Genet's mother was a prostitute who raised him for the first seven months of his life before putting him up for adoption. Thereafter Genet was raised in the provincial town of Alligny-en-Morvan, in the Nièvre department of central France. His foster family was headed by a carpenter and, according to Edmund White's biography, was loving and attentive. While he received excellent grades in school, his childhood involved a series of attempts at running away and incidents of petty theft.
After the death of his foster mother, Genet was placed with an elderly couple but remained with them less than two years. According to the wife, "he was going out nights and also seemed to be wearing makeup." On one occasion he squandered a considerable sum of money, which they had entrusted him for delivery elsewhere, on a visit to a local fair.
For this and other misdemeanors, including repeated acts of vagrancy, he was sent at the age of 15 to Mettray Penal Colony where he was detained between 2 September 1926 and 1 March 1929. In The Miracle of the Rose (1946), he gives an account of this period of detention, which ended at the age of 18 when he joined the Foreign Legion. He was eventually given a dishonorable discharge on grounds of indecency (having been caught engaged in a homosexual act) and spent a period as a vagabond, petty thief and prostitute across Europe—experiences he recounts in The Thief's Journal (1949).
After returning to Paris, France in 1937, Genet was in and out of prison through a series of arrests for theft, use of false papers, vagabondage, lewd acts, and other offenses. In prison, Genet wrote his first poem, "Le condamné à mort", which he had printed at his own cost, and the novel Our Lady of the Flowers (1944).
In Paris, Genet sought out and introduced himself to Jean Cocteau, who was impressed by his writing. Cocteau used his contacts to get Genet's novel published, and in 1949, when Genet was threatened with a life sentence after ten convictions, Cocteau and other prominent figures, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso, successfully petitioned the French President to have the sentence set aside. Genet would never return to prison.
By 1949, Genet had completed five novels, three plays, and numerous poems, many controversial for their explicit and often deliberately provocative portrayal of homosexuality and criminality. Sartre wrote a long analysis of Genet's existential development (from vagrant to writer), entitled Saint Genet (1952), which was anonymously published as the first volume of Genet's complete works. Genet was strongly affected by Sartre's analysis and did not write for the next five years.
Between 1955 and 1961, Genet wrote three more plays as well as an essay called "What Remains of a Rembrandt Torn into Four Equal Pieces and Flushed Down the Toilet", on which hinged Jacques Derrida's analysis of Genet in his seminal work Glas. During this time, Genet became emotionally attached to Abdallah Bentaga, a tightrope walker. However, following a number of accidents and his suicide in 1964, Genet entered a period of depression, and even attempted suicide himself.
From the late 1960s, starting with an homage to Daniel Cohn-Bendit after the events of May 1968, Genet became politically active. He participated in demonstrations drawing attention to the living conditions of immigrants in France. In 1970, the Black Panthers invited him to the United States, where he stayed for three months giving lectures, attended the trial of their leader, Huey Newton, and published articles in their journals. Later the same year he spent six months in Palestinian refugee camps, secretly meeting Yasser Arafat near Amman. Profoundly moved by his experiences in the United States and Jordan, Genet wrote a final lengthy memoir about his experiences, Prisoner of Love, which would be published posthumously.
Genet also supported Angela Davis and George Jackson, as well as Michel Foucault and Daniel Defert's Prison Information Group. He worked with Foucault and Sartre to protest police brutality against Algerians in Paris, a problem persisting since the Algerian War of Independence, when beaten bodies were to be found floating in the Seine. Genet expresses his solidarity with the Red Army Faction (RAF) of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, in the article "Violence et brutalité", published in Le Monde, 1977.
In September 1982, Genet was in Beirut when the massacres took place in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila. In response, Genet published "Quatre heures à Chatila" ("Four Hours in Shatila"), an account of his visit to Shatila after the event. In one of his rare public appearances during the later period of his life, at the invitation of Austrian philosopher Hans Köchler, he read from his work during the inauguration of an exhibition on the massacre of Sabra and Shatila organized by the International Progress Organization in Vienna, Austria, on 19 December 1983.
By proxy, Jean Genet even managed to make an unlikely appearance in the pop charts when in 1972, David Bowie released his popular hit single "The Jean Genie". In his book Moonage Daydream (2005), Bowie confirmed that the title "...was a clumsy pun upon Jean Genet". A later promo video combines a version of the song with a fast edit of Genet's 1950 movie Un Chant d'Amour (1950).
Genet developed throat cancer and was found dead on 15 April 1986, in a hotel room in Paris. Genet may have fallen on the floor and fatally hit his head. He is buried in the Spanish Cemetery in Larache, Morocco.
