Friday, October 23, 2009

The Balcony - by Jean Genet

Performed in NYC in 1960 The Balcony unfolds during a violent rebellion in an un-named city at an indeterminate time. It takes place in a brothel - or "house of illusions" where elaborate role plays are enacted. There are 13 characters in the play and 8 scenes.

The beginning scenes are of the role plays, The Bishop, The Judge and The General enact scenes of power and glory with the assistance of the brothel employees. Occasional reminders of the rising treacherousness of the world outside filter in. By scene four Irma, who runs the brothel is introduced. The Chief of Police enters wanting to know if anyone has requested him as a role to enact. This is the crux of the play - the symbols of power - and from here the plot kicks in resulting in a wicked reversal where the brothel is the only refuge from the bloodshed outside, and an Envoy uses the role-playing Bishop, Judge and General as symbols to trot out in front of the people, along with Irma as the Queen.

In the final scene the Chief of Police is satisfied as one of the leaders of the rebellion comes in and wishes to enact him.

There's lots of corsets, lingerie, horse play and suggestive moments. Irma has a device with dials and a view finder from which she can see all the rooms of the house. The fantasies of power and the realities of power come into conflict - the men playing at it so enjoyed the fantasy and the reality takes all the fun out of it. The Chief of Police, also referred to as the Hero, once emulated wants to be entombed with victuals to last him 2000 years.

It was kindof a hard slog to read this, I found myself skimming ahead then going back because I had no idea what was happening. Much of the play's power would be in seeing it, I imagine. (And I have seen it, years ago - but I only remember the opening scene where they chose to have the Bishop masterbating and squawking...)

There's so many different uses of the stage, actors playing mirror-images, the men and women of the brothel coming in and out of role, costumes and props - this is a different kind of theater entirely. And after pushing through, the ending was satisfying, the way the images and questions he'd been setting up from the beginning with the elaborate role plays and the setting and the secondary characters all fell into service of his vision, a "caustic view of man and society" according to the summary. Yet...

Yet I wonder what this play asks of us now? What does the General, the Bishop and the Judge look like to us now? What Queen could be trotted out to bring peace after the rebellion? Do we have these figures and how are they dressed?

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