Jean Genet

The Balcony

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  • Features an extended summary and 5 sections of expert analysis.
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The Balcony Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 21-page guide for “The Balcony” by Jean Genet includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Immortality and The Illusion of Reality.

Plot Summary

The Balcony by French playwright Jean Genet is set in a high-end brothel in the middle of an unidentified city going through a revolution. The brothel functions as a microcosm of the established government under threat just outside its walls. The play was well received by critics, with biographer Edmund White claiming that Genet re-invented modern theatre and critic Martin Esslin calling the piece “one of the masterpieces of our time.”

The play opens inside The Grand Balcony, a brothel in which customers may dress up to portray their fantasies. Irma, the owner, coordinates the busy schedule as men masquerade as a bishop, judge, and a general. Meanwhile, the streets outside are in the midst of open warfare as rebels claim more of the city. The only remaining protection of the brothel is George, the Chief of Police and Irma’s lover.

Carmen, a former whore who is now a bookkeeper for the brothel, confesses to Irma that she misses being a whore. She’s also upset that Irma doesn’t allow the women to talk about their jobs. Irma is distracted by the absence of George but agrees that Carmen can play a pivotal role in an upcoming appointment. Irma asks Carmen about the other girls at the brothel, especially Chantal who has joined the rebellion. George shows up claiming that the Royal Palace has been surrounded and that the Queen is hiding. More important to him, however, is the question of whether or not Irma’s clients ever fantasize being him, believing that imitation will give him immortality. Her answer is no, which upsets George and convinces him to be more ruthless and win the hearts and minds of people like her clients.

Outside the brothel, Chantal expresses her love for a plumber, Roger, among the rebels. The rebellion has chosen her as a feminine symbol of the cause. Chantal is honored and willing to take the position, but Roger is more reluctant.

Back in the brothel, the streets outside are more chaotic. The enigmatic Envoy of the Queen comes to the building, stressing that most in the palace are dead or injured, including the Queen. He wants Irma to stand in as the Queen so the populace will remain loyal and calm. George, reluctant to even pretend to appear weaker than Irma, doesn’t approve of the idea. Irma decides to do it.

Irma makes an appearance on the brothel’s balcony accompanied by George and the men playing a bishop, judge, and general. Chantal appears as well, but is shot by an assassin.

For posterity, the clients playing the bishop, judge, and general pose for photographs and answer questions on their official decisions about the current crisis. Irma walks in, still playing the Queen, and continues the masquerade. Outside, the fighting worsens.

Carmen informs them that a client has come and wants to act as Chief of Police. George is ecstatic. The client is Roger, who puts on the costume and fulfills his fantasy. When he is finished, he castrates himself rather than leaving. George is satisfied that somebody has finally played him and resolves to spend the rest of his life in the mausoleum, locking himself inside. Irma dismisses the men playing the bishop, judge, and general and is left alone as gunfire is heard outside.

The Balcony demonstrates what a fine line exists between dreams and reality. Irma’s house of illusions gives people who are bored with their daily lives the opportunity to fantasize about being other people. However, when the clients are forced to live out the roles they fantasize about, they realize that dreams are not always what they’re cracked up to be. Likewise, Roger is a rebel who wants real change in government, but when the rebellion wants to take Chantal away from him so she can be the symbol of the cause, he would rather keep her to himself.

The play also addresses the role that illusion plays in the breakdown of society. The fraudulent depictions of the church, judicial system, military, and royal positions in the story represent how unjust political and social structures can be in society, and how easily they are manipulated or even erased. The agendas of the characters in the play are not necessarily the same as the expectations for their roles, real or not.

The play reflects Genet’s interest in sexuality, rebellion, and politics. Genet himself was born the son of a prostitute, who abandoned him as a baby. He spent his youth in foster care. As a boy, his foster mother caught him stealing out of her purse and she called him a thief, an identity he maintained for the rest of his youth. By his teenage years, he was a juvenile delinquent and he spent the next decade wandering between countries during WWII as a prostitute, a pimp, and a smuggler. His lifestyle eventually landed him in jail, where he began his career as a writer.

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