Transcript

218:

Act V
Transcript

Originally aired 08.09.2002

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/218

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. OK. Here's something that we did not expect. Check this out. This was recorded on a stage in Brooklyn, St. Francis College.

Male Actor 1

To be or not to be, that is the question.

Ira Glass

Same month in Hawaii, on the island of Oahu.

Male Actor 2

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.

Ira Glass

Same month, a professional company in Boston, Massachusetts at the Public Theater.

Male Actor 3

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.

Ira Glass

In Colorado at Camp Shakespeare. You can actually hear the sneakers of the teenaged Hamlet squeaking.

Male Actor 4

Why do you go about to recover the wind of me?

Female Actor 1

Oh, my lord. If my duty be too bold--

Ira Glass

And at the Bay Area Shakespeare Camp presented by the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, the kids put on a production they have concocted that is made up entirely of death scenes from different Shakespeare plays. Death scenes because kids love death scenes.

Female Actor 2

No, no, the drink, the drink. Oh, my dear Hamlet, the drink, the drink, I am poisoned. [WRETCHING]

Ira Glass

Eight-year-old Marissa Graham grabs her throat like a cat in a violent cartoon. Everyone in the production is eight, except for Polonius, who's six.

Female Actor 3

The rest is silent.

[APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

There's actually no way to tell how many productions of Hamlet are up in any given month. In summer 2002, when we first broadcast today's show and we made these recordings, the American theater website listed 12 theaters during Shakespeare's Hamlet, 11 productions of the play, I Hate Hamlet, one production of something called Hamlet Dreams, and one theater doing the dreadful and feared, Hamlet Machine.

Of course, Hamlet itself is kind of a weird play. The central character is in a situation that very few of us are ever going to find ourselves in. His uncle killed his father and then married his mother in order to become the king. The play is four hours long. The main conflict of the play is a guy debating in long, complicated monologues, whether or not he should kill somebody. What is there in that for most of us to relate to? Unless, of course, we happen to be murderers. And what would the play be like if it were actually performed by murderers and other violent criminals? What would they see that the rest of us do not? Well, today on our program we answer that question. And the answer is, a lot.

Over the course of six months, reporter Jack Hitt visited prisoners at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center-- it is a high security prison-- from their first rehearsal to their last performance of Act Five of Shakespeare's Hamlet. We're devoting our entire program today to the drama that he found there. Our program today, "Act Five." We bring you what we believe is one of the most evocative productions of Shakespeare done anywhere in 2002, one that you would have had a hard time getting tickets to. It is only performed in prison. Here's Jack Hitt.

Jack Hitt

The first thing they hand me when I pass through the thick iron doors is a tiny black box called a screamer. Pull the cord attached and a phalanx of armed guards will sweep from all points of the prison and try to rescue me. I keep it in my pocket as I enter a huge yard with more than 1,000 prisoners wandering around. Some of the guys are playing handball against walls. Some are lifting weights as I walk across. Most are friendly. A couple of the skinheads, their arms dense with spider tattoos, narrow their eyes as I pass.

Across the yard there's a big building. A long corridor leads to a door marked, education annex. Inside, there's room D-168 where a small, white-haired woman, Agnes Wilcox, is holding auditions for Hamlet.

Agnes Wilcox

Let me see. If you're not Hamlet, Horatio, Laertes, Claudius or Fortinbras, would you write down roles that interest you? Those roles are Clown One and Two, we've got Osric--

Jack Hitt

Dressed in loose prison uniforms, the actors sit around tables in this cinderblock classroom beneath inspirational slogans-- "Believe in yourself," "Think positively." The aspiring cast is half black, half white, and ranges from young life-ers in their 20s to old-timers in their 50s. Because it's against the rules to congregate an audience of felons for the four hours it would take to perform the whole play, Agnes has staged one act every six months starting in December, 1999. Tonight is the first read-through for Act Five, the final bloody climax. Many of the inmates here never finished high school. And all they had known of Shakespeare was the phrase, "To be or not to be." Tonight they are hearing some of the other famous speaches for the first time.

Danny As The Gravedigger

A pestilence on him for a mad rouge--

Agnes Wilcox

Rogue.

Danny As The Gravedigger

Rogue. He poured a flax--

Agnes Wilcox

Flagon--

Danny As The Gravedigger

A flagon of--

Agnes Wilcox

Rhenish.

Danny As The Gravedigger

--Rhenish on my head once. The same skull, sir, was sure Yorick's skull, the King's jester.

