Genet’s revolutionary ‘The Maids’


“My sleepers will flee toward another America.” —Jean Genet

As a New Yorker, I make sure to avoid Broadway’s annual run of middle-class junk. But in August, a production by the Sydney Theatre Company of Jean Genet’s great 1947 play “The Maids” got me shelling out bucks. I’m a big Jean Genet fan.

It was a wallop of a performance, starring Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, two amazing actors. Blanchett plays the maid Claire, and Huppert, Claire’s sister, the maid Solange. A third, lesser-known actress, Elizabeth Debicki, plays the boss, Madame, the seldom seen character who is at the center of power, love, death, and hate in the minds of the two sisters.

Directed and translated from the French by Benedict Andrews, the set was simple perfection, except for the giant video screen that hung down from the rear of the set. It gave wonderful close-ups of the actresses, mostly Blanchett, who, with her back to the audience, put on makeup in front of a mirror. Different close-up views of the bedroom provided an alternate reality to what was visible from the audience. Just great.

The entire play was set in Madame’s bedroom, a closet brimming with clothes, bed, sofa, and the affects of a young bourgeois socialite. However, Madame appears only toward the end. Meanwhile, Clair and Solange tear each other apart with power games and head trips, each trying on Madame’s dazzling dresses between the drudgery of cleaning her room. The sisters role-play at being Madame, but also play being each other, dispensing cruelty with razor-sharp insults. The dialogue Genet sets up here is rich, brilliant, sexy, and sometimes really, really funny.

The sisters love each other but hate each other with equal passion—just as they hate/love Madame. Class hatred is usually eclipsed by self-hatred aimed directly at the other sister, when not directed inward. Solange says to Clair, “I want to help you. I want to help you, but I know I disgust you. I’m repulsive to you. And I know it because you disgust me. When slaves love one another, it’s not love.” Likewise Claire, as Madame, tells Solange, “Avoid pawing me. You smell like an animal. You’ve brought those odors from some foul attic where the lackies visit us at night.”

At the center of the plot are anonymous letters the sisters sent to police to implicate Madame’s thug of a boyfriend in crime. When Madame eventually returns, she’s in a tizzy on hearing that her love has been arrested for robbery. Whether he’s innocent, or more likely guilty, she swears her undying devotion and ridiculously imagines herself as a selfless martyr to love. She tosses her expensive clothes to Clair and Solange.

What evolves is a series of failures by the maids as they attempt to hide their role in the arrest of Madame’s boyfriend and attempt to poison Madame, who is certain to discover their role in her grief. The ending is both blunt and unsparing.

Genet’s work fascinated the well-known French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote an extensive study of him, “Saint Genet.” Sartre was a “dissident” Marxist for most of his life. He had a limited critique of the Stalinized and reformist French Communist Party, which nevertheless made him anathema to political hacks. The existentialist Sartre had no time for the simplistic Stalinist worker vs. capitalist dichotomies in art. He sought a deeper, richer explanation of human emotions. Sartre expertly dissected Genet’s house of mirrors in “The Maids,” as the characters change identities, masking and double-masking their true selves, much of which must reflect Genet’s life as a gay man and outlaw. In fact, it is said that Genet wanted his characters in “The Maids” to be played by men (“Genet” by Edmund White), something that he later denied—but then again, Genet lied a lot! (I actually saw “The Maids” performed by men at the National Theatre in Havana.)

Sartre wrote in his penetrating introduction to “The Maids,” “The most extraordinary example of the whirligigs of being and appearance, of the imaginary and the real, is to be found in his [Genet’s] play, ‘The Maids’ [‘Les Bonnes’]. It is the element of fake, of sham, of artificiality, that attracts Genet to the theatre.” Later, Sartre wrote, ”Genet betrays his actors. He unmasks them. … Illusion, betrayal, failure; all the major categories that govern Genet’s dreams are here present.”

Genet was a writer who turned reality upside down and inside out, peeling off the lies and self-delusion in the capitalist world of domination and cruelty. Genet’s genius was to fearlessly go deeply into the very bones and marrow of how oppression mentally enslaves us by class, race, gender, and sexual preference. He unravels layer upon layer of self-degradation , submission, self-hatred, and illusion. As a thief, prison convict, and gay man—when being gay was the greatest of all scandals—Genet’s life embraced, as with the great French poets of extremes, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, what polite society would call evil.

Despite the insipid, cutesy review of “The Maids” in The New York Times, Genet was a 1960s-style revolutionary activist, with all of its strengths and weaknesses. When he wrote of oppression he understood that capitalism lay at its root. He was a spokesperson for the Black Panther Party and, up until his death in 1986, a supporter of the Palestinian liberation struggle and lived for extended periods in refugee camps. By a twist of fate, Genet actually witnessed the horrific massacre at the Sabra and Chatila camps in Lebanon in 1982, when invading Israeli troops set loose Lebanese and Israeli fascists who slaughtered some 2000 innocent Palestinians.

Genet lived and wrote about society from the very bottom and then elevated it into art. He was in utter rebellion against the social order. Said Solange, “My jet of spit is my spray of diamonds.”

Photo: Cate Blanchett and Isabel Hubbert in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of “The Maids.”

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