Jean Genet’s “Les Bonnes” à Paris
Jenna Robbins, Arts Editor Emeritus, is currently studying abroad in the hub of arts, culture, and chocolate croissants—that is Paris. Even though she’s not on campus (or on the continent), she is still reporting arts news. In this installment, she details her experience watching a French play, “Les Bonnes” by Jean Genet.
My theater professor obviously enjoyed informing us that the theatrical performance we would be attending that evening included a naked man. He grinned widely as he delivered the news, in French, surely hoping to shock some prudish Americans. And shocked I was.
“Mais… pourquoi?” I said. “Est-ce qu’il est juste… là? Ou est-ce qu’il fait quelque chose?” [English: “But... why? Is it just... there? Does it do something?”]
For the rest of the evening, my professor gleefully teased me about my supposed delicate American sensibilities. But my surprise didn’t stem from the upcoming nudity—I do go to Wesleyan, after all. It’s probably more shocking for me to learn that any artistic production I’m attending doesn’t include at least one naked person. Instead, my confusion stemmed from the fact that the play we were going to see was Jean Genet’s “Les Bonnes,” which is about two maids who want to kill their mistress and thus act out semi-sadomasochistic rituals imitating this act. There are no male characters in this play. So what was this guy, naked or not, going to be doing on that stage?
Here in Paris, I’m taking a theater course that is centered around attending some of the many theatrical productions currently being performed in the city. Every week, we read a play, in French of course, and then go see a professional performance of it. It’s a wonderful way for me to get out there and see what’s happening in the world of French theater (for free!). Unfortunately, due to an unfortunate bout of jetlag, I slept through the first play we went to go see while sitting in the audience. It didn’t help much that the entire thing was in German with French subtitles. If you’ve ever tried to watch a play in a language you don’t speak at all while reading subtitles in a language you mostly speak while being really jetlagged, you can understand why I was fast asleep five minutes after the curtain rose.
So for my second excursion into the French theatrical world, I found myself sitting in the gorgeous 19th-century Théâtre Athenée, admiring a Phantom of the Opera-esque chandelier and eagerly awaiting the entrance of this mysterious naked man. I did not have to wait long. As soon as the lights came up, an extremely svelte gentleman leapt onto the stage, clad only in a pair of turquoise rubber dishwashing gloves and sporting a hair/goatee combo reminiscent of a Guy Fawkes mask. He proceeded to deliver Genet’s note on “Comment Jouer ‘Les Bonnes,’” or how to perform his work, which luckily had been published in my edition of the play and which I had taken the time to read. One line in this prologue mentioned the fact that going to see a play is like seeing the author “nude,” as in seeing their true soul. Ah. Nude. Got it. How clever, France.
I thoroughly enjoyed the performance, impressive given the fact that while reading the play I was often a little bored or completely confused. The set was an entirely black, white, and silver industrial-style construction that spun around and had tons of different levels and was generally awesome, although my instructor seemed to think that the black-and-white production design was cliché. The acting of the two leads, “Les Bonnes” themselves, was engaging and heartfelt, a difficult task given the strange, complicated subject matter of the play. And they had really fantastic shoes—a definite plus.
But the naked man kept coming back! Or rather, the man who had previously been naked, as by now he had donned black pants and a black suit jacket. He generally skulked around the set, artfully smoking a cigarette, turning on lights, handing things to the actresses, or just walking around very slowly. I got it. He was the presence of the author. But it seemed to me like the most literal and even childish way to convey such a complicated idea as the play being the soul of the author, revealing his or her innermost truths. I just found that the man peeking out from the behind the curtain distracted me from what those truths were.
So, in conclusion, nudity does not always equal profundity. But I’m looking forward to seeing what else is out there in the French artistic world, as Paris is an endless treasure trove of artistic opportunities just waiting to be explored.