Something You Cant Get at Home

Jean Genet is not an acquired taste. Brie, good beer, wine—those are acquired tastes. Genet, the French writer who wrote some of the most mind-bending, avant-garde plays of the 20th century, is more like eating alligator or octopus. The very fact that it's on your plate suggests you know what you're in for—there's no getting used to it. Which may explain why, although Genet makes all the modern-drama anthologies, his plays are rarely produced except by the most adventurous theater companies and college programs. (For example, in its 35-year history, the estimable South Coast Repertory has never produced Genet.)

So leave it to Orange County's most enterprising theater company, Rude Guerrilla, to include a kind of Genet in its season, soliciting Los Angeles-based actor Arthur Hanket to Santa Ana for a special engagement of his solo play Genet: Language of the Wall.

Hanket, who received an Ovation Award nomination for a 1996 production of the piece at the Actors Gang in Los Angeles, calls his Genet "a celebration and homage to one of the 20th century's greatest writers." It's set during one of Genet's frequent stints in prison, as he contemplates an impending reprieve from a life sentence and a question: Does he really want to rejoin the society he bitterly disdains? In little more than an hour, the play touches on the volatile issues that defined so much of Genet's writing—sexuality, religion, politics, social mores, gender identity —while also, Hanket said, examining "the fragility of society's constructs and the equally fragile self-images we create to exist within (or without) the social order."

This ain't your ordinary night at the theater. But while Hanket's play is "about Genet, and while I use the methods of his writing and structure, it's a little more accessible than his own plays," he said.

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That's a good thing. Genet's genius is often unapproachable unless you've studied his work or appreciate dark, ritualistic plays that continually question notions of identity and permanence through wild role playing. Then there are the psychological and moral challenges: his metaphors include unsavory characters engaged in criminal activities. The Balcony is set in a brothel, the quintessential "House of Illusion" peopled by whoring bishops, generals and judges. The Blacks, Genet's potent critique of racism, involves a troupe of bizarrely dressed Negroes who perform for a group of white-masked Negroes by ceremoniously raping and killing a white woman.

More than his writing, Genet is often adored for his anarchistic life and his defiance of conventional morality. He came by such dishonesty honestly. Abandoned at birth and sentenced to a harsh reform school, he lived a life of low-grade crime: thievery, smuggling, begging, prostitution. He was sentenced to prison 10 times—once for life, before the intervention of such notable literary figures as Jean Cocteau and Jean Paul Sartre, who petitioned for his release. (Cocteau is supposed to have intimidated the judge by saying that Genet was another Rimbaud and you don't imprison a Rimbaud. As Genet's biographer Edmund White writes, "Only in France, of course, would such a legal defense work, which is all to the glory of the country.")

But while rebellion can make you a successful literary outlaw, it doesn't mean your plays work onstage. Throughout his life and beyond, Genet was notable in American theater for his absence. He did appear here during the early '60s, when American theater embraced any hint of avant-gardism. And he had the longest-running off-Broadway show to date. But he rarely succeeded anywhere in America but on the island of Manhattan. And it's not as if Americans were simply put off by his blasphemy and preachiness; his plays also require a non-naturalistic, presentational acting and production style that American audiences weren't—and still aren't—used to. Quality productions of Genet that capture his anarchic spirit and literary brilliance, along with his wicked sense of humor and satire, are very rare.

It was a production of The Maids 25 years ago that inspired Hanket's lifelong appreciation of Genet. As a graduate student at Florida State University, Hanket discovered Genet's novels and wrote as his thesis a one-man show based on the artist. That piece was hamstrung by the lofty literary passages it drew from—Genet's dense novels and Sartre's equally dense pseudo-biography of Genet. It wasn't until much later that the play truly became Hanket's own.

Two events precipitated the rewrite: the 1993 publication of White's landmark Genet biography Genet: A Biography, which discovered previously unknown facts about the self-mythologizing Genet, and Hanket's own battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The first allowed Hanket to introduce a more conversational, realistic tone into the play; the second turned his work into what Hanket calls a "religious quest" or "soul work."

"I was now facing a prison of my own: my own body," Hanket said. "The play took on a new significance. It was no longer a historical play about a writer; it was about anyone living in a prison of their own making or wanting to escape from something. For some people, that is their home, or cancer, or a job, or an ideology—and, for many, an actual prison."

Although Genet is a dark, twisted playwright, there's also a strain of redemption that runs through his work, something Genet discovered in prison when he first realized the power and potency of writing. "There is a way of escape and that is universal: imagination. It's art, creativity," Hanket said.

Hanket learned that for himself when he performed his piece at an Antelope Valley prison for 25 inmates. "They all said how incredibly lucid Genet was, how the nature of writing spoke to them as it never had before," he said. "They understood that writing is a form of escape, a form of freedom and a form of aggression. It's an outlet for telling the truth. My suggestion to these guys was to go out and tell a beautiful lie about your life on paper and see what comes out."

Hanket thinks Genet, though seldom produced, is as vital now as ever. Genet may offer a way to save theater from the slow death of well-made plays that try to duplicate reality in an era when film and TV do a much better job. Genet approached theater as ritual, as a kind of sacred drama equivalent to the Catholic Mass or ancient Greek theater, in the sense that it offered the spectator transformation as a part of participating in the experience.

"Genet guides us toward what theater can be," Hanket said. "There are things theater does that nothing can come close to duplicating. Participation. Ritual. It's a hot medium, not a cold medium like film and TV in which you can let something wash over you. In the theater, everyone is in the same moment together, complicit in the experience, forced to agree or disagree on the spot. So it's a forum of ideas, of social participation. And, yes, that's important, especially in a place like Southern California, where people do not participate with one another on the street. You go to the theater and hang with people you don't know and participate in something. That's valuable. That's something you can't get at home."

Genet: The Language of the Wall at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through July 25. $10-$12.

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