The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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...

(The entire section is 555 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.