I suppose that if a person is an employee of a prison, what this post is about is just an unremarkable daily occurrence. But for me, this was one of several thought-provoking, self-testing experiences I had yesterday:
I locked myself into Pendleton.
When I arrived at the prison yesterday, I found out that my usual contact was away for some vacation time. Yet, I would be permitted to meet with the men in Shakespeare at Pendleton. … I just had to go ahead in.
I’ve been visiting prisons since 2007, so I’ve long since passed the time of being nervous about entering a prison. But, in all of these years, I’ve never entered a prison alone, unescorted from the front entrance. If you were to count the doorways from Pendleton’s front entrance to the room where I am meeting with the men, there are twelve. At every prison I’ve been in, including Pendleton, I’ve been escorted from no later than the second doorway. If you go from there, you will encounter inmates who are on various work details, basically minding their own business and doing their jobs. But I’ve never gone among them alone.
My first thought was, “Am I going to remember all of the details about where I am supposed to show my i.d. and when I’m supposed to push an entry buzzer?” Though the process is not very complicated, it is regimented, and I am not a person inclined to remember to show the infrared handstamp here and my i.d. there. As it turns out, I did remember what I am supposed to do, when, and where.
But the more interesting moment, for me, came when I entered the first of two cages–I go in through one iron-barred gate, close it, go out another, close it, and keep going on my way. I have always been with a prison official escort through all of this before. But now, I had to close the door on myself. I had to lock myself into the prison. Four times, at least.
I don’t really know what to call the emotion I felt yesterday when I had to do this. I wouldn’t call it fear. I wouldn’t call it extraordinary–at least because the same is done on a daily basis by many people. But every time I closed a door/gate, every time I heard the clang of its locking, I felt as if I was going deeper into something consequential. (I realize that this post may come across as bullcrap to anyone who does this every day. For the moment, I am talking about where I was emotionally and spiritually yesterday.) When that door closes, I cannot let myself out, and I am not with someone who can get “them” (whomever we want to identify “them” as) to let me out. If I get out, they let me out, but they’ve never let me out on my own before.
I don’t know what to call this. I have locked myself in, in, into a prison. At a point, at a moment of time, it was a deliberate choice to do so–I locked myself in. I did that. Somehow, for some reason, that felt like it made all of the difference in the world to me. It felt as if I’ve crossed … what words do I want for this? … into the place where we will be? into the community of men I’ve chosen to associate with? into all of our flawed and desperate beauty? into … myself?
If you had asked me what play we would work on first for Shakespeare at Pendleton, I could have expected Othello or The Merchant of Venice or Macbeth. However, today the men of Shakespeare at Pendleton settled upon doing … Coriolanus.
I doubt that most people know much about Coriolanus. It was Shakespeare’s last tragedy, written around 1608. Coriolanus had been a military hero, and for his service, the Romans are grateful. However, Coriolanus has terrible people skills. He treats the Romans with contempt, as if they were unworthy of his service. He is most driven by pride and anger. Eventually, in his intention to be true to himself, Coriolanus betrays Rome to their enemies, the people of Corioles. Those enemies, in turn, kill him. This play has many points of interest, including its portrayal Coriolanus’s family, which he loses when he goes to Rome’s enemies.
We will look at the first scene next week.
This past Friday was to have been the third session of Shakespeare at Pendleton. I got there on time. However, I’m not exactly sure of all of the details, but it seems that Pendleton was in some kind of administrative lockdown. In any case, there was “no inmate movement” that morning. I’ve already concluded that such days would occur, so though it is a bit of a bother to drive that distance at 7 on a Friday morning, the drive back gave me time to pray for the group, and each of the men involved. This gave me a chance to review mentally who the participants of the first two weeks have been.
Suppose a crime for a few moments: a police officer comes to arrest a friend of yours, and you take a machete take a swing at the officer’s head. You would very likely be shot, but if you survived the attempt, you would be looking at a long prison sentence.
