I love King Lear. In a thunderstorm you suddenly understand how insignificant you are in the scheme of things, and then you’re all washed clean. When I was younger I used to like to walk up to the edge of a cliff in a storm, and I’d get a mad urge to jump over. We’ve all got a bit of madness, don’t you think? So now when I want to do that I get down and wriggle on my tummy so that the mad person won’t take over.
– Dorothy C.[i]
I first met Dorothy while helping to set up Mulawa Maximum Security Prison for Women for a performance of Macbeth by the Bell Shakespeare Company. This performance, in April 1997, was the first brought into the prison by a professional theatre company. While most of the inmates sat around in the sun drinking coffee and smoking in twos and threes, hardly looking up as the stage manager and I walked around, Dorothy was an intensely interested observer. She was very articulate and stood chatting about a performance of Ben Jonson’s Alchemist that she’d seen at the Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney a few months before. My face must have registered my surprise, because she looked at me wryly and said, ‘We weren’t born here, you know.’
In the teaching I did at Mulawa before and after the Bell performance, I was inexperienced and feeling my way. No-one cared too much about whether I came to take a class or not. I could not gauge the effectiveness of my work by the criteria to which university teachers are accustomed–student evaluation forms, enrolment numbers and the like. Progress was marked in ways that were often partial and temporary (and perhaps even imagined by myself); but in the sessions I ran in the weeks following the performance, some women wrote perceptive and revealing accounts of their responses. Pauline, a second-generation Italian woman, wrote:
I must congratulate John Bell…Even though it is hard sometimes to understand the language of that era, it was easy to identify with, especially using punk, as we are very familiar with that sort of scene. I’ve never associated myself with Shakespeare, not for any particular reason, mainly cause I probably couldn’t understand it…The actors [portrayed] each character with such immense feeling, especially Macbeth. I could feel what he was feeling as if I was Macbeth. And the violence was so close to home, it’s how things are back then and now. You know it was great seeing a bit of culture behind bars, we are so isolated from the outside world (I haven’t even heard of John Bell) that it made me homesick to the outside world. Being an addict you’re so involved in the vicious circle of drugs that your life becomes isolated [from] the rest of the world and what’s happening out there. I regret that I wasted so much time on something that is non-existent, that I stopped living. So Macbeth was something that gave me a taste of the real world, and John Bell gave me a taste of existence, I thank you very much…
Dramatherapists Louis Moffett and Lilliana Bruto have written about the therapeutic value of drama for substance abusers.[ii] Pauline’s account echoes their claim that ‘drama extends the moment, and for…people who forget the past and ignore the future, dramatic action connects present behaviour to its antecedents and consequences.’ Drama captures people through what Moffett and Bruto call ‘projected identifications’, which, when they prove ‘too distressing’, can be quickly disowned. More striking in Pauline’s response, however, is her sense of the connection between the controlled violence of the performance and the violence-past crimes, current infighting-underlying the superficial sleepiness of Mulawa. Much of this violence is focused on the relationship between inmates and ‘screws’, as was suggested in an account by nineteen-year-old Kylie:
I myself have only seen one theatre production, which was Penny Arcades’ Bitch Dyke Faghag Whore, and being able to see Macbeth was a new experience for me. I have never read Shakespeare before or seen any of his plays. It was both humanising and thoughtful of John Bell to visit the prison before the performance to give a run-down on the play…The usual communication in prison between people is set up as ‘I tell you therefore…I am’, a kind of penal measurement of one’s own length to God, if I dare say so. The women here were surprised and grateful for being accepted as people…
I enjoyed the performance. However, the[re were] interruptions, such as screws shaking their keys in exasperation at hearing Shakespeare’s use of language, screws tapping people on the shoulders and pulling them out of the audience throughout the performance with no finesse or consideration, and screws clearing their throats and pacing the ‘audience space’ staring at the audience who were trying to watch the play. I am told that this [the interruptions] is reminiscent of the old Globe theatre, so interruptions and crude noise throughout the play brought it authenticity.
I do believe that much of the interruption could have been avoided, unfortunately the system believes that we as prisoners are not worthy of seeing or experiencing culture.
The visit by the Bell Company to Mulawa had an enormous impact among the women in the short term. Newspaper articles covering the event were posted all over the education building. Those inmates who had made it into press photographs were particularly delighted. Mindful of the lengths to which many women prisoners say they will go to protect their children from the shame associated with incarceration, I wondered why these women were so pleased to have their photographs splashed over the national newspapers, a harbinger of more recent Mulawa enthusiasm for the ongoing television documentary Doin’ Time.
