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← Prisoner of the MountainsCommon Themes in Faulkner, Hurston, and Walker's Short Stories →

Death Knocks

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The play is set somewhere in Kew Gardens in the two-storied house of Nat Ackerman, in his bedroom. The carpeting in the bedroom is wall-to-wall. There is a large vanity and a big bed. The room is curtained and decoratively furnished, and there are a number of paintings on the wall and an unattractive barometer. The curtain rises in accompanying of a soft music. Nat Ackermans, a bald and paunchy 57 year-old dress maker, is lying on the bed and reading the tomorrow’s Daily News. Nat is dressed in slippers and a bathrobe; he reads by a bed light, leaning to the bed’s white headboard. As it is about to clock midnight, we suddenly hear a noise, and Nat immediately looks at the window. Nat is perceived and self-confident Jewish man, who has applied the corporate side of his profession to enable him negotiate and bargain for the most desirable things in his life. Upon his meeting with Death, Nat finds it hard to determine the actual identity of Death. Nevertheless, instead of running away and shouting, Nat is trying to understand what is actually going on. He tries to ask Death for extra time, and later referring to Death as a “schlep”, hints the audience of his Jewish roots.

By having such a well thought-out living space and being interrupted by an unexpected, clumsy visitor, Allen signifies how Death regularly comes without notice, ruining everything that is already created in one’s life, and leaving no chance to change something. By having death “ascending clumsily through the window…huff noticeably and then trip on the window ledge and fall into the bedroom”, Allen is making the audience to feel fear and anxiety; however, the Death is presented as something that we can overcome and conquer.

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Conversation Nat and Deat

In the entire play, it is apparent that the conversation is controlled by Nat, fearless of displeasing Death. He says straight to Death’s face “I don’t want to go yet” and uses up the remaining bit of the dialogue, attempting to make Death allow him more time. During the whole long conversation, Nat becomes quite relaxed in talking to Death; he even ventures to criticize Death, saying “don’t mean to get you upset. I don’t know, I thought you would be…uh…taller.” Death conversely delivers the comedy notes into the play. In elucidating the cause of its unseemly entrance it stated that it was attempting to make a theatrical entrance. Death goes on and says “And what if you have visitors? I’m Death—I ought to ring the bell and trudge right in the entrance? Where’s your thinking?”The audience is not particularly informed that Nat is Jewish. A number of hints however are made, for example, when it is revealed that Nat Ackerman is his full name, that in Kew Gardens is where he lives, or when a suggestion is given of his acquaintance with Yiddish on a number of occasions. In the play’s closing words, when Nat retells his evening’s adventures to his friend Moe Lefkowitz, he denotes Death as a “schlep”. By engaging in such a lively dialogue with Death, it becomes apparent that Death is something that people should not be afraid of. In spite of Death’s attempts to demonstrate its power, Nat unceasingly demeans Death and its control over humans, and this is obvious from their talk regarding an extra time and snacks.

A common feature in Allen’s and Bergman’s versions of the play 

The main character dares to outwit Death and gets an apparently Pyrrhic victory. The way in which this is achieved by Nat mirrors, however, in a very remarkable way what Marx referred to as “practical Jewish spirit” in On the Jewish Question. Contrasting with the knight Antonius Block, in The Seventh Seal, who applies his confrontation with Death as a means of ascertaining his ricking doubt in God’s existence, Nat confirms that he is not ready to meet his death. Talking to Death, he asserts: “Now, wait a minute. I need time. I’m not ready to go.” Nat’s thinking is rational; however, he does not realize that his time has come. As he states with unassuming words: “You must be joking. I’m in impeccable health.”

Nat is not impressed with Death’s visit. Death comes into Nat’s apartment in an unseemly image, stumbling on the window ledge after, as he later tells, having spoiled the wastepipe he was ascending on, when one of his heels got ensnared by a vine. Furthermore, his obvious acquaintance and familiarity with Yiddish presents an element of collaboration between the central characters from the very start of their social contact. Without a doubt, Death has reminded Nat his friend Moe and also himself, as exemplified in the following conversation:

Nat: You look a little like me.

Death: Who should I look like? I’m your death.

Nat manages to involve Death into a game. They aback on a game of gin rummy after the Nat’s unlucky attempts to make Death engaged in a chess play, which Death turns down due to his inability to play. Nat says, “I one time saw a photo of you playing chess,” applying to the fresco by Albertus Pictor’s in the church of Täby, a Swedish town. Nat emerges the winner by a huge margin (150 against Death’s 68), and Death does not have enough change and is incapable of paying his debt. Nat accepts Death’s request to replay gracefully, hinting that his dreadful task will have to be kept on hold until he settles his debt.

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