Inmate As Hamlet

Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio. A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy--

Jack Hitt

Most read-throughs with any cast are terrible. This one is terrible too. The actors know it. But they plow on through the script. An inmate named Paul, who serves as Agnes' Assistant Director, explains why.

Paul

The first two or three acts I thought, oh no, there's no way. There's no way we're going to get this thing down and go and do a live performance and-- do a soliloquy two pages long? I said there's-- no, no, this is impossible. But we're learning here, I guess from performing it and hearing it done time again, was it'll be OK. It'll work out.

Jack Hitt

The local critics agreed with Paul. The Act Four performance earned a review in the St. Louis paper. The actors were said to be commanding and compelling. "With the entire performance," the reviewer wrote, "A 400-year-old text is restored to freshness." It seemed hard to imagine.

I've seen Hamlet a dozen times. I've seen Kevin Kline do it at the Public Theater. I saw the famous Diane Venora version three nights in a row. I even saw Ingmar Bergman's production done in Brooklyn, performed entirely in Swedish. What else was there to learn from watching another Hamlet? But the truth is, this production was different because this is a play about a man pondering a violent crime and its consequences, performed by violent criminals living out those consequences. After hanging out with this group of convicted actors for six months, I did discover something, I didn't know anything about Hamlet.

Remember how it starts. Hamlet sees his father's ghost who explains he was murdered by Claudius, Hamlet's uncle. The ghost commands Hamlet to avenge his death by killing Claudius. The play is basically Hamlet pondering this single, horrific action and whether he can be the man to do it. To be or not to be.

These days, when people say the name, Hamlet, it's usually just a metaphor, shorthand for somebody who is afraid to act, who dithers and thinks too much. We almost forget just what action Hamlet was contemplating. These actors haven't forgotten.

My name is Manuel Johnson and I'm 36 years old. I'm here for two first degree assaults. I play Hamlet.

Jack Hitt

When you're onstage doing Hamlet, what do you draw upon in your own experience to make the character come to life?

The idea of wanting to hurt someone. I have experienced hurting someone to the point of their life may be in danger. I was a very confused and angry person. And it escalated to me shooting two people and leaving them for dead.

Chris Harris

My name is Chris Harris. I'm 38 years old. And I play the fourth character of Hamlet.

Jack Hitt

Let me explain something. The character of Hamlet is played by four people. They're all on stage at the same time, taking turns delivering the lines. Agnes did this partly to give more actors speaking roles and not saddle any one man with all that dialogue. But as theater, it works. Hamlet's role is full of long soliloquies and rhetorical asides. This small gang of Hamlets which mutters to itself and laughs at its own jokes nicely captures that fractured quality of Hamlet's different personalities. And it's also bonded the four actors together. They call themselves the Hamlets and constantly talk about their character. To Chris, it seems like Hamlet is just the fifth guy in their odd clique, another criminal with a complicated past.

Chris Harris

Let me put it in terms of the year 2000. So what we have is an upper middle class youngster-- 19, 20 years old-- who comes from a well-to-do family. They own quite a bit of land. The people in the small town respect him and love him. And his uncle murdered his father and is now married to his mother. So all kinds of serious issues there. All kinds.

Jack Hitt

Chris and the Hamlets practice alone most days. Finding time when the four can just get together by themselves is tough when there's always a thousand inmates around. So they do it where they can.

Chris Harris

On every Sunday after the noon meal, the four of us will assemble. We'll have our little gray Hamlet books and we'll proceed down to the track. And if you are simply walking by, what you'd probably hear is-- you'd hear this chatter of somebody giving their lines clearly, the rest of us with our heads down in the books walking the line. Now, there are people, because there are benches that are all throughout the inside of the track. So there are people that actually watch us. So you'll hear this old, English style speech. You know, "Ho, Horatio," and these people are like, ho, what?

Jack Hitt

One of the problems of doing any play in prison is that being a good actor is the exact emotional opposite of what it takes to be a successful inmate. Rather than close off all feeling and look tough, you have to open your vulnerable self up and withstand often cruel laughter as you try to find some authentic emotion within you. In this way, a level four, high-security prison is no different from high school. And so, most of the inmates who audition for Agnes tend to be, actor-y people. The theater types of prison.

Back in 1999, they just had to put up with abuse from the bigger, meaner inmates. But that changed. In fact, a lot changed after Agnes cast the role of Hamlet's best friend.

Big Hutch

My name is Derek "Big Hutch" Hutchinson. I play Horatio, the scholar.

Jack Hitt

You might be surprised to learn that Derek "Big Hutch" Hutchinson is big. He has a smooth, bald skull and hooded, threatening eyes, the kind of guy that if you met him you might think, he's probably serving 120 years for armed robberies. And that would be correct. Hutch isn't like the rest of the cast. And he's the first person to tell you.

