The Maids – 4

October 21st

  • Individual Research on The Maids

Events current at the time of writing the play that may have had an impact on its writing


  • “The Maids” was Genet’s first play to be produced. It is an unequivocally literary work, written after the author published his most famous book, “Our Lady of the Flowers,” in 1943. Genet’s long one-act play was inspired by the famous Papin case: in 1933, two sisters, employed as maids, brutally murdered their employer’s wife and adult daughter. Much was made of the scandal by certain leftists, who saw the sisters’ violence as a blow against class oppression.
  • Jean Genet started his writing career when he was incarcerated. 
  • Genet’s theatrical genius was to dispense with French rationalism[regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge”] onstage and demonstrate how heightened language was itself a kind of theatre.

How does it relate to other plays by the playwright?

In ‘The Child Criminal’ Genet has given us the keys of what might be called his algebra of the imagination.

 Our Lady of the Flowers– Genet appreciates the virtue of de-realization.

In an introduction written for The Maids, Jean-Paul Sartre quotes a line from Genet’s novel Our Lady of the Flowers in which a character muses that if he had a play written for women he’d cast adolescent boys in the parts. Sartre then speculates on having this idea applied to The Maids. Some productions have cast men in the roles, but most have cast women

Deadwatch – It has the same hierarchy

– Monsieur as snowball

– Madame as green eyes

– solange and claris as maurice and lefranc


His early attempts, by their compact, neoclassical, one-act structure, reveal the strong influence of Sartre. Haute Surveillance (1949; Deathwatch) continues his prison-world themes. Les Bonnes (1947; The Maids), however, begins to explore the complex problems of identity that were soon to preoccupy other avant-garde dramatists such as Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco. With this play Genet was established as an outstanding figure in the Theatre of the Absurd [The “Theatre of the Absurd” is a term coined by Hungarian-born critic Martin Esslin, who made it the title of his 1962 book on the subject. The term refers to a particular type of play which first became popular during the 1950s and 1960s and which presented on stage the philosophy articulated by French philosopher Albert Camus in his 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he defines the human condition as basically meaningless.].

His “Theatre of Hatred” attempts to wrest the maximum dramatic power from a social or political situation without necessarily endorsing the political platitudes of either the right or the left. Genet, a rebel and an anarchist of the most extreme sort, rejected almost all forms of social discipline or political commitment. The violent and often degraded eroticism of his experience led him to a concept of mystic humiliation.

Excerpts from review on about contemporary versions of the Maids





Director/designer Stewart Laing’s production of The Maids is vividly theatrical (the stage curtain gets a round of applause). But its visual surprises and non-textual interventions – rock guitar trio; projections of Jean Genet berating the makers of a BBC documentary; Laing’s own Q&A with the audience; frequent nudity – grab attention at the expense of Genet’s text.

Written in 1946, the play straddles two aspects of the French writer’s life (1910-86). His experiences as a criminal and prostitute were past, his engagement as a political and anti-colonial activist lay ahead.(Personal Background) The Maids is a densely layered exploration of identity, power, oppression, sexuality and the progress of violence from structural to actual.(themes) It is set in the boudoir of a young bourgeoise woman. Here, when their mistress is out, two sisters, both housemaids, enact a repetitive ceremony of possession. On the night of the action, Claire distortingly mimics their mistress, while Solange role-plays Claire. The apex of the ritual, never yet achieved, is the strangulation of the sister playing the mistress. When the actual mistress returns, the maids resume their subservient roles.

Adapting Genet’s statement that he would like the roles to be played by adolescent boys(ideas), Laing has his young cast (Samuel Keefe, Ross Mann and Scott Reid) act as adolescent boys. Consequently, the nuanced opening role-play scenes, reduced in complexity, come across as stilted and monotonous – an effect exaggerated by the contrast between Martin Crimp’s English translation and the characters’ west of Scotland inflections. Ironically, a later section delivered as a rehearsed reading is more dramatically satisfying. It gives the actors scope to demonstrate a potential that is further developed in the melodramaticised climax. More Laing than Genet, this bold, flawed work is worth seeing.


