Theatrical elements and the sanctity of sin in The Screens,
by Susana Cook
I am interested in looking at the way in which Genet uses theatrical devices in The Screens to unfold his poetic and political ideas of colonialism, poverty and death, and the way in which he succeeds at sanctifying evil.
The Screens is an epical ceremony set in the Algerian War. It starts with Said and his mother walking to his wedding, and ends in the world of the dead.
Said, the poorest, has to marry Leila, the ugliest. Their journey becomes an act of dethroning of what is sacred and elevating to sainthood what is consider sin or un-sacred. Robbery, prostitution, violence and war are glorified in Genet’s world. Colonialism, patriotism, order and obedience are shown dirty and pathetic.
The screens displayed onstage create the scenery by having actors drawing different elements of the changing set on them. This device allows him to take the story to all kinds of fantastic and extreme places. The landscape of war, the realm of the dead, fire and total destruction become layers of the multidimensional reality that will be displayed on the screens. The screens also display the power of the symbolic. Power and authority are representations, drawings on the screens. The characters obey and submit to these authoritarian figures. Sir Harold, a colonialist, displays his manly authority when he is onstage by playing with his glove and whip and giving orders to Jewell, his horse off stage. When he has to go, he leaves onstage a big glove pointing as an act of surveillance. This presence will be reinforced by the Arabs who work for the colonizers. “Every finger is listening with an ear as big as an umbrella… Be careful! (33) says Habib, trying to perpetrate Sir Harold’s authority in his absence. Sir Harold’s orders are represented in the glove and looked after by Habib. The presence of the glove is then enough to subjugate the Arabs. The representation of authority creates order. The objects become animated. Leila subdues and worships Said’s trousers left in the house. Her relationship with his trousers is more free and erotic than the relationship she can have with the real Said, because he rejects her. The sound effects are performed by the actors, and their words create a reality that they will enact and fall victim to. Said says, “it’s getting windy—both men imitate the sound of the wind, and shiver” (34)
Said, Leila, and his mother are very poor and miserable. But they are not pathetic or looking up at the rich people. The characters sink deeper in misery, unhappiness, poverty, and corruption, but as they do it they become more and more the heroes of the story. Genet creates such deep, carefully drawn characters. Said is walking to his wedding and he says to his mother, “don’t joke. Today I want to be sad. I’d hurt myself on purpose to be sad” (12). The mother doesn’t try to give him consolation or to make him happy, she encourages him to go deeper into that feeling of unhappiness, “vomit on her” (13) she tells him.
The brothel is another strong image used by Genet to sanctify sin. Malika and Warda, the prostitutes, are proud of their rituals, they are the goddesses of the ceremony. Malika’s seduction style is “the tooth cleaning with a hatpin” (21). We normally would find that image pretty gross, but when executed by this professional of lovemaking and seduction it becomes a sensual ceremony.
Genet glorifies the dead more than life. Death is not an end but a passing to a new dimension. In The Screens we can see Genet’s idea of theater as a ‘dialogue with the dead’. Genet expressed the idea that the true site of theater was the cemetery . The people of the town know how to communicate with the dead. “Your funeral is also part of your life as a living man” (57) says the mother to The Mouth.
During the reading of the play I was to try to look at how does Genet so successfully accomplishes his goal of making the miserable characters the heroes of the story. My answer was, by giving them the complexity that is usually denied to them. For the most part we are exposed to writing that is affected by a view that will follow the same treatment. The heroes are the characters who are written with specific individual characteristics. The “evil” ones are usually more similar to a stereotype. When writing people of color, for example, the traits attached to the characters are mostly part of their cultural background. The white protagonists’ traits are individual, personal, and complex. Genet reverses the treatment that most writers give to characters. He presents the oppressors as funny caricatures, and he gives the Arabs, the people of color, the sinners, the robbers, and miserable characters a complexity that is usually denied to them by most authors. We enter their lives and their psychology in a way we usually are not allowed to, we follow them to their deaths, their sinking into sin is heroic, poetic and beautiful.
Genet, Jean. The Screens. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Grove Press, 1961.