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.