In the elegant bedroom of their Madame or mistress, Claire, a maid, chastises in an exaggerated tone her older sister, Solange, another maid, for bringing in rubber gloves out of the kitchen. Humbled, Solange leaves. Claire sits at the dressing table and freshens her appearance. She calls Solange in to prepare her dress and accessories. She accuses Solange of coveting her possessions, of letting the milkman, Mario, seduce her, and insults her appearance and manners. She briefly speaks in her normal voice and says that the ridiculous milkman despises them, and they are "going to have a kid by him—." She is cut off by Solange's defensive protests, and Claire resumes her former tone and reminds Solange of the dress. They argue about which dress she will wear. Solange wants her to wear the red dress, and even suggests that Madame's widowhood requires she wear black. Claire defends herself for having "denounced" Monsieur to the police in a letter that sent him to prison, where he is not, in fact, dead.
Solange stands firm in her choice of dress, and Claire submits and says Solange loathes her. Solange professes her unwavering love, but Claire says it is only "As one loves a mistress," and that Solange is hoping for a favor in return. As Solange puts the dress on Claire, Claire says she smells of the maid's room. In a gracious tone, she explains that she only refers to the room for "memory's sake." She points out other imaginary parts of the maid's room in Madame's room, but Solange begs her to stop. Claire continues, speaking about the flowers open in her honor, the "lovelier Virgin," and indicates the imaginary skylight through which Mario enters. As Solange arranges Claire's dress, Claire kicks her in the temple and calls her a "bungler," which Solange mishears as "burglar." When Solange's and Claire's fingers accidentally touch as both reach for a necklace, Claire recoils and says she cannot stand touching her. Solange reprimands her and speaks of the importance of boundaries and frontiers, saying, "Frontiers are not convention but laws. Here, my lands; there, your shore—" Claire accuses Solange of waiting until Solange is "no longer a maid," but becomes "vengeance itself." She says that she, on the other hand, contains both the maid and vengeance, and that it is a burden to be the beautiful mistress. Solange contemptuously says "Your lover!" and Claire agrees that her "unhappy" lover "heightens" her nobility.
Solange asks if Claire is ready, and then declares her hatred for Claire and begins insulting her aristocratic appearance. She accuses Claire of depriving her of her possessions—and of the milkman. Claire falls into a panic, and Solange slaps her. Solange says Madame did not consider the wrathful rebellion of her maid, and slanders her "cheap thief" of a husband. She hands Claire a mirror; though she sees the evidence of a slap, Claire finds herself more beautiful than ever. Solange then shows her in the mirror the two maids. She tells her to despise them, and then says, "We no longer fear you. We're merged in our hatred of you." Claire tells her to get out, and Solange says she'll return to her dirty kitchen, but first she will "finish the job." As she advances on Claire, an alarm clock rings, and the maids panic and run.
Two parts of the play's plot are apparent from this opening section. First, the two maids seem to routinely enact a dark role—play in which one of them dresses as and pretends to be their employer, Madame, while the other insults the fake Madame. Second, someone—either Madame herself or the maids—has written a letter to the police indicting Madame's husband, and he is now imprisoned.
Underneath this intriguing premise, Genet weaves together a number of themes. His major one, illusion as an escape from the oppression of authority, develops out of the sisters' theatricality. They are maids, but also virtual actresses, crafting new identities for themselves in their role-plays, even Solange, who creates for herself a more powerful, vengeful maid. The action is set around Madame's dressing table, as if Claire is an actress put on her theatrical face and costume before the luminescent make-up mirror. Their very names suggest the double identities they maintain. "Claire" means "clear" in French, an ironic name for someone so bent on blurring her lines of identity. As the fake Madame, the meaning makes sense, since she derives pleasure from her illusory clearness, her nobility. As for Solange, "ange" means "angel," while "sol" could mean "ground" or "dirt," or be the prefix for "soleil"—"sun." She, too, straddles opposing identities, being both a dirt- and sun-angel. Since she remains a servant, but a more dominant one, her name exposes her desire to be a lowly servant who rises above her position.
Crucial to an understanding of the maids' identities is to understand their complex relationship to authority. When Solange mishears "bungler" as "burglar," it is not coincidental, as they are thieves, not only of Madame's possessions but her identity. Genet became a thief at a young age only after being falsely accused of burglary. He said he felt that since society had repudiated him, he would repudiate society. His statement has a potentially clever pun on "repudiate" as "disown", since he would literally remove the ownership of society. The maids feel the same way as Genet. They feel rejected by society, forced to serve an authority figure, they seek to disown Madame of her status by impersonating her. Still, they would not take such pleasure in mimicking her if they did not also love her—"As one loves a mistress." Love for an authority figure, they know, is mixed with anxiety, with a desire to please, with fear—and ultimately with hatred. It is more rare for a superior to mix love and hate in his feeling for an inferior, since he must care for and fear the inferior enough to put forth the double emotional effort. But this powerful brand of hateful love, and not a selfless love, is precisely what the maids, devoid of any real power, crave receiving. Hence, they recreate it for themselves, giving them the illusion of power—Claire feels she is important enough for someone to have hateful love for her, while Solange gets to release her steaming emotions in ways she ordinarily cannot.
Complicating their identity shifts is the fact that the maids are also sisters, and share more in common than simply an occupation. Their inability to separate themselves from each other will develop as another of Genet's essential theme. While Solange cautions Claire as to the importance of boundaries and frontiers between themselves, they both have trouble applying this in practice. Claire confusedly mumbles both her name and Solange's, suggesting she mixes up the two, and Solange believes they are "merged" in their hatred of Madame. But this unity becomes more problematic even more by her physical demonstration. When Solange threatens Claire-the-Madame, she shows her the reflection of Solange and Claire- the-maid. Claire may be merged with Solange at the moment, but she is also merged with Madame. Although Solange proclaims them powerful and fearless, within their hatred of Madame lies a deeper self-hatred—they hate the image of the fake Madame in the mirror, but that fake Madame is one of them. Since they are sisters, the fake Madame truly is both of them. There is further evidence of the sisters' self-loathing, aside from Solange's masochistic need to receive the fake Madame's insults and Claire's contrary desire to escape from herself. Claire's frequent descriptions of Mario and the momentary use of her normal voice reveals they have some plan to get Solange impregnated by him, and she harbors some resentment that he has chosen her sister over her.