How relevant is a 1947 French play about domestic servitude to a 2013 Australian audience? Jean Genet’s masterpiece about Claire and Solange, two maids damaged from a lifetime of being pushed “below” remains avant-garde, bizarre and perhaps a little bit shocking; featuring the kind of light depravity and liberal use of “cunt” that modern theatregoers have come to expect.

But most of what makes Genet’s work so brilliant springs from a kind of relationship that is completely unfamiliar to most members of a modern audience – the maids’ lives, which prompt their sadistic games, are completely dominated by their employer. That was the almost insurmountable challenge facing Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton in translating and adapting this unlikely classic, but in their hands, it slips into present day almost seamlessly.

This production demonstrates exactly why director Benedict Andrews is such a divisive figure in the theatrical world. But treading the fine line between maverick and madman, Andrews manages to fall the right side more often than most.

Several of his trademarks make appearances, including real-time video projections and a glass box set. Surprisingly, it’s not these theatrical statements that make the most impact; it’s the smaller moments and the subtly playful choices that make this a thrilling reading of a classic.

Andrews has found a way of making the mistress-maid relationship resonant and the psychological damage the mistress inflicts on the maids palpable. As the Mistress, Elizabeth Debicki is a flouncing yet imposing presence. With the smallest of movements or the most seemingly inconsequential choices of phrase, she denigrates Claire and Solange, keeping them underfoot as her playthings.

Andrews’ longtime collaborator Cate Blanchett is in stunning form as Claire, picking up every nuance and flying through her character’s more difficult turns with skill and grace. Isabelle Huppert delivers a strong, textured and playful performance, but doesn’t bring the same kind of refinement and depth as Blanchett. Her diction is mostly clear, but as the play is so language-based, she struggles to keep up with Blanchett who conveys the intention and subtext of every single word in the script.

With only three actors onstage, it’s an intimate play, even if the performances are big. Sydney Theatre might not seem like the ideal venue, but Alice Babidge’s sleek and stylish set goes a long way to focusing the action inward. Her costumes are just as dazzling.

The actors are filmed and broadcast live in close up on a large screen at the back of the stage, which not only speaks to the maids’ suspicions that they’re being watched, but amplifies the more intimate moments. Of course all three have faces the camera loves, so the effect is often mesmerising. Unfortunately, like sitting at the back of a rock arena, you often end up watching the screen when you’d rather be watching the stage.

There are problems too, with the stars onstage who aren’t always perfectly aligned. Blanchett and Huppert simply don’t seem like sisters, perhaps because their mannerisms, voices, looks and reactions are miles apart. But there’s enough star power and theatrical voltage onstage to rival Vivid Festival, which threatened to spoil opening night when traffic woes delayed the start time.

There’s evidence of brilliance in every moment of this intriguing production. It’s a rich theatrical experience, if not fully realized.



By his standards, it is tame stuff. There are no rapes, no hangings, no stabbings. There’s not even any sex, nor men, although Sartre thought adolescent boys should portray the female roles, a suggestion which has been acted upon.

The Maids is in essence about a non-event. In the most sexual terms, which were those Genet preferred, you might call it an epic of impotence.

A new production, by Sydney Theatre Company, has just opened at City Centre, as part of the Lincoln Centre Festival in midtown Manhattan. Its cast is as glamorous as one could wish. Cate Blanchett is Claire, a maid; Isabelle Huppert, the superb French actress, is Solange, the other maid (and Claire’s sister); and Elizabeth Debicki, an Australian, is a character identified variously as Mistress, Madame and “that bitch”. The play documents the effects on the soul of being that bitch’s bitches. It’s all very love/hate, master/slave, Lacan/Hegel. 

“We’re shit,” Solange says. “And shit can’t love shit.” 

Genet based his play on an actual criminal episode from the 1930s, the infamous Pepin Case, in which two maids from Le Mans were convicted of killing their employer. Around this premise, he weaves his distinctive themes – the fluidity of identity, the turn-on of degradation. His maids want to kill their mistress, but also wish they could be her. The play opens with them fantasising about doing both – a sort of playlet within the play. Claire, dressed as Mistress, is ordering Solange around. Solange, dressed as a maid, resists and insults her, then pretends to strangle her.

