The Maids is based on the actual 1933 murder of a wealthy woman and her daughter by their maids, the Papin sisters. Transformed into art, the real episode becomes a drama rich with symbols and images of philosophical concerns: illusion/reality, self/other, being/nothingness—existential polarities that had been probed by Jean-Paul Sartre.
At the core of the play is an exploration of the nature of identity, of self. In Jean Genet’s thought, identity is ineffable; one knows the self only as an image reflected by the other, an image that quite likely is unreal. In the opening scene of The Maids the exaggerated, theatrical style of Claire the maid playing Madame commands attention with its obvious artificiality. When the alarm clock rings, the audience becomes aware that things are not what they appear, that they have perceived an illusion, and that the reality beneath the elaborate costume of the aristocratic woman is that of a servant playing a role. To Genet, the reflection of an object conveys more reality than the actual object; thus, Claire’s reflection of Madame in this ritual play-within-a-play becomes more real than Madame herself, or for that matter than Claire herself.
“You’re my bad smell,” Claire says to Solange. Solange the maid, playing at being Claire the maid, creates a reflection of Claire, and thus the maids become mirror images of each other. Their awareness of self, which derives from their...
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