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...
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