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Genet, Mailer, & the New Paternalism

Thoughts on: Genet, Mailer, & the New Paternalism 

It is easily imagined of Jean Genet that he is one those artists who so adore reality that they are obsessed with the ever-present possibility that it too will betray them.

Sitting through the too long evening of “The Blacks” or wending a careful and respect­ful way through the printed texts of “Deathwatch” or “The Maids,” we are overwhelmed by our sense of his distrust of us; his refusal to honor our longings for communion. Presently we understand that he does not seem to believe that is what we do long for and so, now and again, he drops even the remnants of his regard, and flails at us. He encloses the reckless and undefined dozen or so jokes; dismisses what he may consider to be the boundaries of even his own mind. He becomes the threatening soldier who may or may not put bullets in the gun, such being the depth of his contempt for the enemy. Of course, when whimsy does allow him to load and fire, we are shattered.

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Proper Meter 

Norman Mailer’s discussion of “The Blacks” (Voice, May 11, May 18) was, therefore, in proper meter. Between the play and Mai­ler’s discernible reaction to it, a duet was indeed sung. The rise and fall of his coherence and incoherence alike strikes a stunning and, I think, significant kinship with the French writer. This is especially so in his lusty acceptance of the romantic racism which need­ed evocation to allow for the conceptualization of “The Blacks” in the first place.

For, at this moment, on both sides of the Atlantic, certain of the best of men have sent up a lament which is much concerned with the disorders of a civilization which they do not really believe in their hearts are to be set aright by in­vocation of either fresh “frontiers” or antique “grandeur.” Sensing the source of the disorders to be deeper than any of that, they have will­fully turned to the traditional route of history’s more serious nay-sayers. They have elected the spirit and fraternity of what the balance of society is always pleased to hope are “the damned”: pros­titutes, pimps, thieves, and general down-and-outers of whatever persuasion. They are certain, as their antecedents in all ages have been, that if the self-appointed “top” of society is as utterly rotten as it is, then the better side of madness must be the company and deistic celebration of “the bottom.” As far as they are concerned, history has merely inadvertently provided them with a massive set of fra­ternals in “the Blacks.”

Among the Negro artists and in­tellectuals whom I know it is a melancholy point of reference. Our life-eating sense of fatigue began with, of course, the appearance of Mailer’s “The White Negro” a few years ago, and has been fitfully nourished by those echoes of dif­fering aspects of its theme in the “little magazines,” The Village Voice, living rooms and coffee houses: “The Negro is hell-bent for suburbia and the loss of his soul, dear God, dear God!” Nelson Algren agrees in print with Jonas Mekas that “A Raisin in the Sun” is, of all things, a play about “in­surance money” and/or “real estate.” (This particular absurdity, it is true, is rendered a little less frightening only by the knowledge that there are people who sincerely believe that “Othello” is a play about a handkerchief.)

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Romantic Shadows

But to discuss this paternalism at all, one must underscore the innocence from which certain attitudes invariably spring. We have been locked away from one another and, sadly, it is not really curious that we seem to throw such strange and romantic shadows upon the windows. How else might Algren, believing, apparently, that materially deprived Negroes are, somehow, the only “true Negroes,” equate the desire to escape the grim horrors of the ghetto with the fancied longing of a people to cease being “themselves” and “get to the psychoanalysts as fast as white folks do”? And, for his part, Mailer pens a theatrical com­mentary which, in some passages, is primed with an ingenuous acceptance of the racial mystique.

After he had written what was cogent about “The Blacks”: “… the truest and most ex­plosive play that anyone has yet written at all about the turn of the tide and the guilt and horror in the white man’s heart … ” and after he was done with gratuitous suppositions concerning the sexuality of the actors, Mailer indulged him­self mainly as a leading captain of the new paternalism, hardly pausing even to draw for us some of the richer implications of his own assessment of the Genet work.

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About Themselves

For “The Blacks” is, as Mailer partially observed, more than any­thing else a conversation between white men about themselves. This seemed to me the final trick, not upon reality which tends to hold its own, but upon illusion. For it is only an illusion that Genet has written anything else. He is a man and can only begin where any of us can: within our own subjectivity. As an entity, he must fancy “Les Negres” only as he thinks they should be along about now in the history of the world: if they have been treated thus and so forth, then this is the way they should behave and feel. He has rendered an equation and calculat­ed, one must say reasonably, for a sum. The result is an abstraction possessed of great flashes of power and all the inventive poetry of what is certainly an exquisite theatrical mind. But it is an abstraction which tends to remind one, through the absence of humanness, style or no style, that men have always found a dimension of nobility in their grandest guilts (have we not all seen the face of Eichmann in the dock?). Moreover, it seemed to me that we were spared the ultimate anguish of man’s oppression of man be­cause the abstraction is utilized to affirm, indeed entrench, the quite different nature of pain, lust, cruelty, ambition in “The Blacks.” The dramatist does not impress upon us that it is the sameness of kind which oppressor’s most des­pise in the oppressed; that they do not lynch or castrate dogs or apes as a way of life because they do not find their own images in those creatures. It is the reflection of oneself that most enrages when we are engaged in our crimes against a fellow human creature. In “The Blacks” the oppressed remain unique; it is, interestingly, their shadows that have been abstracted into “the style.” In it, the blacks remain the exotic “The Blacks.”

This may be because they are seen, still, by their creator as entirely relative to the fact of the presence of The Whites in the world. It does not occur to the European or the white American, as yet, that they might exist in any other context. The characters in the play dream not only of their revenge but of “turning Beauty black” because even the most pro­found of white men find it incomprehensible that a black man may behold the moon and stars without agonies of concern for how those images may have seem­ed to — The Whites. The play most certainly has validity in its purgation of the whites (in the audience) but what I found to be its spectacular quality of detachment for the blacks (in the audience) must surely be a limitation which derives from the fact that, for all of its sophistication, it is itself an expression of some of the more quaint notions of white men.

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Their Anticipations

It does not invalidate what we take to be Genet’s intentions because the whole play is, again, about the anticipations of white men; by the end of it we sense that they shall be disappointed if the blacks really do give more at­tention to building steel mills and hydroelectric plants throughout Africa than to slitting a few hundred thousand criminal throats.

With regard to Mailer and the new paternalism, it will be said, and swiftly, that Negroes cannot be satisfied; that, in this instance, the Negro intellectual is himself so “hung-up” that he does not understand at what Mailer is getting; that he has transcended what we still suppose to be the mark-off points of an old discussion and has found some more profound level where the white intellectual assumes all of that to be old hat and has moved on to where we can all really talk as the most in­side of insiders, which is to say, as some obscure undefined universal outsider who may be known as “the hipster.”

It has had a numbing effect, the creation of “the hip” into an ex­panded formalized idea. Negroes seem to have met it mainly with a crowning silence because who knew where to begin in the face of such monumental and crass assump­tions? A number of years had to dissolve before Jimmie Baldwin would remark in print, ever so gently: “… matters were not helped at all by the fact that Negro jazz musicians, among whom we sometimes found ourselves, who really liked Norman, did not for an instant consider him as being even remotely ‘hip’ and Norman did not know this and I could not tell him … They thought he was a real sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic.” (April Esquire: “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy.”)

