Jean Genet, the illegitimate son of a Parisian prostitute,
was born on October 19, 1910, and abandoned seven months
later. He subsisted as a ward of the state until the age
of thirteen, after which he ventured into a life of crime
and adventure. From ages 15 - 18, Genet spent an impressionable
period at the Mettray Penitentiary, where the inmates enforced
a code of love, honor, gesture, and justice, and where his
sexual awakening occurred. Upon his release, he traveled
to Syria with the foreign legion before deserting, and survived
by petty theft, begging, and homosexual prostitution. This
period, particularly his time in Spain, became the basis
for his early memoir, The Thief's Journal.
While in prison at age 32, Genet wrote
Our Lady of the Flowers. The handwritten manuscript was
smuggled from his cell and eventually came to the attention
of Sartre and Cocteau, who lobbied passionately for a pardon
of his life sentence. More than forty intellectuals and
artists lobbied the French government on Genet's behalf,
resulting in his release from prison.
Genet went on
to write five novels and a number of celebrated plays, including
The Maids, The Blacks, The Balcony, and The Screens. In
later life, he championed the causes of the Black Panthers
in the United States and Palestinian soldiers in Jordan
and Lebanon. His final work, Prisoner of Love, is a record
of his time spent with these two groups. Jean Genet died
April 15, 1986, in a hotel room in the same working class
neighborhood where he had been abandoned 75 years earlier.
He is buried in Morocco.
We are struck
repeatedly by Genet's images of transformation, the tenderness
with which he writes of genuinely brutal experiences, and
the rigor of his belief in the exuisite beauty of the criminal
world. Raw materials for The Genet Project include
the above writings, interviews, and personal letters, as
well as original text written by Joanna Settle.
The Genet project
began as an adaptation of Genet’s novel The Thief’s
Journal. The company read the novel aloud over the course
of 4 days, and decided to move forward into development.
In early 2002,
Chashama invited Division 13 Productions into residency
in support of the project, donating the ground floor of
a city block-wide warehouse on 57th street (at the West
Side Highway). 12 actors and a five-person design team spent
five weeks in this raw, industrial space.
We installed a
sound system, with D13 artistic associate Mike Frank serving
as a live sound designer/DJ for the entire rehearsal period.
Rehearsals were spent pouring over Genet’s letters,
plays, and in particular The Thief’s Journal in pursuit
of his narrative sensibility. At the end of this residency,
D13 held a free invitation-only showing and a reception,
attended by roughly 100 people.
Later that spring, Settle (along with
Managing Director Katie Taber and Artistic Associate David
Divita, serving as translator) spent a two-week residency
in the archives of Genet in Paris through cooperation with
l'Institut Mémoires de l'Édition Contemporaine
(L'IMEC). Settle further traveled to meet with Genet
scholars, and visited both the Mettray Penitentiary and
Genet's tiny hometown of Alligny-en-Morvan.
As a result of
this revelatory research period, the project has been expanded
from an adaptation of a single novel into a new work based
on Genet's early life and writings. Dramaturg Celise Kalke
(Court Theatre, Chicago) has signed on to the project, and
the play currently exists as a collection of research material
and rough outlines of scenes.
Sadly, the 57th
street location is now under demolition, and no longer available
for public use. We continue to seek a similarly evocative
setting and the resources to continue our work on The Genet
The next steps needed are a script development phase followed
by (or concurrent with) continued rehearsals with actors
and designers. If you are interested in helping to support
or further this work, please contact Artistic Director Joanna
Settle at firstname.lastname@example.org.