The Maids



translation commissioned by the RSC

I accepted this difficult commission partly because of the challenge, but partly also in hope of rescuing my faltering  relationship with the Royal Shakespeare Company.  But the rapport had gone.   Initial dealings with the Administration did not go well;  and my initial meeting with the director Ultz suggested strongly to me that he did not envisage the collaborative relationship with his writer.that I had enjoyed with RSC directors for some twelve years.  I quietly stayed away from the production.

The three male actors playing the prisoners in the one play would be playing the two maids and their mistress in the other.  Economically, this makes casting sense.  Also, there’s a received orthodoxy that Genêt wanted The Maids played by young men.  I’ve not been able to substantiate this, and I suspect it might be Genêt apocrypha.  But, whatever Genêt’s wish, discussion of the matter of casting does not end here.  In our culture, when male actors play women, we tend to be watching the actors rather than the characters.  This means that as audience we connect with Deathwatch naturalistically but are trying to perceive The Maids through that extra ‘layer of artifice’ that critics like to speak of when they talk Genêt.  I did go to see the RSC production, and was interested to observe how in The Maids it was the most conventionally ‘masculine’ actor who most naturally ‘became’ a woman.   But that didn't tell me anything about the play.  

In fact there’s a domestic reality at work in this piece, very French and rather greasy - just as Beckett’s Endgame is domestic realism to anyone with personal memories of de Valera’s rural 1950s Ireland.  A later production of my translation of The Maids, with actresses - Naimh Cusack, Kerry Fox, Josette Simon:  Donmar Theatre, 1997, director John Crowley - focussed on just this domestic specificity.  These women inhabited a truly Catholic world, and I saw more light cast into the dark cracks and creases of the play.  But there’s a price to be paid for this, too:  it makes an issue of Genêt’s language, in its peculiar tension between the vulgar and the hieratic.  (A programme note that I wrote for the Donmar production is a fuller discussion of these issues:   I append it below.)

My translations were not published.  Faber, who hold the English-language rights to Genêt, already had a translator signed up to them, and were understandably unwilling to publish another, or grant licence for other translations to be published elsewhere.  The Genêt Estate endorsed my versions, and were supportive of me throughout, but there was nothing they could do.  They later informed me of a some further, unknown theatre pieces that Genêt had left.  Would I be interested in translating these?   My reply was that I would, very much: but not while current publication difficulties persist - a reply that the Estate had thought mine might be, and with which they sympathized.  

My relationship with this legendary author has been strange from the beginning.  My very first film job was as 'doctor' on a screenplay that he had abandoned, unfinished, on the eve of production (Mademoiselle, 1965);  he could not be contacted, he had simply disappeared.  Then 20 years later came this unhappy RSC episode with The Maids.  Then, 30 years later again, there came an inquiry as to whether performance rights to my Deathwatch translation were available.    This enquiry came from Print Room, a company of whom I was beginning to hear favourably more and more, and now housed in the historic Coronet theatre on Notting Hill High Street.  

At my first meeting with them, in early 2016, the Director Geraldine Alexander asked me which of Genêt’s several versions of the play was it that I had translated back in 1987.  (He had never let his texts alone, and was forever tinkering.)  I answered that I had used his final revision, supplied to me by the Estate, in photocopy pages showing even further, handwritten changes.  Those presumably represented Genêt’s final thoughts on the text, as he had died the year before (1986).  Alexander then drew out a very new-looking Gallimard edition - and my heart began to sink.  It was, in hard print, an even more advanced revision than the Estate had shown me.  One glance at this text showed me that my translation was now well out of date, and needed to be done again.  There was just about time to do that before production began, but it would be tight.  

What made it even tighter for me was that, hardly had I begun to grapple with the new text, when my son was taken dangerously sick, the beginning of a crisis that was to last a very long time.   I was not able to involve myself personally in the rehearsal process at all, except at a distance;  and some problems in translation were not resolved till very late.  I was able to attend only two performances.  But, my personal worries aside, I must account this production a happy experience.  I was very impressed with what I saw.  And Faber agreed to publish.