So, what is happening here?
John 18: 10-11: 10 Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) 11 So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”
Matthew 26: 50-56: 50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do. Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. 51 And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” 55 At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. 56 But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled.
Luke 22: 49-52: 49 And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs?
Leave it to John to rat Peter out. And Luke gives the only version that says that Jesus heals Malchus’s ear.
Ask yourself a question: When Peter swung at Malchus’s head, what was he intending to do? I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say what is obvious: Peter was intending to kill Malchus. Unless a person reaches over, grabs another person’s ear, and starts cutting, a sword swing which catches an ear is aimed at the head. Peter has shown his incompetence with the sword, not a moderation of his intention.
Shakespeare has several characters who kill with the thought that they are doing the right thing, Brutus in Julius Caesar especially, and several of the underlings in Richard III as well. Something to think about.
Yesterday went well at Shakespeare at Pendleton, when we spent most of our time talking about our values and fears, and listening to several men engage with Portia’s “quality of mercy” monologue. It was a great session, helping us to get to know and understand each other more. When we next meet, we are planning to talk about stories, and from there, we’ll get into a play.
The conversation I have been meditating on was with a new member of the group who wanted to tell me his sentence, life plus 100 years. I have decided from the very beginning that I am never going to ask what an inmate did to be behind bars, but I’m also open to having one share his experience at the time of his own choosing. When that happens, I will be reserved about what I am willing to share. I want to focus on the present and the future, not on the details of a person’s tragedy. So I don’t know what this man did to get a sentence of life plus 100 years.
I have been searching the Internet for the legal meaning of “life plus 100 years.” The inmate said that he would be in prison for 100 more years after he dies, but he said this ironically.
In history, decades after the 14th century Bible translator John Wycliffe had died, Pope Martin V ordered his body to be exhumed and his bones burned as a heretic. Clearly, that pope had an idea of being able to influence Wycliffe’s afterlife.
The phrase “life plus 100 year” reflects a residue of belief in an afterlife, but without giving any sense of the practicality of how such a sentence can really be served. In essence, of course, this sentence is to life without parole. But like Wycliffe’s post-mortem condemnation, I see a sentence of “life plus 100 years” to be a secular expression of a cultural desire for hell. Our legal system, obliquely, shows that it still wants hell to exist.
Certainly, Shakespeare wrote in a time when hell was regarded as real. His contemporary Christopher Marlowe ends his most famous play with sending Doctor Faustus to hell. Shakespeare is more reserved about representing hell itself, but there’s little doubt where Macbeth’s and Richard III’s enemies think they are going after death.
Since I don’t know the man’s crime, I don’t know what I think would be an appropriate sentence. But I reject the Orwellian language of sentencing a person to life plus 100 years. That is a desire for hell, and Shakespeare at Pendleton is anti-hell.
The quality of mercy is not strain’d—
Yesterday, I met with twelve men in the Pendleton Correctional Facility. We all brought our wants and fears with us. One man anticipates the completion of his sentence and wants to spend his remaining months inside with something interesting to occupy his time. Another man had caught the enthusiasm of a friend of his who had participated in a Shakespeare program at another prison. His friend had said that working with Shakespeare had given him a reason to live, had, indeed, saved his life. Another inmate had with him a paperback copy of the complete works of Shakespeare, and he gave me a long list of the plays he has spent his personal time reading. Yet another has been trying his hand at writing plays, and as he put it, why not learn from the master of playwriting? One man identified prison as a cultural desert; he is joining us to fill a void of cultural value in his life. He too has read a lot of Shakespeare. And yet another inmate wants to know the answers to the Shakespeare clues on Jeopardy; he is interested in Hamlet as the story of a son avenging his father’s death.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes—
Thirteen men, thirteen mixtures of wants. I have never been an inmate in a prison, though I have been a prisoner, or, as the Bible puts it, a slave to my own angers, envies, lusts, and vanities, in my thoughts and manifested in my actions. One of the men fairly questioned my intentions for being there. Why am I starting Shakespeare at Pendleton? I have a variety of wants, and I would be lying if I said that my vanity doesn’t appear in my reasons somewhere. It’s nice to be appreciated or to be thought really intelligent. Especially on that last point—the desire to be thought really intelligent—I will have to be particularly vigilant: Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. (Or does knowledge blow up? … Explodes?)
