Jean Genet’s “The Maids”: Uncivil servants in Pasadena

PASADENA, Calif. – A Noise Within continues its 25th anniversary season by mounting a brave choice, Jean Genet’s disturbing 1947 The Maids. If the theme of ANW’s silver jubilee is “beyond our wildest dreams,” this searing drama is “beyond our wildest nightmares” – a reimagining of a horrific crime, recreated as an act of revolutionary violence within the rather unconventional conventions of Theatre of the Absurd esthetics.

All I will say about The Maids‘ plot per se is that two servants are quite unhappy with their mistreatment by the Madame (Emily Kosloski) of the posh, presumably French household, where they perform tiresome tasks, from dressing their mistress to polishing the silver to overall kissing her royal hiney. It turns out that the domestics are sisters – Solange (Donnla Hughes) being older than Claire (Jaimi Paige). The oppressed siblings turn to bizarre forms of role playing with overtones of lesbianism and incest, as they plot – or fantasize – to carry out a bloody deed. One of the sisters promenades about on ANW’s thrust stage in period lingerie that’s somewhat less revealing than most bikinis in Malibu.

To the playwright’s and ANW’s credit, The Maids focuses on characters often overlooked in the arts – lowly, unlettered, relatively unskilled, servile, manual laborers. These types of domestic workers who toil with their hands are usually not protagonists in artistic works (Mozart and Beaumarchais’ Figaro being a notable exception, although, as it turns out, the house servant-turned-barber of Seville is of noble birth, after all). The more glamorous, highborn dramatis personae of the Madame ilk are more likely to have lead roles: Here, Madame has far less stage time than Solange and Claire.

Genet explores how having a subservient, low-status job affects the psychology of those supposedly born to serve their social “betters.” Especially when physical abuse is added to the daily humiliation of performing humdrum, arduous tasks in a demeaning, occupation that is looked down upon. This sensibility resembles the terrain explored by Albert Memmi in 1963’s The Colonizer and the Colonized and Frantz Fanon in 1952’s Black Skin, White Masks and 1961’s The Wretched of the Earth, which was oft-lauded as “the Bible of Third World liberation.” Of course, Memmi and Fanon dealt with a heavy ethnic component (Westerners versus Third Worlders) in their litany of the oppressed, but while The Maids‘ characters all seem to be French, in ANW’s production Madame is cleverly cast as an archetypal (if not stereotypical) Aryan blonde beauty. (Ironically, Madame may be equally if not the play’s most oppressed character as she is in bondage to the offstage Monsieur, her husband or lover, who lavishes furs, gowns, jewelry, fancy digs, etc., upon his trophy wife or mistress in exchange for sexual favors.)

However, unlike Memmi and Fanon, Genet was usually not writing nonfiction manifestos but an artist who artistically dramatized these themes in the Absurdist style – and beat both to the punch. (To be fair, the 1910-born Frenchman was older than both theorists and the poet-bard-novelist also wrote his fair share of essays.) Given Genet’s own mindset, his dramatization imbued his characters and situations with sexual frisson. Genet was born out of wedlock to a mother who worked as a servant herself (perhaps as a maid) and gave him up for adoption when he was only about seven months old.

The gay Genet identified as an outcast who lived, rather famously, as a drifter, petty thief and prostitute during his earlier life. At age 18 he joined the despicable Foreign Legion, but much to his honor earned a dishonorable discharge from this disreputable enforcer of French colonialism. Somehow Genet – who, in terms of formal education, does not seem to have advanced beyond high school – turned to writing, and notable artists living in France, including Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre, helped and touted the criminal-turned-man of letters. His highly stylized plays – especially the 1957 brothel-set The Balcony about a revolution and 1959’s excoriating look at racism and Négritude, The Blacks, as well as, of course, his first produced play, The Maids – cemented Genet’s reputation as an “artiste terrible” (to coin a phrase) of the Left. Indeed, Sartre rather famously crowned him as “Saint Genet.”

