THE SCREENS. The play by Jean Genet, translated by Paul Schmidt, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis, presented at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis.

Flies are the first reality. They swarm around shit and garbage and corpses. In the prologue to JoAnne Akalaitis’s production of Genet’s The Screens, the 50-some actors assemble and promenade around the stage thrust deep into the audience. A human bazaar: uniformed legionnaires with faces painted white, a veiled dark woman with a little black boy, a tall beehived Barbie doll in ‘60s-mod drag, a hooded wizard of indeterminate gender, an angry Palestinian youth shaking his fist, modestly dressed religious women. Many Asian faces, black faces, Latino and Mediterranean faces, staring out in a trance dance: Look at us. We are the world. Everyone in this world has one gesture in common – the hand snaps up, a quick wave. They flick away flies.

Set during the French-Algerian war (1950-1962), The Screens unravels the inverse picaresque tale of a poor Arab thief and traitor named Said, his mother, and his bride (“the ugliest woman in town”). Near the end of the play, many of the characters reassemble in the Land of the Dead, a circus version of a gravity-free afterlife defined (in George Tsypin’s stage environment) by a trapeze artist’s net strung above the stage. A French sergeant minutely details the feeling of getting shot and dying in the midst of the identity-obliterating act of taking a shit – an exquisitely Genetian epiphany that resounds through the entire scatalogically correct production. 

If, as Genet suggests, human life is a pitiful turd whose inevitable fate is elimination, what does it matter if your actions are good or evil? Sure, for virtue’s sake you can invent some romantic idea of a heaven to make your sacrifices mean something, but it’s still only a pretty illusion with no practical effect. One by one the play’s characters smash through paper screens to inhabit the Land of the Dead. Even Said’s caustic mother and the brothelkeeper Varda have enough piety to imagine an afterlife for themselves. Not Said. The dead may live on in his mind, but when he’s shot (offstage) he’s never seen again. Life’s a bitch, and then you die. Period.

Said is the archetypal Genet hero. He doesn’t believe in the social contract. As his doting mother boasts, “He wants everything to fuck up as fast as possible.” Said burns down his French colonial employer’s orange grove out of spite. When this inspires revolutionary sentiment among his countrymen, he betrays them to the French. Nothing he does makes any sense except as expression of a negativity whose purity matches a saint’s.

The Screens is one of the most daunting plays of the century. No one studies it in school; its values are theatrical rather than literary, so it doesn’t play well on the page. With 100 speaking roles and a five-hour-plus running time, it’s too unwieldy for frequent performances; it’s only been produced seven and a half times (the half being Peter Brook and Charles Marowitz’s mounting of several scenes in their 1964 Theater of Cruelty season, which became a study for Brook’s Marat/Sade). Like all Genet’s work, it’s an act of radical identification with disenfranchised populations. Unlike even the best contemporary theater aimed at inducing in middle-class theatergoers liberal sympathy for the underclass or the ethnic Other (cf. Nicholas Nickleby, The Mahabharata, Les Miserables, Steppenwolf’s The Grapes of Wrath), The Screens offers no palliatives, no figures of heroic sympathy. Instead, it demands of the audience something really scary – to identify with the anger, the hopelessness, the destructiveness (both outward- and inward-directed) of “the wretched of the earth.”

For a white Frenchman to identify with an Algerian outcast was a poetic, mysterious act of courage. (It is said that at the Paris premiere in 1966, audience members threw dead rats and climbed onstage to bite the actors.) For an American woman to embrace Genet’s vision is no less extraordinary. Without necessarily proving that it’s a great play, Akalaitis’s production makes the case for The Screens as an example of theater as a profound metaphysical experience, grand and lively and meaningless as life itself. Certainly, its physical and intellectual magnitude – from Paul Schmidt’s vernacular translation to the performances (especially by Ruth Maleczech as Said’s mother and Akalaitis’s current protégés, Jesse Borrego as Said and Lauren Tom as Leila) – dwarfs 99 per cent of what passes for American theater.

As with her staging of The Balcony for the American Repertory Theatre, Akalaitis chooses a carnival setting to physicalize Genet’s grotesque humor – Tsypin’s set is a mustard-tarped Big Top, and Eiko Ishioka’s vivid costumes favor extreme colors and shapes (lime-green wigs and gold lamé tent-dresses for the whores, heart-shaped padded jodhpurs for the colonials, matching red-red dresses and umbrellas for a team of African mourners). Frequently Akalaitis’s carnival approach leads her to caricature sex in a way that strikes me as a misreading of Genet, whose exhilarating nihilism makes sacraments of ephemeral sensations (pain, violence, sex).

Yet there’s a small, dreadful moment when Akalaitis cuts directly to the play’s dark heart. Sex is in the air: while Said jerks off in prison and a French colonial couple humps standing up in their mansion, the French lieutenant diabolically instructs his soldiers to find the enemies’ humanity before killing them: “I want you to make love and war with men, not rats.” In contrast to this semi-comic sexual frolicking, Akalaitis invests a sympathy akin to spiritual authority in a prisoner on death row who sits in a spotlight and lovingly describes murdering his own mother. It’s a perverse moment, almost shocking envisioned through a female director’s eye, yet absolutely true to Genet. “I am the shadow,” the matricide says with a kind of post-coital serenity, “that every light seeks.”

The shadow-seeking that propels the play is easiest to accept when it registers as existential angst, or war as the continuation of the male sex drive by other means. But Genet doesn’t stop there, and neither does Akalaitis. The incendiary invocation to evil that erupts midway (“Evil is our only hope! Women, give birth to monsters!”), links rage against mortality with anger born of oppression and with unquenchable race hatred. Genet disturbingly repudiates the brothers-under-the-skin vision of race and class relations; his imaginary Africa is a moral dark continent of inverted values.

Here is where those screens come in. Like the exaggerated costumes in The Balcony or the white clown-masks in The Blacks, Genet’s screens seem to be a theatrical stand-in for the unseen but all-powerful forces operating beyond the stage action. And the furtive, industrious excitement with which the characters deface the screens makes crystal-clear how irrational behavior (whether it’s airport terrorism or pin-sticking on the Upper West Side) is the natural, even unavoidable human response to oppression. It’s scary, but through its lengthy, episodic narrative, The Screens gives the audience time and space enough to recognize the equivalents of Said’s pleasure-in-evil around us. “I mean it,” Genet instructed director Roger Blin, “when the public leaves the theater I want it to carry the well-known taste of ashes and an odor of decay in its mouth.”

In Akalaitis, Sartre’s St. Genet finds an ideal disciple. As she has proven with her definitive productions of Beckett’s Endgame, Kroetz’s Through the Leaves, and now The Screens, she is a master of world-sickness. You may try and try to push it away, but she makes you feel the flies on your face.

Village Voice, December 12, 1989