Blacks opened the hidden wounds of the period, namely those related to insecurities about France's 'racial identity' on the eve of decolonisation. In The Blacks, the object of détournement is limited, since it is focused on reversing the tropes and clichés of 'black theatre', which were rooted, at the time, in popular entertainment forms such as clown shows, music-hall routines and circus acts. The post-Lacanian psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva's words highlight the extent to which objects of filth in abjection are metaphorical. Like The Mousetrap in Hamlet, the play-within-the play of The Blacks is designed to make the French spectators feel guilty, to remind them of their whiteness. The new configurations of identity are dependent upon the disclosure of a wrong that invited French subjects to disidentify with the French nation-State and to hear the call of the immigrant Other.

in The politics of Jean Genet’s late theatre
Spectacle, allegory and the wound of theatre
Carl Lavery

In The Balcony, Jean Genet departs from the Aristotelian schema that he implicitly rails against in the 'Avertissement' by investing in allegory. In Society of the Spectacle, written roughly a decade after the first version of The Balcony, Guy Debord borrowed and updated Georg Lukács' theory of reification to show how life in mediatised. In opposition to the spectacle which sought to heal the wound by manufacturing images of national consensus and by encouraging a retreat into private space, The Balcony makes this 'lack' palpable in the public space of the auditorium. Recalling Henri Lefebvre's dictum that every society secretes its own space, it is possible to suggest that Genet's focus on theatre's heterotopic spatiality is an attempt to produce a new type of politically efficacious theatre. Lefebvre's dialectically complex reading of modernisation provides the specific context that is missing in sociologist Lucien Goldmann's interpretation of The Balcony.

in The politics of Jean Genet’s late theatre
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The event of the wound
Carl Lavery

This chapter attempts to account for the critical aesthetico-political shift that occurred in Jean Genet's theatre from The Balcony onwards. The Balcony explores the difficulty of revolutionary action in a capitalist economy manipulated by a spectacular notion of community. Special attention is given to a painful existential event that Genet recounts undergoing in the early 1950s, and which he was later to describe in several important essays on Rembrandt and Giacometti as 'la blessure', or wound. The chapter argues that Genet's late theatre, unlike his novels and early dramas which practise a largely individualistic politics of resistance, look to build what the queer and gender theorist Judith Butler has called different 'coalitional alliances' between oppressed subjects. Genet's early experiments in theatre, cinema and dance share many of the same political and aesthetic concerns as his queer novels.

in The politics of Jean Genet’s late theatre
Politics and aesthetics
Carl Lavery

This chapter unveils the utopian elements in Jean Genet's post-1968 revolutionary thought, and shows how they were anticipated by the themes and practices of his late theatre. Genet's renunciation of theatre and subsequent commitment to revolutionary politics allowed him to continue his aesthetic project by other means. In an ironic twist that would have surprised Jean-Paul Sartre, Genet was, from 1968 until his death in 1986, the consummate political activist. The two movements that exerted the greatest influence on Genet in the 1970s and 1980s were the Black Panther Party and the Palestinians. Supporting oppressed peoples in the USA and Middle East, Genet was also committed to the plight of immigrant workers in France. Genet's rejection of the imperialist tendencies of the nation-State elucidates the politics of his late theatre. Against imperialism's abstract and incarcerating production of space, Genet posits the transgressive force of the Spieltrieb.

in The politics of Jean Genet’s late theatre
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Staging the wound
Carl Lavery

This chapter unpacks Jean Genet's theory and practice of political theatre. It concentrates on his writings and explains how his metaphor of the wound discloses an oblique notion of aesthetic politics that evades accepted models of art politique. Genet's desire to make the world unrecognisable explains why he studiously banishes everything real and naturalistic from the stage. The chapter suggests that Genet's blend of negative aesthetics and anti-aesthetics creates a doubly political theatre which disorients spectators. Responding to a question posed by Michèle Manceaux about the possible direction his writing might take in the light of his political commitment to the Black Panther Party, Genet was quick to distance his theatre from that of Brecht. Although Genet's notion of political theatre has little in common with existing models of commitment, his insistence on autonomy and negativity is close to that of Theodor Adorno.

in The politics of Jean Genet’s late theatre
Introduction
Carl Lavery

Jean Genet has long been regarded as one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. This chapter aims to argue for Genet's influence, and focuses on the politics of his late theatre. It presents Genet as a revolutionary playwright by engaging with the uncompromising political readings that have started to emerge in Genet scholarship in France, the UK and the USA in the past decade. Genet's texts have been regarded as favoured sites for a politics based on theoretical notions of difference and différance, Rustom Bharucha and Marie Redonnet encourage us to locate his politics in history. The ideas of Marxian geographer Henri Lefebvre cast a different light on the politics of Genet's late plays. They imply that the political significance of his theatre is not limited to thematics alone, but rather resides in how it affects the audience, physically, in the heterotopic space of the auditorium.

in The politics of Jean Genet’s late theatre
The battle of The Screens
Carl Lavery

This chapter explores The Screens, Jean Genet's last play, as a historical event. It clarifies the relationship between aesthetic and political events by showing how the 'battle of The Screens' was caused by Genet's 'oblique attempt to provoke a politics' by 'illuminating the void'. The main thrust of Genet's attack in The Screens was directed against the colons and the Army, both of whom, are represented as grotesque tyrants, devoid of sympathy and intelligence. The difficult situation facing the French government was exacerbated by the attitude of the French Army who had been humbled at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. In common with the pieds noirs who regarded Algeria as a part of France and themselves as proper French citizens, the Army was determined to keep Algérie française at all costs, and saw the conflict as a chance for winning military pride.

in The politics of Jean Genet’s late theatre
Carl Lavery

This chapter presents the interview between the author and Europe's foremost theatre and opera director, Lluís Pasqual. He is best known for his dazzling collaborations with the designer Fabià Puigserver, with whom he reinvented classic Spanish and European plays for contemporary audiences in Catalonia and elsewhere from the mid-1970s onwards. This interview deals with Pasqual's productions of The Balcony in 1980 and 1981 before going on to explore where Jean Genet's contemporary significance resides. His late theatre is a challenge to the Gaullist consensus of the 1950s and 1960s, and its political significance pertains to its critique of European attitudes towards immigrant workers and ethnic minorities. Like Genet's, Federico García Lorca's politics are found in the constant movement and oscillation between two extreme poles. As opposed to the cliché or congealed image, the movement caused by this oscillation is life itself, it can't be represented or pinned down.

in The politics of Jean Genet’s late theatre
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Carl Lavery

This chapter presents the interview between the author and the director Ultz. In this interview, the author talks to the director Ultz about the production, before going on to reflect, more generally, on his experiences of staging Jean Genet. In October and November 2007, a hip-hop version of The Blacks was performed at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in East London. The play was commercially and critically acclaimed and was one of the most exciting productions of Genet's work to have taken place in recent years. For all the difficult emotions felt by the actors in The Blacks Remixed, there was a real sense of solidarity and affection in the Theatre Royal during the run. There is a cathartic process at work in Genet. Despite all the anger and aggression, the play takes you somewhere else, somewhere more positive.

in The politics of Jean Genet’s late theatre