But the men need mercy and want mercy, and I want mercy and need mercy, and Mercy blesses him that gives mercy, and Mercy blesses him that takes mercy. I could be entirely selfish, and entirely honest, if I were to say that I am doing Shakespeare at Pendleton for myself. But my self becomes a different self when I share in the need for mercy, and in the blessing of giving mercy, and in the blessing of receiving mercy, from the men society deems unworthy of any mercy whatsoever. “Society” may be right about them, but it could not be more wrong about itself. Because we are all, all, all of us, in “the place beneath.”
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest—
There is a counterpoint to what I’ve written above, and in the play itself upon which I’ve based this meditation. Portia, in The Merchant of Venice, is not just stating eternal verities; as one of the men pointed out, she is pretending to be a judge and she is testing a character who has believed himself to be a victim, and has indeed been a victim, as he seeks for legal revenge. It cannot be taken for granted that everyone wants mercy or wants it to the same degree or in the same kind. When we discussed Portia’s speech yesterday, the men began on this line with observing who the mightiest are—kings, presidents, prison wardens, and all those with social positions of power. But then another man noted that this line may also refer to people with personal might, and they show themselves to be mightier by not always showing all of their might in whatever they may be mightiest (physical strength, intelligence, popularity). This is a paradox—to be mightiest is not to be the mightiest. And it is so hard to be the mightiest the merciful way; every character in The Merchant of Venice fails to be the mightiest in trying to be that one.
Or, I’ll put it this way: whether “’tis mightiest in the mightiest” is true or a bunch of flowery hokum depends not upon the truth of the words but upon the truth of the person.
The throned monarch better than his crown—
After I began writing this meditation, I remembered that I ended the session yesterday with asking the men to freewrite anything they want to about the whole of Portia’s speech, translating it into their own English, meditating upon the passage itself, or anything else that they want to do. I only considered later that with this post, I am completing my own assignment.
Yesterday we had a great opening session, but my favorite time was when we were discussing these lines, “It becomes/ The throned monarch better than his crown.” The men first offered what I think is the usual interpretation of these lines: “Becomes,” here, has the sense we think of when we say that a woman is becoming or comely. Thus, the quality of mercy is more attractive for, more appropriate for, a throned monarch than his crown. A king is a better, more attractive, king for being merciful than for his possessions.
But then one of the inmates gave us all a lightbulb moment, an epiphany if you’d like: Suppose Mercy itself becomes the throned monarch. Mercy as king v. Crown as king.
I am delighted that most of the men picked up on what I think has been the usual interpretation of these lines; we are understanding Shakespeare. But we’ve transformed the passage too: Mercy becomes those of us who are becoming.
So this becomes my prayer for this week, that in my life, in my work at Huntington, in my time with the inmates, and in my church community, that I will become a person who is becoming. May we all become becoming.
In the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
Three weeks ago, Huntington University’s upcoming Forester Lecturer Dr. Laura Bates challenged me to consider starting a Shakespeare program at the Pendleton Correctional Facility. I had earlier asked her if she knew of any such program at Pendleton which I could partner with. The answer was no, but why shouldn’t I be the one to start it? I did not reply to that right away.
