The Noble Orphans: The life of Edward Albee and Jean Genet
Updated: Aug 11
Published 5 June 2020
What is the connection between these two prominent writers? They were both gays. Both wrote in the absurdist style. Both were politically engaged and controversial. Both enjoyed employing clichés in their writings. But what’s more?
By examining Albee and Genet’s shared past as orphans, we hope to explore the impact of this experience on their writings, as well as their responses to identity, family, love, and revolution.
We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.
They will not now… not ever tell me who I am.
The lyrics of Knoxville: Summer of 1915 evokes the hollowness inside Edward Albee. In the conversation with his life-long friend, writer and critics Mel Gussow, Albee confessed that the text said a great deal about him as an orphan.
At just two-weeks old, Albee was placed for adoption. He was soon accepted by a wealthy young couple. Compared to many children, Albee enjoyed many luxuries during childhood. Travelling by the family Rolls Royce, he would spend his summer on the Long Island beach or sight-seeing in the nearest towns. The Albees had a long family history in the theatre business, dating from Albee’s great-granddad, who co-founded the Keith-Albee Theatre Circuit. The earliest influence to Albee on theatre may be from his visits to the family theatres.
However, his adopted parents were indifferent and even neglectful towards him. Frances, Albee’s foster mother, possibly narcissistic, was said a charming, lively, and caring person to the public, but demanding, domineering and cold person to her family. The suffocating environment made Albee “feel like an interloper”, a “transient”, and “a visitor in a strange land”.
The description of Jean Genet’s childhood bears the same notion. ‘...by escaping the family,’ he wrote in The Thief’s Journal, a semi-autobiographical novel, ‘I escape the feelings I might have had for the family and the feelings which the family might have had for me… In my opinion, the family is probably the first criminal cell, and the most criminal.’
Genet’s biological parents abandoned him the following summer after his birth. He was initially adopted by a loving village couple in Morvan. The couple provided Genet very good education and care, and Genet had been reported to obtained excellent grades at school. Unfortunately, after twelve years of happiness, his foster mother died of illness. By losing a Mother a second time, Genet became extremely isolated and insecure.
His nightmare began in 1924 when the French Public Welfare System moved him to a new family, the Buxeuils, and the school Ecole d’Alembert in Montevrain. His unusual Welfare uniform caused a stir among his fellow pupils. Soon it was followed by insults, prejudices and violence. He soon started his constant escapes. ‘Then I really felt I was in exile.’ he said.
In the Summer of 1926 young Genet was arrested in Meaux for travelling on a train without a ticket. He was put in jail for forty-five days before spending the next three years in the Mettray reformatory. The severity of punishment left him traumatized, as if "falling into an abyss". And it became an eternal black spot in his life. For him, to be purified and re-born, one has to go through self-condemnation first. He had to carry on this label and to commit more crimes.
All the dirty things I did made me luminous. I shone! - The Screens
Brecht believed there were three types of writers: The ones who observe, the ones who theorise, and the ones who analyse. The works of Genet and Albee are exceedingly psychoanalytical. The characters are derived from themselves, ‘split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, dissolve and merge’.
Social rejection and unfulfilled love to an uncompleted and fragmented self. As a result, the unintegrated and undeveloped parts become so irreconcilable and yet so intimate, it has an urge to externalize itself. It grows into a twin figure.
It cannot be coincident that both Albee and Genet held a fascination for the appearance of a twin figure. This “alternative-self” produced complicated emotions within: affection, indifference, jealousy, and sometimes fear. In Albee’s play The American Dream, Young Man lost his soul due to the death of his twin brother; and in Me, Myself and I, the twins have an identical name and one denies the other’s existence. In Genet’s novel Querelle de Brest, the antagonist forms an almost incestuous attachment towards his twin and frenemy Peter. The twins serve as tools to explore the sub-consciousness, cope with inner conflicts and the struggles with the false self.
Genet’s false self had always been the criminal and outcast. And when Saint Genet was published Genet was so strongly affected that he stopped writing for five years. In the book, Jean-Paul Sartre offered a full analysis of Genet’s journey from a prisoner to a writer. From being condemned to being called a Saint, the sudden elevation of social status is too overwhelming to be bearable. In the end, he chose to stay with his solitude.