Genet lent the cachet of his international prestige to various causes, notably the Black Panther Party in 1970. Indeed, the Panthers’ Eldridge Cleaver was a sort of African-American version of Genet, an ex-prisoner and sexual outlaw who became for a while a New Left literary lion. In addition, the Panthers’ ideology seemed similar to Genet’s, rhapsodizing the lumpenproletariat – the unemployed, criminals and the like – as those who will bring about the revolution (as opposed to the working class per se). The BPP (at least its Cleaver faction) and Genet both apparently believed in an interpretation of Fanon wherein only a cathartic act of revolutionary violence against the oppressor would redeem the oppressed and restore their manhood (or, in Solange and Claire’s case, their “womanhood?”), as they gained liberation.

It bears mentioning that, according to the playbill, the real-life incident that inspired Genet’s The Maids was far more violent than what takes place in the stage version, and had a different – arguably less revolutionary – outcome. What really happened was a sort of political version of Lizzie Borden’s outrage. The playbill says the servants were hailed as working-class rebels who struck a blow in 1933 against the ruling class – significantly, during the Great Depression and before Léon Blum’s left-leaning Popular Front government came to power. With his less shocking denouement, perhaps Genet was pulling his punches for 1947 audiences?

In any case it is quite daring for ANW to present such an outrageous play – especially as America’s “wretched of the Earth” righteously rebel in Charlotte and beyond. Alas, parts of the 90-minute one-act play are tedious to sit through. I don’t know if this is due to the acting or the direction by Stephanie Shroyer. Perhaps it is Genet’s writing, which is extremely stylized, and also translated from the original French into English. (As was the 1975 film adaptation starring the English actresses Glenda Jackson and Susannah York, which had the provocative tagline: “Sisters. Servants. Sinners.”)

Scenic designer Frederica Nascimento’s multi-level set serves to convey a bourgeois sense of place, as well, perhaps, a psychological dimension. A mental comparison between the grand onstage bed (where, no doubt, Madame entertained Monsieur) and the lowly servants’ foldout cots referred to in the dialogue conjures up an ambiance of class struggle: Better bed than dead! Angela Balogh Calin’s costuming – from the maids’ drab uniforms to the lingerie to Madame’s haute couture – also successfully expresses class conflict: Call it a form of “fash-ism.”

All in all, there is something to be said for placing society’s lowly men and women at the top of the totem pole and giving voice to how les misérables feel. Imagine all the rage that builds up when one has to scrape and bow, day after day, in order to merely survive. ANW is to be congratulated for taking such a chance, as it spreads its wings to embrace difficult plays, such as Tom Stoppard’s complex Arcadia and Saint Genet’s rebellious, perverse play. Both are for the more demanding theatergoer, particularly those with a penchant for serious, thought-provoking, experimental, avant-garde theater, as opposed to mere crowd pleasers. (Leave the kiddies with the babysitter for this one.) This reviewer is grateful to have theatres available that are unafraid to tackle the tough ones.

A Noise Within’s production of Jean Genet’s The Maids plays through Nov. 12 in repertory with Stoppard’s Arcadia and Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid (opening Oct. 9) at A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91107. For exact times, dates and more info: (636) 356-3100, ext. 1; www.anoisewithin.org.

The Maids includes post-performance conversations with the artists on Sun., Oct. 2 at 2:00 pm, Fri., Oct. 21 at 8:00 pm, and Fri., Oct. 28 at 8:00 pm.

Photo: Jaimi Paige (Claire) and Donnla Hughes (Solange) / Craig Schwartz


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Film historian and critic Ed Rampell was named after CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow because of his TV exposes of Sen. Joe McCarthy. Rampell majored in cinema at New York's Hunter College. After graduating, he lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, where he reported on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific movement for "20/20," Reuters, AP, Radio Australia, Newsweek, etc. He went on to co-write "The Finger" column for New Times L.A. and has written for many other publications, including Variety, Mother Jones, The Nation, Islands, L.A. Times, L.A. Daily News, Written By, The Progressive, The Guardian, The Financial Times, and AlterNet.

Rampell appears in the 2005 Australian documentary "Hula Girls, Imagining Paradise." He co-authored two books on Pacific Island politics, as well as two film histories: "Made In Paradise, Hollywood's Films of Hawaii and the South Seas" and "Pearl Harbor in the Movies." Rampell is the author of "Progressive Hollywood, A People's Film History of the United States." He is a co-founder of the James Agee Cinema Circle and one of L.A.'s most prolific film/theatre/opera reviewers.

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