Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Amina Cain revisits Jean Genet’s The Maids.
When I was writing my novel Indelicacy, I felt myself in conversation with Jean Genet’s play The Maids. First performed in Paris in 1947, the play is loosely based on the story of the infamous Papin sisters, who murdered their employer in 1933 in Le Mans, France. I’ve never seen the play performed, though I’ve watched the film version from 1975, directed by Christopher Miles. When I first read The Maids, I wasn’t interested in the idea of murder but in Genet’s highly charged representation of the two sisters, their crazed relationship to each other, as well as to their “Madame,” and in the depiction of class warfare in a domestic space. More recently, I’ve been thinking, too, about its mad circling of artificiality and authenticity, two sides of the same coin.
In their roles as maids in the rooms of Madame’s high-class apartment, Solange and Claire become unhinged, especially when they are there alone. They are free then to do as they like, and the desire for another reality, and the level to which they pitch that desire, drives them into an electrifying realm of fantasy and performance. It feels as if this is what the end of fantasy looks like, if you follow it as far as it can possibly go. And if the fantasy is as filled with bitterness and rage as the sisters are, then it feels like it will explode.
In the past year I’ve become somewhat obsessed with the idea of authenticity. This is partly because I feel at times I have lost sight of my authentic self, and I want more than anything to come close to it again. For me, authenticity means that how I act and what I say, and how I actually feel around others, are aligned, that I am connected to myself and to another person at the same time. I want my writing to be authentic, too, for every sentence to reach toward honesty and meaning. Genet manages in The Maids to come up to the very edge of this, in that nothing is held back, everything is expressed, everything breaks the surface and is free. This is especially true within the sisters’ performance, what they call “the ceremony,” in which they take turns playing each other, and Madame, and play at cruelty and revenge. Because of this sense of freedom, this reach toward liberty, the play feels oddly clean, satisfying.
But when one sister overpowers the other, an already unsettling situation gets even darker. It doesn’t seem that it could. It is painful to hear the insults the sisters hurl at each other. They understand all too well how they are seen by society, with what distaste, disgust, even. Claire yells at Solange: “A vile and odious breed, I loathe them. They’re not of the human race. Servants ooze. They’re a foul effluvium drifting through our rooms and hallways, seeping into us, entering our mouths, corrupting us.”
The play shows us the risks of an expression without limits, of following desire to its breaking point, especially if it has been pushed down by an oppressive system. In this case—class. Genet recognized, as does director Bong Joon-ho in his film Parasite, the horror and tragedy of turning that expression inward, or at those who occupy a similar class role, namely as servants to the rich. Both works portray self-harm in brutal ways.
When the maids know Madame will soon be coming home, they rush to put things back in their places, including themselves, slipping back into their “proper” roles. Now they play at being nice to her; now they are false. In their relationship to Madame, they cannot be their authentic selves. Their identities hinge upon their service to her, always. And is Madame false also? When she is nice to them, gives them compliments and clothing, is it real, or is it pity? As the provider of their livelihood, does she think of herself as a savior? Does she ever see them as they actually are? For the introduction to the play, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote: “In like manner, wealthy, cultivated and happy men have, from time to time, ‘felt sorry’ for Genet, have tried to oblige him. Too late. He has blamed them for loving him for the love of Good, in spite of his badness and not for it.”
My loss of authenticity is related to change, to how, as I’ve gotten older, I seem to have become a different person. In a way I have become strange to myself, and so how I feel around others has also been destabilized. I have more fears than I had when I was younger; I am more rigid; and there has been a loss, too, of the freedom I once felt, when the world seemed entirely open, and utterly beautiful. And yet, in my writing, I am able to access parts of myself I thought I had lost. I named one of the characters in my novel after one of the sisters, Solange, not with the intent to rewrite her but because I was interested in the currents that often remain invisible, that aren’t usually acted out as they are in The Maids.
My Solange is not Genet’s Solange, but she is a maid, to a woman named Vitória, who, before marrying a rich husband, was also a cleaner. I wanted my Solange to carry within her the potential of the other Solange, and a dark history of maids throughout time. Solange does not like Vitória; she makes this very clear. Solange keeps herself walled off, protected. But this is a full-time project, for they must see each other every day, living as they do in the same house.
How often these dynamics have existed, and still exist, in the space of the home, where “Madame” and “Monsieur” lay their heads and sleep, where they sleep with each other, and where “their” servants in other rooms live their own private realities, too. Of course these kinds of relationships aren’t always bad, but when they are bad, to have to live together, employer and employee, is its own unique condition. Home should be a place of retreat and safety (though we know that’s not always so); above all, a place where you can be yourself. To have to maintain those class roles always, especially if they are enforced with any kind of degradation, is a violation of the sacredness of one’s life, and a violence all on its own.
The “ceremony” Genet’s sisters engage in enacts this kind of violation and violence, but it also engenders a sense of intimacy and, again, freedom. It is Madame’s apartment, true, but it is their stage, and in some ways they are very much at home there. And when Claire and Solange perform the ceremony, they wear Madame’s clothes. In The Maids, domestic space is political, as it always has the potential to be. Ownership can’t permeate all of life, and part of what The Maids does best is to push it off, and to push off the oppressive roles class and servitude create.
The end of the play contains an ultimate violence and with it an ultimate sadness. The maids are allowed to be their real selves only through sacrifice, by entering a space no one should ever have to enter. I’m being cryptic, but I don’t want to give anything away. As a writer and an artist, Genet wasn’t afraid to enter into any of it, and that is part of how he gets close to authenticity. In the play, Solange says in a moment of exhaustion, “Be yourself again. Come on, Claire, be my sister.”
Amina Cain is the author, most recently, of Indelicacy.