in "Piaf," Pam Gems provides a view into the life of the great French singer and arguably the greatest singer of her generation -- Edith Piaf. (Fildier and Primack, 1981), the slices that the playwright provides, more than adequately trace her life. Edith was born a waif on the streets of Paris (literally under a lamp-post). Abandoned by her parents -- a drunken street singer for a mother and a circus acrobat father -- Edith learns to fend for herself from the very beginning. As a natural consequence of her surroundings, she makes the acquaintance of several ne'er do wells. She rises above the lifestyles of the girls she grows up with who prostitute themselves for a living in the hope that they will eventually meet a benefactor with whom they can settle. Edith has a talent for singing and she indulges this interest by singing loudly in the streets. On one such occasion, she catches the eye (and year) of a club owner Louis Leplee who gives her a first break singing in his club. Eventually, M. Leplee is killed by some of Edith's street acquaintances. She is suspected and then exonerated of any wrongdoing.
From then on, as far as being a performer is concerned, there is no turning back for Mlle. Gassion. She adopts the sobriquet "Piaf" -- the Little Sparrow and moves on to become perhaps the best performer in the world. Along with this fame of course, come pitfalls. It also bears mentioning that Edith's past is the harbinger of "baggage." A son, from a failed first marriage, is taken away by authorities and given to foster parents. Eventually, Marcelle the boy, contracts an illness. Edith is informed only after the boy dies. This tragedy, Edith carries with her forever.
Edith's success as a singer, actress and performer demonstrates an inverse proportionality with her development as a person. One can imagine here the fact that she grew up without a moral compass. She has innumerable affairs. Each of these affairs carries with it a kind of fatalism. Perhaps, to regain her youth two of these affairs are with young playboys. They end up in debilitating automobile accidents. After these accidents, not much more is heard of these men. There is a much-publicized affair of Edith with a boxer Marcel Cedran. In fact, with Marcel, there is an emotional attachment; the fatalism unfortunately persists. Marcel is married. The affair does not last very long. Edith's second husband, Theo Sarapo, many years her junior is a pandering enabler with whom Edith can never have a relationship based on equality.
The few constants in Edith's life are helpful women. Toine -- Antoinette -- a prostitute who eventually settles down with one of her customers, comes often into Edith's life. She is almost ubiquitous at low points of Edith's life. Another is Madeleine. Madeleine is Edith's maid and gofer -- called on to serve her mistress' every whim and fancy. The now superstar Edith relies on her a lot. Another woman who is an integral part of Edith's life is Josephine. Josephine is a club owner who offers guidance and support. She is Edith's mother, sister, friend, counselor and sounding board -- all rolled into one. These three women are perhaps the only real support the Edith has.
One aspect of Edith's life that is the cause of her ultimate downfall is her continued and growing addiction to drugs. This constant drug and alcohol abuse eventually causes dependence that Edith is not able to rescue herself from. Eventually she dies from drug use and resultant physical ailments. While Edith should be held responsible for her behavior, one cannot help but imagine that if she had the benefit of an assertive and supportive influence, things might not have turned out differently. Unfortunately, the people who surround Edith range from the selfish, naive, incompetent, criminal, enabling, self-centered, and lecherous. They either pander to her whims and fancies or abuse her for personal gain. Josephine comes across as the strongest. But her motivations might be considered diaphanous. She has to coddle the star in order to make a profit.
Edith Piaf's life can be considered to be one of a phoenix...
It is a lesson in the resilience of the spirit, combined with fortuitous circumstances. Like Mozart, Edith's personal life might have been one of self-doubt and misery. But her talent left countless fans, a generation of war-beleaguered Europeans and Americans, and a world richer for having known and experienced her.
Chapter 2 Pam Gems' concept of femaleness in Piaf
Femaleness in Piaf arises from the characters of the cast in the play. Each of them has a character that is uniquely feminine. Each of them brings a fresh perspective, which engages the play's audience. Some of these characters play small roles. And most roles are small compared to the one played by the character of "Edith Piaf." Each of these characters is a woman. They might play roles that are less important to the play, but nonetheless important and necessary. Pam Gems might have "invented" some of the roles to highlight the role of the Edith. In real life, some of these characters might have sycophantically fawned over Edith enabling her drug and alcohol abuse and her philandering. But each of these characters was driven by the will to survive. If one were to put oneself in each of these smaller characters' shoes, one would realize that their lives were complete. They had a unique character. Some of them belong to the working class. The others are bourgeois or bourgeois-wannabes. Each person aims to find happiness. This happiness might be false; this false happiness might be nestled in the promises of luxury. But these are all too real and vivid to the women in the play.
The roles that contribute to the concepts of femininity in the play are those of Toine -- an impoverished streetwalker in Paris who hopes that one of her clients might fall in love with her, marry her and enable her to settle into a better life; Josephine is a singer and the owner of a night club, she struggles to generate profits for her clubs. She coddles and enables Edith. She provides counsel when Edith is distraught. She nurses her through the difficult times. Josephine is always there with a kind word and good advice; Madeleine -- Piaf's maid servant is constantly abused by her mistress. But she is indulges Edith and suffers through the emotional abuse so that she can make a living. Madeleine is always present when Edith needs her. And finally, the concept of femininity is seen through the eyes of Edith Piaf -- this is the femininity of achievement in the face of overwhelming odds. Piaf's is the femininity of genius. Hers is also the femininity of the deeply flawed. Piaf's is the femininity of the knowing and believing that as a human being she is larger than life. Piaf's is the femininity of yearning for companionship and opening oneself to abuse from men. Pam Gems concept of femaleness in Piaf is about an uncompromising adherence to the pursuit of excellence. There are compromises however; and they create problems. The genius comes with a lot of pain. Pain is also the essence of femininity. This pain is felt more strongly as Piaf gains fame.
Edith Piaf and Toine have grown up in similar circumstances. Edith however, while remaining promiscuous does not become a prostitute. Sex for her is a means in and of itself; and not a means to an end. Sex for her is a biological necessity and does not carry a moral imperative. She offers to perform fellatio on the owner of the club that gives Edith her first break as a professional performer. Her words "it's no skin of my nose," fully illustrate her attitude towards sex. Another time, Edith is having sex with a member of the armed services; she forgets she has an appointment to perform on stage, so she asks Toine, who happens to be around to "take over." Toine willingly does so; But more about the femininity of Toine later. Edith does not want to give herself emotionally to any of her sexual partners. This is the essential component of her femaleness -- the need to control her life, as she sees fit. We see the same control later in life. From being a physical exercise, sex for Edith becomes a crutch to draw attention to her self. She uses it to recapture her youth. Interestingly, the more she accomplishes, career-wise, the weirder her sexual proclivities (and partners) get. Along with the attention seeking that is characteristic of most stars, Edith uses sex to regain her lost youth. She is unaware that the young men she beds are mostly enablers and sycophants who…
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