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Naturally, whether or not some Negro jazz musicians think Norman Mailer or any other individual is or is not “hip” would be one of the great unimportant questions of our time — except for Mailer. He did not call his essay “The Hipster” or “The Outsider” or “We Who Might Swing” or any of that; he called it: “The White Negro.” He manufactured an absurdity and locked himself in it. He fabricated his own mythology concerning cer­tain “universals” about 20 million “outsiders” and rejoiced because his philosophy fitted his premise. He is like Seymour Krim in that respect in symbolizing all who fashion their particular fantasies and take the A Train to Harlem to find them and meet some frac­tion of one per cent of 700,000 people who bulge the community and go back downtown and write essays not on the prostitutes they met but on — “Harlem.” It is beginning to seem an inexhaustible tradition. What is a little new is the scope of the new arrogance. The new paternalists really think, it seems, that their utterances of the oldest racial cliches are, somehow, a demonstration of their liberation from the hanky-panky of liberalism and God knows what else. Consequently, from the depths of his particular seven-league assumptions, Mailer blithely writes: “They cannot know because they have not seen themselves from the outside (as we have seen them) that there is genius in their race — it is possible that Africa is closer to the root of whatever life is left than any other land on earth … ”

The most that can be said for romance as desperate as that is to repeat that the shadows on the window are erotic. How can the man who wrote it know that Negroes are, by and large, not in any wise sufficiently improv­erished of spirit to need or want that? How can Mailer or Genet or Algren really be expected to know, really know, that the commonplace reverse assumptions among Ne­groes about everybody else (“The Others”) are just as touching, in­nocent, and vicious? I know very few Negroes who are not firmly convinced that “the roots of life” are in Puerto Ricans, Italians, and everyone else of “Latin tempera­ment.” “Honey, those people really know how to live —” it runs. Sey­mour Krim does not know that when he left the most lowly of the bar-flies of Harlem, they re-engag­ed in chit-chat concerning the most traditional of very exotic notions of the Jewish people which are as grim and unworthy of them as they are any place else in America. Must we celebrate this madness in any direction? Is it not “known” among Negroes that white people, as an entity, are “dirty” (especially white women who never seem to do their own cleaning); inherently cruel (the cold fierce roots of Europe: who else would put all those people into ovens scientifically?); “smart” (“you really have to hand it to the m.f.’s”) and the rest of it? And never having been exposed to the glorious fury of a Moldavian peasant dance or the tonal magnificence of some mighty Russian folk song — we also “know,” like Mailer, that we “sing and dance better than white people.” Similarly do we “know” that we are “lazier” and “more humane.” Etc.

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Dies Hard

Moreover there is reason to now suppose that we (Negro writers) may have carried the skin-lightener hair-straightener references too far for a climate where context is not yet digested. Pride of race is not alien to Negroes. The Lord only knows that what must be half our institutions seem to function on the basis of nothing else! It may indeed be a long time after integration that it disappears out of the Ameri­can black man’s consciousness. Black racialism in the United States may ultimately show itself to be more tenacious than even its mighty opposite. Nationalism dies hard, as is witnessed by the St. Patrick’s Day parade down our streets each spring.

Of course oppression makes people better than their oppressors, but that is not a condition sealed in the loins by genetic mysteries. The new paternalists have mistaken that oppression for the Negro. They are as certain as Genet that the source of the wily speech is tied to color; that the brooding hatred which intelligent whites are apparently able to see is, somehow, wedded to the blackness.

No wonder the single-mindedness of the middle-class Negro’s search for comfort offends: it is an ugly fall from “naturalness.” Don’t any of these people know that working­-class social rules are not less in volume than those of more monied classes? There are just as many things which are forbidden — they are just different. A man who be­lieves in the taboos of his order is not freer than another man who believes in his at a different level of society. In society we, all of us, merely flee from rigor to rigor.

That is why, blues or no blues, life roots or no life roots, Negroes of all classes have made it clear that they want the hell out of the ghetto just as fast as the ascenden­cy of Africa, the courts, insurance money, job-upgrading, the threat of “our image overseas,” or any­thing else can thrust them. Worse, they have a distinct tendency to be astonished and/or furious that everyone doesn’t know it. Misery may be theatrical to the onlooker but it hurts him who is miserable. That is what the blues are about.

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Prison of the Premise

Out of his distaste for the middle-class Negro, Mailer is led to assume, for some reason or another, that the actors in “The Blacks” who seem to him to act with inhibition and self-conscious­ness must be middle-class Negroes. Well, knowing most of them to be part-time hack-drivers, janitors, chorus girls, domestics, it is im­possible to know what prompts the assumption other than the prison of the premise again. For my part, I am twice confused, because I genuinely thought the acting, al­most without exception, brilliant. Especially Messrs. Browne and Jones.

It points up the incredible eager­ness for the new villain: The true middle-class Negro simply amuses the life out of everyone because he stands on line at the opera; be­cause of his attaché case; because he is as passionately opinionated on West Germany as Congo; he amuses because he plays tennis; because his fatuousness has the audacity to sound as deep-seated as the chap he is talking to. Above all he amuses and outrages because he now persists in home-hunting with the wife in his foreign car in Scarsdale, searching for his little niche in the Great Sterility. And he certainly offends if, of an evening, he expresses boredom of the eternal race question and/or disapproval of the fact that Lorraine Hansberry goes around in dirty sneakers.

Well, there is certainly nothing fresh in the spectacle of white people insisting on telling all sorts of colored peoples how they should behave to satisfy them. It is, to say the least, the most characteristic aspect of the nation’s foreign policy.

Out of the perversion of what they think they understand about The Rise of the Negro Middle Class, the very same paternalists who will study every nuance of Genet or Antonioni have no time for the nuances of the homely, working-class “Raisin.” They pre­ferred a display of public dishon­esty or stupidity by refusing to see that it was, more than anything else, a long and, perhaps, laborious assault on money values. One speaks of dishonesty because, in a subsequent discussion with the Mekas entourage, it turned out that what they found most objectionable was the fact that the hero did not make the payoff at the end: “He should have played the game,” his co-reviewer, Miss Juillard, told me, “that would have been the swing­ing thing to do.”

I plead guilty to the four corners of my aspirations for the human race.

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Less Sophisticated

As a matter of fact, contrary to the original thoughts of this discussion, it is better to dismiss Mekas almost entirely. To think of it is to be reminded, with pain, that his particular variety of paternalism is of the older and less sophisticated type which simply turns motion-picture criticism over to a mysteriously qualified 19-year-old Negro girl because, presumably, that is what is done when it comes to those “colored movies” anyway. This is the young woman who also explained to me that she thought the movie told Negroes that they should want to “be white” because of all those passages wherein the college-daughter persisted in her preoccupation with things African. Intellectuality, it was explained, is “white.” (To such jibberish nothing can be added. A dedicated Voice reader like myself can only hope that the paper will institute a motion-picture-criticism column of some stature.)

Finally, isn’t it a little late in this particular century for Mailer’s remark that “a bad Negro actor” reminds him of nothing quite so much as “a bad white actor”? There is something insane about that sentence unless one truly be­lieves that there is, within the nature of being a Negro, some qualifying property which modifies all other adjectives in a sentence. Or that there should be. He re­iterated, the following week, that this problem is, however, relieved when the actors, sure enough, dance and sing or are otherwise active as entertainers, which re­mains, in his considered judgment, the true forte, as we were saying, of “The Blacks.”

