Jean Genet did not have to look far for the poverty, debauchery, and criminality that make up the subject matter of most of his novels and plays. His semi- autobiographical novel, The Thief's Journal (1949), provides many of the details of his early life as a homosexual, a prostitute, a thief, and a convict. He eventually cut out the last three identities from his repertoire, retaining the homosexuality. Genet explored these darker areas with unprecedented poeticism and frankness, while helping develop the French theatrical movement Theatre of the Absurd and becoming an intriguing subject for modern-day Queer Theory, or literary criticism on homosexuality.
Genet was on December 10, 1910, in Paris, France, to twenty-two-year-old prostitute Camille Gabrielle Genet. She gave him away to an orphanage the following summer, and Jean never again saw her. He was soon put in a foster home, but ran into trouble. At age ten, he was accused of stealing. Though he was innocent, he later claimed that since society had repudiated him, he chose to repudiate society and devote himself, ironically, to a life of a crime. At age thirteen he was removed from his foster home and school, and later endured psychiatric treatments after he embezzled money from his new guardian. After a series of failed escapes from the authorities, he was sentenced in 1926 to the penitentiary colony at Mettray for two years. His time in prison solidified Genet's criminal instincts, his antagonism to French bourgeois society and, more importantly, allowed him to explore his budding homosexuality.
In 1929, he joined the French army to get out of prison. When he was sent to Syria in 1930, he developed sympathy for the Palestinians and the Algerians, two colonized groups who he felt—like homosexuals, orphans, and the poor—were victimized by the French bourgeois. After he was released from the military in 1933, Genet spent the next decade making his living across Europe as a prostitute and thief, with occasional stints in prison. In prison in the early 40s, he wrote his first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers. The manuscript was discovered and destroyed, but Genet rewrote it from memory and smuggled it out, where it fell into the hands of prominent French writers Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre. Cocteau was instrumental in getting the book published in 1943. After Genet was caught stealing again and given a life sentence, Cocteau, Sartre, and other writers lobbied on Genet's behalf. The sentence was cut to three months, and after Genet was released, he wisely gave up crime, though he never abandoned the subject in his work. His 1946 novel Miracle of the Rose was partially inspired by his time in Mettray, but he soon switched genres and searched for experiences entirely outside of his own. He wrote a number of successful plays in the 1950s, and The Maids, in 1948, was his first. Alongside Sartre's tireless promotion of Genet, who wrote a biographical and critical study of him in 1952, titled Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, his reputation branched out into the mainstream. The Balcony (1955), The Blacks (1955), and The Screens (1961) concern themselves with sex, race, and revolutionary politics while sticking with Genet's lifelong literary interests of illusion and oppression. His creative output dwindled after the 60s, but he expanded his politics, supporting the Black Panthers in the U.S. and Palestinian soldiers abroad. His final work, translated into English as Prisoner of Love, recounted these exploits and was published shortly before his death in 1986.
Most literary criticism of Genet focuses on his "Otherness" as an outcast from French society, and especially on his homosexuality. A substantial amount also gives deserving attention the lyrical, dream-like quality of his prose. There is little written about The Maids; Sartre's introductory essay in an edition of The Maids and another Genet play, Deathwatch, is the best available essay. Sartre centers on The Maids in his discussion, which ties Genet's "Otherness" to the illusory world he has created.