Jean Genet‘s plays always present the dynamics of power relationships and hint at the underlying sadistic and masochistic elements of human nature vying to establish identity, supremacy and control. The Maids directed by Christopher Schilder in an intriguing production by the Sonnet Repertory Theatre was typical Genet. The director’s attention to setting, casting and production values, scenic design, costume design and other elements were the icing on the cake for Genet’s brilliant and well crafted scenes in which Claire (Monique Coleman) and Solange (Chinasa Ogbuagu) play out their high games of master/slave and mistress/servant to add artistry and interest to their otherwise base and demeaning lives.
Schilder elected to present The Maids in post-WWII New Orleans. It was a logical choice. New Orleans’ culture has roots steeped in French culture. At the time New Orleans still had a stratified class system with secret societies amongst the wealthy and strong class delineations for the rest of the population. As in other parts of the South, New Orleaneans’ affected southern graces served to mask their intense hostility toward the servant classes, especially blacks.
Through Schilder’s excellent direction, vision, and choice of setting, the layers are peeled back on the elitist culture which, at the time, retained a good deal of the oppression, abuse and discrimination of the Old South’s slavery days. It also serves as a universal and timeless capsule of life-and-death economics and the power struggles between those who command and those who are compelled to serve so they do not starve. Using reversal and irony, Genet, through Schilder’s production, provokes the audience to consider an important social theme. Though fascist class structures drain humanity, identity and talent from the poor to enrich the well-being and happiness of the upper classes, the upper classes ultimately destroy themselves in the process.
In the initial scene of The Maids Genet cleverly dupes us into believing that Claire is the actual mistress of the house through her harsh demeanor and supercilious, abusive treatment of Solange, the maid, who is appropriately subservient and obsequious. Genet uses this scene in an ingenious way to define the character of Madame (Rosa Arredondo) and fill in the details about how she is pining for her lover, Monsieur, who has been jailed. We are eerily set up, for then comes the reveal and audience slap. Genet has been manipulating our assumptions and ridiculing our ideas about wealth and class – the servant class as grossly stupid and lacking imagination, the dominant class as knowledgeable with superior intelligence.
We discover that Claire and Solange are two sisters who enact the elaborate game Madame/maid with hyperbole almost to the point of derision, though when we finally meet Madame (Rosa Arredondo), we see their hyperbole is not that far off the mark. Madame levels her disparagement with a smile and her denigration and abuse with a sugar mask which Claire “emulates” in her Madame act. As the events unfold we come to understand the purpose of the playacting when Madame is away. The sisters are attempting to free themselves from a complex love/hate relationship with their mistress and each other. They despise themselves and one another for enabling their own oppression; part of the gaming is expressing and exorcising this hatred.
The role-playing has nuances of sadism/masochism. What Genet notes and solidifies is that inherent in the ethos of the roles of mistress and maid are empowerment and the potential for sadism on the part of the one who controls, and diminishment and potential masochism for the ones who serve. It is a relationship which is, by its very nature, nullifying and damaging to both the dominant and the dominated.
The role-playing also has elements of the ancients’ dance before “the hunt,” during which players enact the scene of the “hunt” to give themselves the courage to go out and bring down the beast. The dance is empowering and symbolic. When they enact killing the beast, they manifest their triumph. They believe the manifestation is magical and will bring the result. Likewise, when Claire puts on Madame’s makeup, lies on her bed, dresses in Madame’s clothing with Solange’s (In this scenario she is the maid – they rotate roles) groveling assistance, and takes her “tey” (tea) that Solange prepared for her, the actions are elevated to ritual.
The game elucidates their “hunt” for Madame whom they are attempting to “do in,” whether by sabotaging Madame’s relationship with Monsieur or literally killing her by strangling or poisoning her. They act it out to eventually manifest the result they want. When they become empowered through their role-playing, then they will successfully strangle or poison Madame. The question Genet presents throughout the play is whether their role-playing empowers them enough. Will it eventually bring them to succeed in? Even though they face the risk of being caught and experiencing a worse enslavement – being jailed – at least Madame will be destroyed and the enervating master/slave bondage obliterated. The price they will have paid (their freedom, which was slavery) will grant them an inner power and freedom, though they will experience it in prison, a Genet irony.
The play may be appreciated on many thematic levels. This production touches upon Genet’s greatness. With the help of the superb ensemble, on a basic level we are kept titillated. Will the maids be able to exact their punishment of Madame and execute their act of freedom? We wish to see it, yet Rosa Arredondo’s Madame makes us feel sorry for her. The two trusted servants have been plotting ferociously and malevolently. It is a reversal of power dynamics and Madame is being victimized behind her back by these potential murderers. On the other hand, after seeing Madame in action, we understand how Monique Coleman’s Claire and Chinasa Ogbuago’s Solange feel so hopeless and helplessly victimized by their situation. Dispatching Madam would be a final and glorious act of courage, power and identity. With one strike, the hated role of mistress/servant would be eliminated along with their own self-hatred for enabling oppression.
On another level which is evidenced in the production, Genet asks questions about relationship dynamics: Who is the conquered and who is the conqueror? In the scenes with Claire and Solange, we discover that Madame has been conquered by them. She is forced to trust them because she is dependent upon them; she needs them to do the things she will not do for herself. That is part of her self-definition as a Creole superior to the two black maids, one darker than the other, whom she mistreats and scorns.
Of course, this self-definition is also her self-destruction. In her dependent and weakening state, they have conquered her. Despite her misgivings, she keeps them on, subordinated to them as they provide her every wish. Likewise, they need her for their survival; she has conquered them. These bondages deplete all of them. The irony is that they do not realize the extent of their enslavement to each other in these subhuman roles which destroy their potential for sincerity, kindness, creativity and giving love.
The Maids was performed from November 22 through December 1 at Ford Foundation Studio Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center.