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LOOKING BACK over the thoughts penned here, I am disappointed and saddened. The patches of anger and frequent flippancies do not, some­how, thrust my deepest and most sincere hopes through the window; crash the lock which gives birth to such misunderstanding in the first place. These gentle if impassioned artists whom I have mainly sailed into are not the “enemies” of Negroes. We all know that; that accounts for the afore-mentioned melancholy which colors all effort to try and really “talk to one another.” Heaven only knows that men fixed in a posture of consum­ing outrage because of the spec­tacle of this world have been, as I said at the beginning “the best of men” in all ages. Genet, Mailer, and Algren are right to be in contempt of the ghastly hypocrisy of their cultures; artists who are not are, indeed, lesser artists and lesser men. In any other context these three would deserve mainly saluta­tion.

It is on this account that the tender evaluation of those jazz musicians of Mailer is genuinely touching. It is my own, even though I have never met him. One hopes only that, recognizing his public turbulence as merely an echo of all thoughtful people these days, he will not let those forces with which he battles force him into such a rage that he cannot loom larger than their expectations and definitions of him. One powerfully hopes that.

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Above All

And, that above all else, he will not allow his apprehension of this world make him flail so; let him grow contemptuous, like Genet, of that which is his only hope for tel­ling blows: his words. Not let flee discipline of thought; not let cadence itself become a shadow of his former powers. No, it is not the death of arrogance which is wished for Mailer; I do not know what humility has accomplished in the history of man, when all is said and done. The wish is only that the arrogance become not shapeless; that it does not lose confi­dence in those of us who await the words which carry it with such hunger and need, on this barren landscape, knowing all the while the source and its truly monumental possibilities.

Norman, write not of the great­ness of our peoples, yours and mine, in the past tense because: “Vail kumen vet noch undzer oysge benkte sho!” — and “My Lord, what a mornin’!

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Norman Mailer on Jean Genet’s “The Blacks”

Theatre: “The Blacks” Part 1
May 11, 1961

No one who believes in the greatness of certain plays would go to any one of our houses to enjoy them. They exist as thundering productions in the mind only. We know they might be done (“King Lear,” for example, should be played by Ernest Hemingway), but one also knows that way lies nightmare, madness, and no hurricane’s spout. Our theatre is cancer gulch. Any­one who has worked in it felt the livid hate-twisted nerves of the actresses, the fag-ridden spirit of the actors, the gulping mannerless yaws of our directors, hysterical at resistance, ponderous at exposition, and always psychoanalytical, must admit that yes, at its best, our theatre is a rich ass and/or hole, at its worst, the heavens recoil.

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Fever for All

By way of preface to some re­marks on “The Blacks.” If one is tempted to say it is a great play (with insidious, even evil veins of cowardice in its cruel bravery), one has to add immediately that such greatness exists as still another of those exquisite lonely productions off imagination’s alley. The show, the literal show on the boards (and the set for this one is worth an essay of quiet criticism in itself), that tangible corporal embodiment of “The Blacks” ended as good theatre, shocking as a rash, bug­-house with anxiety to some, nerv­ous fever-hot for all. (A lot of people left.) It is a good produc­tion, one of the doubtless best productions in New York this year, and yet it fails to find two-thirds of the play. It is a hot hothouse tense livid off-fag deep-purple voodoo mon Doo production, thick, jungle bush, not unjazzy, never cool, but at its worst, and Gene Frankel’s touch is not always di­rected to the fine, the gloomy ac­colade one must offer is that “The Blacks” is three times as good a production as that finking of the pieces and parts one saw last year in “The Balcony.” Frankel does an honest job, he clarifies the play ­— at a cost, but he does make it easier to see the play than to read it — he enriches the production upon occasions. The rich farty arts, that only grace our theatre can claim, are used with good force. The savory in Genet (that outer-Wil­liams, the ta-ta Tennessee, cry not that the French write it better than thee) is laid on rich and that is probably right. What but a funky style could handle a murder by fornication of a white woman who is really a black vicar in a wig, dig, who turns around and comes out not to be killed at all, because Genet likes vastly to put Pirandello in a pretzel. This metamorphosis of forms, this fall into death by re­verses brings an arbitrary climax to the play (since it comes just before the producer’a questionable if artistic decision to have an inter­mission) and it is, if one is to talk like a theatre bore, one of the best 10 minutes spent in the pit since … So forth. It’s very good. Frankel surprised me for 10 min­utes. The actors too. As recom­mendations go, this play is Highly Recommended. Take your family, take the kids, take the hoodlums on the corner. Take your gun.

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Fact of the matter, I am gracious to Mr. Frankel because I think he did a not unbrave thing in direct­ing this piece. “The Blacks” is a Mother F. Kerr. It is a challenge, as some of the adenoidals may still be saying. Consider this speech as a clue to the heat of the evening. Delivered with considerable ele­gance and cold fire by Mr. Roscoe Lee Browne:

“ARCHIBALD (gravely): I order you to be black to your very veins. Pump black blood through them. Let Africa circulate in them. Let Negroes negrify themselves. Let them persist to the point of madness in what they’re condemned to be, in their ebony, in their odor, in their yellow eyes, in their cannibal tastes. Let them not be content with eating Whites, but let them cook each other as well. Let them invent recipes for shin-bones, knee-caps, calves, thick lips, everything. Let them invent unknown sauces. Let them invent hiccoughs, belches and farts that’ll give out a deleterious jazz. Let them invent a criminal painting and dancing. Negroes, if they change toward us, let it not be out of indulgence, but terror.”

Now contemplate the problem of a director. He is to deal with 13 actors, all Negro, in the truest and most explosive play anyone has yet written at all about the turn in the tide, and the guilt and horror in the white man’s heart as he turns to face his judge. For after all where do nightmares go when they are gone? Who is to say the gates of heaven are not manned by cannibals mumbling: Lumumba!

Rehearsals inevitably must com­mence in a state. For the actors are not Africans. They are Amer­ican Negroes, they belong some of them to the Black Bourgeoisie which any proud Negro is quick to tell you is a parody of the white bourgeoisie — the party’s-getting-­out-of-line kind of cramp on the jazz. They belong to the Center, to the Left Minority Center, the New York Post, Max Lerner, Rose Franzblau, Jackie Robinson (bruis­es the heart to list his name), Mus­cular Dystrophy, Communities-of­-Cancer, synagogue-on-Sunday, put up those housing projects, welfare the works, flatten the tits, mash the best, beef the worst, and marry the slack and mediocre Negro to the slack and mediocre Jew. Whew!

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The Real Horror

But organized religion is the death of the essay. Let us leave the mediocre at this: the real horror worked on the Jews and the Ne­groes since the Second War is the mass-communication of nothing­ness into their personality. They were two of the greatest peoples in America, and half of their popula­tions sold themselves to the sub­urb, the center, the secure; that diarrhea of the spirit which is embodied in the fleshless query: ”Is this good for the Jews?” So went the Jew. So went the Negro. The mediocre among them rushed for the disease.

Well, the Negro at least has his boast. They are part, this black bourgeoisie, of a militant people moving toward inevitable and much-deserved victory. They can­not know because they have not seen themselves from outside (as we have seen them), that there is a genius in their race — it is possible that Africa is closer to the root of whatever life is left than any other land of earth. The genius of that land is a cruel one, it may be even an unrelenting genius, void of for­giveness, but it is impossible that the survival, emergence, and even­tual triumph of the Negro during his three centuries in America will not be considered by history as an epic equal to the twenty centuries the Jew has wandered outside. It will be judged as superior if the Negro keeps his salt.

