Maids, The


The Maids
Written by the provocative, queer, French author Jean Genet in 1946, "The Maids" was inspired by the real-life story of Lea and Christine Papin—two sisters who fell into romantic love with each other and gruesomely murdered their employers in 1933. Jean-Paul Sartre—who wrote about the play in his 1952 biographical portrait Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr —called it an “extraordinary example of the whirligig of being and appearance” (p. 611). The play centers around, he explains, “two maids” who “both love and hate their mistress”: “They have denounced her lover to the police by means of anonymous letters. Upon learning that he is to be released for lack of proof, they realize that their betrayal will be discovered, and they try to murder Madame. They fail and want to kill themselves. Finally, one of them takes her life, and the other [is] left alone and drunk with glory...”  (Saint Genet, p. 611). Although many directors have chosen to cast women in the lead roles, Genet himself wanted the characters to be cross-cast. (“If I were to have a play put on in which women had roles,” he wrote in Our Lady of the Flowers, “I would demand that these roles be performed by adolescent boys, and I would bring this to the attention of the spectators by means of a placard which would remain nailed to the right or left of the sets during the entire performance.”) Sartre notes, however, that the first production of “The Maids” featured women performers, as “a concession... to Louis Jouvet, who produced the play” (Saint Genet, p. 611). Sartre suggests that Genet’s reasoning for wanting cross-gender casting was not personal—that is, not the result of his “taste for young boys”—but rather an aesthetic choice: “Genet wishes this feminine stuff itself to become an appearance, the result of a make-believe,” Sartre wrote—and he wanted to make it impossible for audience members to get “caught up in the game.” “Illusion, betrayal, failure,” Sartre concludes. “All the major categories that govern Genet’s dreams are here present” (Saint Genet, p. 612).

References: Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr (New York: George Braziller, 1964)
French, English