               Green-Eyes       Tom Varey

               Maurice            Joseph Quinn

               Lefranc             Danny Lee Wynter

               The Watch        Emma Naomi

               directed by Geraldine Alexander


The Maids       programme note to the Donmar Production   

When I was working on this translation, I would consult a native French speaker, a lady who had been brought up 70 years ago in the Middle East.  She told me a story that much illuminated the play.  As a small child in Alexandria, she thought it quite natural to have servants and maids.  One day she overheard a woman cursing.  She peeped round the door, and saw a young maid ironing the mistress’ blouse, spitting at it and cursing, Damn my lady, damn my lady...  But when the maid took up the Master’s trousers, she stroked them and kissed them as she pressed them, saying Lovely M’sieur, lovely M’sieur...   It's an image from a ‘real’ world that I think Genêt would recognise; and I think it helps us to ‘recognise’ this play. We need help, because many aspects of Genêt’s theatre can be a stumbling-block to us.

It’s part of the Genêt legend, for instance, that he preferred his maids and their mistress played by men.  I don’t know that he ever stated that he preferred it so.  Even if he did, I’m not sure that he was right.  (An author can in these matters be wrong.)  One actor will find in himself a real woman and reveal her to us, another will achieve only drag.  I suspect that casting with men will always tell us more about the actors than illuminate the play.  I’m all for a theatre that explodes our myths of gender; but gender is not the issue in the play that Genêt wrote. 
What is, then?  Admittedly it’s not too easy for us to see.  (Genêt himself acknowledged that his plays were not elegant.)  And audiences of an essentially Anglo-Saxon post-Protestant culture will always have problems in perceiving him as a dramatist.  First, there could hardly be two languages whose registrations lie farther apart than English and French.  Then, and in a particularly Genêtesque fashion, even where the spoken French is down and dirty, it obstinately remains a Classical language.  And Genêt’s French has religious, specifically Catholic, resonances too.  These cultural differences can obscure for us how essentially social-realist a dramatist he is.  We’ve been misrouted rather into seeing (and hearing) his drama as an enactment layered with artifice and pretence - hence perhaps the mirage of casting The Maids with men. Even more foreign to us, is the sacramental nature of the emotions his characters feel - for each other and about themselves.  It all adds up to something we loosely call a ‘theatre of ritual’;  and the hazily-glimpsed ghost of Artaud is drifting about in it somewhere.  It’s hardly surprising if we’re tempted to adopt a ‘liturgical’ style in staging his works.

Thus we risk losing sight of his characters as psychological individuals, in their social and political contexts.  To our Anglo-Saxon secular temper, these figures in their ‘sacramentalizing’ attitudes, in their language of loathing and longing, seem gesturing, self-elevated, hieratic.  (Perhaps the true ghost here is not Artaud so much, as Racine...)  What we’re in danger of missing is that, to Genêt and his characters, these sacramental emotions are primary, visceral; they’re (in a Protestant poet’s words) ‘the fury and the mire of human veins’.   
Genêt’s private sexuality is hereby transmuted to a matter of great public meaning.  France’s more liberal Code Napoléon notwithstanding, he grew up as a homosexual boy the transgresssive way - in reformatories and prisons, himself a victim of sexual abuse, and later himself selling sex.  Early he learned in his own gut the lusts and myths of men;  with his own flesh he celebrated sacraments that may be rôle-playing but are certainly not artifice nor really pretence, for they come from the core of desire (for one of the participants, at least).  And in that school, (where more boys go than we like to think), he learned to see for sure what a ‘pornography of power’ our institutions are. 

But he knew the merciless glory of his condition too.  He knew wonderfully well the beauty of his own gender - the beauty, and the cruelty of that beauty.  He iconized; and in that very act, he knew his own abjection.  So it is with these maids.  And their pain is murderous.

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