‘Awareness of our solitude,’ he wrote, ‘gave us this power and the power added to our solitude’, and ‘the desire for solitude, is pride’. He was too proud to share himself with others. Nevertheless, this pride was sadly not the product of self-appreciation.
Albee also said he was a solitary creature in nature. His teenager years were not as turbulent as Genet, but he was still frequently dismissed by schools and colleges for skipping classes and church services. Perhaps his most outrageous gesture was to write the exotic farce called Aliqueen in the Lawrenceville School, which caused a drama among school officials.
According to his friends, Albee was a loyal, modest and passionate person. Underneath this exterior is a wounded son who sought closure from the broken relationship with his mother. In The American Dream and The Sandbox, he depicted the Mother as a dominant, selfish, self-admiring and brutal figure. She shows no love for her child. Nor does she recognises him for what he is. When the child develops needs and desires she immediately responds with extreme violence. The child is nothing but a function and can be easily replaced by a replica after death.
He acknowledged in his first play The Zoo Story that the similar experience of hurting and being hurt makes love and hate inseparable.
I have learned that neither kindness nor cruelty by themselves, independent of each other, creates any effect beyond themselves... we neither love nor hurt because we do not try to reach other. - The Zoo Story
This estranged mother and son relationship also appears in The Lady from Dubuque, All Over, Three Tall Women - written in a couple of years after the death of Albee’s adoptive mother, and his last play Me, Myself and I. Freudian views that wife and daughter are the surrogate mothers. Some critics suggested that the revengeful wife in The Goat is as well a mirror image of Albee’s mother. Her disgust towards her husband’s bestiality and the cold-blooded murder is an analogy to Frances’ disapproval of Albee’s homosexuality.
Although in his last play the portrayal of the mother already became less cruel and influential and more comical. The ability to find humour in suffering is a way to make peace with the past.
For Genet, the rejecting mother figure is not a woman named Frances but a land called France. "The French refused me since they put me in prison." he told Nigel Williams from BBC.
Years of hardship made Genet unforgiving. In his interview, he shockingly revealed his hatred towards his motherland and his support to Germany’s attack during WWII. Because everything against France, for him, is a companion.
In his works, hatred is sometimes disguised, only exposed later to turn into a crime. In his play The Maids, he made it ambiguous about whether the hostility was a pure fantasy role-play or a heightened reenactment.
Hatred and love in his view are not only inseparable but also interchangeable at their highest intensity.
My hatred of the militiaman was so intense, so beautiful, that it was equivalent to the strongest love! - Funeral Rites
And yet, the thought of Love is despicable and needs to be annihilated.
ALL we need is hatred. Our idea springs from hatred. - The Blacks
It is possibly that Genet’s feeling towards France was a love-turned-hatred. In his anguish, the young boy Genet loudly unleashed his loathing for France while secretly wishing for the long-belated apology. After all, at the end of The Blacks, his characters Village and Virtue confess to each other love after resolving the conflicts.
Yet by the time of his last interview with BBC in 1985, his hope was gone. When he was told that his works were appreciated by the British audience, Genet was surprised. He regarded it as an act of virtue but wished to be left alone. At that point, Genet had simply given up the idea of reconciliation. His rage stayed with him the entire life.
Any play that doesn't hurt you in some way has something wrong with it. - Edward Albee
To look back their career as writers, Albee and Genet took quite different approaches. But like other absurdist playwrights such as Pinter and Ionesco, their writings challenged corrupted systems and flaky ideologies, provoking radical thoughts, which consequently led to censorships.
Surprisingly, despite participating in human rights or revolutionary activities, neither man considered himself political.
‘I think of myself as a bit of an observer,’ said Albee, ‘not a removed observer, a clinical observer so that one can make valid and objective decisions about things’. Like many of his male characters, his participation was to observe his own participation. In his play Seascape, he argued that whether as the human race we have achieved anything through evolution at all. In his interview with Mark Anderson in 1981, he expressed his disappointment towards the American revolutionary principles or the lack of it. And he urged for a social revolution for real freedom.