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The Bends

But for now, they are going through the bends. They suffer from that same slavery of ascent the geist imposes on all of us. It is Liberal Totalitarianism. Curiosity of the age! The concentration camps exist in the jargon of our souls, one’s first whiff of the gas chamber is the nausea of cancer’s hour, the storm troopers wear tor­toise-shell glasses, and carry at­tache cases to the cubicles in which they work on the Avenue of the Mad. The liberal tenets of the Center are central; all people are alike if we suppress the ugliness in each of us, all sadism is evil, all masochism is sick, all spontaneity is suspect, all individuality is in­fantile, and the salvation of the world must come from social manipulation of human material. That is why all people must tend to be­come the same — a bulldozer does not work at its best in rocks or forest. Small accident that many of the Negro leaders are as color­less as our white leaders, and all too many of the Negroes one knows have a dull militancy com­pared to the curve and art of per­sonality their counterparts had even 10 years ago. The misapprehension on which they march is that time is on the side of the Negro. If his hatred is contained, and his individuality reduced, the logic of the age must advance him first to equality and then to power (goes the argument), because the Center makes its dull shifts through guilt and through need. Since the Negro has finally succeed­ed in penetrating the conscience of the best Whites, and since the worst Whites are muzzled by our need to grant the Negro his equa­lity or sink a little faster into the icy bogs of the Cold War, the Negro knows he need merely ape the hypocrisies of the white bour­geoisie, and he will win. It is a partial misapprehension. In the act of concealing himself, the Negro does not hasten his victory so much as he deadens the taste of it.

A fine sermon. Its application to the theatre is not arcane. The Negro tends to be superior to the White as an entertainer, and in­ferior as an actor. No need to dis­cuss the social background; it is obvious the Negro has had virtual­ly no opportunity to develop as an actor until the last few years, and the comparison is to that large ex­tent most unfair, but it is made nonetheless because the Negro does not generally lack professional competence as an actor, he lacks relaxation. The bad Negro actor reminds one of nothing so much as a very bad White actor: he orates, declaims, stomps, screams, prates, bellows, and binds, his emotions remain private to him­self, his taste is uncertain or directly offensive to the meaning of the play, he is in short a bully.

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Sense of Self

Now this is curious. Because the greatest entertainers in America have been Negro, and the best of the Whites, Sinatra, etc., etc. — I refuse to make a list here — exhibit their obvious and enormous debt every time they make a sound. The Negro entertainer brought mood and tempo, a sense of self, an ear for audience. The cadence in the shift of the moment became as sensuous as the turning of flesh in oneself or within another. Extraordinary was the richness of intimate meaning they could bring to a pop tune. It was their fruit, the fruit of Aesopian language. Used to employing the words ex­pected of them by the White, the Negro communicated more by voice than by his word. A simple sen­tence promised the richest opportunities to his sense of nuance that is it did if the simple sen­tence did not speak too clearly in its language. To the extent that meaning was imprecise, the voice could prosper. For meaning was ferocious in its dangers. Back of the throat, in the clear salts of language, was the sentence graven on the palate: White man, I want to kill you. Ofay, you die.

So the style of the American Negro took on its abstract manner. Where the sentence said little, the man said much; where the words were clear, the person was blank. The entertainer thrived, the actor was stunted. The Negro, steeped in the danger of his past, would obviously be in dread of en­tering the cage of formal meaning; he could hardly do it with the deep relaxation of a great actor. It is one thing for Olivier to be magni­ficent but for a Negro it is simply too dangerous. The emotions bank­ed to suffocation in his heart are never far from erupting. So he speaks stiff, he declaims, he denies his person. Now, you or me can point to Sidney Poitier, to Canada Lee, to the good cast of “Raisin in the Sun,” to moments in “The Cool World,” to this, to that — I know. One speaks precisely of a tendency. Nothing other. (Who has not felt a tendency constrict his chest or cramp his feet?) Only the minds of the Center will say tomorrow that I said all Negro actors are bad. But this I do in­sist — they tend not to be good. And in “The Blacks” this tendency is exacerbated.

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Consider the emotions of the cast when they must utter lines like the following to a white audience:

“Tonight, our sole concern will be to entertain you. So we have killed this white woman. There she lies.”

”You forget that I’m already knocked out from the crime I had to finish off before you arrived, since you need a fresh corpse for every performance.”

“And you, pale and odorless race, race without animal odors, without the pestilence of out swamps.”

“Invent, not love, but hatred, and thereby make poetry, since that’s the only domain in which we’re allowed to operate.”

“If I were sure that Village bumped the woman off in order to heighten the fact that he’s a scarred, smelly, thick-lipped, snub-nosed Negro, and eater and guzzler of Whites and all other colors … ” ♦

Continued below…

Theatre: “The Blacks” Part 2
May 18, 1961

Last week I left you — those of you who navigated the perils of my pompous prose — with a situation as be-jazzed as the end of one of those 12-installment serials we used to sit through on Saturday afternoons in neighborhood houses. Thirteen Negro actors at the edge of a cliff, obliged to utter such sweetmeats as:

“Tonight, our sole concern will be to entertain you. So we have killed this white woman. There she lies.”

Or:

“If I were sure that Village bumped the woman off in order to heighten the fact that he’s a scarred, smelly, thick-lipped, snub-nosed Negro, and eater and guzzler of Whites … “

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It’s a great deal to ask of a young Negro actor that he have the sociological sophistication to understand one can get away with this in New York, that our puri­tanical, bully-ridden, smog-headed, dull, humorless, deadly, violence­-steeped and all but totally corrupt city, famous for its housing pro­jects which are renowned as the ugliest architecture in the history of man, famous for its Mayor, Walkie-Talkie Bob, famous for its Commissioner of Parks, Newbold “Stringless” Morris, famous for its Fuehrer, R. Moses, the King of Concrete, famous for its Police and its Mafia (the happiest mar­riage of uglies in a century), fa­mous for its fix, famous tor the heroic efforts of the authority to stamp out The Menace, that ring of coffee-house dens where the Beats learn to plot, and triply famous for its newspapers, totali­tarian to the lashings — they will print any speech which is void of good prose — yes this famous city is so snob-ridden and so petrified of making a martyr that one can get away with near-murder. No­body will close “The Blacks,” or there’ll be demonstrations in Paris. No one will rise up from the audi­ence to strike the actors for sacri­lege. No hoodlums will paint swas­tikas on the marquee. The St. Marks’ Playhouse is a 200 seater or less, but if necessary 500 police would patrol the avenue to keep “The Blacks” going. Our democ­racy is a soporific hulk, a deadened old beast’s carcass with two or three nerves alive, no more. Like a dying patient, democracy holds on to the pain of its nerves, de­fends them. So the actors who play the parts are not taking their lives in their hands each night they go on, and the anxiety which lay heavy the night I saw the play, an anxiety which took the long jump from phenomenon to false conclusion (That cat in the front row has eyes for me. If I talk of killing one more White, I’ll be dead myself) will begin to dissolve before the reality: “The Blacks” is secure. The play is close to greatness, it will survive. It gives life to the city. There is so little real life in the dead haunt­ed canyons of this cancer-ridden city that a writer as surgical in his cruelties as Saint Genet gives Being back to the citizens. For in 20 years the doctors may discover that it is not only the removal of the tumor which saves the pa­tient but the entry of the knife. Cancer thrives on indecision and is arrested by any spirit of lightning present in an act. Cancer is also arrested by answers, which is why perhaps the cancerous al­ways seek for faith and cannot bear questions. The authoritarian wave of the twentieth century may be seen a century from now, if we still exist, as the reflection of man’s anxiety before the oncoming rush of this disease, a disease which is not a disease, but a loss of self, for unlike death by other causes, cancer is a rebellion of the cells. They refuse to accept the will, the dignity, the desire, in short the project of the person who contains them. They betray the body because they have lost faith in it. So in desperation the man who contains such illness ceases to be existential, ceases to care about a personal choice, about making a personal history and prefers instead to deliver his will to an institution or faith outside him in the hope that it will absorb the rebellious hatreds of his Being. Man turns to society to save him only when he is sick within. So long as he is alive, he looks for love. But those dying of inanition, boredom, frustration, monotony, or debilitating defeat turn to the Church, to the FBI, to the Law, to the New York Times, to authoritarian leaders, to movies  about the Marine Corps, or to the race for Space. For centuries it has been society’s boast that if it could not save a man’s soul, it could at least insure him from los­ing it. Ever since the orgy failed in Rome and the last decadence of the Empire welcomed the barbarian, the Western World has been relatively simple, a community of souls ruled by society. First the Church, then the Reformation, then Capitalism, Communism, Facism, and at last Medicine-Sci­ence-and-Management. But as it evolved, so Society used up its faith in itself. Today the Managers do not understand what they manage nor what is their proper goal, the Scientists are gored by Heisen­berg’s principle of Uncertainty, which in rough would state that ultimates by their nature are not measurable, and Medicine is beginning to flounder at the inability to comprehend its striking impotence before cancer. The modern faiths appeal to mediocrities whose minds are too dull to perceive that they are offered not answers but the suppression of questions; the more sensitive turn to the older faiths and shrink as they swallow emotional inconsistency: “I can’t bear Cardinal Spell but I adore Dorothy Day.” The cancerous who are inclined to the Fascist look to the police, the secret police, the krieg against crime, corruption, and Communists.

