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The Maids Cleaned Up Are Still Women

Welcome to the maids’ world—women struggling for power, women playacting power, women redefining power. The Dresser isn’t talking American politics here, though maybe she should, but rather Washington, DC’s Scena Theatre’s production of Jean Genet’s earliest play The Maids.

The maids in Genet’s play are sisters and Claire, the younger of the two, has taken responsibility (though Genet makes the audience think it could be either of the sisters or their employer) for a letter written to the police that has gotten their mistress’ husband arrested. Claire is fixated on Madame. She wants to be Madame. When Madame is not home, the sisters wear her clothes and role-play Madame and maid. What goes on is far more complicated than the Dresser plans to recount.


When the play opened at Scena Theatre on November 12, 2007, Jenifer Deal as Claire-as-Madame emerged from a bathtub filled with flowers. She sang Edith PIaf’s signature song “La vie en rose.” The Dresser thinks director Gabriele Jakobi has selected great details that put Genet front and center of this production.

Like Piaf, Genet was the illegitimate child of a mother who abandoned him. The Madame’s bathtub serving as Claire’s launching vessel into the play begs comparison with the womb. Also Jakobi’s Claire coming out of the tub of flowers brings to mind Genet’s first novel entitled Notre Dame des Fleurs (Our Lady of Flowers). In this sexually outrageous but poetic novel about one man’s journey through the underworld of Paris and based on details from Genet’s life, are such characters as the drag queen Divine, the pimp Darling Daintyfoot, and the young hoodlum and murderer Our Lady of Flowers. As Jenifer Deal/ Claire-as-Madame emerged from the tub and led with one outstretched pointed foot, she commanded Solange (Madame’s other maid and Claire’s sister) to help her strap on Madame’s beautiful shoe.

The Dresser does not want to murder her reader with obvious points of connection, but she thinks she must say for those who have never seen a production of The Maids that the two sisters throughout the play plot Madame’s death. So let’s agree, Dear Reader, that the Dresser has taken care of how Claire connects to Daintyfoot and Lady of Flowers. What’s a little more tenuous, and possibly out on the edge of theater politics, is how the Dresser connects Claire to the drag queen Divine. First the Dresser says humbly that she had never seen a production nor read the script of Les Bonnes (The Maids) before attending Scena’s production and, quite frankly, had not spent time with Genet’s other works, but what she has learned since seeing Scene’s production of The Maids is that Genet had a proclivity for sexual perversion and it threads through much of his work. As Claire-as-Madame emerges from the tub of flowers, the Dresser kept expecting confirmation that the actor was in drag. Claireindrag.jpg
Photo by Ian C. Armstrong

Having arrived at the theater on the late side, the Dresser had not focused on who the actors were. Ms. Deal is a tall, large-boned person. She is physically beautiful, but then there are men who are also as beautiful as any woman could be. So the Dresser kept waiting for that shoe to drop. And as it turns out, so did the Dresser’s seatmate poet Martha Sanchez Lowery who spent her early years growing up attended by family maids in Bolivia.


Wiry and shorter Nanna Ingvarsson as Solange, the older and dominant sister, could have easily been made up as a king, the counterpoint to the better-known drag queen. However, director Jakobi did not go there. Ingvarsson as Solange plays a woman who is sometimes weak as feminine stereotypes are presented in Western culture and other times ferociously aggressive as men are allowed and often expected to be in our culture. Given that Madame treats her maids like they are animals, telling them they stink, but occasionally tossing them bones of reward for their loyalty, the Dresser did not feel frustrated that Jakobi’s Claire and Solange never came out in gender-bending revelations. Jakobi steadily anchors the interpretation of Genet’s characters to a woman’s world centered on clothing that occasionally allows glimpses of men who rock the power structure between women. Costume designer Alisa Mandel creates a good balance between what the Dresser calls the maids communist pajama uniforms and Madame's elegant gowns.


Genet has the flesh-and-blood Madame (played by Danielle Davy, looking and speaking a lot like the original baby-voiced blond bombshell Jean Harlow) showing up in the second half of this one-act work. Madame.jpg
Photo by Ian C. Armstrong

Madame’s presence alters the reality of Genet’s play because she stops Claire and Solange from their playacting. Jakobi ratchets up reality by having Solange, who is ordered by Madame to get her taxi, not only open a door that leads from the interior of the Warehouse Theatre where Scena is housed to a sidewalk on Seventh Street in northwest Washington, DC, but also exit through that door and leave it opened.

Since the 1947 premiere of Les Bonnes, Genet’s theater-of-the-absurd/theater-of-cruelty play has seen many productions, including a recent production here in Washington, DC, where the entire cast was men. Jakobi and her well-selected cast who have interpreted nimbly Genet’s constantly morphing characters have added value to this classic work of theater. The Dresser thinks that after she finishes her slow read of Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of Night (Voyage au bout de la nuit) and her quick read of Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise that she will borrow (not steal as Genet might have done) from her university library Notre Dame des Fleurs and its translation Our Lady of Flowers.

The Dresser notes that The Maids is Scena’s second selection in their series “Nouvelle Vague Season 2007-8.” The first two plays of Scena’s New Wave series, Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit (selection 1) and Jean Genet’s The Maids present cloisterphobic rooms in which an opened door alters the reality of the characters’ imprisonment and begs the question: couldn’t these characters just walk away? Well, the Dresser knows that is just one question of many raised by the plays of Sartre and Genet.


Although the Dresser understands that politically a critic should not pander to name-dropping and people watching (after all, Hilary Clinton is keeping her mouth shut about Barack Obama’s claim that she is withholding slanderous information about him), the Dresser will indulge anyway and say that on November 12 before audience members were admitted to their seats, she was pleased to see Elle Wilhite who played the ruthless Lesbian Inez in Scena’s No Exit and to get an opportunity to comment how much she enjoyed Ms. Wilhite’s performance. Perhaps there is something clubby about Scena’s audiences and financial backers. On November 12, many people were speaking French and German and the artistic director Robert McNamara made his closing remarks to the performance of The Maids in both English and French. The Dresser appreciates the intellectual stimulation and intimacy of McNamara’s total theater experience. Next in Scena’s “Nouvelle Vague” is The Chairs by Eugène Ionesco.

As is the Dresser’s custom, she offers a poem by a contemporary author. She also notes that Charles Baudelaire in his 1857 book Les Fleur du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) presented a poem entitled “Les Deux Bonnes Soeurs” (“The Two Good Sisters”). The Dresser suspects that although Genet probably based his play on the real-life crime story involving maids killing their madame, Genet also had occasion to read Baudelaire’s poem about two sisters known as Debauchery and Death. Here’s how Evelyn Posamentier depicts a scene of domestic life.


why does this disease stuff come in the mail?
how did i get on this mailing list?
in the shower my toes go numb.
i curse the bastard who walked
leaving with health insurance in hand.
some expect to see me in a wheelchair.
better not do that because i may
lose control, accelerate.
or that is what i think in the back
yard. with the cat who won't betray.

by Evelyn Posamentier
published in Unpleasant Event Schedule

Copyright © 2007 Evelyn Posamentier


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on November 18, 2007 4:13 PM.

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