The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl

Start Your Free Trial

Download The Clean House Study Guide

Subscribe Now


The Clean House is a comic drama that mixes fantasy and reality as it tells the story of five disparate characters. Throughout the play, characters address the audience to talk about themselves or imagine situations involving the other characters. The story begins as Lane, a doctor in her early fifties, hires a Brazilian woman named Matilde to be her live-in maid. As Matilde and Lane try to negotiate their working relationship, Matilde dreams of her deceased parents and tries to think of the perfect joke. Soon, Matilde meets Lane’s sister, Virginia, a neat-freak who is married but has no children. When they mutually agree that cleaning houses is not Matilde’s forte, Virginia agrees to clean the house in the afternoons without telling Lane. One day, as they are folding laundry, they discover a pair of women’s underwear. Virginia and Matilde are concerned that Lane’s husband, Charles, might be having an affair. Just then, Lane arrives home and announces that Charles is having an affair with a sixty-seven year-old breast cancer patient. Lane becomes enraged when she learns that Virginia has been cleaning her house instead of Matilde. As Matilde prepares to leave, Lane imagines Charles and his lover together. As the first act ends, Virginia enters and announces that Charles and his mistress have arrived.

At the beginning of the second Act, Charles performs surgery on Ana, his lover. They then describe for the audience how they met and fell instantly in love. The action then shifts to the moment at the end of Act One. Charles and Ana enter, apologizing to Lane. Since Matilde has just been fired, Ana asks her to be her maid. Lane objects, and Matilde agrees to split her time between the two. When Ana becomes ill again, Charles travels Alaska to look for a tree whose properties might cure her. Lane visits Ana, examines her and both know that Ana’s cancer has returned. Lane takes Ana to her home and cares for her. Ana knows she is dying and wants to go before Charles returns. Matilde thinks up the perfect joke and whispers it into her ear. Ana laughs and the joke gently kills her. Charles returns and grieves over Ana. In the play’s final moments, Charles and Ana transform into Matilde’s parents as Matilde imagines the two of them together.