The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Deathwatch opens in a prison cell, where Green Eyes has just separated Maurice and Lefranc, who have been fighting for his attention. They both idolize Green Eyes, the supreme criminal hero, who has been convicted of murdering a prostitute and is awaiting his execution. The enormity of his crime and his coolness of temper create a mystique they crave for themselves. Maurice treats Green Eyes almost as a figure of religious awe and is deeply angered by Lefranc’s suggestion that Snowball, a black criminal, is actually superior. In fact, the play turns on how these two young men perceive Green Eyes: Is he their champion, a pure example of the criminal mind, or no more than a petty convict like themselves?

Lefranc has identified a vulnerability in Green Eyes: He is illiterate and cannot express himself in writing. Lefranc has been writing letters to Green Eyes’ girl for Green Eyes, but he has evidently used words and phrases that declare his own feelings. Green Eyes, however, is hardly damaged by his inability to control what Lefranc says, because he has decided to break off with his girl—indeed, to give her to one of the boys or to the Guard who comes to announce her arrival. His utter aloofness from what would be normal jealousy or suspicion restores some of his godlike stature, especially when he proposes that one of his acolytes murder her. Which of them will do his bidding and prove his faithfulness?

However, Green Eyes himself...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

At least as effective as the language of the play is the setting. In a succinct description, Jean Genet indicates that the prison cell should be part of a complex structure, at the rear of which is a “barred transom” with spikes that turn inward. The scene is like the minds that inhabit it, sharply pointed, self-torturing, and barred from contact with any world outside it.

Unless it is kept in mind that the “entire play unfolds as in a dream,” the dialogue will seem somewhat disjointed and unrealistic as it seesaws between favorable and unfavorable views of Green Eyes. More than one critic has suggested that Genet hit upon the dramatic device of employing three characters to reveal the interior of a divided mind. The cool, commanding Green Eyes, the adoring Maurice, and the rebellious Lefranc can be read as the conflicting tendencies of a single personality. What all three characters have in common is the search for some authority, or some interpretation of existence, by which they can lead their lives.

The playwright dresses his characters in “violent colors . . . whites and hard blacks,” and suggests that their movements can be “either heavy or else extreme and incomprehensibly rapid, like flashes of lightning.” This last stage direction implies that the actors bear responsibility for creating alternating extremes of action that are like the alternating extremes of existence itself: acceptance and rejection, illogical polar opposites that are mysteriously linked in dreams if not in everyday waking reality. A prison, after all, is its own special world, Genet implies, and it can be peculiarly effective in demonstrating the obsessive behavior of human beings.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Brooks, Peter, and Joseph Halpern, eds. Genet: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979.

Cetta, Lewis T. Profane Play, Ritual, and Jean Genet: A Study of His Drama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1974.

Coe, Richard N. The Vision of Jean Genet. New York: Grove Press, 1968.

Driver, Tom F. Jean Genet. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.

Knapp, Bettina L. Jean Genet. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

McMahon, Joseph H. The Imagination of Jean Genet. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963.

Plunka, Gene A. The Rites of Passage of Jean Genet: The Art and Aesthetics of Risk Taking. Teaneck, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr. Translated by Bernard Frechtman. London: Heinemann, 1988.

Thody, Philip. Jean Genet: A Study of His Novels and Plays. New York: Stein and Day, 1968.

White, Edmund. Genet: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1994.