Jean Genet (1910-1986) is one of the most controversial and challenging French writers of the 20th Century. His major works include the semi-autobiographical novels Our Lady of the Flowers (1943), Querelle de Brest (1947), and The Thief’s Journal (1949) and the plays The Maids (1947), Deathwatch (1944), The Balcony (1956), The Blacks (1959) and The Screens (1961).
Genet was a vagrant, a thief, a criminal, and a homosexual. He was also incredibly independent, driven and opportunistic. His wrote his first major work, Our Lady of Flowers (1943) on brown paper in a prison cell. A prison guard caught him, confiscated his writings and burned them. Genet then rewrote the whole thing again. On his release, he sought out Jean Cocteau who was impressed with Genet’s writing, which complemented his own existential work and introduced Genet to other influential French artists, such as Jean-Paul Sartre. It was due to Cocteau and Sartre, as well as Picasso, that Genet was published. They also helped prevent him from returning to jail.
Sartre went on to write a detailed analysis of Genet’s work called Saint Genet (1952). This so disturbed Genet that he did not write again for a number of years, but when he did, it was to create some of the most explosive and controversial plays of the 1950s. Furthermore, Genet inspired many other artists from different fields, including Jacques Derrida, Lindsay Kemp, Angela Davis, Michel Foucault, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and David Bowie.
It is perhaps difficult to fully appreciate today the absolute radicalism of Genet and his considerable impact and influence – at least in Australia. I was reminded of this in a recent radio interview here in Adelaide, promoting a production of Genet’s The Maids that I am directing, with the wonderful, highly informed and experienced Peter Goers. Peter questioned me as to why Genet is not done much anymore. At the time, I was a bit thrown by Peter’s accurate question. I muttered something about Sartre, that Genet’s theatre, according to Sartre is the theatre of ‘fury’ and ‘hate’. This is most certainly true and is an integral part of The Maids in its murderous and suicidal hatred of class and privilege. Peter’s question, however, has made me reflect, and the following should be read more as a meditation on Genet and The Maids.
The Maids is possibly the most well-known and most performed of Genet’s plays. It is complementary to a great deal of post-WW 2 and early Cold War drama in theatre and film of the time, in that it involves secrets and the gradual and eventful unraveling of those secrets. Subsequently, it shares certain themes with such works as Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, which was also first performed in 1947.
One reason for The Maids exalted position as a major work of the 20th. Century is primarily due to it having three wonderful female roles, amongst the best of world theatre. Many great actresses have performed the roles of the maids, Solange and Clair, and their Madame. This includes Glenda Jackson, Susannah York, Vivien Merchant, and recently Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Hubert and Elizabeth Debiki.
Genet’s world is more transcendent and elusive than simplistic emotions. Even if they are full of ‘sound and fury’ they are not ‘nothing’. They tap into the continual bafflement of the individual – caught in between order and chaos, between truth and illusion; between the mask and reality.
What makes Genet rather shocking and provocative is that the illusion is often preferable to the reality with seeming tragic consequences. However, the tragedy is not necessarily how the respective protagonists see it – they tend to see their subsequent demise as a release, a freedom from oppression and a way of remaining true to themselves. Maybe the fact that Genet doesn’t allow for sentimentality and ‘niceness’ is a reason for his current relatively neglected position in modern Australia? Genet is not ‘nice’, he is most certainly not ‘P.C’, and the portrayal of women in The Maids is not particularly flattering; powerful but not ‘nice’. What perhaps needs to be questioned is why there is a sense of dissatisfaction when one is denied ‘niceness’ in preference for bafflement. Order versus chaos, and in Genet’s world it is chaos that wins time and again – as it does in life.
Subsequently, as I muse, is The Maids an ‘absurdist’ piece? The French certainly don’t think so. Most despise the term ‘absurdist’, which was first used to describe such works by the English critic Martin Esslin. The French don’t tend to use this term, but rather see such works as The Maids as deeply reflective of real life. Sartre’s ‘Hell is other people’ isn’t ‘absurd’, it is very real. So too is the eternal battle between servants and masters, or in The Maids case, mistresses. Shakespeare encapsulates the essence of this battle in Julius Caesar when he has Cassius say, ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings’ (JC:1.2).
In Genet’s The Maids, it is the Madam’s maids, Solange and Claire who are the ‘underlings’. They represent any person, male and female, who have felt the whip of oppression based on privilege, wealth and class; in fact any form of discrimination. They truly hate the ‘Madame’. Whilst the reason for this hatred is not always clear, nonetheless, it is very real; and if we were truly honest with ourselves we would allow ourselves to empathize with this hatred, as virtually all of us have felt the whip of the boss man or woman and have hated the person simply because we are ‘underlings’, and felt powerless to do anything about it. For example: we rant and rail full of ‘sound and fury’ about Donald Trump, or any other perceived political authoritarian, but all this ‘sound and fury’ actually amounts to nothing but a sense of frustration and a denial of our own significance, influence, and worth. We are powerless; we remain ‘underlings’ with only our hatred and resentment to keep us company (along with other malcontents on FaceBook). However, anger and hatred, as Plato observed, gives us pleasure. So that is partly the cathartic challenge of The Maids – will you, as an audience member, allow yourself to hate? And no – it’s not ‘nice’; but it is human, honest and very real, and not in the least bit ‘absurd’.