I have pondered this idea for several years now, and earlier this summer I told my friend Curt Tofteland, the founder of Shakespeare Behind Bars, that I would like to do a Shakespeare program at Pendleton when I retire. Of course, my retirement is likely to be 16 years from now. After Laura’s challenge to me, I prayed about it, and it became an idea I could not put aside. The weekend afterwards I spent at Mammoth Cave National Park, wearing my Shakespeare Behind Bars t-shirts and thinking as I walked the trails and went through the caves.
The following Monday, August 12, I began my fourth annual summer seminar with the men at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex. The men there are working on Much Ado about Nothing, my personal favorite play, and we had the best week together of all the times I’ve worked with them. (Several of the men said so as well.) On Tuesday of that week, I asked the men if they think I have what it would take to run a program similar to Shakespeare Behind Bars. They gave me the advice of approaching the program as an opportunity to learn from the inmates, and they affirmed that I should go for it. By the end of the week, with a lot of advice from Laura, Curt, and Matt Wallace (the current director of the Luckett program), I had written a letter to the officials at Pendleton, introducing myself and giving my experiences of what I have seen SBB do in Kentucky and Michigan. I sent the email on Monday the 19th.
I heard from the Pendleton officials on Wednesday. Yes, they are interested and would like to meet with me. With a little back and forth about schedules, we settled that I would visit Pendleton today. In the intervening week, I continued in communication with Laura, Matt, and Curt, preparing for what kinds of questions I should expect and what are the best ways to communicate what I would like to do at Pendleton. Last night, I put thinking about Pendleton aside for a few hours as I went to see the new movie version of Much Ado about Nothing for a second time. I found myself much more attentive to the way the movie told the story.
I left home at 6:50, getting to the city of Pendleton about 50 minutes too early, so I stopped for a coffee and reviewed all of the correspondence I’ve had for the past several weeks and settled upon my answers to the questions I was told to anticipate. A few minutes before 9, I was at the prison.
Pendleton is a maximum security prison near Indianapolis. Though I’ve been in prisons a number of times before, this was the most thorough security process I’ve ever gone through. But it did not put me off. I met with the officials, and they were both great guys to talk with, asking me exactly the kinds of questions I was advised to expect, and though to a degree I believe I was being tested, I also sensed very quickly that this meeting was going exceptionally well.
When the meeting concluded, I was given a tour of the prison, seeing an educational building mostly unused since some changes in the state’s penal policies. I saw a room I would love to use which it seems will be available. I saw the prison library and met an employee who loves the idea of adding Shakespeare materials to their collection. I saw the chapel building, which has a gymnasium converted for religious services. An inmate gospel choir was practicing.
Then my guide took a moment to introduce me to two inmates in the chapel office. I’ve forgotten one man’s name, but he told me about his high school experience performing in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. He was interested.
Now, in my Christian faith, I come from the Presbyterian and Reformed perspective, so I am usually reluctant to identify events or occasions as signs from God. Call this a sign from God or call it whatever you want, but the other inmate quoted a few lines from Romeo and then introduced himself as Samuel L Jackson. That really is his real name. He told me he’s interested too, ready to get started as soon as we can. When Samuel L Jackson tells you that he wants to be in your Shakespeare program, I’m going to pay attention to that.
(Aside: I will avoid using inmates’ real or full names. However, Mr. Jackson talks about his crime using his own name in a youtube video currently online.)
My guide, who will also be the prison supervisor overseeing this program, has also had theatre experience, having performed the role of Walter Lee in A Raisin in the Sun while in high school.
This morning was one of the most remarkable of my life. On my drive back, I wept a while, to think I have passed a challenged I’ve unknowingly been long preparing for. I sang the doxology. I prayed some more. I pulled into a rest area and sent text messages. And I am still amazed and overwhelmed by this day.
Let me tell you what’s ahead: I will begin thinking about the beginnings of this program. The Pendleton officials have suggested that I send them some videos of Shakespeare for their closed circuit television system as a lead-in to their announcing the program. I think I will send them the documentary about Shakespeare Behind Bars and an Al Pacino documentary about performing Richard III. On Saturday, October 5, I will attend a volunteer training program in Indianapolis, and Pendleton would like for me to begin on Friday morning, October 11. My group will begin open to 10 inmate participants. The plans for the group will be developed in consultation with the inmates.
