Genet’s The Maids: The Futility of Revenge

A Languid New Production by Wiener Festwochen Director Luc Bondy of a Ceremonial Masterpiece

On The Town | Peter Quince | July / August 2008

Sophie Rois and Caroline Peters (Edith Clever in background) (Photos: Ruth Walz)

Is revenge possible? Americans now spurn the word (although not the deed, God knows), preferring the ignoble rubric of "closure." But since re-venge literally means to return, its lightning is ineluctably, powerfully drawn to the lightning rod of theater, where actors and audience return—together—to subjects tragically constrained by daily life. The sons and daughters of ancient Greek drama dine out on revenge, seated at a long table called fate. Genet’s The Maids was an answer to real life: In 1933, everyone in France knew about the two Papin sisters, housemaids who butchered their mistress and her daughter over a squabble prompted by a blown fuse. The Wiener Festwochen just gave Genet’s play a finespun new production directed by festival Intendant Luc Bondy, which can soon be seen again at the Volksbühne in Berlin.

Genet’s two maidservants Claire (Caroline Peters, major muse of the Burgtheater) and Solange (Sophie Rois, major muse of the Volksbühne Berlin) put on their own kind of theater after they tidy up each day, in half-lit, half-baked dialogues where, assuming the roles of Madame and maid, they take turns debasing each other.

But, unlike the Papin sisters, Solange and Claire first bungle an attempt to blackmail their Monsieur by writing phoney incriminating letters to the police, and then bungle their attempt to kill their Madame (Edith Clever, actress of choice of directors Syberberg and Zadek) by poisoning her daily linden flower tea. ("Today I drink champagne," Madame announces, after Solange blurts out that Monsieur has been released from jail.) Against Solange’s half-hearted protests, Claire insists on playing out their game to its last consequence—clinging grimly to her role of Madame, she drinks the hemlock herself. To his everlasting credit, Genet has gone a step beyond the Greeks: his answer to the revenge question is no. Talk about "closure."

This verdict leaves some audiences squirming – in the Arbeiterkammer’s insipid, dun-panelled Theater Akzent ("Akzent" is exactly what the building doesn’t have), a good 20 people elected to walk out at the second performance. Perhaps they were disoriented by the enervated atmosphere Luc Bondy conjured up in Bert Neumann’s mise-en-scene, a fatal luxury of brown vinyl walls, mauve velvet, and copper-colored lampshades, with a sit-com staircase straddling Madame’s salon, splitting levels with the lozenges of its wrought-iron balustrade.

But this viewer’s pulse raced during the forlorn pauses. Probably for the first time ever, the sisters’ role-playing dispensed completely (thank God) with camp, which is to say with false self-parody. Both Peters and Rois push in the stops, so to speak. In their folie a deux, there is no flaying of arms; Rois takes clumsy, mincing maid’s steps, often pausing in mid-sentence to take a breath, gaping eloquently when Madame asks her why the phone is off the hook. We hear both frightened child and pirate queen in the rasp of her incomparable voice, but both personae seem to slip out of the same stillness.

Apropos "together": there are especially long pauses towards the end of Rois’ final monologue, and at the second performance they were punctuated by spasms of passive aggression (a.k.a. coughing), from the audience’s rank and file. Finally, Rois herself responded in a cadenza of coughs continuing for more than a minute—almost as if she were auditioning for us: and this seeming act of defiance may actually have been an act of solidarity. But even after Rois had returned to her spectral musings, as Solange imagines herself borne to the scaffold for murdering Claire, one indefatigable customer in the fifth row still hacked triumphantly away. Thus did we witness a heroic actress willing to abase herself in order to prove what we should already know: theater is always a dialogue between actors and audience.

The two other actresses were no less heroic, in their separate ways. Peters’ perfect carriage and blonde, Apollonian pulchritude seem to suggest the essence of talent, since her (that is, Claire’s) enactment of Madame is both more elegant and less assured than the real thing. In her simple, subtle performance as the real Madame, Edith Clever adopts the condescending drawl of a well-born benefactress, her consonants precise as they are refined, her vowels lofty with breath, her words coddling each other in mid-air.

"My Claire, what can I do for you? I thought you both would be happy to share my happiness."  Of course, Madame with her jewels is playing as much of a game as these two maids with their furious feather dusters. She blithely promises Claire and Solange a trove of gowns, only to snatch her prize fur off Rois, whose small features and square jaw turn suddenly, inimitably grief-stricken.

The two sisters may well be enacting a ritual ("You brought our private lives into the…" "Into what? Give it a name! The ceremony?...") but Genet makes sure his play’s structure sways at just the right moments. In Bondy’s production, the maids lord it over each other, then suddenly wilt, forgetting what comes next, bickering tenderly in each other’s arms. When Madame unwittingly offers Claire the same gown – for keeps this time – that Claire has been donning every day in their secret "ceremony," Peters’ face is a study, her mouth crushed in distrust, her eyes bulging with Madame’s praise. A minute later, her voice drops a somnolent octave as she corrects Madame, who had picked these girls off the streets and fed them soup when they had measles: Madame has just called Claire "Solange," a mistake all the more significant (and unforgivable) in light of the sisters’ secret role-playing.

The Maids, a scant 40 pages long, has an economy harking back to the Greeks (although, for economy, neither can compete with that little vignette in Mommie Dearest. where an aghast Joan Crawford/Faye Dunaway glimpses her daughter scolding a doll with the same words Joan hurled at her the day before). In some sense, it is about economy: These two home economists don’t have to leave the house to entertain themselves or find meaning in their lives.  In Bondy’s languid take, though, both joy and compulsion are missing from the sisters’ games. One would think they poison Madame’s tea only because they’re fed up with performing their little ceremony, day in, day out.

In the production’s most arresting image, Solange parks herself on the train of Claire-as-Madame’s gown as Claire, on all fours, pulls her all around the salon, berating and haranguing. Shrouded in the muted acoustics of Theater Akzent, where the very air seems carpeted, Solange initiates their "ceremony" by slowly raising a floor lamp to shine its copper light into Claire’s face – a limelit interrogation, two serving girls’ attempt at film noir. Behind closed curtains, these women are their own audience.

We play a somewhat different role in Genet’s own ceremony, but too much has been made of the artificial, ritualistic character of his plays. In The Maids, he uses theatrical devices to show us a paradox real life is too stingy to reveal in time to save us: the quest for revenge leads to an obsession with the object of revenge, and this obsession is perforce a kind of love. When Claire enacts Madame in her pathetic bid for one-upmanship, she unwittingly falls into a narcissistic trap whose final act is suicide. Peters and Rois, reduced at the end to the most transparent, resigned of whispers, end the drama as they began it, dancing a lethargic, knock-kneed cheek-to-cheek.

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