Volume 74, Number 12 | July 21 - 27, 2004

Theater

Diary of a Chambermaid
Walkerspace
46 Walker Street (bet Church and Broadway)
Opens July 26
212-868-4444


‘Diary of a Chambermaid’ in Tribeca

By Jerry Tallmer

Octave Mirbeau and Natacha Rambova would, I am sure, have got along fine together.

Photo by Anthony Van Slyke
Lael Logan as Celestine in “Diary of a Chambermaid” at Walkerspace
Octave Henri Marie Mirbeau, who was born in a year of Europe-wide revolution, 1848, and died in a year of Europe-wide war, 1917, was a critic, a journalist, a novelist, a playwright, a man of letters, a profound (and ill-married) cynic, an anarchist, a strong defender of Dreyfus, a significant supporter of the art of Pisarro, Rodin, Signac, Monet. Two among his novels were “Torture Garden” and “The Diary of a Chambermaid.”

Natacha Rambova, born Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy in Salt Lake City in 1897 — she would die in Pasadena in 1966 — was a dancer, an actress, a costume designer, a playwright of sorts, and quite the most beautiful woman a small American boy one summer on Majorca just before the Spanish Civil War had ever laid eyes on.

The stepdaughter of cosmetics millionaire Richard Hudnut, Natacha Rambova, as she renamed herself, had earlier been the purported lover of, among others, Russian-born stage and screen siren Alla Nazimova; had also been the wife, and was now the widow, of the Sheik of cinema, Rudolph Valentino himself, whose image she had helped create; was now, here on Majorca, married to a tall gracious handsome rather blank young Spanish aristocrat named Alvaro de Urzaiz.

She took a fondness, that summer, to the small American boy, whose grandparents, Californians-to-be by way of Berlin and Budapest, had a rented villa just below hers on a steep hillside of terraces and olive trees overlooking the blue-blue Mediterranean, and she taught that boy how to make and serve cocktails to her guests, the grownups, on many a lovely late afternoon — guests including the boy’s mother, who had traveled across the Atlantic to ask her parents for money (the boy did not know this) with which to obtain her divorce from the boy’s father.

In between serving cocktails, the boy, while the grownups were out on the terrace, would pull down and read here and there in the interesting books on Natacha Rambova’s bookshelves — and it was standing up surreptitiously at those shelves that the boy over several days read and got a weird, jolting sexual charge out of certain sado-masochistic passages in an English translation of Octave Mirbeau’s “Torture Garden.”

Little did the boy know that Mirbeau’s “Torture Garden” was a pre-Kafkian, pre-Orwellian metaphor for the monolithic state that set out to crush somebody he’d never heard of named Alfred Dreyfus, and the youngster was so engrossed in the adult mysteries of “Torture Garden” that he quite passed up another Mirbeau novel on those shelves with the prosaic (to the boy) title of “Diary of a Chambermaid.”

Prosaic indeed. The sexual complaisance and amoral candor of Celestine, the chambermaid in question, were so shocking to the pecksniffs of the U.S. Postal Service in 1901 that the work was banned here, sight unseen, for obscenity.

Its first appearance in the United States was, in the description of theater director Adrian Giurgea, who has now turned that novel into a play, “a dirty little book with the picture of a French maid on the cover.”

That French maid is sooner or later, usually sooner, invited to bed by one or another male member of every Parisian or provincial household where she finds employment, and without much resistance (except in her diary) she acquiesces to the invitations, because what else is a good working girl to do.

What’s really shocking is that the one human male she finds reasonably sexually attractive is the monstrous Joseph, a hired hand like herself — but a rapist, murder, thief, and virulent anti-Semite.

Romanian-born Adrian Giurgea, whose cool crisp adaptation of the Mirbeau opens Monday, July 26 opening under his direction at Walkerspace, 46 Walker Street, was in his early 20s in Bucharest when he first read “Le journal d’une femme de chambre,” in French.

“It was forbidden in Romania too, in the same company as ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Lolita,’ “ says the large, bald, articulate, enthusiastic Giurgea. “This author [Mirbeau] gave pleasure to many a boy, but if he were writing today, he’d have to be twice as violent, twice as horrible, to shock.

“We owe a lot of our obsession with French maids to Mirbeau — or at least he reinforced the cliche of the French maid as object of desire.”

There have been at least two movies made from this novel, both of which Giurgea had seen in his youth: Luis Bunuel’s memorable 1964 film starring Jeanne Moreau — who else? — as Celsestine, and a considerably less memorable 1946 Hollywood effort starring Paulette Goddard and directed by none other than another great creator, Jean Renoir.

“With screenplay by Burgess Meredith,” says Giurgea. “A horrible botch. The marriage between Renoir and Mirbeau and Hollywood didn’t work very well.”

Much closer, in fact, to the entire thrust of “Diary of a Chambermaid” is Renoir’s own masterpiece, “Rules of the Game” (1939), which portrays a society of servants and masters, and of France itself, dancing on the edge of a volcano — a volcano named Hitler.

For that matter, the Mirbeau links directly to such other war-between-the-classes classics as Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” Jean Genet’s “The Maids,” Arthur Schnitzler’s “Reigen” (and thus Max Ophuls’s 1950 “La Ronde”).

Giurgea (pronounced Georgia) feels that “you can often read novelist inside the dramatist — Chekhov, for instance, who wrote stories before he wrote plays, or Pirandello, all of whose plays come out of some story or other of his.”

In the same way, Giurgea long ago thought Mirbeau’s novel “very theatrical — but many of my projects linger a long time until they come to life; this one was in gestation for more than 20 years.”

Some five years ago, in Los Angeles, he sat down and wrote a first-draft dramatization of “Diary of a Chambermaid” — in English. “I never write in Romanian any more.”

What set him on fire to do it was “pure outrage at the hypocrisy of the American dream — which is Celestine’s dream of being able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. And of course,” Giurgea adds, sounding — with a grin — very much like Bertolt Brecht, “every capitalistic dream is based on a crime.”

He’d also been reading a lot of articles about nannies, au pairs, and young Nicaraguan women imported without passport — or minimum wages — to take care of (North) American children.

“To me,” says the youthful 50-year-old who survived and escaped Ceausescu’s Romania, “servitude is like whoredom, and one step closer to death. Turning the human being into an object — it’s the act of a magician — ‘Here is a rabbit from the hat.’ “

From 1977 to 1982 this son of a Bucharest journalist “struggled to understand what is the point of being in theater in a country [Romania] where theater is more and more an ideological tool, and at the first opportunity, in 1982, I left for Israel, where, working in theater, I discovered that in Israel too it also was small and stifling.”

Coming then to the United States, he taught for years at San Francisco’s (and the late Bill Ball’s) ACT repertory company. “They hired me to direct the students’ final productions — the productions that bring each of them into the world.”

Many ACT graduates are members of Dramahaus, a new Off-Broadway organization that’s presenting “Diary of a Chambermaid” at Walkerspace. Celestine is played by Lael Logan, and other principal roles are in the hands of Atosa Babaoff, Brooke Delaney, and Chris Oden (as evil Joseph).

“Celestine is so exploited, so diminished and arrested by life, that only someone as horrible as Joseph can awaken her. She’s a human being slash servant slash monster slash object,” says Adrian Giurcea. Mirbeau had a good deal of affinity with Celestine: he had been raped by priests as a schoolboy.

“Now Captain, now Captain,” says Celestine to one of her employers, “why are you behaving like a dirty little pig?”

Natacha Rambova would have sent the pig about his business long before that. The small boy at the bookshelves would have been watching.

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