Miguel Piñero Essay - Critical Essays

Piñero, Miguel

Piñero, Miguel 1947?–

Piñero, a Puerto Rican, based his play "Short Eyes" on his own experience in Sing Sing prison.

Pinero, as he himself admitted, was not a realist, but he is not a proficient artificialist either. His characters have no originality, no wit, and no comic consistency (as opposed to repetitiveness).

Perry Pontac, in Plays and Players, December, 1973, p. 57.

Pinero, for all the awkwardnesses of the script [of Short Eyes], hasn't come to this work out of a theory about theatre but out of his blood…. "Short Eyes" could do with subtler aesthetics, but it has a moral intelligence that makes its addicts, killers, and child rapists more than gratuitous shockers in another prison drama. Its intelligence tells us we can't simply watch.

Arthur Sainer, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), January 10, 1974, p. 55.

According to playwright Miguel Pinero, "Short Eyes" is the term prison inmates use for a sex offender. As it's also used in his play to refer to anything sexual—pornographic novels are called "short-eyes books"—I would guess the term comes from the proverbial narrowing of a man's gaze when he focuses on a sexual object. And that, indeed, is what the play "Short Eyes" is about. When a suspected child molester is placed among a group of prisoners, their disgust for his crime makes them classify him as sexual "stuff," and the possible rapist becomes the potential rapee, a fact which summons up a goodly number of interlocking ironies about the "solidarity" of prison inmates, their sexual Puritanism, the way their classifications of each other mirror and distort the society outside, and so on.

Although Pinero ultimately pushes the irony too far, in a "surprise" epilogue whose reversal recalls "The Caine Mutiny" switcheroo, it's precisely his capacity for perceiving the ironic components of the situation that gives "Short Eyes" shape and interest, and makes me believe that we have here a playwright, and not just an earnest excon who's put his little bit of prison truth into a sentimental plea for compassion in the theatre. Even his mistakes, which mostly center on the alleged sex offender and his position in the play's structure, are the mistakes of someone struggling to see the world whole and put it in the shape of art, instead of whining about what a rotten time he had in stir. So I recommend "Short Eyes" as a flawed but powerful play, and, if you're up for a message instead, the "scorching anger" and "searing indictment," etc., that are the locus of most of the newspaper excitement over the work, can be derived very easily from the program bios of the ex-prisoner-actors, where you may read the grim details of the social contract America makes its lower classes sign….

[The] message of the program notes, however, is only a starting point for the thought process behind "Short Eyes," and an ex-prisoner who can push himself that far up from the simple message on his first try is likely to have a few more plays to give us. And we may expect that on future outings he will be able to avoid the technical sandtrap into which the Epilogue of "Short Eyes" has thrown him.

That sandtrap is a real lesson in the way the structure of a play can overpower the "meaning" of the words spoken. In the first act of the play, the sex offender—a young white man who is Pinero's one awkwardly realized character—is left alone in the prison dayroom with the group's sympathetic sage, and pours out an elaborate confession about his compulsion for and sexual experiences with little girls. Later, when the others badger him about his tendencies, the confessor attempts to defend him, saying "he's a sick man, leave him alone." Still later, when the badgering has led to the molester's murder, the captain of the prison guard scourges the convicts with the news that their victim had not been identified by the child in the case and was arrested by mistake. But the confessor and the audience know better—or do they? At first I took this ending to be a final irony: the prisoners have done society a service by disposing of someone much worse than themselves, but if they admit to it their own sentences will be redoubled, because outside law takes no notice of prison law, even though its values in such cases are similar.

But the way the reversal is brought in discredits, as epilogues will, not the messenger who brings it, but his hearers. If Davis (the molester) was innocent, the prisoners have committed a crime against their own code as well as the law's. But then what is his confession—hysteria, psychopathic lying, desperation fantasy, a ploy to arouse sympathy? The flaccid, narrative-prosy writing of the confession (the weak spot in otherwise crisp and pungent dialogue), with lines like "weeks passed without a confrontation," only confuses the issue more—is it the character's fumbling prosiness, or the playwright's? The ambiguity very neatly turns the play's straightforwardness into confusion, and cuts off our empathy and understanding just where they should peak.

Still, Mr. Pinero has done well by the bulk of his play, and in a way that leads one to expect more and better work of him.