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Like Razors

“The Blacks” gives life because it is a work of perceptions which slice like razors; it cuts at one through the cancerous smog of partial visions and dim faith. It is a scourge to liberal ideology, vomitorium for the complacent. Eleanor Roosevelt would be ill, James Wechsler might sweat, Gov­ernor Lehman would leave. The play entertains the forbidden nightmare of the liberal: what, dear Lord, if the reactionary is correct, and people are horrible. Yet, with the same breath, it is revolutionary. Genet’s unconcealed glee at the turn of power from the White to the Negro would so charge the paranoia of the reac­tionary that he might suffer a heart attack.

Yet, as one insists, it is se­cure. It will thrive in the inter­stices of our totalitarian liberty, prosper out of the very contradic­tions which strangle our freedom. It will be a nerve which manages to supply the intellectual life of the city and ao keep it alive. One may hope the actors begin to settle into their parts, and start to offer the enrichments they can bring to almost every line by sensing their cues rather than picking them up, by savoring their lines instead of racing over them, and by com­mencing that work which is the real enterprise of the actor, that private effort of the imagination to create a real life for the char­acter they are playing, a life which begins before the play, will endure after it, and is drenched in the changeable mood of the present as they act the piece. The night I saw “The Blacks” the actors were fine every time they became en­tertainers. When they chanted in unison, when they danced, when they leaped from platform to platform, moved in choreographic starts and streamings, smoked cigarettes over the catafalque of the corpse to remove the stench of her murdered flesh, they were first-rate, the play came to life, the production was rich, colors were added to the script. But in their dialogue, particularly in the long quiet stretches of the first half-hour, they were tense and without individuality. No personal charm, no sly destruction of one another by the turn of a voice or slow laugh, no psychic wit to slice the presumption of another’s speech, no bodily contempt, no air was sufficient to be breathed. The Negro like the Zen master is, of necessity, the artist of the put-down. But it was this art, craft, this virtue — to dare to be sadistic in order to keep one’s authenticity — which was most missing. The play, as was suggested last week, rode lividly, gracelessly, nervously, over the best of Genet’s dialogue, his stops and starts, flowers and whips.

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Rich in Possibilities

But that may be recovered. The play is rich in poasibilities for an actor, so rich it can only improve provided the actors are serious about their work. On the months ahead, if they find themselves, the production could become a major piece.

As a drama critic, one is here obliged to take a bow. Over the past two weeks, 4000 words have been written. One has climbed his way over small essays on the Negro as actor and entertainer, the loss of spirit in minority groups, the vices of our city, the logic of cancer; one has even sermonized over the future of “The Blacks.” But not a word to summarize the story of the play. Not a specific line of criticism about Genet’s masteries and lacks.

It would take a larger bag of words than this to give account of the twists and turns, the frames within circles in the line of story of “The Blacks.” Even then one could not be certain. Since the attempt must still be made to con­tend with the vices of Jean Genet, I will quote here, however, from a description in The New York Her­ald Tribune:

“a group of colored players enacts before a jury of white-masked Negroes — representing in caricature a missionary bishop, an island Governor General, a haughty queen and her dwarf lackey — the ritualistic murder of a white of which they have been accused. When they have played out their weird and gruesome crime they turn on their judges and condemn them to death. Then — with polite adieux to the spectators — they dance with 18th-century elegance a Mozart minuet, with which the play began … “

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It is a fair job for a short para­graph. And it points the way to the worst contradiction in Genet. He is on the one hand a brave and great writer with an unrelenting sense of where the bodies are bur­ied. He is also an unconscionable faggot, drenched in chi-chi, ador­ing any perfume which conceals the smell of the dead, equally as much as he admires the murder. His first love is not art but magic. He provokes and then mystifies, points to the flower and smuggles the root. A boxer who wins every round on points and never sets himself long enough to throw three good punches in combination, Genet’s best perceptions are fol­lowed by his worst. A line which is a universal blow is followed by a speech too private for his latest lover to comprehend. Like Allen Ginsberg, he is maddening. In the middle of real power, a fart; in the depth of a mood comes a sneeze. The tortures and twists of his nervous system are offered as proudly as his creations; he looks not only for art but for therapy. With the best will in the world and the finest actors, no one in an audience could ever understand every single line in any one of his works, not even if one returned a dozen of times. He is willful, perverse. He has the mind of a master, and the manners of a vi­cious and over-petted child. So the clear sure statements of his work can never be found, and one senses with the whole of one’s critical faculty that they are not there to be found. Each delicate truth is carefully paralyzed by a lie he winds about it, each assertion of force is dropped to its knees on a surrealist wrench of the mean­ing.

Archibald: By stretching language we’ll distort it sufficiently to wrap ourselves in it and hide, whereas the masters contract it.

As Genet gives, he takes away; as he offers, his style chokes with spite. He cannot finally make the offer, the one who receives would not deserve it. So he builds the mansion of his art and buries it, encourages the stampede of a herd of elephants, rouses our nerves for an apocalyptic moment, and leaves us with an entrechat. To be satisfying, a fag’s art must be determinedly minor, one stone properly polished, deliciously set. Genet throws open a Spanish chest; as we prepare to gorge, we discover the coins are heated, the settings to the jewels have poison on their points.

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One does not spend one’s youth as a petty thief, one’s manhood as a convict in one prison after another without absorbing the vi­ciousness of a dying world. Genet’s biography is his character, never was it more so. Small surprise that Sartre could write a book of 600 pages in tribute. Genet is our first existential saint. But his de­testation of the world strangles the full organ of possibilities. He could become the greatest writer alive if only he dared, if only he contracted language to the point instead of stretching it.