Big Hutch

In prison, you got this hierarchy system. Listen, let's compare it to the ocean. You got the minnows and you got the killer whale. Minnows being the lowest, killer whale the highest.

Jack Hitt

So, which are you, Big Hutch?

Big Hutch

I'm the blue whale. That means I control the killer whales and I can eat up the minnows if I want. And I mean, that's how it is. Most of the guys in Hamlet, they're minnows. I mean, I don't normally would associate with them.

Tim

Well, as he puts it, the killer whale versus the guppies. We're all guppies and he's the killer whale.

Jack Hitt

That's Tim who plays Osric. And as a minnow, slash guppy, his take is a little different.

Timothy Lance

In dealing with an individual like a killer whale, a lot of it's-- even for him it's a lot of show. The guys see him out on the yard, all right. And now, some of the guys that have come into Hamlet see him how he is in acting and the seriousness that he takes. He's not what his persona is.

Jack Hitt

In other words, he's an actor. But Big Hutch is also a critic. His criticism is sharp and extends to places most actors avoid, his own character, Horatio.

Big Hutch

I think he's a chump, for real.

Jack Hitt

Really, why?

Big Hutch

Yeah, I think he's a chump. I mean, he's supposed to be cool with Hamlet and they're best friends. But I think Horatio is just somebody-- a sounding board for Hamlet. I mean, the majority of his lines are "Aye, m'lord." "Yes, m'lord." I mean, if we're friends, we're going to communicate better than that. I mean, you're going to tell me your deepest secrets. I want to know what you and Ophelia did last night.

I believe he should have been a little bit-- show me that I'm truly Hamlet's friend. Don't wait 'til I get to the end of Act Five and I'm getting ready to drink a cup of poison and you stop me. You know, let me know down the line, man, that I'm really your friend.

Jack Hitt

Have you ever heard anybody talk about Shakespeare's characters this way? Hutch was always doing this, talking tough, but then betraying a real gift for literary criticism, call it his inner minnow. In fact, he pointed out a weakness in the structure of the story I'd never heard before in all my experience with the play, that Hamlet's dilemma over killing Claudius isn't really much of a dilemma.

Big Hutch

I don't see the conflict. I don't see what Hamlet is dealing with, man. Aw, I should kill the king now. I shouldn't kill him now. No, you knew once your father said revenge him, you knew you were going to do this. So what's the hullaballoo about? Do it. I mean, that's the same way. I couldn't see somebody raping my daughter or something and just sitting around. No, no, no, no, no. I got to do you, man. And that's just, [SMACKING SOUND], you done. That's why I think Hamlet's an old minnow too.

Jack Hitt

Are there no reasons to delay taking swift action? Even if you're convinced that you've been wronged? I mean, that's why he stages the play within the play, right? To make sure that Claudius is the bad guy.

Big Hutch

See, that's where we have to go back. Now, if I'm strong enough to believe in ghosts, then I'm strong enough to believe what that ghost tells me. If I'm strong enough to believe you're a ghost, then I'm sure you know what happened to you.

Jack Hitt

Once Hutch got on this riff he kept going. "Denmark's a prison," Hamlet tells Rosencrantz in Act Two. And Hutch says you could do a version of the play that takes this central metaphor literally. All the characters in the play are types he sees in the yard every day. The Claudiuses, who'll do anything for the emblems of power-- money, drugs, high-end tennis shoes, Poloniuses who kiss up to the powerful, Rosencrantz and Guildensterns-- rats, he called them-- spies who run to the administration with information. And in Hutch's version, he solves the play's structural problem, fabricating a true dilemma for Hamlet by giving him good reasons to kill Claudius and not to kill him.

Big Hutch

Just the way it would happen. Claudius killed this guy here because the guy had the biggest dope business in prison or something. Gertrude will be some sissy. You find them everywhere in prison. But the guy they kill will be Hamlet's brother. So now, being in the prison world, he must defend that honor. But he's got a girl talking about, you only got five years. You did your two. Do one more, they're going to parole you. Come on home because I love you and bum, bum, bum, bum, bum. He has another brother in business out there that he can get with to help raise his status. So he has all these things to look forward to on the street. But if he let's that killing go, he's going to have the roughest three years of his entire life. He'll be the piss pot of the institution.

So he has this dilemma. Would he be strong enough to survive it and get out there? Hutch wouldn't. I ain't going to lie.

Agnes Wilcox

OK, places please for the top of Act One.