Reading through the respective publishing and performance history of Genet’s work it is a relative minefield of explosive condemnation and awe. Whilst I am quietly confident in my production, nonetheless, I am expecting a hammerhead reaction – polarized opinions, bafflement, and that dreadful summation ‘well, that was interesting’. Furthermore, Genet seems to attract the type of criticism that reeks of odious comparisons and how it should be done (like Pinter, Brecht, Wilde, and others), rather than how it could be done. Ah, well – such is the current zeitgeist. All I can offer in defense to my valiant cast and crew is as long as we think we have done the best we possibly can then it really doesn’t matter what others think.
So – why did I agree to direct Genet’s The Maids? To answer this I had to reflect on my relationship with Genet. This began with Lindsay Kemp’s extraordinary production Flowers (1974), based on Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, which I saw as a teenager in Sydney.
Not only did it assist in reconciling and articulating my own blooming homosexuality, it also transported me into the magical but dark side of illicit desire, and the heart of existentialism. I then attempted to read Our Lady of the Flowers and A Thief’s Journal, which I found a bit of a struggle, but finally started to get it with Querelle at Brest. This was complemented by reading Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, Camus’ The Stranger and seeing productions of Deathwatch, The Maids, as well as Sartre’s In Camera, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, and Ionesco’s Rhinoceros – with the addition of The Rocky Horror Show, Yukio Mishima’s Confession of a Mask, and Tom of Finland.
Yes – this was a discovery of homosexuality in a particular theatrical manner. The point is, however, I had no idea what ‘existentialism’ or ‘absurdist’ meant, not from an academic point of view. I hadn’t read Martin Esslin, Derrida, Foucault, or even much Sartre and Camus. I came at these things not from academic labels but from experiencing them raw without preconceived ideas about what they were supposedly meant to be, albeit filtered through a theatrical gaze – and I am grateful for this innocence. I still tend to flinch and shy away from such labels; all I care about is how it feels and how it stimulates the imagination. However, as with a great deal of ‘gay’ literature – the mask is always present and very real, partly out of necessity, and partly out of desire.
The only other major Genet experience was Jim Sharman’s epic 4 hours NIDA production of The Screens. I was new to NIDA then and agreed to be the staff member to sit through all 10 performances. That’s 40 hours of my life I will never get back again. Jim’s production wasn’t bad – in fact it was rather spectacularly good – but it was baffling and exhausting; which is another challenging aspect of Genet’s work – it should be baffling and exhausting – as well as funny and ‘theatrical’. I think ‘theatrical’ is preferable to ‘absurdist’.
So – here I am forty years on from my initial contact with the world of Genet and finally entering and endeavouring to produce my own version of The Maids in collaboration with others. Why? Well, as previously mentioned, it does offer three terrific female roles. I was asked to direct this by a couple of Adelaide actresses with whom I had worked and thought were terrific. It was their idea and passion for the play that was the initial appeal. So my sense of responsibility and commitment to them is very high – and it has been a joy to rehearse with them this complex work, discovering new things at every rehearsal, which is always indicative of a great play and engaging process. For example; today’s rehearsal involved discussion about making final decisions about blocking and ‘locking’ the show into place. Whilst acknowledging that this is ultimately a necessary step I argued that I don’t really like to ‘lock down’ shows. Why? Because the theatre is a ‘live’ experience and this production will be slightly different for each performance. Subsequently, it can never be fully ‘locked down’; there will be a definite blueprint and safety net but it should be allowed to grow and change throughout the season. Some actors like this; others don’t – and that’s okay – but it is part of my aesthetic if you like.
Another reason for doing The Maids is rather selfish. This is recognized as one of the major plays of the 20th Century, and I have never before directed a play by Genet. So this has been a personal artistic challenge of myself. I have no idea really if this is going to work or not. There isn’t any certainty – not with a play like this – but nothing ventured nothing gained. As I have continually harangued respective acting students, you have to be artistically brave and make bold choices if you wish to be truly a theatre artist – the risk is all!
Furthermore, The Maids as well as the theatre venue in which it is to be performed, the intimate Bakehouse Theatre in Adelaide, complements my current aesthetic in regards to theatre. I wish to do plays and productions in venues that are focused primarily on the actor. Whilst I deeply acknowledge and appreciate the art of theatre design, I am more interested in the challenge of an ‘empty space’ and allowing the actors and the playwrights words envelope and engage the audiences imagination, thoughts and feelings.
It is the relative simplicity that is the challenge rather than the theatrical ‘smoke and mirrors’. They have their place, of course, and rightly so, but it is not necessarily where I am focused at the moment. Whilst I can admire and respect a fabulous artistic design and concept I am not moved by it. This is a debatable point, of course, and I have certainly experienced a number of ‘wow factors’ in regard to theatre design, but they are only momentary. Only the actor and the playwright are capable of moving and changing an audience.
I crave the simplicity and challenge of an ‘empty space’; and for me, the actor is the heart of the theatre – as it was in Shakespeare’s time, so it is for me.