Sep 21 2011: The Blacks by Jean Genet (Translated by Bernard Frechtman, Grove Press, 1960)
In case anyone were thinking about coming along to the Reading Genet session this evening (I think places are still available to book) but hasn’t had the opportunity to read the full play and feels put off, don’t be: previous discussions have ranged pretty widely, using the source texts – previously the essays Alberto Giacometti’s Studio (1957) and Four Hours at Chatila (1983) – as starting points rather than containers for the conversations we’ve had.
Nor should anyone feel attendence at earlier sessions to be necessary for this final discussion of Genet’s writings. If Alberto Giacometti’s Studio focused on that artist’s works in the Marc Camille Chaimowicz section and Four Hours At Chatila focused on Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s installation, this last session, on The Blacks, will be linked to the works on Genet’s involvement with the Black Panthers and the archive of theatre material in the exhibition’s final section.
To that end, here are a few of the key quotes from the play that have fascinated me, at least, and around which some of tonight’s discussion might develop:
A few broad points:
The characters’ names: Archibald, Snow, Village, Virtue, Felicity, Valet, The Missionary…
The interruption of the action at intervals (mainly early on) with characters calling out Stock Market prices and values: M’Zaita 2,010! Extra Special Arabica 608 – 627. Robusta 327 – 327…
The structure: Archibald directing a ceremony, a theatrical sacrificial ritual around the body of a murdered white displayed on a catafalque throughout the performance: a re-enactment of the murder by Village under the direction of the rest. A trial and threat of execution followed by a blurring of real and stage personas, an unmasking of both the characters and the theatrical artifice.
Genet’s use of forms and language pioneered by the French Caribbean and Francophone African Negritude writers of the 1930s and 40s: Aime Cesaire, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Leon Damas, Rene Depestre, Tchicaya U Tam’si.
The use of traditional theatrical conventions that dictate the onstage group should resemble a Court alongside resemblances (presumably conscious: references to Poland, the clowning style, the masks and incantations) to Alfred Jarry‘s Ubu Roi (1896).
SAMPLE QUOTES from ‘The Blacks’:
Archibald: Be quiet. If all they have is their nostalgia, let them enjoy it. (p.11)
Archibald (to the audience): You are white. And spectators. This evening we shall perform for you […] but, in order that you may remain comfortably settled in your seats in the presence of the drama that is already unfolding here, in order that you be assured that there is no danger of this drama worming its way into your precious lives, we shall even have the decency – a decency learned from you – to make communication impossible. We shall increase the distance that separates us […] by our pomp, our manners, our insolence – for we are also actors. (p.12)
Village: 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.(p.19)
The Missionary: For two thousand years God has been white. He eats on a white tablecloth. He wipes his white mouth with a white napkin. He picks at white meat with a white fork. He watches the snow fall… (p.24)
Snow: (very acrimonoiusly) If I were sure that Village bumped the woman off […] if I were sure he killed her in order to merge with the night… But I know he loved her. (pp.27/8)
The Missionary: Will you invent a black Host? And what will it be made of? Gingerbread, you say? That’s brown.
Diouf: But Monsignor, we have a thousand ingredients. We’ll dye it. A grey Host…
The Governor (breaking in): Grant the grey Host and you’re sunk. You’ll see – he’ll demand further concessions, more oddities…
Diouf (plaintively): White on one side, black on the other? (p.32)
Archibald: Politeness must be raised to such a pitch that it becomes monstrous. It must arouse fear […] Sir, if you have any intention of presenting even the most trivial of their ideas without caricaturing it, then get out! Beat it! (p.33)
Bobo: In order to refer to ourselves, we don’t adorn our metaphors with stars. Or grand nocturnal images. But with soot and blacking, with coal and tar. (p.37)
Archibald: What’s left for us? The theatre! We’ll play at being reflected in it and we’ll see ourselves – big black narcissists – slowly disappearing into its waters.
Village: I don’t want to disappear.
Archibald: You’re no exception. Nothing will remain of you but the foam of your rage. Since they merge us with an image and drown us in it, let the image set their teeth on edge! (p.39)
The Valet: And what if there’d been nothing available but a four year old lad on his way home from the grocer’s with a bottle of milk? Be careful how you answer and bear in mind the great effort I am making to regard you as human…
Bobo: We know only too well what he’ll become when he’s drunk too much milk… (p.41)
Virtue & Queen (together): ..I am white. It is milk that denotes me, it’s the lily, the dove, quicklime and the clear conscience, it’s Poland with its eagle and snow. Snow…
Village: Snow? If you like…with my long dark strides I roamed the earth. Against that moving mass of darkness the angry but respectful sun flashed its beams. They did not traverse my dusky bulk. I was naked.
