Genet's Deathwatch in New York
Playwright's Importance Rests on His Difference From Decent People
Of the cast that gave Jean Genet's Deathwatch in Cambridge a year ago last spring, only Harold Scott '57 has been retained for the present, entirely new, New York production. Scott is better than he ever was, and this production is a good one. But the real importance of the occasion lies in that this play, which was introduced to America in Cambridge (kudos to John Eyre the introducer), exists on a stage again in all its striking significance.
Genet writes of prison life with an almost unique authenticity, not only as a criminal, but as a philosopher of criminality. Many writers have cried with Eartha Kitt, "I wanna be evil," and written accordingly; but Genet is evil. The Oscar Wilde of Salome, and perhaps the Tennessee Williams of Suddenly Last Summer, appear as if they might have wanted to be Genet when they grew up; compared to him they are only dilettantes of degradation. When they write of the most deep-going taint they can imagine, they are on the outside looking eagerly in, almost with their noses pressed against the glass. Genet is on the inside, looking around. His work has none of the orchidaceous exoticism common to that of those for whom evil is a hobby. For Genet it is life itself.
New Conception of the Soul
There may be a whole underworld that shares the moral assumptions of Genet and his characters (it is clear from biographical and internal evidence that Genet has lived his life in the moral and physical world that Deathwatch portrays), but if so they are inarticulate and he is their voice. Genet can give us a new conception of the capabilities of the human soul. He is utterly different from normal, decent people, and that is his importance.
It is also, in a sense, his defect as a dramatist. Since his audience can hardly sympathize with the most basic assumptions of his characters, the intensity of its reaction tends not to be proportional to the intensity of the emotions exposed onstage. For Deathwatch is really far out. Though such a dense, rich play does not easily lend itself to interpretive summary, it appears that Genet has attempted nothing less than a study of the metaphysics of evil.
In the cell-society that Deathwatch portrays, the leading position among the three isolated cellmates is held by the murderer Green Eyes. He can control the other two by physical force; and the vague but dense tissue of hints toward homosexual relationships which is woven in the dialogue, indicates that they are rivals for him. Much is made of the fact that the guard is his friend (strange, that these avowed criminals should value so highly the favor of the only non-criminal character in the play). This guard brings him cigarettes in token of amity from Snowball, a savage Negro convict, "the real boss of the prison. Snowball's a king." Green Eyes says of Snowball, "The whole prison's under his authority, but right under him is me."
Since Snowball and Green Eyes are under lock and key, it cannot be physical, but spiritual authority that they wield. This spiritual authority stems from their criminality: Green Eyes' cellmate Lefranc, trying to build up Snowball at the expense of Green Eyes, caps his description of Snowball with "... his crimes! Compared to them, those of Green Eyes..." And Green Eyes, unready yet to concede the supremacy of Snowball, answers, "I don't know anything about his crimes ...I've got my own."
Moral authority, even in Genet's inverted world, carries with it moral responsibility. Snowball and Green Eyes are like two inverted Christ-figures. Green-Eyes says, "Here in the cell I'm the one who bears the whole brunt. The brunt of what--I don't know. I'm illiterate. But I know I need a strong back. The way Snowball bears the same weight. But for the whole prison."
The most striking effect and evidence of Green Eyes' authority, and its source in criminality, is Lefranc's attempt to equal or supplant him by matching his crime. "You ... you're beginning to be radiant," says Lefranc. "I wanted to take your place ... your luminous place..." The climactic action of the play is Lefranc's attempt to become what Green Eyes is by murdering the third cellmate Maurice.
But though he executes his murder dexterously, Lefranc fails as he had to fail. He has not realized the significance of the word that Green Eyes uses for the source of his power: "misfortune." "Do you know what misfortune is?" says Green Eyes.
Don't you know that I kept hoping to avoid it? And you thought you could become, all by yourself, without the help of heaven, as great as me! Maybe over-shadow me? I didn't want anything--you hear me?--I didn't want what happened to me to happen. It was all given to me. A gift from God or the devil, but something I didn't want. And now, here we are with a corpse on our hands.
"I'm stronger than you. My misfortune comes from something deeper. It comes from myself," Lefranc retorts. But it is the last in a long series of his empty boasts. In the words of Maurice just before he is killed, "... Green Eyes is the one who's got to suffer... The one who's been chosen." Lefranc cannot choose himself. Deathwatch is a criminal scripture, preaching damnanation not by bad works but by Divine (or Satanic) Election.
Egotistical, Homosexual Tensions
But the play's prison-cell setting is not only the pulpit for the exposition of Genet's peculiar theology. Our emotional involvement with Deathwatch comes from regarding it as a play about three men locked together closely enough so that the personality of each has the maximum opportunity to work subtly upon the others; three men racked with egotistic and homosexual tensions, preying upon each other's nerves, and driving each other towards explosions of verbal and physical violence which culminate in murder.
It is by virtue of this psychological quality that Deathwatch is a drama and not a philosophic dialogue. Genet is a skillfull dramatist, and he is well served in the present production.
Theatre East (Sixtieth Street near Third Avenue) is a cramped basement whose very slightly claustrophobic atmosphere reinforces the mood of the play, which is given in three-sided arena style with the audience close upon it. The arena arrangement strengthens the claustrophobic feeling, and Jack Youngerman's stark set does nothing to dissipate it.
The performance that seethes across this cockpit diverges a good deal from Genet's expressed intentions. In the version of the play published by Grove Press (which I have had to use for my quotations, and which is slightly different from the version being used in this production), the dramatist lays down some directions.
