Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 595
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 awareness of the other, produces intense feelings of love and hate. “Filth . . . doesn’t love filth,” says Solange to Claire. Her hatred of Claire is reflected in her feelings about Madame. To achieve being and to escape nothingness, they accept roles and dwell in the world of the imagination. In their love for each other they fantasize about the milkman, they indulge in erotic masquerades, they play out their ceremony, projecting themselves into Madame and into each other, in an attempt to transform themselves and to transcend their miserable nonbeing.
In the final moments of the play, fantasy and illusion merge and become real. With Claire’s suicide the fantasy of Madame’s murder is achieved, and Solange’s fantasy of being a murderer becomes reality. The total fusion of self with illusion and self with other is realized in death.
Although the play’s statement is more philosophical than sociological, through Claire and Solange Genet portrays the frustration, anger, and self-hate that fester in outcasts and the disadvantaged. The maids are representatives of victims everywhere. They are victims of the social order of time and place that has restricted their self-definition and placed them in a master-slave environment; they are victims of the psychological order that has invested them with energy and yearning without understanding; and they are victims of the biological order that has created them intellectually and physically inferior.
Art and artifice are also examined in the play. The Maids is a conscious artifice; Genet wants the audience to be aware of the art of the theater—hence his suggestion that two boys play the maids’ roles. If art is the transformation or shaping of imaginative material, the text of the play is the transformation of Genet’s fantasies into art. Within the text the fantasies of Claire and Solange become artistic creations, and the contributions of the actors playing the roles are both art in the creation and artifice in the performance. Behind these theatrical illusions, however, is the reality of flesh-and-blood human beings partaking in the ceremony of theater. The performance is art; the performance is illusion; the illusion is real.