The Maids

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Les Bonnes
Written byJean Genet
Date premieredApril 17, 1947 (1947-04-17)
Place premieredThéâtre de l'Athénée
Original languageFrench

The Maids (French: Les Bonnes) is a 1947 play by the French dramatist Jean Genet. It was first performed at the Théâtre de l'Athénée in Paris in a production that opened on 17 April 1947, which Louis Jouvet directed.[1]

The play by the Maribor Slovene National Theatre in 1969

The play has been revived in France, the UK, and the United States on multiple occasions, sometimes with men playing the roles of the maids.[2] A TV dramatization Stuepigerne was done by Danish national broadcaster Danmarks Radio in 1962. A film adaptation of the play was released in 1974. Swedish composer Peter Bengtson [sv] adapted the play in 1994 for a chamber opera.


Genet loosely based his play on the infamous sisters Christine and Léa Papin, who brutally murdered their employer and her daughter in Le Mans, France, in 1933. In an introduction written for The Maids, Jean-Paul Sartre quotes a line from Genet's novel Our Lady of the Flowers in which a character muses that if he had a play written for women he'd cast adolescent boys in the parts. Sartre then speculates on having this idea applied to The Maids.[3]


Solange and Claire are two sisters who are housemaids. When their mistress (Madame) is away, they take turns role-playing Madame while the other plays her maid. In this way, they portray both sides of the power divide. Each, when playing Madame, demeans and abases her sister. The maid whose turn it is to be Madame makes some "furtive" [4] demands of a sadomasochistic nature, such as commanding her sister to kneel and kiss Madame's shoe.

The ultimate goal of their role-playing is carrying out the real murder of Madame as the only way to free themselves of subjugation. The maids' deliberate pace, their emotionally-charged arguments, and their devotion to detail guarantee that they always fail to actualize their fantasies of ceremoniously "killing" Madame at the ritual's dénouement with unexpected consequences.


  • Solange - Maid/sister
  • Claire - Maid/sister
  • Madame - Haughty, disdainful mistress
  • Monsieur - Madame's lover and thief

Production history[edit]

In Britain, the play was first presented in French by the Institute of Contemporary Arts, initially at the Mercury Theatre, Notting Hill Gate, London, in 1952.[5] Peter Zadek directed, while Eduardo Paolozzi provided the scenic design. Selma Vaz Dias played Solange, Olive Gregg played Claire, and Oriel Ross played Madame. The production subsequently transferred to the Royal Court Theatre, where Betty Stockfeld played Madame and David de Bethel provided the scenic design. Zadek also directed the play's first production in Britain in English, which opened on 5 June 1956 at the New Lindsey Theatre Club. Selma Vaz Dias again played Solange and Betty Stockfeld played Madame, while Hazel Penwarden played Claire.

The play was produced at Tempo Playhouse in New York City in 1955, with Julie Bovasso originally as Claire and later as Solange. Bovasso won the first best actress Obie Award for The Maids.[6]

Minos Volanakis directed the play at the Oxford Playhouse in 1963.[7] This production was reprised in 1964 in a double bill with Bertolt Brecht's The Exception and the Rule.[8]

The play was revived in London at the Greenwich Theatre in 1973 with the actresses Vivien Merchant as Madame, Glenda Jackson as Solange and Susannah York as Claire. This production was filmed as part of the American Film Theatre series in 1974, directed by Christopher Miles and photographed by Douglas Slocombe. Miles and Slocombe planned the 12-day shoot with a single camera which could track anywhere over the set,[9] and deliberately implemented many of Genet's theatrical devices for the film. The 1987 Royal Shakespeare Company's production at The Barbican (The Pit) was directed by Gerard Murphy, designed by David Ultz and starred Miles Anderson as Claire, Gerard Murphy as Solange, and Patrick Bailey as Madam. It was twinned with Deathwatch with the same actors.

Clare Davidson directed it at Dublin Theatre Festival; subsequently at The Lyric Theatre Studio Hammersmith on 12 October 1981 with Mark Rylance as Madame.[10]

Cesear's Forum, a minimalist theatre company, produced the play in Chicago in 1990. Claire and Solange were portrayed by male actors in drag but Madame was cast female. In his Chicago Reader review, Albert Williams writes: "Genet deliberately sought to invoke the sense of ceremony expressed in (as he wrote to his publisher) 'the sacrifice of the Mass'...the endless shifting of roles among the women, and the patent artificiality of the female impersonation are the poetic means by which the playwright explores his themes..."[11]

In Canada, a 2011 production at Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto, Ontario, used female and male casting, with the roles of Solange and Claire played by Diane D'Aquila and Ron Kennell.[2]

A 2013 Sydney Theatre Company production, adapted by Andrew Upton and directed by Benedict Andrews, starred Cate Blanchett as Claire, Isabelle Huppert as Solange, and Elizabeth Debicki as the Mistress.[12][13] The production was shown as part of the Lincoln Center Festival in August 2014 at New York City Center.[14] Andrews employed contemporary devices that combined theatre with film in his use of video cameras, stylized choreography, popular “underground” music soundtracks,[15] liberal use of profanity, and cultural modernization such as off handed comments from the Mistress on her dresses: "McQueen designed it for me."[16]

In 2016 a production starring Uzo Aduba and Zawe Ashton as Solange and Claire, and Laura Carmichael as Mistress, was directed by Jamie Lloyd and performed at Trafalgar Studios in London.[17] The script was from the same translation as the 2013 Andrews-directed performance.[18]

In Australia, a 2021 production starring Marta Dusseldorp and Essie Davis as Solange and Claire, and Stephanie Jack as Mistress, was directed by Ben Winspear and performed at The Playhouse Theatre in Hobart.[19]



  1. ^ Genet 1989, p. 33 and Banham 1998, p. 417
  2. ^ a b "Veteran actor Diane D'Aquila sharpens her theatrical edge". The Globe and Mail, September 19, 2011.
  3. ^ Genet 1989
  4. ^ Genet, Jean (1976). Les Bonnes. Paris: Marc Barbezat-L'Arbalète. p. 7.
  5. ^ Genet 1963, p. 6
  6. ^ Tallmer, Jerry (23 May 1956). "Theatre: The Maids". The Village Voice.
  7. ^ Chapman 2008, p. 184
  8. ^ Chapman 2008, p. 186
  9. ^ "Miles on filming a stage success". Cinema TV Today. 1 May 1974.
  10. ^ Crouch, Kristin Ann (2003). Shared Experience Theatre: Exploring the boundaries of performance (PhD dissertation). The Ohio State University.
  11. ^ Williams, Albert (January 11, 1990). "Drag, He Said". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 26 January 2024.
  12. ^ STC – The Maids
  13. ^ Verghis, Sharon (June 1, 2013). "Maids of dishonour, Cate Blanchett and Elizabeth Debicki, unite for STC's Genet". The Australian.
  14. ^ "Theater Listings for Aug. 1–7". New York Times. July 31, 2014.
  15. ^ "The Maids is a Pile of Fake Flowers". The New Yorker. 13 August 2014. Retrieved 28 March 2021.
  16. ^ "The Maids: Theater Review". The Hollywood Reporter. 8 October 2014. Retrieved 28 March 2021.
  17. ^ "The Maids, The Jamie Lloyd Company". Retrieved 25 March 2016.
  18. ^ "The Maids review – Uzo Aduba is ferocious in Genet's lost landmark". The Guardian. March 2016. Retrieved 25 March 2016.
  19. ^ Aitken, Sarah (19 October 2021). "'Love, hate and stench': Marta Dusseldorp and Essie Davis unite for Genet's The Maids". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 January 2023.