On Sunday afternoon I went with my eighteen year old granddaughter to see Genet’s “The Maids” which I recommend highly. In the play the two maids, Claire and Solange, dress up and pretend to be the mistress and her maid. They use the mistress’s dresses, her makeup, her silver shoes. Cate Blanchett takes off the mistress, striding around the stage in her red velvet dress in a wonderfully funny, liberated, and precise way.
In the background there is a screen which repeats and enlarges the action on the stage, a sort of “mise en abîme” the action repeated in a further fragmenting of reality and illusion.
The play made me think of a game I played with my older sister as a child. It was called “doll,” and one of us had to be the doll while the other ordered the doll around. The doll had to obey no matter what she was told to do. In other words, we, too, were playing another version of mistress and maid. This was particularly appropriate in apartheid South Africa where we saw this “game” played out in reality all around us by the white mistresses with their black maids. It is relevant today in America.
My grandchildren who have grown up in America and France play this game, too, simply changing the name and calling it “Slave for the day.”
So what does this game represent? Why do children play this or some version of this? Why is this part of our adult fantasies? In Genet’s play, one of the themes that is particularly relevant today is obviously the class struggle: the great divide between those who have and who have not . The mistress has it all: the wealth, the beautiful clothes, the handsome lover. The maids, in their bare attic, have nothing except one another. Though they pretend to be devoted and smother the mistress with flowers and care, they are secretly jealous and playing at, while plotting, her demise.
Children, of course, like the maids are helpless in their dependency on the adults in their world and can only pretend to be powerful, to be in charge and make others obey. By acting out this role they can for a moment escape their helpless position as they do in the fairy tale.
Perhaps, too, here, there is some inner aggression being played out for our delectation. We too, the spectators, are enjoying this sadomasochistic game of make believe where the underdog is able, if only in a game, to be all powerful. Here, too, we are able to identify not only with the mistress but also the maid, or in our version of the play, the “doll” who must obey every command. In a sense in this game we are able to be both the aggressor and the aggressed, both victim and perpetrator, and as Freud has pointed out, both these passive and active drives exist within all of us, men or women that we may be.
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including Becoming Jane Eyre and the recent Dreaming for Freud.