Why hast thou slain thine only daughter thus?
Not I; 'twas Chiron and Demetrius:
They ravish'd her, and cut away her tongue;
And they, 'twas they, that did her all this wrong.
Go fetch them hither to us presently.
Why, there they are both, baked in that pie;
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.
- Act V, Scene iii
The banquet table is spread with wooden plates and goblets, the actors in costumes of burlap over white t-shirts and tan pants, the pale colors of good behavior. Usually, this is the part of the play where the audience laughs—mute, handless Lavinia lies dead below the table, General Titus reveals that he has killed Empress Tamora’s sons and baked them into the pie she has just eaten. About here, the actors feign vomiting and the audience can’t help but chuckle at the carnage, the outrageously graphic violence of Shakespeare’s first tragedy, hard to depict seriously on a live stage.
We do not laugh. We have been through a metal detector and a mild search, sent one of our company to Wal-mart for long pants (no shorts in the Visitors’ Center), and watched this company, Shakespeare Behind Bars, play out Titus Andronicus on a bare stage with a trestle table and some folding chairs.
Titus killed his daughter to save her honor. After Tamora’s sons raped Lavinia, cut off her hands and cut out her tongue to stop her telling, she hasn’t been the same. It’s better this way. The actor playing Titus is fourteen years into two consecutive life sentences. Once a Pentecostal minister, he electrocuted his pregnant wife, throwing a hair dryer into the bathtub after losing his fight with “homosexual urges.” Death was better than tainting her with his sin. He spent the first ten years regretting he hadn’t finished, his own suicide forestalled by the arrival of the police, trouble with the gun, a neighbor’s intervention.
People really do that.
After today’s show, the prisoners’ acting company will play Titus three times in the yard, for the rest of the inmates. Luther Luckett Correctional Complex is a medium-security facility, which sounds benign but means twenty-to-life, an hour of exercise and an hour of program time once a week, studying lines alone in your cell until the weekly rehearsal. It’s a good-behavior prison. Every inmate must be in a program—studying for a high school diploma or weekly church or job-training or Alcoholics Anonymous or Shakespeare Behind Bars.
52 hours of rehearsal means one play a year. Last year, Portia in The Merchant of Venice turned down parole to finish the show. He said he didn’t have much out there, didn’t want to let the rest of the company down, wanted to perform after having practiced so long.
As was Shakespeare’s company, the actors are all men. I don’t know if Lavinia, a slight, dirty-blond twenty-something, is treated the way my mind assumes, but in the audience Q&A after the show, he confirms it was tough to be cast as a woman. Bassianus, Lavinia’s husband (thrown into a pit, Act II Scene iii), is asked by a reporter in the audience if his experience acting had changed anything in his life.
“Well,” he says from the stage, “Before I got into theater, and thinkin’ about characters, I never really thought to ask m’self how somebody else might feel. This’s really the first time I ever thought about how my victims suffered, how they mighta felt, put m’self in their shoes, and it’s changed a lotta my anger about bein’ in here.”
Our company, from the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, which sponsors the program and provides the director, scripts, and carefully-vetted costumes and props, returns for an acting workshop. We do scenes, they do monologues, we all comment on each others’ work, give notes, suggest blocking and ask questions about motivation and tactics. One of the actors, Aaron the Moor in Titus, hopes to be cast as Hamlet next year. He’s already working on the lines, and shows us:
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished...
And here, watching a man on a concrete floor in prison-issue pants, seeing the ballpoint pen he’s using as a dagger twist in his hands, the speech I’ve heard a hundred mediocre (and a few good) actors deliver suddenly becomes meaningful.
Is suicide really worse than what he’s living now?
And it’s a real question. It’s not philosophical. It’s not academic. It’s not pretty words on a pretty stage from a pretty mouth (by the time you’re old enough to understand Hamlet, you’re too old to play him, so the saying goes). It’s a guy, who did something horrible, horrible enough that the state has a compelling interest in keeping him away from other people, but not quite horrible enough to kill him in return. It’s a guy who, if he behaves well enough for another twenty years, might be able to live around other people again, and it might be useful to the state—and to us—if he’s developed the ability to think about how other people feel.
At the end of the workshop, Hamlet and Bassianus and Lavinia and the rest of the company hug our company, careful A-frames, respecting our personal space. We head, blinking, into the parking lot, there’s an hour’s drive back to Louisville before tonight’s Love’s Labours Lost, Shakespeare’s fluffiest comedy. We will not be cavity-searched before and after the performance. We will complain about the heat, the humidity, the mosquitoes. Or maybe, tonight, we won’t.
In the car, I ask the other actors, “How much is context? How much are we moved by their work and how much is it the circumstances that make the work important?” and in the end, we agree, if we saw him at a mass audition, we’d still be struck by Hamlet, we’d call him back.
whipchick's visits to Luther Luckett changed her views on rehabilitation for criminals. The prison's mission statement is here. You can read more about Shakespeare Behind Bars or about the cast members, including Hamlet (Sammie) and Titus (Hal).