I thank everyone for the prayers and support of this effort so far, and for all of our previous interactions with Shakespeare Behind Bars. I will continue my association with them going forward, visiting their inmates and supporting their programs. I will welcome all of your prayers, best wishes, and positive energy in the months ahead. I will be seeking advice and maybe directly asking for some help from some of you who will read this. I’ll conclude with expressing my deepest gratitude to Curt, Laura, and Matt, the Luckett and Brooks inmates, and you who have been with me on this journey from the beginning. And on with a new beginning with what we are going to call Shakespeare at Pendleton.
Last week, I attended the production of Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, KY. When I tell people about Shakespeare Behind Bars, the question they ask me most frequently is, “Are they any good?” The related questions are, “Can they put on a good show?” “Do they understand the plays?” “Do they know how to act?” The answer to all of these questions is yes. However, I want to recast these questions to two which I have rarely been asked: What is the audience experience of attending a Shakespeare Behind Bars production, and how does its productions compare to other productions I’ve seen?
I have seen a few hundred plays in the past 25 years, and nine plays so far in 2013. The shows I’ve attended have ranged from Royal Shakespeare and West End plays in England, numerous plays at the Stratford Festival in Canada, and professional theatre in Chicago to many community theatre productions in parks and churches and college and university productions. My experience with attending plays is probably atypical of most of the audience members who attend a SBB production, many of whom are there because they are the family and friends of the inmate actors. Other identifiable groups of the audience are prison staff members, social activists, sometimes a smattering of students who have previously taken a field trip to the prison, and a few academics like me and the two colleagues I attended with this year.
Attending a Shakespeare Behind Bars production begins with commitment. The Luther Luckett Correctional Complex limits the number of outside visitors to eighty per show for four shows. An interested person must request permission to attend no later than three weeks before the shows begin, and rather than buying a ticket, one must complete a form for a criminal background check. If more people request an opportunity to attend than the prison will accommodate, then the priority for attendance goes first to the inmates’ family members, then those who support SBB financially, and then others as space permits. The commitment requires attending a play on a week night (Monday – Thursday), arriving at the prison in the late afternoon, going through a security check, leaving your license and getting wrist-banded at the entrance, waiting up to 45 minutes in a visitors’ area before entering the chapel where the play is performed, and following the prison’s visitors dress code. There is also the commitment of getting to the prison itself. Relatives travel from hours away in Kentucky, my group traveled 4-5 hours to attend, and one inmate’s sister attended from as far away as Texas. Nothing about attending a SBB play is typical.
The performance occurs in the prison’s chapel, which has been used for the shows since the performance of The Winter’s Tale in 2010. This is a different space from the visitors’ room, which was used for performances before 2010, including for The Tempest in the Shakespeare Behind Bars documentary. The chairs have been arranged to face the front of the chapel, which can be a disadvantage to an audience member if a scene is played close to the floor. During the performance of Richard III, Richard uncovers and looks upon the corpse of the dead King Henry, all of this below the line of sight for anyone sitting beyond the second row. However, the switch to the chapel has seemed more suitable to the nature of Shakespeare Behind Bars’s work. The visitors’ room had seemed a space between the inmates and the audience, an area of intersection of our lives. In the chapel, we enter into the prison, into the area of the sacred in the inmates’ lives where the work of their souls is evident. The visitors’ room felt institutional. While the chapel is also institutional, its space is designed to be more accommodating to the encounter of players and audience.
