Arts & Culture » Theater

Oh, Bleak: Upstream Theater gets down with Jean Genet's The Maids


When the cat's away, the mice will play. You won't hear that idiom in Jean Genet's 1947 absurdist play The Maids, which is currently being staged by Upstream Theater. But this is pretty much the gist of Genet's one-act, three-character whirligig. The caveat here is that Genet's mice — two brazen French housemaids — are anything but playful. Having arranged for their mistress' boyfriend to be arrested on a phony charge, now they'd like to dispose of Madame (Elizabeth Ann Townsend) in a positively poisonous manner.

Or would they? A viewer is never quite sure of what to believe amid all the role-playing between Solange (Emily Baker) and Claire (Brooke Edwards). What are these two women up to? Could the cacophony of noises at the evening's outset perhaps reflect the maids' tormented and deluded minds?

If ever a play needed to be put into historical context, it's The Maids, which is a direct outgrowth of World War II. Although that war's end is now associated with roseate images of jubilant sailors kissing nurses in Times Square, an alternate view is that the war left the world depleted and distrustful. In Hollywood such dark negativism found an outlet in the film noir movement, beginning with Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity. Theater was looking for a fresh voice; at the time (not unlike today), Broadway was sustained by revivals. In 1946 New York Times theater reviewer Brooks Atkinson lamented the lack of original new plays. "Perhaps we should not be astonished," Atkinson wrote. "All during the war we knew that the end of hostilities would find the world exhausted, bitter, reactionary and without direction. Since wars leave the world drained of spirit, it would be unreal to expect the theater to be rich in a vitality that is lacking in every other human activity."

In France, that void was filled by the philosophical dramas of Jean-Paul Sartre (No Exit), Albert Camus (Caligula) and Genet. Their bleak scripts seemed to capture the pall that temporarily shrouded the world. Suffice to say, that era of postwar nihilism is now long past. Playwrights such as Edward Albee have dealt with themes of truth and illusion in much more engaging and involving ways than Genet ever did.

To re-create the postwar European mindset that permeates The Maids, Upstream Theater wisely imported Polish director Wieslaw Gorski, who did such interesting work four years ago on Upstream's world premiere staging of The Polish Egg Man. At the time, Gorski spoke fondly of the kind of theater "that plays with the idea of theater itself. Is it funny? Is it not funny? There's no dot at the end." Here too, The Maids plays fast and loose with conventional theater. One of the evening's few true moments occurs when Solange all but pleads with her sister, "Claire, you are exhausting me." Theater without resonance can be exhausting.

It would be foolish to minimize the significance of these philosopher playwrights. But they were not alone in rising from the ashes of World War II. Photographer and designer Cecil Beaton singled out another postwar phenomenon. "Even while the pessimists were predicting that no new feminine ideal could emerge from the aftermath of war," Beaton wrote in Vogue in 1954, "an authentic existential Galatea was being forged in the person of Miss Audrey Hepburn. Nobody ever looked like her before World War II." Is it possible that Hepburn and Genet were forged from the same cauldron? Why not? So if you find that you need a chaser after the unpleasantness of The Maids, you might watch early Hepburn in Roman Holiday or Sabrina. Her very face is a testament to the premise that the world is not all despair.


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