In the course of this make-believe, the maids reveal the predicament that will serve as a plot: Claire has forged a letter implicating Mistress’s “man” in an obscure crime, and this letter has gotten him arrested. Claire worries her deception will be found out; Solange persuades her to murder Mistress by lacing her tea with Nembutal, to guarantee that she won’t be. (That is Genet’s idea of logic.)

“Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to kill we go,” Claire sings. When Mistress comes home, the maids who fantasised about killing her attempt to translate it into reality – a set-up typical of Genet, whose fiction almost always turns on a deed rehearsed in a dream.

The Sydney production is on the postmodern side. A large rectangular screen, on which live footage of the performance is projected, hangs from the far wall. Glass partitions to stage left and right display cameramen positioned within them and there are also invisible cameras, including one in a vanity at centre stage. The big advantage conferred by these cameras is the close-up. We get to see the great Blanchett face, mascara in ruins, writ large as it goes to pieces; likewise the great Huppert face. It’s a cheat of the rules of theatre – the trick of which, for an actor, is to be as subtle as the text while staying perceptible from a hundred yards away – but only a pedant would call foul.

The point is, as Claire puts it, that “the whole world is watching”. Everything is mirrored, retransmitted, digitised – Genet via Jean Baudrillard.

Such sentiments can make Genet seem as alien today as he did 60 years ago. He is the high priest of low life. Will midtown make him a hit? Maybe. As Sartre wrote: “The French bourgeois doesn’t dislike shit, provided it is served up to him at the right time.”


Intercultural Dramaturgy

Kaite O’Reilly and Adrian Curtin on playing ‘The Maids’ and cross-cultural collaboration.


The notes of an unexpected duet fill the studio. Ku-eum, literally ‘mouth-sound’, imitating traditional Korean instruments,and ‘old style’ Gaelic Sean Nos furl about each other like rising smoke. It is an astonishing aural collision, a resonant meeting of two diverse vocal traditions, and part of an international encounter initiated by theatre director Phillip Zarrilli of The Llanarth Group.

Playing ‘The Maids’ is a new performance created between languages, cultures, and art forms; a collaboration between nine multidisciplinary artists, three performance companies (Llanarth Group – Wales, Gaitkrash – Ireland, Theatre P’yut – Korea), and four languages – Korean, Gaelic, Mandarin, and our shared language, English. I am one of the nine co-creators in this complex, culturally diverse production.

Although it name-checks the classic modernist text, playing ‘The Maids’ is not a production of Jean Genet’s play. Rather, it is an intercultural exploration of the themes, relationships, and power dynamics offered in the source text from the different social, cultural, aesthetic, and artistic perspectives of the creative team.

First produced in 1947, Genet’s The Maids was reputedly inspired by the real life story of the Papin sisters, French maids who killed their abusive mistress and her daughter in 1933, claimed by the Communist Party as victims of both labour and gender oppression. Genet’s text seethes with working class discontent, and created a scandal when first produced with its dark portrayal of sibling dynamics, gender constructions, and ritual.

Playing ‘The Maids’ moves beyond Genet’s meta-theatrical text to create a layered and textured set of dynamics between ‘Madame’ (played by Chinese-Singaporean Jing Okorn-Kuo), and two sets of Irish and Korean sister-maids. Performatively, it interrogates who creates and controls whom using a broad palette of styles and approaches – improvisation, physical scores, choreography, a live soundscape, satirical observation, and economic analysis.Sibling rivalry and the related intense love/hate dynamics are universal, and in this time of European austerity, and what the media has termed ‘the Asian boom’, the source text’s themes of wealth, privilege, and service have an obvious resonance for us all.

‘A lot of people are suffering in Ireland through no fault of their own, but because of a corrupt banking system,’ Bernie Cronin of Gaitkrash says. ‘I think people feel very helpless and stuck – and Genet’s maids are stuck… They’re marked by their lack of agency; they’re marked by their lack of means. I think in this aspect, what we’re exploring has a very real relevance.’