Michael Feingold, "Wide View from Narrowed Eyes," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), March 28, 1974, p. 68.

Short Eyes … is a prison play. Its author Miguel Piñero is a 27-year-old Puerto Rican who has served time in Sing Sing…. This background lends Short Eyes positive advantages as a documentary. It is impossible to deny the circumstantial truth of the presentation. We witness the behavior of a collection of men in the day room of one of the floors in a House of Detention, gathered there during the pretrial period….

The picture is one of people restricted by poverty, ignorance, disease and social corruption, through which one perceives traces of the originally healthy fiber. There are gleams of grim humor, of native imagination as well as viciousness. As information, all this is surely of moment, the matter from which we may learn much to which we ought to pay more attention than we have in the past. It is also stuff from which art may be made. But though it stirs our consciousness and thus is more than commendable, Short Eyes is not a "marvelous play," as one reviewer has called it. It does not sufficiently transcend its material to achieve wider human significance.

Harold Clurman, in The Nation, April 6, 1974, p. 445.

"Short Eyes" is an astonishing work, full of electrifying exuberance and instinctive theatricality. While it won't vie with Somerset Maugham or Terence Rattigan in an anthology of "well-made" plays, "Short Eyes" needs absolutely no apology—it isn't occupational therapy and it isn't a freak show; it's an authentic, powerful theatrical piece that tells you more about the anti-universe of prison life than any play outside the work of Jean Genet….

"Short Eyes" portrays the tragicomedy of people festering in prison like bread being baked in a malfunctioning oven. The young convicts—heisters, muggers, druggies, whatever—act out a violent and ironic parody of straight society, complete with its racism, its conflicting codes, its moralities that are hard to tell from corruptions. For the cons the supreme sin is to be a "short eyes"—a sexual molester of children. On this one point everyone—black, white, Puerto Rican, Muslim fanatic and tough Irish Catholic—all come together, and the short eyes gets the book thrown at him, from ostracism to the indignity of being dunked in the toilet to a final act of terrible "justice."

The brilliance of the play is to show these violent young men instinctively reaching for a balance of personal expression and communal structure. It isn't easy to show the paradox of destructive impulses that want to be creative ones, but "Short Eyes" does this better than most "straight" works, especially in a number of powerful and hilarious set pieces, stunningly performed.

Jack Kroll, "In the Oven," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1974; reprinted by permission), April 8, 1974, p. 81.

There's some temptation to hate yourself at a play like Short Eyes. Here is a drama cut right out of some urgent social troubles of our time, performed by people (for the most part) who know firsthand what they are talking about. And yet, within the framework of an art, it's defective—even a trifle boring. Occasionally you feel a twinge of conscience for not capitulating to it. But no. At the last, no: if it was worth doing in the theater, then the theater is worth something; and theatrically Short Eyes is flawed….

The writing of the play is schizoid. The banter, teasing, homosexual play and fights are pungent, vital. They give the impression of extemporizations that have been taped and preserved, according to a scenario, rather than of dialogue written and memorized. In clumsy contrast are such passages as Davis' long confessional narrative and the examination of the prisoners by an officer, which were written on a rusty typewriter….

One critic said that attention wanders at Short Eyes because the audience is busy testing out the characters' emotions in themselves. Odd how infrequently that sort of wandering occurs at Oedipus Rex. My attention wandered because I had faced these emotions, in these renderings, so often before—on TV, in the press, on film and in other plays. The hard, admittedly cold truth is that people who get in trouble and suffer, like people who fall in love, tend to think that because it affected them so drastically, it will automatically interest others. Once the facts are familiar—and Piñero's facts are by now very familiar—only the telling can be interesting. And Piñero hasn't much skill in telling.

There is a strong irony in his play, but I'm not convinced that he's aware of it. These prisoners very badly need some sort of superiority. The "short eyes" gives it to them, in a surge that floods across their racial and personal differences. But the inhumanity they then practice toward their "inferior" is simply an extension of the very inhumanity, the social cruelty, that put them here in the first place. So, fundamentally, they are their own persecutors.

Because this underlying truth is left muzzy, because Piñero relies so naively on facts that have by now lost their shock value, the viewer soon conquers his impatience with himself at not being overwhelmed by the play.

Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 The New Republic, Inc.), April 20, 1974, p. 20.