I read Jean Genet’s play The Maids because of its biographical basis, but, in fact, it’s much more a work of fiction than biography.
In 1933, two maids Christine and Lea Papin murdered their employer and her daughter in a most brutal fashion (gouging out their eyes with their fingers and bludgeoning them to death). The case sparked huge controversy and became the basis for many plays, films and books. In 1945, Genet wrote The Maids (Les Bonnes), based loosely on the case but not following its particulars in any way.
What Genet explores so beautifully is the power plays, delusion and fantasy that fuel the two sisters. Claire and Solange enact elaborate rituals whenever their mistress is out, taking it in turn to play her and each other. They love each other and hate each other, sickened and inspired by the way they have to debase themselves.
CLAIRE: I’m tired of it all. Tired of being the spider, the umbrella-case, the shabby, godless nun, without a family! I’m tired of having a stove for an altar. […]
SOLANGE: […] I can’t stand our being so alike, I can’t stand my hands, my black stockings, my hair. […] I want to help you. I want to comfort you, but I know I disgust you. I’m repulsive to you. And I know it because you disgust me. When slaves love one another, it’s not love.
CLAIRE: And me, I’m sick of seeing my image thrown back at me by a mirror, like a bad smell. You’re my bad smell. Well, I’m ready. Ready to bite. I’ll have my crown and I shall stroll about the apartment.
Their rituals build to an ecstasy of debasement and oppression culminating in the enactment of the murder of their mistress. They take turns to abuse and revile each other in a sadomasochistic game, always pushing to make it real. When Madame, their mistress, does finally arrive on stage there’s this sense of dread and expectation as we wait for them to finally turn on her. But Genet plays with our expectations, turning the tables so that Madame leaves unscathed and the dread has to turn to one of the sisters instead.
The Maids has a strongly erotic undercurrent and is a powerful play about truth and fantasy and the simmering resentment that can bubble away in anyone forced to be subservient for a long time.
Publisher: Faber and Faber