The Shakespeare Behind Bars men have been at it for 18 years. This would have some of the men performing more Shakespeare than most professional actors not associated with one of the repertory Shakespeare festivals. Jerry “Big G” Guenthner performed Richard, Duke of Gloucester as if he had been left the world for him to bustle in. His bustling was even more impressive as he worked without his left arm and hand which were costumed into a sling. When Lady Anne (performed by Hal Cobb) spit in Richard’s face, he wiped his face and seemed to taste her spit. Then he removed the ring from his right hand with his mouth and placed it on Anne’s finger to win her over. Spit for spit, nothing would seem to stop Richard from getting anything he wanted.
Many Richards are most concerned for establishing their authority. Guenthner found more of the humor possible in the role, disarming the audience’s resistance to his villainy, not by winking and nodding at the audience, but by upping the outrageousness of his behavior. We are still startled with Buckingham when Richard tells him just to chop off Hastings’s head if he won’t go along with their plots. It turns macabre when Richard swings a bag with Hastings’s head around as if it were just happened to be holding while he was talking. Guenthner’s Richard knows that he operates like a villainous Falstaff.
For any particular play, a number of the SBB men may also be in their first or second productions. Last year, a colleague mentioned one performer, Christopher Lindauer, who did not seem to be in character in his scenes. This year, Lindauer played Queen Elizabeth, who has the job of winning a battle of wits with the wittier Richard. Elizabeth’s outrage gives her a quicker wit than Lady Anne, who really should have known better than to trust Richard earlier in the play. One of the joys of attending SBB productions over a number of years is the opportunity to see several men grow in their abilities as performers and take responsibility for their own actions. Lindauer’s Elizabeth recognized that what she does affected more than her daughter’s future, but the future of the country. His was a serious and fully engaged performance.
A Shakespeare Behind Bars production makes the best of the circumstances of its space. In the Shakespeare Behind Bars documentary, Ryan Graham observes that if he were playing Ariel on a professional stage, he would be attached to a wire and flown over the audience. The story presentation in Shakespeare Behind Bars productions is straightforward, not given to the idiosyncratic whimsy of the director, but to the connection to the inmates’ own lives.1 In 2010’s production of The Winter’s Tale, the appearance of the allegorized time in the second act gave the men an opportunity to engage the audience with the time that they have served behind bars. In Richard III, Tyrell, acted by Mario Mitchell, served as Richard’s designated assassin. Productions today typically have Tyrell be one of the unnamed murderers of Clarence and of Hastings, so when Tyrell spoke killing the princes—“The tyrannous and bloody deed is done. / The most arch of piteous massacre / That ever yet this land was guilty of”—Mitchell represented a simultaneous remorse and fear of discovery of his remorse by Richard, who in his misplaced contentment would reward Tyrell for the deeds Tyrell would regret. Moments such as this are the point of connection between the plays and these performers.
This year, the men performed before a photographic image of the Tower of London, so clear as to seem tactile to the audience. As we went to the chapel, we had to pass the segregated housing unit, often referred to as “the hole,” with windows as narrow as those we saw in the image of the tower. The plays operate in the space where the men live.
Shakespeare Behind Bars productions have some innate limitations based on where they are done. The inmates must wear their costumes over their prison khakis. It is no big deal that the women roles are played by men, as we know that Shakespeare’s women roles were originally play by males. However, an audience member may have to suspend some disbelief when a Portia needs a closer shave or a Juliet is in his late 30s. The level of talent does vary somewhat within the company. Occasionally a performer will slip out of his character or rush his speech too much. However, the men work hard to choose roles that enhance their personal growth and develop their acting abilities. They rehearse around two hundred hours per play. The totality of the shows has been equal to the best productions I’ve seen of college and community theatre productions. In 2014, those who can should make every effort to attend Shakespeare Behind Bars’s next production, Much Ado about Nothing.
1I can’t help thinking here of Robert Falls’s “daring” professional production of Measure for Measure at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, which, against any indication of the play text itself, ended with Barnardine killing the heroine Isabella. No such follies occur in a Shakespeare Behind Bars production.