A Play Les Negres A Play English Literature Essay

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In 'Les Nègres' the characters are seen as masks; they exist as appearance only, and the Black skin of les nègres is as much a mask as the white masks of the actors who mirror the white audience and society in general. The play is set up to provide continual mirror effects as its action develops simultaneously on two planes. This is shown when Village says 'Convex, chaque surface de mon corps était un miroir et tout venait s'y réfléchir'. The dramatic action is presented as an enactment, and the ritual qualities of this performance are emphasized by incantations, chanting and dancing as well as by echoes of rituals. Throughout the play, the masks confuse both the audience-performer relationship and the master-slave relationship that is present on stage while the relationship between the Blacks in 'Les Nègres' to the white court is one of lower to higher and criminals to judges. Those of the court wear white masks and for the greater part of the evening they represent the whites, the colonial masters, and the dominant, superior race. This is shown when Vertu says that 'Blanche, c'est le lait qui m'indique, c'est le lis, la colombe, la chaux vie et la claire conscience, c'est la Pologne et son aigle et sa neige.'  The audience get a stereotypical opinion of the Blacks throughout the majority of the play, and this is shown during the ruling when the judge says, 'La couleur noire cesse d'être un pèche: elle devient un crime' and that 'Tu es un Nègre et un comédien. Ni l'un ni l'autre ne connaitront l'amour'. However with the use of these masks we get a sense of the whites being caricatures of imperial cruelty and fear of overthrow. While they preen themselves for all part of the performance, it is evident that the illusion of their whiteness is meant to be transparent to the audience and the reader. Scholar Joseph T Shipley gives a similar point of view when he says that 'No more violent attack on white supremacy and 'superiority' has been staged than this savage clownerie, to use the author's term, by the lifelong rebel Jean Genet'. [1] The masks worn are only half imposed in order to let the audience see that what is being performed is performance itself. With the use of masks and impersonation, Genet carries us back to the primeval world of myth, a realm in which matriarchal principle dominates 'Les Nègres' with an instant imagery. While we as the audience want to believe that things are clear cut and identities are fixed, with the use of masks and impersonation, Genet is suggesting that it is impossible to separate out layers of reality and identity. This is most notably shown when Archibald says 'Nous sommes ce qu'on veut que nous soyons, nous le serons donc jusqu'au bout absurdement. Remettez vos masque pour sortir, et qu'on les reconduise aux enfers.' It can be argued that the racial impersonation and masquerading seen throughout 'Les Nègres' are a destiny imposed on the Black people who must wear the white mask of aesthetic standards and religious ideologies which have been created and enforced by civilisation.

Archibald as the lead character controls three key things in the performance. He frequently reminds his actors of the goal of their ritual, he directs the actor's actions while he insists upon the tone and vocabulary of their performance. When he addresses the masked individuals he uses the rhetorical device, insult, which is seen to operate effectively in 'Les Nègres', as the 'hatred of white' is an integral part of the inner narrative. The judge throughout the enactment is also strongly against the masked Blacks when he says that 'Il a tué par haine. Haine de la couleur blanche. C'était tuer toute notre race et nous tuer jusqu'à la fin du monde'. Archibald uses an implied command when he first openly reminds les nègres, as actors, of their goal of their performance, insisting that their masks and the colour Black be their vital force. This is shown when he says 'Le tragique sera dans la couleur noire! C'est elle que vous chérirez, rejoindrez, mériterez. C'est elle qu'il faudra gagner' and that 'Je vous ordonne d'être noir jusque dans vos veines et d'y charrier du sang noir'. Genet's vision of life as a ritualistic maze of mirrors is clear to see in 'Les Nègres'' central motifs of the play-within-a-play; the binary mask and the difficulty of basing crucial judgements on appearances. The play as a whole seems to suggest that knowledge is subject to obstinate layers of theatricality and ritual that cannot simply be peeled away to reveal the truth. This view is supported by Richard Schechner and Mady Schuman who make the claim that 'Modern man is very sensitive to the far-off and the strange. Nothing helps him so much in his understanding of savage society as his feeling for masks and disguise' [2] . As the play progresses it is interesting for the reader to see just how the position of les nègres in society changes in relation to the whites. Perhaps the most impressive and somewhat moving part of the play to illustrate this point is when Felicity says to the Queen near the end of the play, 'Ce qui est doux, bon, aimable et tendre sera noir' and that 'Le lait sera noir, le sucre, le riz, le ciel, les colombes, l'espérance seront noirs'. A clever aspect of the way in which the play has been written is when Genet puts laughter on stage and turns it into an outrageous masquerade where the characters that play the role of Blacks over laugh the Blacks with white masks. In doing this, Genet deprives the white audience of their own laughter. Near the end of the play, when the actors shed their masks, 'La Cour enlève ses masques. On voit apparaitre les cinq visages noirs', there is some glimmer of the possibility of them being aware of their own capacity to produce an identity - but this scenario remains scripted and performed right up until the end of the performance and it is left for the 'white' audience to interpret what they can from this abrupt ending.

To conclude, it can said that the use of masks and impersonation throughout 'Les Nègres' is of key importance to the audience and the reader. It is finally shown at the end of the play that the story has in fact been written against the whites and is instead written for the Blacks, contrary to what is originally interpreted at the start of the performance. It is clear for the audience and readers to see that Genet in the play subordinates the world of art to that of the political needs of the Blacks and their rebellion against white domination through the use of masks and impersonation. It can be contended that 'Les Nègres' is an explicit identification of the power system in colonialism, and the central focal point of the play is to take that power away from the Whites, by invoking and purging through ritual, the centuries of injustice experienced by the colonized. This is the key message that Genet is trying to get across to the reader and the way in which he has presented the play with the use of masks and impersonations is an important and effective way to get this point across successfully to a white audience.

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