Joy lies in the fight, in the attempt, in the suffering involved, not the victory itself. – Mahatma Gandhi
In a way, Genet’s attitude towards revolution is not that far from Gandhi’s. Genet was loyal to the process of revolt and supporting the violence in order to obtain liberty. But at the same time, he believed that revolution is a game at best, during which everything can become something else. To speak of himself, it was the transition from a prisoner to a celebrity. For many revolutions in general, it was a replacement of brutality with a different format of another. And rebels still insisted that they had accomplished something. This pessimistic view was illustrated in his plays such as Splendid, The Balcony, The Blacks and the novel Funeral Rites.
However, once the writing is finished, the interpretation is left to the readers. Both Albee and Genet’s works are revolutionary in their contents, ideas, and styles. And as writers and public figures, they used their influences and became the advocates of social justice and changes. It is without a doubt that their works will be continuing to inspire the audience today and the future.
Originally written in April 2012. Rewritten in May 2020.
1.James Agee. A Death in the Family. (Penguin Random House USA, 2009).
2.Edward Albee Interview with Academy of Achievement, USA. 2005.
3.Edward Albee. THE ZOO STORY and THE AMERICAN DREAM: Two plays. (Plume drama, 1997).
4.Edward Albee. The Goat, or, Who Is Sylvia? (Bloomsbury Methuen, 2004)
5.Edward Albee. TINY ALICE, BOX and QUOTATIONS FROM CHAIRMAN MAO TSE- TUNG. (Penguin Plays, 1971).
6.Edward Albee. Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Penguin Plays, 1962).
7.Edward Albee. THE SANDBOX and THE DEATH OF BESSIE SMITH. (Signet Book, 1963).
8.Stephen Barber. Jean Genet. (Critical lives, 2004).
9.Bertolt Brecht. On Theatre. (Augsberg, Munich, Berlin: 1918-1932).
10. Robert Brustein. Theatre of Revolt: studies in modern drama from Ibsen to Genet. (Elephant Paperbacks, 1991).
11. Martin Esslin. The Theatre of the Absurd: Edward Albee. (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1961).
12. Abraham N. Franzblau. A Psychiatrist Looks at Tiny Alice. in Saturday Review, XLVIII, v (1965).
13. Jean Genet. The Maids. (Faber and Faber, 1989)
14. Jean Genet. The Balcony. (Faber and Faber, 1991)
15. Jean Genet. The Blacks. (Faber Paperbacks, 1979)
16. Jean Genet. The Screens. (Grove Atlantic, 1994)
17. Jean Genet. Splendid. (Faber and Faber, 1995)
18. Jean Genet. Deathwatch. (Faber and Faber, 1989)
19. Jean Genet. The Thief’s Journals. (Grove Atlantic, 2018).
20. Jean Genet. Funeral Rites. (HarperCollins Publishers, 1971).
21. Jean Genet. Our Lady of the Flowers. (The New Traveller’s Companion Series, 2004).
22. Jean Genet. Querelle de Brest. (Faber and Faber, 2000).
23. Edward de Grazia. An Interview with Jean Genet. Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature. Vol. 5. (1993).
24. Mel Gussow. Edward Albee: A Singular Journey. (Oberon Books Ltd. 1999).
25. William Haver. On the Side of Violence: Jean Genet and the Palestinian Revolution. The Jerusalem Fund. (2003).
26. Gene A. Plunka. The rites of passage of Jean Genet: the art and aesthetics of risk taking. (1992).
27. Jeremy Reed. Jean Genet: born to lose. (Creation Books, 2005).
28. R.S. Stewart. John Gielgud and Edward Albee Talk About the Theatre. in The Atlantic Monthly, CCXV, iv (1965).
29. Gerald Weales. Edward Albee: Don’t Make Waves. in The Jumping-Off Place: America Drama in the 1960’s. (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1969).
30. Nigel Williams. Jean Genet Interview with BBC Arena, U.K. 1985.
31. Bruce Mann. Edward Albee: A Casebook. (Routledge, 2004).