Sartre is the dominant figure in post-war French intellectual life. A graduate of the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure with an agregation in philosophy, Sartre has been a major figure on the literary and philosophical scenes since the late 1930s. Widely known as an atheistic proponent of existentialism, he emphasized the priority of existence over preconceived essences and the importance of human freedom. In his first and best novel, Nausea (1938), Sartre contrasted the fluidity of human consciousness with the apparent solidity of external reality and satirized the hypocrisies and pretensions of bourgeois idealism. Sartre's theater is also highly ideological, emphasizing the importance of personal freedom and the commitment of the individual to social and political goals. His first play, The Flies (1943), was produced during the German occupation, despite its underlying message of defiance. One of his most popular plays is the one-act No Exit (1944), in which the traditional theological concept of hell is redefined in existentialist terms. In Red Gloves (Les Mains Sales) (1948), Sartre examines the pragmatic implications of the individual involved in political action through the mechanism of the Communist party and a changing historical situation. His highly readable autobiography, The Words (1964), tells of his childhood in an idealistic bourgeois Protestant family and of his subsequent rejection of his upbringing. Sartre has also made significant contributions to literary criticism in his 10-volume Situations (1947--72) and in works on Baudelaire, Genet, and Flaubert.
Jean Genet's life was full of sorrow and rebellion. Born illegitimately in 1910, he was abandoned by his mother, raised by Public Assistance, and sent to live with foster parents at the age of seven. He turned to thievery and prostitution at an early age and was sent to a reform school and, later, to prison. Many of these early experiences form the basis of his well-known works, including Miracle of the Rose and The Thief's Journal. Genet began writing in 1942, while in prison. His first work, Our Lady of the Flowers, was written slowly, since his manuscripts were repeatedly seized by prison officials. Like many of Genet's works, it contains highly homoerotic scenes and is based on his experiences and dreams as a prisoner and prostitute. In 1948, Genet was convicted for the 10th time for stealing, which carried an automatic penalty of life imprisonment. Several famous artists, including Sartre and Cocteau, rushed to his aid and were able to secure a pardon. Soon after, he began writing for the theatre. Plays such as The Blacks and The Balcony are considered classics of avant-garde drama, designed to shock the audience. These plays are from the movement known as The Theatre of the Absurd, which are based on the Existential philosophies of Albert Camus. Jean Genet died in Paris on April 15, 1986.