"...as in a Dream"
The entire play unfolds as in a dream ... The movement of the actors should be either heavy or else extremely and incomprehensibly rapid, like flashes of lightning. If they can, the actors should deaden the timbre of their voices. Avoid clever lighting. As much light as possible."
But director Leo Garen had other plans. He has given us, as Stephen Aaron did in Cambridge, a vigorous, straightforward, realistic, Methodical performance. Genet is much interested in the nature and relationship of illusion and reality; his idea of a dream-Deathwatch probably has something to do with this hobby of his. It is a dangerous hobby, however, likely to lead an author into arid jiggery-pokery. Probably both directors were wise in refusing to sacrifice to it the excitement we derive from watching people act and suffer onstage, rather than dream-phantoms. A proudction directed along Genet's lines might easily be bloody dull, but since Genet is to a great extent liberated from our values, there is no telling what might come into his mind. Perhaps dullness was for some reason his intention. Well, Genet has all sorts of intentions with which the rest of us cannot be expected to sympathize.
Garen might, however, have paid some attention to certain specific directions that Genet has incorporated into the text. They indicate a rawer, more theatrical, gutsier approach than Garen has used--and gutsiness is needed in a play that depends on tension and violence for its effectiveness and for the conveyance of its meanings.
"I make a nice couple"
For example: though Green Eyes calls himself "alone," he has had a never-completely-defined relationship with a woman on the outside. He suggests that Maurice's fascination with him is "for her. Am I wrong? When you looked at me, it was just to find out how our bodies fit together." Maurice has said earlier to Green Eyes, "Just seeing her through you drives me almost nuts," and Green Eyes has answered, "I make a nice couple, eh?" Still earlier, Lefranc says sneeringly to Maurice of Green Eyes, "...I didn't talk about him as if he were a young bridge." It appears, then, that Green Eyes, though it is frequently said that he is "the man," somehow also is the woman--the woman whom Maurice, while vowing loyalty to Green Eyes, at one point volunteers to murder. This theme of Green Eye's woman, Green Eyes as woman, runs through the play--one of the paradoxes of which Genet is fond. It is dramatized, summarized, in one moment of action, where Green Eyes "opens his shirt brutally and reveals his torso to Maurice. On it is tattooed a woman's face." In Garen's production, instead of a brutal gesture there is only a discreet peek.
For the murder, Genet's directions read:
Green Eyes is perched on a basin and dominates the stage as Lefranc, smiling, bears down on Maurice, who in the presence of this radiant smile, also smiles ... He [Lefranc] blocks Maurice in a corner and strangles him. Maurice slides to the floor between Lefranc's spread legs.
In Garen's version, the murder had not enough of the strange excitement these directions indicate. Green Eyes did not dominate the stage, and one of Genet's characteristic enigmas was dodged instead of posed: why does Green Eyes countenance the murder of Maurice, when Maurice is his friend, and when he had already stopped at least one previous attempt of Lefranc to murder Maurice.
Perhaps these directions are not in the version of the play used in this production. But one of the functions of a director is, when an author disagrees with himself, to select his best thoughts.
But Garen's job is highly competent, if not brilliant profound, and the same can be said of three of his actors: George Maharis (Green Eyes), Vic Morrow (Lefranc), and Athan Karras (Guard). The fourth actor is Harold Scott '57, and his Maurice is brilliant or very near it. Even allowing for his substantial growth as an artist since he first played the part, his performance is evidence that the best Harvard acting is easily at home on the professional stage. Genet has endowed Maurice with a characteristic movement repeated several times: "Maurice flicks his head as if tossing back from his forehead an exasperating lock of hair." Scott's version of this movement lacks a certain pungency, lacks the sense that it is a summary of all that is annoying, feline, insidious about this "kid who slips through walls." But in every other respect he has tellingly underscored the quirks and idiosyncrasies that were already so well conceived and rendered in his performance in Cambridge.
His cellmates mutter and shout, struggle and writhe, and they carry conviction. (If Maharis and his director are unequal to the titanic movement of the "dance which shows Green Eyes trying to go backwards in time" to avoid having committed his crime, it is hard to think of any actor and director who would be capable of it.) But Scott, with his mobile, graceful body, his vaguely West Indian accent, his bland, venomous drawl, has combined his own imagination with Genet's, and made a new creation.
"...accent of the slums"
Perhaps the imaginations of actor and author are not perfectly harmonious. Genet has directed that his dialogue be pronounced "with the characteristic deformations that go with the accent of the slums." Perhaps he would prefer the Hoboken accents affected by Morrow and Maharis to the not incongruous, but certainly piquant and different, pronunciation that Scott employs. On the other hand, Hoboken English is ugly, as perhaps the accent of the French slums is not. Certainly the former seems unworthy of the vivid vigor of Genet's purple passages: "Snowball's a well-built guy. If you like, he's a Green Eyes with a smokescreen. Green Eyes covered with mud. Green Eyes in the dark..." That's not the way they talk in Hoboken. Genet, however, has no commitment to consistency, and the contrast between the beauty of his lines and the squalor of the accents in which it is spoken might be exactly what he was aiming at. Or it might not.
Like most every corridor we pursue into Genet's devious, intriguing mind, this one brings us up against a solid stone question mark. Every statement, perhaps, that can be made about Deathwatch can be convincingly refuted by following up a different train of hints. But then, J.-P. Sartre calls Genet a black magician, and it is no wonder we are unsure how his spells should be pronounced, or what spirits they are intended to call up. All that is certain is that the spell is most strangely and subtly effective