With its claustrophobic atmosphere, Short Eyes emphasizes a theme of inside versus outside: Inmates come and go only by the power of others, and their attempts to create structure and power systems strangely mirror those of the outer world. The repetitive use of “on the gate” drives the point home: Each man is isolated and must make community from the unsavory characters around him. Such a confined state forces alliances, as it threatens characters’ sense of ownership and identity.
Establishing a stance or an alliance becomes paramount to survival, both literally and psychologically. Each character must navigate and interact across ethnic and racial boundaries, and each must assert an identity to survive the horror and violence of prison life. The audience witnesses the inmates devolve from the friendly, if often violent, gathering of the play’s opening to participants in the violent assault on Davis at the end of act 2. The counsel that meets to decide Davis’s fate also points to the inmates’ need to form structures and hierarchies that mirror the outside and are as ineffective as the system that contains them.
Davis’s entrance and his crime—the lowest crime in the inmates’ eyes—stand as the catalyst of the play. His detailed confession to Juan suggests a need for connection to another human being, even if such a connection may be dangerous. Although Juan rejects Davis and does not condone his aberrant sexual crime, he does recognize Davis’s humanity and thus pleads for his life and then absents himself from Davis’s murder. Juan thus stands as a kind of moral center, a man who chooses an alternative to violence despite the violence he himself has experienced.
Only the narrowest reading would label this play solely a “prison play,” as the literal setting merely highlights the dangerous, shifting, and confusing human relationships encountered by everyone daily. However, Miguel Piñero uses this setting well to invert racial power and to give voice to the multiple racial identities the world so often smooths over. Longshoe, the tough Irish white man, is alone to negotiate with Hispanics and African Americans on an equal footing, and each man represents not an entire race but an individual struggling to create a self within that race.