Framed in a ‘day in the life of’ format, Doin’ Time purports to offer insights into prison life and culture at Mulawa. Some of the women who watched the Bell production voiced their own wish to participate in performances, and the notion of Doin’ Time as performance, rather than simply documentary coverage, is suggestive. For the viewers at home, the documentary might gratify a prurient interest in, for instance, what kinds of toiletries are available in a women’s prison and what kinds of attention are devoted to personal grooming (and to what purpose), but this potentially prurient perspective can also work at a far more complex level for the women who are filmed. Positive exposure over which the inmates have some control might perhaps be seen as an empowering feature of the meeting-place between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ that is temporarily created by media interest in prisons. Notoriety in this context turns expenditure into investment, so that ‘lost’, shameful time is transformed into the symbolic capital generated by public-interest features.
Why did I choose Shakespeare’s plays as a vehicle for prison education? Besides the obvious–that Shakespeare is my research specialisation–I had been intrigued by the frequency with which accounts of drama therapy, for example, refer to Shakespeare. Excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays are frequently used for performance purposes in this context, while a therapist might use a Shakespeare play as a point of reference for self-reflexivity.[iii] I was especially moved by a volume of short extracts, Shakespeare comes to Broadmoor, which offers contributions by actors, patients and therapists involved in staging and watching performances at Broadmoor, an institution in England for criminally psychiatric inmates. I was interested in the descriptions of the motives and effects attributed to the inclusion of Shakespeare in forensic therapies. Alice Theilgaard, a therapist, notes the way that:
Shakespeare’s profound grasp of the human predicament is matched by his unequalled capacity to express what needs to be said. Thus the opening of virtually any theme of Shakespearean emphasis needs to draw attention to both the universality and the particularity of the topic under discussion.[iv]
Theilgaard implies that Shakepeare’s medicine can be applied to ‘the human predicament’ as if the one can be used clinically to treat the other. This view is reiterated by other observers, who refer to ‘the important timeless issues concerning human existence’ and to the ‘richness’ of Shakespeare’s characters, noting that ‘for patients who have been suffering from psychotic crises in the past, the frequent theme of mental illness in Shakespeare’s plays opens up paths for insights and understanding.’[v]
In Foucauldian terms it seems that Shakespeare is envisaged as a form of normalisation for these two kinds of social aberration, madness and crime. What do the therapists’ attitudes assume about Shakespeare’s plays, and about their instructive value for people in controlled facilities? On one hand, Shakespearean drama has proven in practice to be ‘liberating’ for people in psychiatric and criminal (and criminally psychiatric) protection. On the other hand, therapeutic practices raise concerns about the authority accorded to ‘Shakespeare’ and about the idea of imposing one more constraint on custodial procedures. Is there not some contradiction in using Shakespeare’s plays, an almost inevitable accessory of Western formal education, in helping inmates to bridge the gap between the behaviours that have led to their incarceration and the ‘norm’ of social culture that discourages most of us from engaging in these behaviours?
In response to my own interest in the teaching of Shakespeare in prisons, some of my academic friends asked whether the whole exercise of ‘dabbling’ in prison education was somewhat naive, something I could notch up in my teaching career without ever having to carry through a group of inmates for the long haul, and without having to face the reality that these were not students I would lead on a satisfying path from initiation to graduation. Prisoners are transferred to other facilities at very short notice or simply drop out of class, depending on the problems involved with their incarceration. Perhaps my introduction to this kind of education would privilege a sense of voyeurism over any result I could achieve. I couldn’t help thinking, however, that the alternative is to wallow with Hamlet in the hiatus of inaction, contemplating all the reasons not to try.
It was with reservations, then, that I first approached the prospect of teaching Shakespeare in prisons, beginning with my first detailed teaching experience in California in 1996. Over this and subsequent holiday research breaks, I conducted classes at the Federal Prison for Women and at San Quentin Prison in California. San Quentin is perhaps the most controlled locked facility I have been in, so that teaching there is a completely different experience from that at Mulawa where the women sit around casually and make coffee at will. At San Quentin, a cup of coffee is a rare and treasured thing. The Federal Prison for Women is somewhere in between, with a fairly formal education structure but located in airy buildings–not, like San Quentin, a fortress on the edge of the bay looking out over a grey and foggy sea.