In “The Blacks,” all the actors are Negro. Five are supposed to be White, but are White only as pretexts, as masks. In the murderous dialogues between Black and White which flicker like runs of summer lightning through the play, one never has the experience as it could be had: that moment of terror when Black and White confront one another with the clear acids of their unconscious. Witness the dialogue between the White Queen and the Negro wo­man Felicity:

“THE QUEEN (inspired): All the same, my proud beauty, I was more beautiful than you! Anyone who knows me can tell you that. No one has been more lauded than I. Or more courted, or more toasted. Or adorned. Clouds of heroes, young and old, have died for me. My retinues were famous. At the Emperor’s Ball, an African slave bore my train. And the Southern Cross was one of my baubles. You were still in darkness …

FELICITY: Beyond that shattered darkness, which was splintered into millions of Blacks who dropped to the jungle, we were Darkness in person. Not the darkness which is absence of light, but the kindly and terrible Mother who contains light and deeds.”

and a little later, The Queen:

“Show these barbarians that we are great because of our respect for discipline, and show the Whites who are watching that we are worthy of their tears.”

It could have the grandeur of Greek tragedy. In the context of the play it does not. One watches in one of those states of transition between wakefulness and sleep. Two principles do not oppose one another; instead a dance of three, a play of shimmers. White contends against Black but is really Black-in-White-mask against Black, and so becomes Black against Black. Much complexity is gained; much force is lost. These masks are not the enrichments and exaggerations of Greek tragedy, they are reversals of form. The emotion aroused in the audience never comes to focus, but swirls into traps.

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So with the action. One has a group of Negroes who are revolutionaries. They commit a ritual murder each night. But they are also players who entertain a world of White hierarchies, mounted literally above them on the stage. They are in subservience to them, yet they are not. For the audience never can quite forget that the Whites are really Blacks-in-White-masks. One is asked to consider a theme which may be the central moment of the twentieth century: the passage of power from the White to those he oppressed. But this theme is presented in a web of formal contradictions and formal turns sufficiently complex to be a play in itself.

Pirandello never made this mistake. His dance of mirrors was always built on pretexts which were flimsy, purposively minor. If one’s obsession is with the contra­dictory nature of reality, the audience must be allowed to dispense with the superficial reality in order to explore its depths. The foreground in “The Blacks” is too oppressive. One cannot ignore it. White and Black in mortal confrontation are far more interesting than the play of shadows Genet brings to it. If he insists with avant-garde pride that he will not be bullied by the major topicalities of his theme, and instead will search out the murmurs, the shivers, the nuances, one does not necessarily have to applaud. Certain themes, simple on their face, complex in their depths, insist on returning to the surface and remaining simple. The murder of Lumumba is thus simple. It is simple and it is overbearing. It is inescapable. One cannot treat it as a pantomime for ballet without making an aesthetic misjudgment of the first rank. It would be a strategic disaster of conception. So with Genet’s choice to add the minuet to Africa. One is left not with admiration for his daring, but with a dull sense of evasion. How much real emotion and complexity we could have been given if literal White had looked across the stage at literal Black. His rhodomontades and escapades leave us finally with the suspicion that Genet has not escaped the deepest vice of the French mind, its determination, no matter how, to say something new, even if it is absurd. And it is this vice which characterizes the schism in Genet as an artist, for he is on the one hand, major, moving with a bold long reach in to those unexplored territories at the edge of our awareness, and with the other, he is minor, a Surrealist, destroying the possibility of awareness even as he creates it.

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Destruction of Communication 

Surrealist art, stripped its merits, ignoring the exquisite talents of its painters and poets, depends in its abstract essence on a destruction of communication. To look at a painting and murmur “I see God in the yellow,” is surrealist; to say “I see God in the­ yellow because the color reminds me of the sun,” is not. The thought is no longer a montage of two unrelated semantic objects — it has become a progression. The logic leads to a cosmogony whose center is the life-giving sun. Of course the first sentence, the montage, is more arresting, a poetic tension is left if one says no more than “I see God in the yellow.” For some, the tension is attractive, for others it is not. Art obviously depends upon incomplete communication. A work which is altogether explicit is not art, the audience cannot respond with their own creative act of the imagination, that small leap of the faculties which leaves one an increment more exceptional than when one began.

In Surrealism, the leap in communication is enormous. Purple apples, we write at random, salic­ious horses and cockroaches who crow like transistors. The charge comes more from sound than from meaning. Opposites and irrecon­cilables are connected to one an­other like pepper sprinkled on ice cream. Only a palate close to death could extract pleasure from the taste; it is absurd in our mouth, pepper and ice cream, but at least it is new.

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Mute Rage

As cultures die, they are strick­en with the mute implacable rage of that humanity strangled within them. So long as it grows, a civilization depends upon the elaboration of meaning, its health is maintained by an awareness of its state; as it dies, a civilization opens itself to the fury of those betrayed by its meaning, precisely because that meaning was finally not sufficiently true to offer a life adequately large. The aesthetic act shifts from the creation of mean­ing to the destruction of it.

The West may not be dying, but no one would deny it is profoundly ill. We inhabit a giant whose body is powerful and whose mind is divided. Like a schizophrenic, re­ality is no longer continuous, but broken into pieces which do not communicate with one another. Cockroaches who crow like trans­istors. Said aloud by an actor in a theatre, 80 people would sit in silence, 20 might laugh, each in different ways. The meaning is like an icepick used in a trans-­orbital lobotomy. The surgeon does not know what he is doing. He inserts his instrument, slashes the brain, severs the psychic structure, and makes arbitrary new connec­tions. The patient leaves, reduced in violence, and severed from his soul. Meaning has been destroyed for him, but by meaning a little less, he is able to live a little more calmly — at a level reduced from his best.

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So, one could argue, functions the therapy of the surrealist artist, of Dada, of Beat. Jaded, deadened, severed from our roots, dulled in leaden rage, inhabiting the center of the illness of the age, it becomes more excruciating each year for us to perform the civilized act of contributing to a collective mean­ing. The impulse to destroy moves like new air into a vacuum, and the art of the best hovers, stilled, all but paralyzed between the ten­sion to create and that urge which is its opposite. How well Genet personifies the dilemma. Out of the tension of his flesh, he makes the pirouette of his art, offering meaning in order to adulterate it, until at the end we are in danger of being left with not much more than the Narcissism of his style. How great a writer, how hideous a cage. As a civilization dies, it loses its biology. The homosexual, alienated from the biological chain, becomes its center. The core of the city is inhabited by a ghost who senses in the unwinding of his nerves that the only road back to biology is to destroy Being in others. What a cruel fate for Genet that he still burns with a creative heat equal to his detesta­tion of the world. The appropriate Hell he inhabits is to be a major artist and not a minor one, the body in which he sits has the chest of a giant, and the toes, unhappily, of a dancing master. ♦

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The Maids’ The Maids Is Just What It Sounds Like

The Maids’ The Maids experiments with Jean Genet’s erotically tinged 1947 drama about two sisters in
domestic service who role-play as their imperious mistress. Genet’s original play hinges on this dualism — which eventually collapses — between the characters and their roles; Claire and Solange symbolically destroy their boss in an act of rebellion.

Sister Sylvester’s performance-art remix of Genet’s scenario, directed by Kathryn Hamilton, adds a few complicating layers with documentary elements. Two Brazilian women (Laudeceia Calixto and Rita Oliveira) who clean New York City homes for a living in real life discuss their experiences and backgrounds. At times they enlist us in rituals: waving cleaning products for a reshoot of a favorite music video and giving a makeover to one spectator they deem underdressed for a night at the theater. Famed French psychoanalyst Lacan is name-checked. A naked woman dies a noble and emblematic death. These and other sequences blur with fragments quoted from Genet; it’s a well-trodden path of
deconstruction — as intentionally messy as the stage floor after the performers have spit Fritos all over it. The result
is inchoate, but deliberately so — a politically defanged but pleasantly ironic experiment. The succession of gestures is a little like the spendy shoes the maids find in clients’ closets: Each idea gets tried on for size, then put away in favor of
the next.

