Domestic roles: Jean Genet’s ‘The Maids’

Rome Jorge
This play resonates with many Filipinos today who, even in the 21st century, still perpetuate a deeply feudal society

MAIDS. Solange and Claire are two housemaids who indulge in sadomasochistic role-playing, taking turns impersonating their Madame while she is away. Photo by Rome Jorge

MANILA, Philippines – Trusted voyeur and shunned caste. Sycophant and backstabber. A dependent living on one’s good graces and a servant one cannot live without. Part of the family and second class citizen. A status symbol unmentionable and invisible. A uniform essential to any role playing fetishist and an all-too-common story of abuse. Maids. 

Those who employ them do so by letting them into their lives, yet take pains to set boundaries. Their employ always creates a tension between consenting adults bound by a contract of inequality where the limits of professionalism, propriety and privacy are constantly tested and sometimes contested by intimate proximity.

The relationship between master and servant is an unstable and volatile one — a potentially explosive premise for a story with a cataclysmic climax — yet one so common and socially acceptable as to be relatable and resonant. And always, there is the unspoken fantasy of role reversal, of comeuppance and of illicit sexual intimacy. 

Jean Genet‘s “The Maids” (Les Bonnes) explores this tension and follows it to its explosive conclusion. First premiered in Paris in 1947, “The Maids” came to life in Manila at the Mirror Theater Studio, SJG Centre, Kalayaan Avenue, Makati City last August 8, and will run until August 18. Anton Juan, the play’s director, and Topper Fabregas play Solange and Claire, respectively.

‘The Maids’: Haute entertainment

Solange and Claire are two housemaids who indulge in sadomasochistic role-playing, taking turns impersonating their Madame while she is away. Playing the role of Madame, a vain and imperious character whose criminal lover has been sent away by a suspiciously anonymous tip from her own maids, are some of Philippine theater’s most talented actors: Jay Valencia Glorioso, Jenny Jamora, Meryll Soriano, Liza Dino, Joel Serracho, OJ Mariano, Peter Serrano and Gwyn Guanzon.

As was originally intended by Genet, the female roles of the maids and the Madame are played mostly by men. This further adds depth to the role-playing dimension of the drama. (Curiously, this gender-bending casting has often not been followed in the play’s many stagings in the western hemisphere.)

Director Anton Juan’s use of so many actors of various genders, ages, backgrounds and personalities to play the role of Madame for each of the many play dates allows for various interpretations of the role. For example, Seracho plans to essay the archetypical Illongga doña while Jamora sees inspiration in today’s spoiled partyphile brats.

This play by Genet is no mere role-playing fantasy. He based his story upon a heinous crime in 1933 when sisters and fellow maids Lea and Christine Papin bludgeoned their mistress and her daughter to death and gouged their eyes out in Le Mans. The Papin sisters, who insisted that they work together whenever possible, were found naked in bed together by the police. 

That many Filipinos today work as overqualified domestic helpers abroad only makes this tragedy all the more relevant. The controversial murder cases of overseas Filipino domestic workers accused of murder such as Flor Contemplacion (1995) and Sarah Balabagan (1994) attest to this.

This play resonates with many Filipinos today who, even in the 21st century, still perpetuate a deeply feudal society where generations of the same family serve as maids of the same household.

On its premier night last August 8, Glorioso played the role of Madame effortlessly, portraying her as a taciturn prima donna befuddled with age. Juan and Fabregas electrified the stage. This play’s lines were lengthy, but the two said so much more without words.

The intimate setting of the Mirror Studio Theatre worked well for this intense drama. Staged without intermission and running for over an hour, “The Maids” is an intense, gripping tour deforce ensemble performance from the entire cast. – Rappler.com


‘The Maids’ is presented by MusicArtes. The remaining shows are on August 16, 17 and 18 at 
8:00pm, and 

August 
17 and 18
 at 
3:00pm


. For inquiries, please call Karla Pambid at 0917-5343223, 
or MusicArtes at (02) 895-8098. 

Rome Jorge is the editor in chief of Asian Traveler magazine.