Virtue & Queen (together): It’s innocence and morning.
Village: The surfaces of my body were curved mirrors in which all things were reflected: fish, buffaloes, the laughter of tigers, reeds. Naked? Or was my shoulder covered with a leaf? And my member adorned with moss… (p.45)
Village: The moon – for it was almost night – rose artfully over a landscape inhabited by insects. It’s a distant land, madam, but my whole body could sing it. Listen to the singing! Listen! (p.59)
Village (imploringly): Tell me, Negroes, what if I couldn’t stop?
All (except Virtue): Keep going. (p.75)
Felicity (suddenly standing up straight): To my rescue, Negroes, all of you! Gentlemen of Timbuctoo come in under your white parasols! Stand over there. Tribes covered with gold and mud, rise up from my body, emerge! Tribes of the rain and wind, forward! […] Walk gently on your white feet. White? No, black. Black or white? Or blue? Red, green, blue, white, red, green, yellow, who knows, where am I? The colours exhaust me… (p.77)
Archibald: Bear in mind that it’s a matter of judging and probably sentencing and executing a Negro. That’s a serious affair. It’s no longer a matter of staging a performance. The man we’re holding and for whom we’re responsible is a real man. He moves, he chews, he coughs, he trembles. In a little while, he’ll be killed.
Newport News: That’s very tough. But though we can put on an act in front of them (pointing to the audience) we’ve got to stop acting when we’re among ourselves. We’ll have to get used to taking responsibility for blood – our own. And the moral weight…(p.81/2)
Bobo (to Diouf, removing his mask): Are you a white woman?
Diouf: The first thing to tell you is that they lie or that they’re mistaken. They’re not white, but pink or yellowish.
Bobo: Then are you a pink woman?
Diouf: I am. I move about in a light emitted by our faces which they reflect from one to another. (p.89)
The Judge (to the Negroes): According to you, there’s no crime because there’s no corpse, and no culprit because there’s no crime. But let’s get things straight: one corpse, two, a battalion, a drove of corpses, we’ll pile them high if that’s what we need to avenge ourselves. But no corpse at all – why that could kill us. (to Archibald): Do you want to kill us?
Archibald: We are actors and organized an evening’s entertainment for you. (p.99)
Felicity: And don’t let the crime be glossed over. Nobody could possibly deny it, it’s sprouting, sprouting, my beauty, it’s growing, bright and green, it’s bursting into bloom, into perfume, and that lovely tree, that crime of mine, is all Africa! Birds have nested in it, and night dwells in its branches. (p.102)
Felicity (to the Queen): To you black was the colour of priests and undertakers and orphans. But everything is changing. Whatever is gentle and kind and good and tender will be black. Milk will be black, sugar, rice, the sky, doves, hope, will be black. So will the opera to which we shall go, blacks that we are, the Rolls Royces to hail black kings, to hear brass bands beneath chandeliers of black crystal… (p.106)
Diouf (whimpering): I’m old…I may be forgotten…and besides, they draped me in such a pretty dress…
The One Who Played the Valet (sternly): Keep it. If they’ve turned you into the image they want to have of us, then stay with them. You’d be a burden to us.
Archibald (to The One Who Played the Valet): But – is he still acting or is he speaking for himself? (p.114)
The Queen (to her Court): On your feet! Come with me to Hell. And mind your P’s and Q’s when we get there. (She pushes them along, like a flock).
Archibald (stopping her): Just a moment. The performance is coming to an end and you’re about to disappear […] perhaps they suspect what lies behind this architecture of emptiness and words. We are what they want us to be. We shall therefore be it to the very end, absurdly. Put your masks on again before leaving… (p.126)
Village (to Virtue): For you I could invent anything: fruits, brighter words, a two-wheeled wheelbarrow, cherries without pits, a bed for three, a needle that doesn’t prick. But gestures of love, that’s harder…
Virtue: I’ll help you. At least there’s one sure thing: you won’t be able to wind your fingers in my long golden hair…
(The black backdrop rises) (p.128)