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Maid in the Shade: Uncivil Servants

Ed Rampell: Genet explores how having a subservient, low status job affects the psychology of those (supposedly) born to serve their social “betters.”
Maids

Donnla Hughes (Solange) and Jaimi Paige (Claire). Photos by Craig Schwartz.

THE MAIDS Theatre Review

A Noise Within continues its 25th anniversary season by mounting a very 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 aesthetics.

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, who has performed on Broadway and London’s West End, as well as on TV in series such as Dallas) of the posh, presumably French household, where they perform tiresome tasks, from dressing their mistress to polishing the silver to overall kissing her royal ass. It turns out that the domestics are sisters - Solange (Galway, Ireland-born Donnla Hughes, who also acted on London’s West End and trained at the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) being older than Claire (Jaimi Paige, who has numerous stage and screen credits). 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 - although this is (alas!) less revealing than most bikinis at the ’Bu.

Maids

To the playwright’s and ANW’s credit, The Maids focuses on characters who are members of a profession often overlooked in the arts - lowly, unlettered, relatively unskilled, servile, manual laborers. These types of blue collar workers who toil with their hands are usually not protagonists in novels, plays, films, ballets and operas (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, high born dramatis personae of the Madame ilk are more likely to have lead roles. (Here, Madame has far less stage time than Solange and Claire do.)

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, ass kissing occupation that is looked down upon. This sensibility is similar to 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 the play’s most oppressed character as she is in bondage to the offstage Monsieur, her husband or lover, who presumably lavishes furs, gowns, jewelry, fancy digs, etc., upon this trophy wife or mistress in exchange for sexual favors.)

Maids

Emily Kosloski (Madame) and Jaimi Paige (Claire).

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, BTW. (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, rather significantly, worked as a servant herself (perhaps as a maid) and gave him up for adoption when he was only about seven months old.

This caused him to identify as an outcast and the gay Genet 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 rearned 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 Negritude, 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.”

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Genet leant 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 (rapist) 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 (or 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”?) to them, as they gained liberation.

Maids

Having said that, 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 has a different - arguably less revolutionary - outcome. What really happened was sort of a political version of Lizzie Borden’s outrage, and the playbill says the servants were hailed as working class rebels who struck a blow against the ruling class. With his less shocking denouement, perhaps Genet was pulling his punches for 1947 auds??? In their actual crimes, the real maids, shall we say, blew a fuse in 1933 France, which, significantly, was during the Great Depression and prior to Leon Blum’s left-leaning Popular Front government came to power.

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 direction by Stephanie Shroyer. Perhaps it is because of - dare I say it?! - Genet’s writing, which as stated is extremely stylized, as well as 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 beds/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 through fashion: Call it a form of “fash-ism.”

Maids

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

Ed Rampell

ANW’s The Maids includes post-performance conversations with the artists on Sunday, October 2 at 2:00 p.m., Friday, October 21 at 8:00 p.m. and Friday, October 28 at 8:00 p.m.

Ed Rampell