Drama for Cannibals

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Jacek Malczewski, Hamlet Polski (1903)

Prisons and Shakespeare go hand in hand, but who's learning what when Hamlet is an inmate?

The organizations that put on Shakespeare plays in prisons claim the sort of distinctions that suggest they’re part of a crowded field. They’re either “the first-ever Shakespeare program in a solitary confinement unit” or “the oldest North American Shakespeare program contained within the walls of a medium security adult male prison performing exclusively the works of William Shakespeare.” There’s Shakespeare in Prison, The Shakespeare Prison Project, and Shakespeare Behind Bars. This American Life devoted a whole acoustic-guitar-scored episode to a prison production of Hamlet’s Act V. In Italy, Caesar Must Die, the newest film from Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, takes it a step further with a scripted movie about a performance of Julius Caesar with an all-convict cast acting under their own names. In the Times Literary Supplement Peter Stothard wondered which play in the English-Arabic collection at Guantánamo Bay is most popular. Where there are bars, there’s the Bard. What is it about Shakespeare that’s able to carve out this exceptional space in criminal justice?

The programs promise impressive, albeit abstract, results. One organization claims their program is “extremely effective in empowering inmates to think creatively, re-examine decisions they’ve made, get more in touch with their emotions, and develop life skills such as confidence in creative thinking and speaking in front of an audience.” Another is premised on the idea that “human beings are inherently good, and that although convicted criminals have committed heinous crimes against other human beings, this inherent goodness still lives deep within them and must be called forth.” Shakespeare’s plays enable a confrontation with our individual humanity, with existential choices, with honor and murder and revenge. Taking part in a performance is framed as rehabilitative practice rather than a humane way to pass time under inhumane conditions. There’s a pattern here, and the actors aren’t the only ones following a well-read script. If Shakespeare isn’t officially part of the American justice system, his work is at least an accessory to the crime.

All of these efforts to help Shakespeare speak to prisoners reach outside audiences in more or less the same form. An important step is to frame the production as an opportunity for the inmates, one which they always seize with enthusiasm and gratitude. Criminals without any other qualifiers — especially in maximum security, where a disproportionate number of the performance stories take place — are generally depicted as menacing orange crime machines. A convict who’s excited about Shakespeare, the audience imagines, might be worth rehabilitating. And just as important, the inmates have to be participating of their own free will because that’s the only way the redemption story works. America wants to see penitent self-improvers, not dancing marionettes.

But there’s a big difference between consent and compliance. In a heavily controlled environment like the prison, it’s hard to talk honestly about voluntary participation. After all, no one wants to be in a prison production of Shakespeare. The New York Times in their feature about a performance at Rikers and This American Life both mention that actors in productions they covered have previous experience, but there’s no analysis as to why Hollywood extra and felon might be overlapping categories. Of course there are actors in prison. The plays they choose are small-scale dramas suited to the security concerns of the hosting institutions. The tragedies aren’t ensemble numbers; they don’t have roles for anyone who might want to join, like a school play does. That authorities can fill an audition with people who prefer being in Hamlet in prison to just being in prison isn’t much evidence of anything except perhaps incarceration levels. Certainly not the indomitable human spirit.

The assumption that the redemption narrative belies is that prisoners are stupid, or rather that they possess uncultivated intellects. Shakespeare, as a traditional barometer of analytical ability, calls forth and translates the prisoner’s raw talent into recognizable skill. The director plays the role of teacher/coach who believes in the convicts’ worth and goodness when no one else will. And when prisoners do connect with the material — as they inevitably do; there are no stories of Shakespeare prison project failures — the outsider’s faith is vindicated.

Laura Bates, author of the memoir Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard, provides a good example of the formula. Though Bates didn’t direct Shakespeare, she taught him in a literature class in prisons in Chicago and Indiana. The lessons are much the same. In an excerpt published at The Huffington Post, she tells the story of Larry Newton, the maximum-security inmate whose salvation provides the title. At first Newton frightens Bates, but when he responds enthusiastically to her try-out essay prompt, she admits him to the class to watch with satisfaction as he becomes her star pupil. In a tragic final act, despite his accomplishments, Bates reveals that Newton will spend the rest of his life in prison. It’s a simple story, and it’s the one at the core of all these representations, but it’s also premised on the idea that NPR listeners understand what they want to hear from prisoners better than prisoners do.

When Bates says of Newton’s work, “Not bad for a fifth-grade drop-out,” she under-rates the capabilities of elementary schoolers. This isn’t to critique his analysis, but even an 11-year-old knows when they’re being given an answer in the form of a question. To screen participants, Bates gave them a soliloquy from Richard II that begins, “I have been studying how I may compare this prison where I live unto the world. And, for because the world is populous and here is not a creature but myself, I cannot do it.” She then poses the seemingly open-ended “What do you understand from the excerpt?” It’s a high-stakes test for a prisoner in solitary. Though there’s a range of acceptable answers implied, it’s clear what the instructor wants him to say. The prisoners have to fulfill their role in the story by identifying with the Shakespearean protagonist.

The syllogism goes like this: If Shakespeare speaks to universal humanity, and Shakespeare speaks to a prisoner, then the prisoner is human after all. The non-incarcerated can rest easier knowing bad guys get rehabilitated and punished. But this instruction isn’t just a performance for viewers at home, it is educational. What exactly do jailers want their captives to learn?

Wrestling with questions of choice and responsibility, of betrayal and remorse — in the official American curriculum this is called existential thought. But Hamlet, Lear, and Macbeth aren’t everymen. It isn’t simply enrichment to dress up a society’s captive marginalized as kings and princes and have them rehearse tragedy. Even if it’s more fashionable to do post-colonial readings of Shakespeare than write him off as emblematic of Western hegemony, the use of treacherous Nordic royals as exemplars of human interiority is suspect.

