French and Francophone Language and Literature | Modern Languages | Modern Literature


In his recent biography of Jean Genet, Edmund White tells of the dramatist's fascination with the Pope. Genet purportedly revealed to Laurent Boyer, his "exécuteur testamentaire" at Gallimard, that if ever the Pope invited him to the Vatican, he would accept in a second. The ecclesiastical pomp of the center of power of the Catholic Church intrigued him to no end (Jean Genet 497). For those who know anything of the life or works of France's celebrated "poète maudit," it probably comes as no surprise that Genet never did receive such an invitation. He did, however, indulge his fascination—and on his own terms. In the 1950s he wrote “Elle1,"a one-act play that stages the complicated recitation of an autobiographical poem of and—at least at the outset—by the Pope.

In this posthumously published drama, a Photographer has been invited to take photographs of the Pontiff for mass distribution among Catholic believers worldwide. Despite the primary task of the Photographer—to photograph the Pope—he is first invited to hear the Pontiffs recitation of this poem in five Chants. Entitled "Les Sanglots du Pape," it traces the difficulties experienced in his becoming Pope: in Chant I how he moved from shepherd to head of the Catholic Church and how he became progressively isolated because of it; in Chant II what he had inside of him that permitted him to be chosen as the Pope; in Chant III how he sought for the means by which to best represent his image as Pope; in Chant IV how the image of the Pontiff exists for everyone in the world except himself; and, finally, in Chant V how he attempted to rid himself of the image of Pope and return to his simple existence as shepherd.

But while the Pope has initially offered to recite this personal poem to the Photographer who has never heard it before, by the fourth Chant the Usher—who is also present—takes over its recitation. Surprisingly, by the end of the fifth Chant it is the Photographer himself who recites it. The Pope himself has long since left the stage. In her Lire le thèâtre, Anne Ubersfeld notes: "Le personnage sur scène est parlé en principe par un seul comédien (et s'il y a des distortions, elles sont ressenties en tant que telles) [….]" (254). How are the "distortions" inherent in the shift in roles of the Photographer from audience of the Pope to performer for/of the Pope underlined in "Elle"? Are they anticipated within the Chants themselves? And can they be traced through the changing manipulation of words and structures in the announcements, endings, and (ex)changes of the five Chants of "Les Sanglots du Pape"?

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