Jean Genet lived a colorful and complicated life. His mother (a prostitute) abandoned him at an orphanage while he was still an infant. By all accounts, his foster family was loving and positive. However, Genet began a life of petty crime as a young teen. At fifteen years old, he was sent to a psychiatric clinic, but promptly ran away; he was then sent to Mettray Penal Colony.
These early years of vagrancy, crime, and impacted Genet's artistic and literary life. In 1929, Genet enlisted in the army to have an early release from the penal colony, but then deserted in 1936. He survived through theft, prostitution, and smuggling. In 1941, Genet was imprisoned again, but this time penned his first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers, a largely autobiographical account of a drag queen in the Parisian underworld. This novel impressed many cultural and artistic figures, and when Genet was facing another prison sentence in 1949 (this time for life), Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and others appealed to the French president to have this sentence commuted.
Genet never went back to prison. Instead, he invested himself in writing. By 1949, he had already written several novels and plays--most notably The Maids (1947), an elaborate role-play game between two sisters subverting the control of "Madame." Most of Genet's works focused on exposing social artifice, whether through metatheatrical ritual in The Blacks (1959) or the fantasy world of a brothel The Balcony (1956).
Most of Genet's works are representative of existentialism and connect to the Theatre of the Absurd as well as the Theatre of Cruelty. He explores social structures, crime, role-playing, punishment, and imprisonment. He wrote plays, novels, poetry, essays, and art criticism. With his platform, Genet became politically active in the 60s, arguing for social and civil rights for immigrants. The Black Panthers invited him to the United States in 1970. He gave lectures on race relations and civil rights.
Later in his life, Genet rarely made public appearances. In 1986, he was diagnosed with throat cancer, and died in Paris.
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