In a 1928 radio discussion, playwright Bertolt Brecht went off on this Shakespearean hero and his tragic narrative:

Shakespeare pushes the great individuals out of their human relationships (family, state) out onto the heath, into complete isolation, where he must pretend to be great in his decline … Future times will call this kind of drama a drama for cannibals and they'll say that the human being was eaten as Richard III, with pleasure at the beginning and with pity at the end, but he was always eaten up.

This dramatic arc doesn’t belong to humanity writ large. It belongs to a particular personality, born of very particular circumstances, and is generalized to whole populations because it’s convenient for an enriched few. When we talk about ideology and propaganda, we should suspect our contemporary media, but also our cultural touchstones. No one has a consciousness more archetypically false than a prisoner who believes he’s free. What did Larry Newton realize that so impressed Laura Bates? “I had control of my life. I could be anybody I wanted to be,” he writes for her.

At the heart of both the Shakespearean tragedy and the story the American justice system tells about itself is a bad choice. Prisoners, it’s nice to think, are people who have made mistakes and are facing the consequences. But this national bedtime story is contradicted on the front page of the paper every day. An alien observer looking at the US prison population would never guess its organizing principle is justice. Rather, the penal system is index and engine of social marginalization, with the groups who most frighten the people who run it — young black men, trans women — facing the highest incarceration rates. Adam Gopnik is right when he calls the American mass incarceration “a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850.” American prisons are central to defining and maintaining the host of unequal, intersecting relations that make up the national fabric, all while literally acting out tales of human universality in Early Modern English.

If the carceral system is the country’s fundamental fact, then its fundamental logic is that of cuffs, bars, and guns. No readings or performances are going to change that, but they can change the way we see it from the outside. Without a story about 2,266,800 bad choices, America is just a country that keeps its underclasses in cages. Shakespeare’s drama for cannibals lends a sense of noble inevitability to a prison system that’s not only historically and globally specific, but exceptional. It’s fitting theatre for a society that eats its own.

But solitary confinement within the Shakespearean character is not the only way to be alive. While held at the immigration detention center on Ellis Island, Trinidadian Marxist CLR James wrote a book on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and what he termed the “authoritarian personality” in the form of Ahab. He was not content to linger on this ill-fated type, whom he likens to a handful of Shakespearean dramatic protagonists. In Mariners, Renegades And Castaways James contrasts the captain with the ground to his figure: the crew. While Ahab is “either in a state of grim reserve, tragic gloom, or hopeless silence, overwhelmed by his isolation,” the anonymous crew is united by their virtuosic free association. Together they’re able to accomplish what is without hyperbole a superhuman task. Where other critics have read Melville’s descriptions of whaling as dull or even non-narrative, James sees in them the sublime harmony of unalienated human endeavor.

James emphasizes that Ahab’s crew would have been paid a share of the take rather than a salary.
They’re not übermenschen overcome by “problems which cannot be answered, but which the tortured personality in its misery must continue to ask;” they’re free laborers whose concerns are at hand.

The full importance of this comparison isn’t evident until the final chapter, when the book takes an autobiographical turn. In a very different story about prison education, James describes where he did his writing and his observations about his fellow detainees. He knows that to the warden and policymakers they’re “just a body of isolated individuals seeking charity,” but he sees more:

These men, taken as a whole, know the contemporary world and know it better than many world-famous foreign correspondents. They discuss among themselves their attitudes to the United States, their attitudes to World War III, to Russia, to totalitarianism, to democracy, to national independence … With a devastating simplicity they sum up regimes. I have heard a man say in five minutes all that needed to be said about one of the most controversial regimes in the world today. He ended, ‘I know. I have lived and worked there.’

It’s easier to guard a million Hamlets than a thousand prisoners like these. No wonder authorities would rather expose inmates to stories of individual agency from the dead and foreign than encourage them to form social analyses based on their common experiences. American culture as a whole has little use for narratives about the intelligence and sophistication of self-organized people acting in concert. When film studies professors need a good example of this phenomenon, they’re forced to reach for the Soviets. In a detention environment, this kind of thinking can be downright dangerous; everyone knows what prisoners do when they self-organize.

In the past month, two of America’s most prominent prison institutions have been rocked by hunger strikes with a discipline that could make any professional organizer in the country blush. In California, a demonstration across prisons compelled tens of thousands of inmates to refuse meals and work. At time of writing, three weeks in, 1000 prisoners continue to make the only choice they’re given, at enormous personal cost. And in the detention center at Guantánamo, hunger strikes have brought authorities to brutally force-feed detainees intravenously. Authorities move the leaders to increasingly isolated cells; if the prisoners can’t be trapped inside their own heads, then they’ll be caged in boxes not much larger. Any outside-pacifier who thinks they have something to teach these people about responsibility or consequences is grotesquely mistaken.

There is genius in every prison. Not just because, as Stephen Jay Gould has suggested, it’s a near statistical certainty that there are individuals with truly exceptional intellects languishing behind bars. Not because societies tend to lock up adventurous minds, or because we have seen evidence in the brilliance of convicts from Thomas Moore to Emma Goldman to Malcolm X. There is genius in every prison because there is genius wherever people, never alone, make a world for themselves. In the Shakespeare-in-prison stories, the inmates, like Richard III, are eaten “with pleasure at the beginning and with pity at the end,” but always eaten, and always alone. The Bard’s tragedies are solitary confinement for the mind. America would rather teach its prisoners that man is most human in isolation than learn from them that the opposite is true.