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International Socialist Review, Spring 1962


Nora Roberts

Black and White


From International Socialist Review, Vol.23 No.2, Spring 1962, pp.56-57.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Blacks: A Clown Show
by Jean Genet, translated by Bernard Fretchman
Grove Press, New York. 1960. 128 pp. $1.75.

When whites write about Negroes, they are seldom able to cross the color bar to get a glimpse of reality. While the old stereotype of the bug-eyed, unintelligible Negro servant has nearly disappeared from literature, whites still, for the most part, confine their themes to the problems of interracial sex relations.

By contrast, Jean Genet, rightly considered among France’s greatest living authors, is well aware of the revolutionary struggles of the Negro people throughout the world. But his play is not an attempt to comment on that struggle – to tell the Negroes what they should or should not do. Nor is the play meant to show Negroes in a more favorable light, to make them acceptable to whites. As a white man directing himself to a white audience, he does not presume to be a spokesman for the Negroes. He is more concerned with showing the whites what role they play in the relationship than he is in giving them some special message about the Negroes.

The Blacks centers around the interplay of myth and reality in Negro and white relations. To do this, the entire auditorium is utilized, not merely the stage. What takes place on stage is a farce, the “Clown Show.” Its purpose is to prevent the whites from seeing what is going on backstage, where reality exists. The enemies, the whites, are the audience. This is perhaps one of the most shocking things about the play. Those who pay good money to take in an evening’s entertainment, find they must take part in the play, and worse yet, that they are the villains.

The “Clown Show” is strictly symbolical. A group of Negro actors have come to perform a play before a white audience. Five of these actors, wearing white masks, play a colonial court – a queen, her valet, a governor-general, a judge and a missionary-bishop. The rest play a troupe of actors about to re-enact a crime before this court.

In the “play” the Negroes portray Negroes in accordance with white prejudices. They are caricatures, dressed in evening clothes of extremely bad taste, repeating the common cliches, calling themselves “grown-up children.” They explain that the crime, the rape of a young white woman, was motivated by pure cannibalistic instincts, with no feelings of love or desire. Their lines are “orchestrated” by a central director, and no one can doubt that this is a false picture of Negro emotions, based upon the great white myth. This is a play which, it is explained, goes on every night, symbolic of the act which Negroes perform every day when part of the white world.

Genet, however, is not simply showing up the false images whites have of Negroes and of themselves. Throughout the mock play, there is a definite impatience among the Blacks. They find it increasingly difficult to keep to the assigned lines. The “criminal” and his sweetheart, (Village and Virtue) especially find it hard to refrain from expressing their love for each other and must be admonished by the director. Village at one point states that as far as he is concerned, this is his last performance, as indeed it is.

After the re-enactment of the play the whites go off on a long trek to hunt the criminal. They arrive, drunk and exhausted, in the heart of Africa. They are without the criminal and now aware that their rule cannot last long. Only the exact date of their denouément is not yet settled. The white queen and Felicity, an old Negro woman dressed in African garb, begin to debate whether the Blacks will fare any better when they take the power. A shot is heard backstage.

The play is interrupted by a messenger from reality. The members of the court remove their masks and the entire group holds a joint meeting to hear the news. The actors are revealed as members of the revolutionary underground. The first traitor to the cause has been shot. A leader has been selected and is now on his way to gather forces. The revolution is under way. After all, states the messenger, “Our aim is not only to corrode and dissolve the idea they’d like us to have of them, we must also fight them in their actual persons, in their flesh and blood.”

Now, when the actors finish their performance, they will not return to their places in the white world, but will take up their posts in the revolutionary movement. With the toppling of the white rule, they will have no more need to accept the farce so will not return to the stage. As a matter of fact, they do not now need to continue the evening’s performance. But Archibald, the director, decides to continue, explaining: “As we could not allow the Whites to be present at a deliberation nor show them a drama that does not concern them, and as, in order to cover up, we have had to fabricate the only one that does concern them, we’ve got to finish this show and get rid of the judges ...” “At last,” adds the one who played the queen, “they’ll know the only dramatic relationship we can have with them.” The court replaces the masks, and the “Clown Show” continues with the revised ending – the “whites” are killed!

Genet, himself, does not seem to comment on the revolution, either for or against it. He presents it simply to show what is behind the pretense – the hatred, the real feeling of the Negroes about the whites. Though not primarily class-conscious, it is nonetheless a real revolution. And what will come of it is indicated in the last scene.

Village and Virtue, the two lovers, stand apart from the action. Their roles as actors are over and they have already begun their new lives, free from white oppression. They are flirting as they have just really discovered their mutual love, can now give it expression for the first time. We will have to make up new forms of love, Virtue says. “At least, there’s one sure thing, you won’t be able to wind your fingers in my long golden hair.”

This is an angry play, to be sure. But this is a totally different kind of theme from that of the frustration of the sensitive individual making his personal protest against a cold society. As a portrayal of social protest, The Blacks is a different kind of work from most of the “decadent” works, including those Genet himself produced previously. Let us hope it is a sign that the sensitive artists who feel the impasse of this society are beginning to find, and join up with, others in the world who share their anger, and are preparing to do something about it.

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