Literature

Deathwatch

Sundown Collaborative Theatre's production of Deathwatch

Jean Genet
Jean Genet
Jean Genet, December 19, 1910 – April 15, 1986, was a prominent and controversial French novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, and political activist. Early in his life he was a vagabond and petty criminal, but later took to writing. | Photo: Getty Images | Jean Genet, Theater, Play, Deathwatch, Performance,

Reading doesn't usually faze me.

In fact, as a former English major, I consider myself to be pretty good at it. I have tackled everything from the thickest Shakespeare, to political philosophy by Socrates and Aristotle, to Proust (written in French, no less) without a problem. So when a play written in plain, straightforward English leaves me wondering what the (insert expletive of choice here) hit me, there are two possibilities that come to mind. Three, actually:

  1. I am getting excessively stupid as I age (the least likely, I hope).
  2. I just read something so awful I can't make heads or tails of it (considering this playwright, not very likely either).
  3. This play, like certain others by the same author, takes a few readings before I actually get everything straight.

Jean Genet's play Deathwatch is brilliant. It takes a relatively run-of-the-mill situation and twists it into a nightmare. And by "nightmare" I do not mean the writing. Nor do I mean the idea of an ordinary day turned nightmarish. Genet, instead, has the unique talent of making me feel as though I'm dreaming while I'm reading this play: people and situations are twisted in ways that seem impossible, or at least very strange in the "real world;" but while reading it it makes perfect sense that these people would say these particular things and perform these particular actions at the times that they do. Until you finish the play, or put it down for a few minutes, and then you end up thinking, ". . . Heh?" and feel a little like your head has been stuffed with cotton. Just like when you wake up from an excessively strange and very lifelike dream.

Deathwatch centers around three prison inmates: Green Eyes, Maurice, and Lefranc. There is also a prison guard; and a mysterious gentleman named Snowball, who is mentioned several times but never appears. Even though Maurice and Lefranc are the more talkative of the three (they are also constantly at each other's throats, literally as well as metaphorically) it becomes clear over the course of the narrative that Green Eyes is the quietly powerful ringleader of the three. It also becomes obvious that the other two inmates who share his cell are more than jealous of him-- they want to be him; and by the end--Well, I have never been one for spoilers, but let's just say that by the end of the play there are only two out of the three left. The power struggles between these three men are more complex than you (at least, I) would have imagined for prison inmates--though perhaps it is because Genet's heightened language amps up the intensity of what his characters are doing.

I'm glad to have read Deathwatch. It's a phenomenal play, and I like that it affected me as it did (this is the point of art after all) but I don't necessarily enjoy being so strangely unsettled. My reaction is a testament to Genet's beautiful imagination and writing; but such plays are good to read once. Not twice.

Time to move on to lighter reading.

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:14 PM EDT | More details

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