Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 582
Jean Genet, who spent most of his early life in prison, is considered one of the most important French writers of the twentieth century. His writing centers on the themes of illusion versus reality, freedom versus slavery, and the ultimate similarity of good and evil. Throughout his writing, Genet expresses his philosophies: that there can be no evil in evil, since the double negative would make a positive, thus good; that the police and criminals are both outcasts from society and, therefore, equals; and that fiction was too often confused with reality and must be separated. His writings are mostly concerned with criminals, prostitutes, and servants. In The Maids, Genet expresses these concepts primarily through the characters of the maids, who begin and end the play pretending to be mistress and servant.
Genet was bothered by the concept of suspension of disbelief upon which most plays and films rely. In his instructions for producing The Maids, Genet originally stated that he wanted men to play the roles. His intent, according to his greatest patron, Jean-Paul Sartre, was to show the artificiality of the play and the players. If a woman played the role of Claire, she would have to play only a maid and a maid playing her mistress; a man, however, would have to play not only the maid and the maid playing her mistress but also the woman, thus bringing one more level of artifice to the play.
The falseness of the play is further revealed through the maids’ game. They take turns pretending to be the mistress, imitating her. The play has several levels: men playing women, women playing maids, maids playing the mistress, and men playing women playing maids playing the mistress playing a maid. It is when there is a slip in the action, an unexpected intrusion or word, that the levels become confused, such as the time Claire comments on the milkman. The complex circularity of the play goes further, however, when Genet introduces the concept of love. The maids talk about how they love Madame, but, as Solange says, filth cannot love, which must mean they hate Madame—not because she is mean or cruel to them, but because she is good and therefore she can love. It is impossible for her to love, however, because her lover is in prison. In fact, he is the only one of the four characters who never appears. He is also the only man. The circle is completed by the fact that the maids, being outcasts like criminals and the police, were responsible for Monsieur’s imprisonment in the first place, thus bringing him to their level and (in Genet’s philosophy) making him an outcast, depriving him of the ability to love.
The maids, being outcasts, society’s “distorting mirrors,” have two ways of becoming a society of their own: through imitating Madame’s gestures and words or through her death. Madame is a fake, however, so the maids are doomed to failure. This is why the maids never succeed in killing Madame, and why Claire ends up killing herself while playing Madame—it is the closest she will ever get to becoming the mistress. Solange also knows this and believes that through her sister’s-mistress’s death, she will be elevated to a higher level, while she only ends up being a criminal and her dead sister a mere servant suicide—in dramatic contrast to Solange’s last words: “We are beautiful, joyous, drunk, and free!”