By Jean Genet, translated by Jean-Claude van Itallie. Premiered 1985 at, and commissioned by, the American Repertory Theater (Robert Brustein, Artistic Director), Cambridge, MA, directed by Joanne Akalaitis. Performed at New York University, December 1988, directed by van Itallie, with Rosemary Quinn and Richard Armstrong. Choreography by Nancy Spanier, music by Tony Scheitinger.
Irma's room: a marbleized circular staircase platform with its urns of flowers on either side, is pushed in, Irma reclining on it, laughing with her girls. The girls, dressed in black, then leave, except Carmen. Irma is very elegant, currently in an "at home" mode: black velvet slacks, a black bodice, a striking one-crystal gold necklace, and black shoes. Her hair is up. Carmen carries a small account book and an abacus. She wears a black bodice striped with dark purple, a small "tutu"-like skirt worn high up, net stockings, and high heels; her lips are heavily rouged.
From outside we hear the stylized crackling of machine guns.
CARMEN (counting): Bishop: two hundred. Judge: two hundred. Including the sailor and just plain fucks --
IRMA: Carmen, you know I don't like that. I demand respect for my vi-si-tors! I don't even allow myself to call them "clients." But ...
(She rifles the banknotes she holds in her hand. Carmen turns around and fixes Irma with her gaze. She speaks with a hard voice.)
CARMEN: For you that's what counts, isn't it?
IRMA (wanting to be friendly): Don't be unjust, Carmen. What's happening outside is putting us all on edge. Your sadness worries me. Those eyes, those eyes ...
CARMEN (pouting about something): I don't have much to do, Madame Irma.
IRMA (disturbed): I trust you with my books. My whole life is open to you -- and you're not happy? Carmen, when you stood on your snow-covered rock, by the yellow rose bush -- which, by the way,
we're going to have to store in the cellar -- when your client fainted at your miraculous appearance, you didn't take yourself seriously, did you?
Did you, Carmen?
CARMEN (rebelling): You tell us never to talk about our sessions, Madame Irma. You observe us from on high. You have no idea of our feelings. If just once you'd put on the blue dress and veil, or confess a theft with your blouse open, or play the General's mare, or the peasant girl in the hay --
CARMEN: -- or the little girl in her pink apron, or the duchess deflowered by the policeman -- then you'd know why we need to clean out our souls with a little irony. But you won't even let us talk about it to each other. You're afraid of a smile, a joke.
IRMA (severe, keeping control of the situation): Where there's a smile, there's doubt. This house is a solemn place.
CARMEN (pouting): Then don't be surprised by our sadness. Anyway -- I was thinking about my daughter.
(A bell sounds, and the crystal lights up brightly on its stand. Small gold opera glasses on a gold stick-like holder are in an elegant stand at the top of the staircase. Irma climbs to the top of her stairs. Gracefully leaning on the railing, posing with one leg up, as if looking out to sea, she peers at the audience through her opera glasses, using them as a lorgnette. The opera glasses are Irma's device to see into the various rooms of her bordello.)
IRMA: Every time I ask you a personal question, you shut down, and you throw your daughter at me. Do you still intend to visit her in the country?
(Bell sounds again, and crystal lights up. Irma peers out through her opera glasses.)
IRMA: I wonder if ... the Police Chief hasn't let himself be shot on his way here. Although my Georgie's no dumbbell. He's late.
(She seems worried.)
CARMEN: Madam, my daughter loves me.
IRMA (didactic): Of course she does -- you're her far-away fairy godmother who brings her toys and perfumes. She must think you come from heaven.
(She bursts out laughing.)
That's pretty good -- at least for someone my brothel is heaven. It's heaven for your daughter.
Later will you turn her into a whore?
CARMEN: Madame Irma!
IRMA: Sorry. I'll leave you your precious little rosy whorehouse of sentimentality, the maternal orgies of your heart. Am I being cruel? The guerrillas have upset me. I'm afraid, Carmen. I think they'd prefer to loot my parlors than to take the palace.
(She smiles, with difficulty.)
Have I hurt you? Every road to the country is cut off anyway. The city's full of corpses. The rebellion seems like some sort of fatal and holy epidemic. The guerrillas have it out for me, Irma: pimp-mother and keeper of a bawdy house. As for you, you'll be killed
and disemboweled, and your daughter adopted by a virtuous rebel...
(Stylized crackling of machine guns. Irma is very worried.)
One thing to remember, if we ever get out of this alive -- the walls and windows need more padding. You can hear everything.
CARMEN (still musing): It must feel good to live in a real house ...
IRMA: Who knows?
IRMA (concerned that Carmen is becoming disinterested in her work): Yesterday, on the phone, someone asked for a Saint Theresa ... Of course, after playing the Virgin Mary, Saint Theresa is a comedown, but not such a big one. It's for someone very important, and very clean.
CARMEN (stubborn): No, I want my blue dress back, and my veil, and my rose bush.
IRMA (tempting her): Saint Theresa has a rosebush too.
CARMEN (turning back toward Irma): What would the authentic detail be?
IRMA: A wedding ring -- every nun is the bride of God.
CARMEN: And the fake detail?
IRMA: Always the same: black lace under the skirt. So, will you do it? He'd love your sweetness.
CARMEN (impressed that Irma is tempting her): You really are good, Madame Irma. Your house comforts people. You direct and produce their secret plays. But when they wake up, it must be hard.
IRMA: No, their minds are always clear as a bell. I can see it in their eyes. Suddenly, they understand mathematics, and they love their children -- just like you do.
(Sound of a bell. The crystal lights up. Irma peers through the opera glasses. Carmen goes back to her accounts on the floor in front of the staircase.)
CARMEN (without looking up): The Chief of Police?
IRMA (describing the scene): No. The waiter. He just arrived. He's going to complain about his apron again. Buy him a new one.
They all want everything to be real, minus some indefinable something which makes it not real.
(Irma puts the opera glasses down.)
Carmen, it's true I have named my establishment a "House of Illusions," and I'm the director. But every visitor brings his own script. I think now, my dear, I've succeeded in detaching my house from the earth completely -- do you know what I mean? For a long time I've been pushing it from its nest. And now it's flying. I've cut its moorings. It's soaring, and it's carrying me with it. When in my inmost heart, I acknowledge myself mistress of a brothel, my house takes off. When secretly, silently, I tell myself: you're a madam, you're a mother pimp -- you run a whorehouse, then, Darling, everything --
(At the top of her staircase, her arms up, she is suddenly lyrical.)
-- everything flies off from the earth: my chandeliers and mirrors, my carpets, my boys and girls, my pianos and parlors, my Torture Dungeon, the Throne Room with its velvet drapes, my Hall of Mirrors, my Gallery of Perfumed Fountains, the Urinals, my Mermaid Cave with Emerald Pools, the Moonlit Garden -- and, oh, the most beautiful of all -- if I ever get it finished -- my ultimate jewel, the Funeral Parlor with Marble Urns, my salon of solemn death, the mausoleum ... My Balcony lifts off the earth, soars, and carries me away!