Throughout his five early novels, Genet works to subvert the traditional set of moral values of his assumed readership. He celebrates a beauty in evil, emphasizes his singularity, raises violent criminals to icons, and enjoys the specificity of gay gesture and coding and the depiction of scenes of betrayal. Our Lady of the Flowers (Notre Dame des Fleurs 1943) is a journey through the prison underworld, featuring a fictionalized alter-ego by the name of Divine, usually referred to in the feminine, at the center of a circle of tantes ("aunties" or "queens") with colorful sobriquets such as Mimosa I, Mimosa II, First Communion and the Queen of Rumania. The two auto-fictional novels, The Miracle of the Rose (Miracle de la rose 1946) and The Thief's Journal (Journal du voleur 1949), describe Genet's time in Mettray Penal Colony and his experiences as a vagabond and prostitute across Europe. Querelle de Brest (1947) is set in the midst of the port town of Brest, where sailors and the sea are associated with murder; and Funeral Rites (1949) is a story of love and betrayal across political divides, written this time for the narrator's lover, Jean Decarnin, killed by the Germans in WWII.
Prisoner of Love, published in 1986, after Genet's death, is a memoir of his encounters with Palestinian fighters and Black Panthers; it has, therefore, a more documentary tone than his fiction.
Genet wrote an essay on the work of the Swiss sculptor and artist Alberto Giacometti entitled L'Atelier d'Alberto Giacometti. It was highly praised by such major artists as Giacometti himself and Picasso. Genet wrote in an informal style, incorporating excerpts of conversations between himself and Giacometti. Genet's own biographer, Edmund White, said that, rather than write in the style of an art historian, Genet "invented a whole new language for discussing" Giacometti, proposing "that the statues of Giacometti should be offered to the dead, and that they should be buried."
Genet's plays present highly stylized depictions of ritualistic struggles between outcasts of various kinds and their oppressors. Social identities are parodied and shown to involve complex layering through manipulation of the dramatic fiction and its inherent potential for theatricality and role-play; maids imitate one another and their mistress in The Maids (1947); or the clients of a brothel simulate roles of political power before, in a dramatic reversal, actually becoming those figures, all surrounded by mirrors that both reflect and conceal, in The Balcony (1957). Most strikingly, Genet offers a critical dramatisation of what Aimé Césaire called negritude in The Blacks (1959), presenting a violent assertion of Black identity and anti-white virulence framed in terms of mask-wearing and roles adopted and discarded. His most overtly political play is The Screens (1964), an epic account of the Algerian War of Independence. He also wrote another full-length drama, Splendid's, in 1948 and a one-act play, Her (Elle), in 1955, though neither was published or produced during Genet's lifetime.
The Blacks was, after The Balcony, the second of Genet's plays to be staged in New York. The production was the longest running Off-Broadway non-musical of the decade. Originally premiered in Paris in 1959, this 1961 New York production ran for 1,408 performances. The original cast featured James Earl Jones, Roscoe Lee Browne, Louis Gossett, Jr., Cicely Tyson, Godfrey Cambridge, Maya Angelou and Charles Gordone.
In 1950, Genet directed Un Chant d'Amour, a 26-minute black-and-white film depicting the fantasies of a gay male prisoner and his prison warden.
Genet's work has also been adapted for film and produced by other filmmakers. In 1982, Rainer Werner Fassbinder released Querelle, his final film, which was based on Querelle of Brest. It starred Brad Davis, Jeanne Moreau and Franco Nero. Tony Richardson directed a film, Mademoiselle, which was based on a short story by Genet. It starred Jeanne Moreau with the screenplay written by Marguerite Duras. Todd Haynes' Poison was also based on the writings of Genet.
Several of Genet's plays were adapted into films. The Balcony (1963), directed by Joseph Strick, starred Shelley Winters as Madame Irma, Peter Falk, Lee Grant and Leonard Nimoy. The Maids was filmed in 1974 and starred Glenda Jackson, Susannah York and Vivien Merchant. Italian director Salvatore Samperi in 1986 directed another adaptation for film of the same play, La Bonne (Eng.Corruption), starring Florence Guerin and Katrine Michelsen.
Entries show: English-language translation of title (French-language title) [year written] / [year first published]Our Lady of the Flowers (Notre Dame des Fleurs) 1942/1943
The Miracle of the Rose (Miracle de la Rose) 1946/1951
Funeral Rites (Pompes Funèbres) 1947/1953
Querelle of Brest (Querelle de Brest) 1947/1953
The Thief's Journal (Journal du voleur) 1949/1949
Prisoner of Love (Un Captif Amoureux) 1986/1986
Entries show: English-language translation of title (French-language title) [year written] / [year first published] / [year first performed]′adame Miroir (ballet) (1944). In Fragments et autres textes, 1990 (Fragments of the Artwork, 2003)
Deathwatch (Haute surveillance) 1944/1949/1949
The Maids (Les Bonnes) 1946/1947/1947
The Balcony (Le Balcon) 1955/1956/1957. Complementary texts "How to Perform The Balcony" and "Note" published in 1962.
The Blacks (Les Nègres) 1955/1958/1959 (preface first published in Theatre Complet, Gallimard, 2002)
Her (Elle) 1955/1989
The Screens (Les Paravents) 1956-61/1961/1964
Le Bagne [French edition only] (1994)
Un Chant d'Amour (1950)
Les Rêves interdits, ou L'autre versant du rêve (Forbidden Dreams or The Other Side of Dreams) (1952). Used as a base for the script of Tony Richardson's film Mademoiselle, made in 1966.
