“The Maids” Artfully Explores Identity and Artifice

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The Maids, Jean Genet’s electric drama, begins with a play within a play and never quite drops the theme of façade and artifice. This riveting Honors Acting Thesis is directed by guest artist Emmanuelle Depeche, a former member of Pig Iron Theatre Company.

The lights go up on one of the two maids, Claire (Jeanette Leopold ’13), as she pitches two white gloves from the top of a spiral staircase in a fit of imitated anger. She has assumed the role of Madame, her real-life employer, and proceeds to coat herself in Madame’s make-up and submerges herself in her clothing. She then squeals with indignation as her sister and co-maid, Solange (Sophia Naylor ’13), scurries around attending to her increasingly manic demands.

The scene soon becomes nasty and tips over into real hostility – but the line is blurred between maid and master, between anger directed at sister and at oppressor. “Solange and my character put on these plays for each other in order to relieve each other from frustration,” Leopold explained. The elaborate act these women have constructed allow them to play out violent fantasies and to each embody both victim and aggressor, to burst out into words or emotions that would normally be repressed.

The same freedom is granted to the real actresses, who were able to explore their own layers in preparation for the demanding show. Meryl Sands ’13, who plays Madame with impressive underlying electricity, described Madame’s emotional outpourings. “She feels everything really fully. And I do that. But, it’s not something I like about myself. And she has the privilege to be like that,” she said. “I relate to those feelings, but it’s also something I’m used to repressing in order to be a functional human in society.” While Sands uses her role as an actress to get lost in these emotions onstage, Madame’s excuse becomes her lover’s imprisonment. She takes on the role of somebody in mourning, and from there goes on to experiment with a variety of different faces to present to the world. Madame is caught between shrieking extremes of confidence and despair, benevolence and cruelty, beauty and startling fragility. She is drawn to role-playing as deeply as her maids are.

Sands went on to discuss her struggle to understand Madame. “I have to, as an actor, think that she is smart,” she said. Sands deliberately attempts to play to the top of her intelligence with every character, no matter how deranged or naïve they may present themselves. Naylor, too, put a lot of work into understanding Solange. “The amount of anger that she has…is the thing I’ve had to bridge the gap with,” she said.

Although the actresses are intent on understanding their characters as complex people, their characters have difficulty doing the same for each other. Claire may get into Madame’s clothing, but never dares try to get into her head. She and Solange rebel more against the class structure that Madame represents than the woman herself. Similarly, Madame sees her maids in identical black and white outfits as outlines more than individuals. “She has no idea what their reality is, and she has no interest in finding out,” Sands said. “The whole play is about treating people according to your notions of them, instead of reality,” Leopold said. The real actresses may understand their characters, but their characters struggle deeply with truly embodying each other.

And yet, the maids continue to imitate their master without understanding her. The danger in role-playing comes, it seems, when we can no longer distinguish between the most repressed, festering parts of ourselves and those in others. When Claire lashes out at Solange during their role play, when Solange slaps back, the two become entangled on the ground, gripping each other on the edge of hurt, rocking back and forth between directing their anger inward and outward. At one point, Claire breaks her Madame character and reminds Solange to involve her, Claire, in the action. “Claire says she hates you too,” Solange adds, slapping her sister to both of their satisfaction. Claire can only punish herself at a far remove – she can only acknowledge her own faults when they belong to somebody else. Assuming a character, then, frees her to self-examine without being constrained to her usual stereotype – uniformed, silent, indistinguishable from her sister.

Jean Genet asked, “Would Hamlet have felt the delicious fascination of suicide if he hadn’t had an audience, and lines to speak?” The Maids poses similar questions – how does acting affect our emotions and actions? When do we act, and when must we? What “delicious fascinations” open up when we do? How does having an audience change who we are?

In the HBO show Girls, Lena Dunham’s character Hannah Horvath is taken aback when a lover calls her beautiful. “You really think so?” she says. “Don’t you?” he asks. Her response: “I do, it’s just not always the feedback that I’ve been given.” In The Maids, that divide between one’s internal sense of self and society’s feedback is treacherous and omnipresent. Madame is reminded constantly of her own beauty but struggles with doubt, the opposite of Hannah’s 21st century position of self-assurance clouded by an unforgiving world. The maids see themselves as strong, capable of anything, worthy of lovers who climb in through their windows, but Madame and the rest of their world see them as servants. They can’t help but seeing each other through this lens, and by extension, themselves. At one point, Claire tells Solange that she is sick of having her image thrown back at her, like a mirror, like a bad smell. “You’re my bad smell,” she tells her sister, her faceless partner in labor, the identity she is trying desperately to abandon.

In The Maids, each character is terrifyingly aware of the part she must play, breathless of the thought of deviating from her societally-written script, but ultimately, tragically, unable to switch masks. During the opening scene of desperate costuming, Solange declares to her sister, currently as Madame: “The mould is setting. We’re taking shape.” What shape, exactly, each of the three women ends up assuming, remains a question of eternal ambiguity.

The Maids will be performed in the LPAC Frear Ensemble Theatre March 1st at 8PM, March 2nd at 2PM and 8PM and March 3rd at 2PM.

Photos by Rachel Berger/The Daily Gazette

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