The Play

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Maids begins in a bedroom furnished in Louis XV style and adorned with lace and flowers. A slipclad woman demands her dress, her fan, and her jewels in an exaggerated, insulting manner. The maid, whom she addresses as “Claire,” is humble and submissive, accepting the abuse heaped upon her. A curious moment occurs: “Madame” calls for the “white dress, the one with spangles,” but the maid refuses, insisting that she wear the scarlet velvet instead. “Madame” then seems to prompt “Claire,” whom she now calls Solange, to threaten and insult her, “to talk about Monsieur’s misfortunes,” as she acquiesces to the red dress. Her finished costume carries her to a peak of poetic ecstasy in which she emphasizes the chasm between them: her “nobility,” the maid’s “baseness.” The maid now turns on her, spewing out abuse, spitting on the dress, slapping her face, promising that she is going to finish her off.

An alarm clock rings. The scene collapses, and “Madame” and “Claire” drop the masquerade to become Claire and Solange—maids and sisters. They have been escaping their dreary reality as servants by participating in a “ceremony,” a game in which they alternate roles as Madame and maid, trying to goad each other into the emotional state necessary to commit the murder of their mistress, thereby achieving freedom for themselves. This evening again they have been unsuccessful; now they must hurry to clean and rearrange the room before Madame returns. Depressed, they argue and commiserate, Solange accusing Claire of mixing details from their private lives with the “ceremony.” Unconcerned, Claire exults over the anonymous letter she wrote accusing Madame’s lover of being a thief; she relishes the memory of the anguish on her employer’s face when she heard of his arrest. Solange’s venom increases. Claire counters by suggesting that Solange’s unsuccessful attempt to kill Madame was actually an attack on her, Claire. Solange replies that she only wanted to free Claire from their miserable existence.

The telephone rings; Monsieur is free on bail. Claire takes the call, and the audience sees that in her agitation she misplaces the receiver on the table. The maids are panicked, certain that their plot will be discovered. Claire declares that she now has the strength to kill Madame. Solange tries to dissuade her, to calm her, but Claire’s determination takes off in an imaginative flight of power and martyrdom.

The doorbell rings; Madame has returned. The sisters agree that Claire will lace the tea with ten phenobarbitol pills. Madame enters, chattering about the flowers, the cold, her lover’s plight, her desire to follow him to the ends of the earth. Claire appears with the poisoned tea. Dramatizing her misery, Madame bestows the red velvet dress on Claire and the fur cape upon Solange, but she does not drink the tea. Suddenly she notices the telephone off the hook. The maids stammer that Monsieur is out of jail and waiting for her at the bar. Furious that she was not told the good news immediately, Madame sends Solange out for a taxi, meanwhile retrieving her gifts, since she will not be following her lover to some remote prison. As they wait, Claire fixes her hair, continuing to press the tea on her without success.

Solange returns with a taxi, and Madame leaves. Now the two sisters are again alone—Claire weary and discouraged, Solange bitter and full of hate. They will play the game again. Solange says that she will play Madame; Claire refuses, claiming that she is “used to it [the role].” She will wear the white dress. Solange agrees, providing they skip the...

(This entire section contains 889 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

preliminaries and “get right into the transformation.” Solange is “dazzled” by Claire’s appearance in the white dress, but Claire cuts short her adoration, demanding that the insults begin immediately. Claire spews out abuse, Solange begins hers. She removes a riding whip from the wall, forcing Claire to crawl on her knees. Claire becomes frightened and screams for help, begging Solange to come to herself, but Solange stalks her through the room, menacingly, stopping only when Claire appears to be ill. Then she helps Claire from the room. For a moment the stage is empty, and then Solange reappears. The audience does not know whether she has killed Claire. She begins a long monologue, speaking first with relief as though Madame were dead and she were the murderer. Her fantasy continues: She envisions herself dead, with Madame at her funeral; she converses with Madame, with Monsieur, with the inspector, but her imagination focuses upon Madame and her treatment of the maids. Her speech alternates between exaggerated pride and self-hatred, as she claims that she has murdered Claire. She sees herself marching to the gallows, head held high, accompanied by the servants of the neighborhood costumed in their finest livery. During the last part of her speech Claire enters. Playing Madame, she sits, calls Solange “Claire,” and asks her to pour a cup of the tea. Solange, breaking out of her role, says that she is tired, that they both should go to bed. Claire persists, drags Solange to her feet, and insults and taunts her, until at last Solange passes her the poisoned cup. Claire drinks; as her body slumps to the floor, Solange continues her fantasy of freedom.