Le Bagne (The Penal Colony). Written in the 1950s. Excerpt published in The Selected Writings of Jean Genet, The Ecco Press (1993).
La Nuit venue/Le Bleu de L'oeil (The Night Has Come/The Blue of the Eye) (1976–78). Excepts published in Les Nègres au port de la lune, Paris: Editions de la Différence (1988), and in The Cinema of Jean Genet, BFI Publishing (1991).
"Le Langage de la muraille: cent ans jour après jour" (The Language of the Walls: One Hundred Years Day after Day) (1970s). Unpublished.
Collected in Œuvres complètes (French) and Treasures of the Night: Collected Poems by Jean Genet (English)
"The Man Sentenced to Death" ("Le Condamné à Mort") (written in 1942, first published in 1945)
"Funeral March" ("Marche Funebre") (1945)
"The Galley" ("La Galere") (1945)
"A Song of Love" ("Un Chant d'Amour") (1946)
"The Fisherman of the Suquet" ("Le Pecheur du Suquet") (1948)
"The Parade" ("La Parade")(1948)
"Poèmes Retrouvés". First published in Le condamné à mort et autres poèmes suivi de Le funambule, Gallimard
Spitzer, Mark, trans. 2010. The Genet Translations: Poetry and Posthumous Plays. Polemic Press. See www.sptzr.net/genet_translations.htmNote
Two of Genet's poems, "The Man Sentenced to Death" and "The Fisherman of the Suquet" were adapted, respectively, as "The Man Condemned to Death" and "The Thief and the Night" and set to music for the album Feasting with Panthers, released in 2011 by Marc Almond and Michael Cashmore. Both poems were adapted and translated by Jeremy Reed.Collected in Fragments et autres textes, 1990 (Fragments of the Artwork, 2003)
"Jean Cocteau", Bruxelles: Empreintes, 1950)
"The Studio of Alberto Giacometti" ("L'Atelier d'Alberto Giacomett") (1957).
"The Tightrope Walker" ("Le Funambule").
"Rembrandt's Secret" ("Le Secret de Rembrandt") (1958). First published in L'Express, September 1958.
"What Remains of a Rembrandt Torn Into Little Squares All the Same Size and Shot Down the Toilet" ("Ce qui est resté d'un Rembrandt déchiré en petits carrés"). First published in Tel Quel, April 1967.
"That Strange Word..." ("L'etrange Mot D'.").
Collected in L'Ennemi déclaré: textes et entretiens (1991) – The Declared Enemy (2004)
Collected in volume
Lettre à Léonor Fini [Jean Genet's letter, 8 illustrations by Leonor Fini] (1950). Also collected in Fragments et autres textes, 1990 (Fragments of the Artwork, 2003)
Letters to Roger Blin ("Lettres à Roger Blin", 1966)
Lettres à Olga et Marc Barbezat (1988)
Chère Madame, 6 Brife aus Brünn [French and German bilingual edition] (1988). Excerpts reprinted in Genet, by Edmund White.
Lettres au petit Franz (2000)
Lettres à Ibis (2010)
Collected in Théâtre Complet (Editions Gallimard, 2002)
"Lettre a Jean-Jacques Pauvert", first published as preface to 1954 edition of Les Bonnes. Also in 'Fragments et autres textes, 1990 (Fragments of the Artwork, 2003)
"Lettres à Jean-Louis Barrault"
"Lettres à Roger Blin"
"Lettres à Antoine Bourseiller". In Du théâtre no1, July 1993
"Lettres à Bernard Frechtman"
"Lettres à Patrice Chéreau"
Collected in Portrait d'Un Marginal Exemplaire
"Une lettre de Jean Genet" (to Jacques Derrida), in Les Lettres Françaises, 29 March 1972
"Lettre à Maurice Toesca", in Cinq Ans de patience, Emile Paul Editeur, 1975.
"Lettre au professeur Abdelkebir Khatibi", published in Figures de l'etranger, by Abdelkebir Khatibi, 1987.
"Letter à André Gide", in Essai de Chronologie 1910–1944 by A.Dichy and B.Fouche (1988)
"Letter to Sartre", in Genet (by Edmund White) (1993)
"Lettre à Laurent Boyer", in La Nouvelle Revue Francaise, 1996
"Brouillon de lettre a Vincent Auriel" (first published in Portrait d'Un Marginal Exemplaire
"To a Would Be Producer", in Tulane Drama Review, n° 7, 1963, p. 80–81.
"Lettres à Roger Blin" and "Lettre a Jean-Kouis Barrault et Billets aux comediens, in La Bataille des Paravents, IMEC Editions, 1966
"Chere Ensemble", published in Les nègres au port de la lune, Paris : Editions de la Différence, 1988.
"Je ne peux pas le dire", letter to Bernard Frechtman (1960), excerpts published in Libération, 7 April 1988.
"Letter to Java, Letter to Allen Ginsberg", in Genet (by Edmund White) (1993)
"Lettre à Carole", in L'Infini, n° 51 (1995)
"Lettre à Costas Taktsis", published in Europe-Revue littéraire Mensuelle, Numéro spécial Jean Genet, n° 808–809 (1996)