By Anuradha Marwah
Imaging a theatre right in the centre of the city, Jean Genet, the French playwright, wrote in 1967:
‘We shall ask future city planners to provide for a cemetery where the dead will continue to be buried, or to plan for a disturbing columbarium, a structure whose style will be simple yet impressive, and close beside it, in its shadow so to speak, or among the very graves, the theatre will be built.” (The Strange Word Urb…)
Genet describes the audience “making its way amongst the dead lying in the earth” when they come to watch these performances of the future. He submits that in such a scenario “Death would be both closer and lighter, the theatre more solemn.” Genet was contending that dying has been rendered surreptitious in the West; mourning is apologetically private and hidden. Civilisation has been intent on pushing death out of daily consciousness as though it were an aberration. He was offering a corrective to this.
Rereading this macabre essay, I felt a chill go up my spine. It was as though Genet, the enfant terrible of French theatre, was evoking the world-wide dance of death that would take place thirty-four years after his demise. In his time there had been war and the indignity of heaps of dead bodies in concentration camps just as in our time we are witnessing deaths in hospital parkings and corpses floating in a holy river. Such centre-stage performances of death make human life and aspirations appear meaningless. They highlight the absurdity of existence and the hollowness of our certainties. Yet life must go on.
Genet responded to the breakdown by creating plays that subverted hegemonies — religion, capitalism, state power, heterosexual relationships – with poetry and brutality. His elegant dismantling of institutions indicated creativity at the height of its powers.
Arguably, his absurdist plays take us to the “sacred” heart of human existence by stripping away social and political falsities. Sartre, one of the foremost intellectuals of the time, deemed him a saint in his book Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr.
Saint Genet was a self-confessed thief and a homosexual at a time when homosexuality was a punishable offence. Perhaps it was because he was so much at odds with conventional society that he instinctively empathised with the underdog. His artistic concern was not only for the poor and the oppressed but also for the rebels who challenged social and political hierarchies. This brought him a fair amount of flak. But he was like a Fakir who makes it his business to call out the pretensions of the rich and the privileged and in the process makes himself vulnerable to charges of eccentricity or scandalous behaviour.
He was no doubt aware of such critique. Perversely, while making outright political comments later in life, he upped the shock value. An instance is his unconditional support to the Palestinian cause which came out as an expression of passion or the “irrational affinity” that he said he felt for the Fedayeen: “They are in the right because I love them.” It was hardly a considered political statement but then Genet had always resisted allying himself to any ideological programme. However politically naive he might have been, one might find the emotionalism of his utterances more resonant than a cold reasoned critique today when at least 230 Palestinians and 12 Israelis are reported to have been killed in the Gaza offensive. The dead include women, children and senior citizens on the Palestinian side. So many years later I find myself wondering whether compassion for the wronged party and making allowances for their excesses could have served as the beginning of a solution to what has escalated into an impossible political situation for the entire world.
Acting with Death
Compassion might seem like an inappropriate term to use in reference to a playwright who is supposed to have been heavily influenced by the theatre of cruelty that shocks audiences in order to bring them out of their comfort zone. But so much of Genet’s writing and theatre works antithetically. He closes the afore-mentioned essay “The Strange Word Urb…” with the description of a performance that straddles life and death with irreverence and passion. On the one hand, it scandalously celebrates destruction, but on the other hand it can be read as a message of selflessness. The funeral mime that he proposes as the ultimate eulogy cannibalises Art while making it:
“What remained of a Rembrandt
torn up into very even
little pieces and chucked
into the crapper”
Rereading Genet in times of Covid is both chilling and therapeutic. His obsessiveness with death and the liberating potential he located in it might repel in the first reading but it definitely makes one rethink the way one lives. To me what felt most significant was the way he recast society in his works: destroying in order to create. In suggesting that one live and act with death, it seems to me, Genet was bringing one to the ultimate humility of a spiritual seeker, a devotee, for whom all worldly things are equal and transient.
– Anuradha Marwah is a novelist and playwright . For her first directorial venture, Medea ( Hindustani, 55 min), she collaborated with a Minneapolis-based theatre company during her Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence (FNAPE) fellowship in 2017. More information on her work is available on http://anuradhamarwah.com
– Setting the Stage’ by author and academic, Anuradha Marwah, is an occasional column on theatre, performance and life. The author’s sketch us by Namrata.
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