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The Maids Brings Downtown Theater to the Lincoln Center Festival

It seems fitting that any production of The Maids — the play that launched what came to be known as Theater of the Absurd — should be somewhat absurd itself. In the Lincoln Center Festival’s production (presented in association with the New York City Center), the keenest absurdity lies in the astounding contrast between the performances of Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett, who play two French maids, Solange and Claire. They are sisters faintly based on the case of Christine and Léa Pepin, siblings and domestics convicted of killing their employer and her daughter in 1933. In Genet’s stylized nightmare of their crime, the two maids act out a twisted fantasy of S&M class warfare, which consists of dressing as their employer’s wife, mocking and worshipping her simultaneously, upsetting her flower vases, and plotting her murder.

Blanchett, one of the finest actresses of our time, offers a polished, intense, gleaming inhabitation of Claire, her commitment shamanistic; her face an encyclopedia of captivating, honest expression; her physicality a masterpiece of confident technique. Huppert, on the other hand, serves us Amy Sedaris pretending to be a Muppet. Slighter and older than Blanchett, she plays Solange with a childlike lightness and slapstick glee, skipping across the stage as if on horseback, speaking with an accented lisp that’s only intelligible about 30 percent of the time, making fart noises, riding the train of a dress, and grabbing Claire’s crotch. Exactly none of what she delivers arrives with any gravitas.

You’re probably thinking that I’m insulting Huppert’s performance, but, in fact, she and Blanchett represent the two kinds of performances from which I derive the most pleasure. While it feels like a privilege just to be in the same room with Blanchett, it’s almost equally delightful to feast one’s eyes on the sheer oddity of Huppert’s clowning. One might say that the two actresses belong in different productions, but the audacity of combining these two approaches energizes the play in precisely the way it needs. Huppert takes the piss out of Blanchett, as well as the play’s author, Jean Genet — especially during those moments when his characters begin to speak in philosophical essays and stop interacting with one another. The stunning Elizabeth Debicki, as Mistress, splits the difference between Blanchett and Huppert: She’s a top-notch actress whose interpretation of her role makes many a sly nod to reality TV.

This high/low mash-up of acting styles is the type of risk I’m more accustomed to encountering downtown, especially in the work of The Wooster Group, Richard Foreman, and the hordes under their influence: Richard Maxwell, Radiohole, Jay Scheib, Daniel Fish, and others. It’s a sign that times have changed, really — yesterday’s revolutions are tomorrow’s institutions, Hedwig is on Broadway, for Pete’s sake. But I’m no fundamentalist — I find it exciting to see experimental ideas co-opted by a moneyed-up production of a 67-year-old play that is still fairly disquieting. The play is also sparklingly directed by Benedict Andrews and lavished with an Alice Babidge set worthy of a Madison Avenue boutique, and a striking, color-coordinated, high-fashion wardrobe. The performance is augmented by Sean Bacon’s sleek video design (also very Wooster-ish). Whether the apparently bourgeois audience of City Center recognized themselves in this raucous, messy production and felt the requisite outrage, fear, and angst, I doubt. But perhaps the struggle is the goal. Isn’t that why downtown continually reinvents itself?

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ART ATTACK

Looking for some new entertainment options this month? Go shopping at Culturemart 2014, where you’ll find 13 workshop performances of new experimental work. It kicks off tonight with Bora Yoon’s Sunken Cathedral, a multimedia musical performance piece that’s designed as an architectural journey through a house while exploring “death, life, rebirth, and the cyclical nature of the universe.” Other highlights include Send for the Million Men, about the trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti; Soomi Kim’s Chang(e), which concerns the self-immolation of activist Kathy Change; and Genet Porno, based on Jean Genet’s 1943 novel, Our Lady of the Flowers.

Mondays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Starts: Jan. 28. Continues through Feb. 9, 2014

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Poison at 20

Arguably the strongest American debut feature of the ’90s, Todd Haynes’s Poison—aptly billed as telling “three tales of transgression and punishment” and now restored in 35mm for its 20th anniversary—opens with a quote, at once topical and prescient, from Jean Genet: “The whole world is dying of panicky fright.” Leading his own phobic death charge just prior to the movie’s release in 1991, the Reverend Donald Wildmon—alerted to the film and its NEA grant by a rave in Variety—penned a letter to the House and Senate complaining of public funding for “gay porn” and rallying his troops for battle in the era of queer theory, AIDS activism, and rampant smut.

For a time, Poison was both the bête noire of right-wing culture cops and a cause célèbre among arthouse queers of all persuasions. Could any indie nowadays be as sexually transgressive, generating such a storm of fierce loathing and impassioned awe? Of course not. Beyond being a worthy preservationist endeavor, Poison‘s re-release invites one’s wistful nostalgia for a moment when a defiantly experimental movie could bring bigotry out of the closet and get us to act up.

While less than 10 percent of the film’s $300,000 budget came from the NEA, Haynes’s blatantly oppositional film about a trio of disparate outsiders—a monstrously disfigured scientist, a lonely prison inmate, and a seven-year-old perpetrator of patricide—didn’t lack for backing. Even fuddy-duddy Vincent Canby entered the fray, arguing in his Times review, “It is a work of original aspirations, just the kind of project the [NEA] should support.” Opening-weekend grosses at the Angelika set a record that lasted for years, while the movie—a major prizewinner at Sundance—became credited with inaugurating what would be known, all too briefly, as New Queer Cinema.

Still, befitting its title, Poison doesn’t go down smooth—and not only for its Salo-esque scene of reform-school punks hocking loogies into a weeping kid’s open mouth. The movie is awash in bodily secretions—blood, sweat, shit, pus, and cum—but, more profoundly, in fear, guilt, and shame. To be gay in Poison, if not in the brutally Reaganist America of the early ’90s, is to be deviant, persecuted, and pissed, which makes the film’s furtive love between inmates all the more tender—and hot.

Haynes, as even his detractors would admit, lives to wave his freak flag high, alternating in the years since Poison between pointedly political melodramas (Safe, Far From Heaven, the forthcoming Mildred Pierce) and rock-connoisseur odes to malleable identity (Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There). As for Poison, its fractured narrative, complete with multiple narrators and wildly diverse styles (suburban mock-doc, B-movie horror flick, Genetian reverie), is enough to make the movie itself appear, well, queer. In the Voice, J. Hoberman likened the film to a “low-budget Intolerance,” referring to D.W. Griffith’s epic of historical suffering. He also made a prediction: “[I]ts unique combination of bluntness and metaphor suggests it may turn out to be a landmark. . . .”

Introducing a screening of Poison at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center a few years ago, Haynes made explicit what remains provocatively allegorical in the movie: “I felt that the gulf between Genet’s death [in 1986] and the breakout of the AIDS epidemic was something that could be bridged,” he said. “Genet’s ideas and positions”—including the notion of queer sexuality as an uncontainable force—”could be applied in a kind of empowering way to what the gay community was already feeling as a profound blow. The film was an attempt to recover our own sense of freedom—to exist, to express ourselves, and to experiment.”