What follows is my reflection on the process as production dramaturg, with end-notes by my fellow company member Adrian Curtin.

An International intercultural interaction.

The prefix ‘inter’ refers to the space between, where there is the potential for things to happen – good or bad. In my experience as a playwright and dramaturg, this space between has never before been so populated, and alive.

I have many metaphors for the job I do, and these shift according to project, company dynamics, and the actual tasks at hand, which are dependent on where we are in the process. I sometimes think of a dramaturg as the oil that swirls around all parts of the mechanism/body/engine, ensuring it moves in synchronicity and harmony (even if that ‘harmony’ involves deliberate counterpoint) and at its peak performance. A dramaturg ‘tunes’ the engine/body, ensuring all aspects are working together and doing the job in hand, moving in the same direction, with the same destination, with a consistency and ‘logic’ (even if that is illogical) flowing throughout.

Playing ‘The Maids’ has been a constant negotiation of a potentially contested territory – the areas of overlap between the work of the director, dramaturg, choreographer, and devising performers, what Eugenio Barba called ‘the dramaturgy of the actor’, what I consider the task in the moment. In other productions, roles have been clear and the lines agreed and drawn – for example, I work as a playwright with a director, or the singular dramaturg with director and performers. In this fascinating collaboration roles have deliberately been as porous and overlapping as the creative process. All nine company members have taken equal part in proposing material, leading exploratory material-generating workshops responding to the source from our particular cultural and artistic perspectives, and creating structures (or scenes/beats). Although I am the ‘official’ playwright in the company, the director (Phillip Zarrilli), and cellist (Adrian Curtin) have also written dialogue, with additional text contributed by all performers.

As an international ensemble we have been aware of and critical of the oversimplification of intercultural performance as presented in the Patrice Pavis model of the hour glass: source and ‘target’ culture – as if the process was the simple binary of material pouring from one receptacle into another.

Rather, our studio process has been closer to the one described by Tian in his book, The Poetics of Difference and Displacement. The place in between is a site of negotiation. Notions, forms, and assumptions normative or usual to one culture or individual will be disturbed, challenged, or displaced by encounter with difference, and often replaced with something else. In our studio space we have been interrogating this space between, navigating complex territory.

It could have been fraught were it not for the mutual trust and respect between all collaborators, and the firm foundation created by previous collaborations between the various artists involved, such as the five female performers having trained (at times extensively) with Phillip Zarrilli in his psychophysical approach to acting, using Asian martial arts and yoga. These experiences have provided a common ground in approach and theatre language for the ensemble, enabling what at times feels like magical shortcuts in process for those outside this shared practice. It is a pointed lesson in efficiency and quality-management in times of funding cuts and squeezed rehearsal processes. For example, although the five women performers have never worked together before in this conjunction, sharing Zarrilli’s psychophysical approach to acting serves as ‘a grounding, a mode of being, of operation we all share,’ Sunhee Kim of Theatre P’yut explains.

Gaitkrash is a Cork-based company comprising of Bernie Cronin, Regina Crowley, and sound artist Mick O’Shea. The company are interested in the ‘liveness’ of performance, and new forms of theatre and sound. Together with cellist Adrian Curtin, Mick provides an improvised sound environment for the devising performers to respond to, exploring servitude and privilege. This creates another strata for the layered performance score, another framing device that ‘holds’ the action, yet as Mick and Adrian are in dialogue with the performers in the moment, extraordinary flexibility is possible, and space for something else to emerge.

Such dialoguing and encounter allows unexpected moments of resonance and complicity, which we then superimpose, juxtapose, or bind together dramaturgically.

Much of my time has been spent documenting and keeping track of the raw materials generated in workshops and improvisations. Structures ‘offer’ themselves into sequences and others need to be sliced into or interrupted, to create counterpoint and dissonance.

In the studio it is often impossible to say whether the work is ‘instinctive’ or ‘intuitive’, or whether knowledge and experience has become so ingrained as to become ‘second nature’ – and so options and opportunities ‘reveal’ themselves or ‘emerge’ rather than being consciously assembled. It is part of the pleasure and apparent ‘magic’ of being together in the moment: ‘something happening all by itself’.



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