Critical Context

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Deathwatch was written in the mid-1940’s, probably during one of Jean Genet’s own stays in prison. Convicted repeatedly for thievery, he was pardoned in 1947 from a life sentence only after appeals flooded in from the greatest literary figures and intellectuals of the period. He had intimate knowledge of the petty lives of criminals in a criminal universe with a separate ethical system. In this criminal world, members were judged according to the consistency and genuineness of their behavior. At the same time, plays such as Deathwatch suggest the illusory nature of reality. These criminals may have created a different standard of measurement for themselves, but they have not succeeded in finding freedom, and they suffer from intense longing for an authentic inner self.

Genet is remarkable for his ability to revive and to advance the cliche of honor among thieves. For Genet, among criminals there is a code every bit as demanding and genuine as that espoused by the law-abiding. A great artist, he does not sentimentalize his subjects or suggest that criminals reveal a deeper truth about society. On the contrary, his criminals seem motivated by universal impulses: the desire to find a savior, to adhere to a principle of sacrifice, and to believe in a concept of individuality even while succumbing to the most degrading, conformist behavior.

There is also the quest to believe that the hero’s own actions speak for larger...

(The entire section is 480 words.)