Dramatic Devices

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Maids is a tightly knit, long one-act play, cleverly interwoven with devices that not only reinforce the themes of the elusiveness of reality and the ineffability of identity but also contribute to the powerful theatricality of the play.

The play is simply but masterfully constructed. The text is tripartite. The first section presents the game and the maids’ fantasies; the second begins with Madame’s entrance, rises to the play’s climax as she avoids taking the tea, and ends with her exit; the third includes the repetition of the game and Claire’s suicide. The mystical number three becomes significant: There are three divisions to the play, and there are three characters, Claire, Solange, and Madame, each of whom mirrors the other.

The mirror is the primary symbol of Jean Genet’s quest for reality and identity. In the opening scene there are three: the hand mirror in which Claire admires herself, the dressing-table mirror into which she also gazes, and Madame’s shoes which reflect Solange as she polishes them. Later, when Madame arrives home, she speaks to her own reflection in the mirror and then to Claire’s reflection. If the self is complex and elusive, in the mirror it becomes appearance, nothing more than what it is. The reflection is the symbol of an uncertain world of appearances.

Genet uses an auditory device with the ringing of bells. Again, there are three: the alarm clock that halts the playing of the game, the telephone with the news of Monsieur’s release from prison, and the doorbell announcing Madame’s return. Each bell is a surprise and breaks the action of the scene. As with the ringing of the bells during the Catholic Mass, each bell heightens the dramatic tension.

Genet decorates the stage with laces, flowers, and costumes. The flowers, the lace, and the trappings of Madame’s bedroom are real and complement Madame’s identity; the costumes mask and deceive. In the opening scene Claire, costumed as Madame, plays out her role in the play-within-a-play. The appearance masks the reality; the audience cannot trust its eyes. Solange, dressed as a maid, behaves as a maid in their ritual game; she is a maid, but not the maid she appears to be. In other words, costume creates an appearance, but the reality is unknowable. Genet repeats this kind of deception at the end of the play, when he deliberately misleads the audience into believing that Solange has killed Claire. In doing so, he demonstrates once again the elusiveness of reality.

Ironic touches permeate the play. Because of her authority and position, a mistress is expected to be older than her maids, but Genet describes Madame as ten years younger. The names “Claire” and “Solange” suggest images of brightness, clarity, the sun, and angels; instead, the characters are heavy and earthbound. Verbal irony occurs when Madame accuses the maids of trying to kill her with their “flowers and kindness.” Dramatic irony occurs when the audience sees that the telephone receiver has been misplaced. Each of these examples distances the audience from the play and underscores the artifice of the playwright.

A theatrical craftsman, Genet uses these visual, auditory, and ironic devices, which are more apparent to the viewer than to the reader, to enhance the performance and to emphasize his themes.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Driver, Tom F. Jean Genet. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. Contains brief but in-depth analyses of most of Genet’s works. Aimed primarily at English-speaking college students.

Knapp, Bettina. Jean Genet. New York: Twayne, 1968. Analytical look at Genet, geared toward giving U.S. readers a concise understanding of the author’s work.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr. Translated by Bernard Frechtman. New York: Pantheon Books, 1963. Huge volume of description and philosophy on Genet addresses his life and work, including a long section on The Maids, and is central to an understanding of the author.

White, Edmund. Genet: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. Definitive English-language biography discusses the chronology behind The Maids, as well as Genet’s reactions to the play.

White, Edmund. Selected Writings of Jean Genet. New York: Ecco Press, 1993. Includes excerpts from Genet’s works, including The Maids, as well as a short synopsis of the play and a discussion of its place in the Genet oeuvre.


Critical Essays