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Poison

Dir. Todd Haynes (1991).
A Sundance prize winner (and rightwing target) on its premiere, Todd Haynes’s experimental first feature is part homage to Jean Genet, part crypto-AIDS horror flick, and characterized by an irony beyond irony. Poison jumping between three interlocking narratives Intolerance-style, spiraling ever more emphatically into each tale’s abyss.

Wed., Nov. 10, 2010

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Authorial License Hangs Over Edmund White’s Terre Haute

From Jean Genet to Truman Capote to Norman Mailer, the 20th century is riddled with writers who set off to chronicle the evil that men do, and returned smitten—”enthralled,” in Genet’s words. The esteemed novelist (and Genet biographer) Edmund White makes his own contribution to this genre by proxy with the crisply acted and intermittently compelling Terre Haute, which features thinly veiled versions of Gore Vidal and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh as death-row confidantes/combatants.

Vidal defended McVeigh’s philosophy in a series of magazine articles, and the two corresponded for three years without ever meeting. White has conjured a quartet of jailhouse encounters, in which the Vidal surrogate, James Brevoort (Peter Eyre), alternates between browbeating, flattering, condescending to, and ogling the young prisoner, Harrison (Nick Westrate), over the last four days before Harrison’s execution. 

Despite White’s well-crafted symmetries and flashes of insight—particularly regarding the emotionally cloistered James—a whiff of authorial license hangs over Terre Haute. The gap between James’s glinting paragraphs of dialogue and Harrison’s stammering rage has a stage-managed quality to it, and neither Eyre’s baroque melancholy nor Westrate’s caged physicality can ward off the play’s inherent stasis. (This is only accentuated by director George Perrin’s odd decision to have Eyre periodically meander around the stage.) To paraphrase the still-reigning giant of this genre, the blood pulsing through Terre Haute is a bit too cold. ERIC GRODE

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Poison

(Todd Haynes, 1991).
Part homage to Jean Genet, part crypto-AIDS horror flick, Todd Haynes’s experimental first feature—a Sundance prize winner (and right-wing target) in 1991—is characterized by an irony beyond irony. Jumping between three interlocking narratives, it spirals ever more emphatically into each tale’s abyss.

Fri., June 27, 8:30 p.m.; Wed., July 2, 5 p.m., 2008

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Gay, According to Genet

Queer cinema owes everything to a pair of dead French fags.

Jean Cocteau bequeathed a vibrant neoclassicism to generations of homo sophisticates. You can feel his touch in the symbolist psychodramas of Gregory Markopoulos, the précieux theatrics of Derek Jarman, the animist enigmas of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Jean Genet, his compatriot in the pink pantheon, is the patron saint of outlaw aesthetics. A revolutionary romantic, the poet of rough trade and rhapsodic annihilation, Genet incubates a transgressive, hallucinatory tradition: Pasolini, Fassbinder, João Pedro Rodrigues.

Their aesthetic territories overlap. Kenneth Anger synthesized both styles in the creation of his own. Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant are equally indebted. Still, the mental spunk of les deux Jeans differs in consistency. Cocteau is cultivated, equanimous, a dandy in the most accomplished sense. His mind delineates contours, reconfigures archetypes. Genet is an artist of overload, rapture, baroque lyricism. He is at ease in prison, in Palestine, arm in arm with Huey Newton. One believes in the transformative power of magic, the other in transcendental murder.

Only one of them would fondly remember, “when I pulled out my cock it was covered in shit.” So says Nono (Günther Kaufmann) of buttsex with Querelle (Brad Davis), the sailor hero in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s galvanic adaptation of Genet’s masterpiece. Querelle (1982) is the heady highlight of BAMcinématek’s weeklong glance, “Jean Genet on Film.” This highly focused survey skips the opportunity to investigate Genet’s impact on cinema in favor of a more literal approach, emphasizing official credits over subterranean influence.

Thus Tony Richardson’s Mademoiselle (1966), from a script by Genet and Marguerite Duras, is dutifully included—and memorably nuts, with Jeanne Moreau as a provincial weirdo who terrorizes her village out of misplaced lust for a lumberjack (Ettore Manni). Christopher Miles’s adaptation of The Maids (1974) puts Glenda Jackson, Susannah York, and Vivien Merchant through their sadomasochistic paces to serviceable if undistinguished effect.

Un Chant d’Amour (1950) is de rigueur. Like Anger’s
Fireworks
(1947), Genet’s sole directorial effort is an onanistic fantasy derived from Cocteau. A mediocre feat of experimental technique, it’s an unequivocal landmark in terms of gay representation. Wagging boners and dancing with themselves, a clutch of swarthy inmates daydream of release into pastoral idylls and softcore entanglements. Genet finds a masterly motif—one of the great images of invert art—in a wisp of cigarette smoke shared through a length of reed connecting cellmates otherwise sequestered by stone.

Inspired by the novels of Genet and the semiotics department at Brown, Todd Haynes’s Poison(1991) put the new in New Queer Cinema. A deconstruction of genre, identity politics, yada yada yada, this tripartite riff on “Hero,” “Horror,” and “Homo” won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the wrath of Jesse Helms, who felt the National Endowment for the Arts ought not fund the low-budget lyricism of highbrow deviants.

More brains than balls, Poison pales in contrast to the flamboyant virility of Fassbinder’s Querelle. No one’s come closer to Genet’s lush phantasmagoria. Fassbinder invents a complex, voluptuous expressionism to honor text like this: “Thus might a young boy whose soul is evident in his eyes, but who has been metamorphosed into an alligator, even if he were not fully conscious of his horrendous head and jaws, consider his scaly body, his solemn, gigantic tail, with which he strikes the water or the beach or brushes against that of other monsters, and which extends him with the same touching, heartrending, and indestructible majesty as the train of a robe, adorned with lace, with crests, with battles, with a thousand crimes, worn by a Child Empress, extends her.”

Fassbinder confronts such radioactive lyricism head-on, banishing all pretense to objective realism. The setting is Brest, France, a seedy port of call. Rolf Zehetbauer, the production designer of Cabaret, constructs a hermetic sex theater: massive stone phalli rising from ramparts; honeycombed cafés, dense with crystal, fractured to mirrored infinity; plaster hillsides with blatantly fake trees; furtive nooks and enormous toy ships. On a painted sky, a paper disk for the sun, the light source (from somewhere) suffusing all in a heavy autumnal glow harmonized (from yet another mysterious source) with tints of sapphire.

Jealous lovers triangulate. Querelle’s brother Robert (Hanno Pöschl) is enamored of Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau), wife of Nono and proprietress of La Féria, a brothel thick with sailors, dwarves, transvestites, musicians. Robert is mysteriously doubled in the criminal Gil (Pöschl again), object of Querelle’s adoration. Roger (Laurent Malet) shares his infatuation for Gil, and Gil is horny for Roger’s sister—unless this is the pretext for sexing up his young companion. Lieutenant Seblon (Franco Nero) lurks in alleyways strewn with obscenity and sperm, lusting after Querelle.

Fassbinder simultaneously evokes and annotates the novel. The opening credits announce a film “about” Querelle. “It is not a film about murder and homosexuality,” he opined. “It’s a film about someone trying, with all the means that are possible in society, to find his identity.” Fair enough, even if Querelle‘s externalization of a specifically gay psychosexual landscape would go unrivaled for texture and detail until the arrival of Rodrigues’s O Fantasma (2000). Fassbinder completed Querelle, then died. His final act as an artist was to immortalize Genet on film with greater force than Genet himself.