It would be Pollyanna-ish at best for me, an occasional teacher in prisons, to claim authority about programs and pathologies, but what I can usefully recount is the kind of interest provoked by Shakespeare in these classes. As at Mulawa, performance, rather than text, has been the principal tool. Varying, often very poor, levels of literacy are one obvious reason for this, but equally important is the sense of occasion and immediacy conveyed by performance. Recalling Moffett and Bruto’s notion of the capacity of drama to ‘extend the moment’, the response of one woman to Hamlet was significant. Of the ‘To be or not to be’ speech she said:
I want to say something, and ladies, I don’t want to cop any trouble from you after [the class]. What you say about Hamlet makes me think in a way I haven’t thought before. Hamlet thinks so much that he’s stuck. But if I had thought about the crime that I committed before I did it, maybe I wouldn’t be sitting here now.
What prompts a moment of brief public self-revelation, and what is the effect of this moment? Barbara was clearly worried about its effect on the dynamics between herself and her fellows, but self-consciously wanted to say her piece anyway. Her response to this speech was echoed on another occasion by a man in San Quentin: ‘He’s wondering what’s out there–you know–up there, after this is all over. I wonder that myself sometimes.’
The issue of power overshadows teacher-student relationships in prisons. Power relations emerge in telling ways that might, in other contexts, seem innocuous or irreverent. On one visit to San Quentin I asked the inmates for input as to which play we would study. One suggested Romeo and Juliet, with a question: who would play Juliet? A joking come-on perhaps–‘Hey, how about I be Romeo and you be Juliet?’–but in another sense his question touched on the overwhelming issue of the power structures within which an inmate is framed. In a situation where men are disempowered by forensic procedures, they set up their own private domination rituals, marked in part by rape. In an all-male prison, then, just who will be Romeo and who will be Juliet is a resonant and chilling question. Within the multiple levels of control that frame him–the control of the prison, of the structures of coercion existing between himself and the other inmates, of the classroom situation, of a set Shakespeare script–his humour was perhaps a playful strike at some moment of empowerment.
Whenever I have taught in prisons, most of the inmates have taken my hand at the door. I’m intrigued by my own memories of this image. At one level it’s tempting to perceive it in sentimental, universalising terms: how comforting it is to imagine the distillation of a common humanity in the clasping of hands. But I do feel that real material differences in educational, familial, economic and social resources–the material differences that are largely responsible for them being in there while we are out here–cannot be resolved in the emblem of hands joined in mutual appreciation.
I don’t want to end this narrative with a neat resolution that makes confident conclusions about the value of Shakespeare’s plays as a teaching tool in prisons, especially as I acknowledge my own position not as a specialist in forensic situations but rather as a Shakespeare lecturer who has done some work in prisons. I am unsure of how ‘productive’ my sessions were, and, indeed, how best Shakespeare can be used to make a difference in the lives of inmates. Many of us, however, have been in situations where we have felt isolated, alienated or misunderstood, and do have a glimmer of what it is like for these people to wake up in the morning and know that others have decided that they deserve to be locked away. If Shakespeare’s plays contribute at all towards helping some inmates glimpse a new perspective on their predicament, inmates may have achieved some power over their own rehabilitation. As Dorothy said to me that day at Mulawa, ‘We weren’t born here, you know.’
[i] I have changed the names of inmates to whom I refer or whom I cite.
[ii] Louis A. Moffett and Lilliana Bruto, ‘Therapeutic theatre with personality-disordered substance abusers: Characters in search of different characters’ in The arts in psychotherapy, vol. 17.
[iii] For example, dramatherapist Robert J. Landy says in regard to broadening the range of dramatherapy: ‘It is time to play the version of Lear that remains after the raging, after the narcissistic indulgence in his own sense of victimization.’ (Robert J. Landy, ‘Three scenarios for the culture of drama therapy’, in The arts in psychotherapy, vol. 21, p. 183.)
[iv] Alice Theilgaard, ‘Performance and projective possibilities’, in Murray Cox (ed.), Shakespeare comes to Broadmoor: The actors are come hither: The performance of tragedy in a secure psychiatric hospital (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, 1992) p. 163.
[v] Bielanska, Cechnicki and Budzyna-Dawidowski, ‘Drama therapy as a means of rehabilitation for schizophrenic patients: Our impressions’, American journal of psychotherapy, vol. 45, no. 4, 1991.