Jack Hitt

Two months after my visit with Hutch at the first read-through, I was cleared once again into the old classroom. The actors tell me they've been practicing their lines wherever they can, often shouting them from cell to cell. Agnes has also had local professors come in and lecture. She assigns the cast essays to write about their characters. And the Hamlets have been walking the track, memorizing their lines, as has Danny the gravedigger. This rehearsal, they are already tinkering with tempo and intonation. That first read-through seems like eons ago.

Danny The Gravedigger

He poured a flagon of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull, sir, was, sir, Yorick's skull, the king's jester.

Inmate As Hamlet 1

This?

Danny The Gravedigger

Even that.

Inmate As Hamlet 1

Alas, poor Yorick. I know him, Horatio.

Inmate As Hamlet 2

He hath borne me on his back a thousand times.

Inmate As Hamlet 1

And how abhorred in my imagination it is. My gorge rises at it.

Jack Hitt

A lot of what you see looks like any rehearsal. Agnes is taking notes. A couple of guys are reading to themselves. And the occasional line reading devolves into laughter.

Inmate Actor

I will fight with him upon the-- this thing--

Agnes Wilcox

Stop please.

Jack Hitt

The scene that's really slaying everyone tonight is the first appearance of Osric, the king's toadying courtier.

Timothy Lance As Osric

Sweet Lord, if your lordship were at leisure, I should impart a thing to you from his majesty.

Agnes Wilcox

No, just talk to Paul.

Timothy Lance

Just talk to Paul.

Agnes Wilcox

Come on, let's stay in the scene.

Timothy Lance

My name is Timothy Lance, I'm 38 years old, and I play the role of Osric. Osric is what they call a fop, which-- a lot of people tend to say, well, it's a sexual, gender thing, where he's homosexual or whatever. But he's not. What he is is a King groupie, a wannabe.

Jack Hitt

Tim is the one member of the cast with screen time, one second of it. He used to live in California. And in a Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello revival, he was in the background in one fleeting camera pan hitting a volleyball. Tim once ran a trucking company, and like most of the cast, doesn't want to discuss his crime. But he does want to talk about how he researched his character, in the TV room.

Timothy Lance

There are so many fops in television and movies. Nathan Lane was a little bit too much. I think Robin Williams was a little too hyper. The one that really stood out was David Hyde Pierce, his character of Niles Crane. I'd watch Frasier and kind of look at how he did things and his mannerisms. And it worked out pretty good.

Timothy Lance As Osric

I mean, sir, for his weapon, but in the imputation laid on him by them and his mead, he is unfellowed.

Inmate Actor 2

What's his weapon?

Timothy Lance As Osric

Rapier and dagger.

Inmate Actor 3

What you say?

Jack Hitt

Do you think your audience is going to be able to draw the very fine distinction you're making between a fop and a gay person?

Timothy Lance

Not really.

Jack Hitt

To me, this seemed like an especially risky interpretation of the part. But Tim explains that folks on the outside have a TV movie understanding of prison sexuality. There is a small group of gay prisoners in the closet, another smaller group that is actually out, and then there's the vast majority of prisoners-- straight men, not having any sex at all. Just like upside, Tim says.

Agnes Wilcox

OK, gentle folk. Let's refocus. We're going to start where Laertes leaps into the grave--

Jack Hitt

Putting on a play in prison is different. First, Agnes always has to deal with some last minute crisis. Tonight, one of the Hamlets can't come. He was assaulted and was placed in solitary for protection. Plus, everyone must be strip-searched in a side room before and after every meeting with Agnes or with me. Worse, it's incredibly hot. The room is stifling. The only relief is an ancient stand-up fan in the corner. And a lot of the time, the actors are just trying to figure out what their lines mean. Here's Chris, one of the Hamlets.

Chris Harris

There is a piece of dialogue I give a five too in which I'm talking to Horatio about how I got Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And it starts like, "Up from my cabin, sea-gown scarf'd about me."

Chris Harris As Hamlet

Up from my cabin, my sea-gown scarf'd about me.

Chris Harris

I didn't under-- I didn't know what that meant. And one thing Agnes will do-- she'll stop us in mide-line. And she says, what does that mean?

Agnes Wilcox

OK, let's go back. Remember that what you're wrapped in is not a cloak. It's fog. How do you describe it?

Chris Harris

Sea-gown. Scarf'd about me.

Agnes Wilcox

Your sea-gown scarf'd about you is fog.

Chris Harris

I knew that.

Agnes Wilcox

But now you got to act it.

Chris Harris

The sea-gown scarf'd about me is the fog. I'm out at night. And it's the flow of the words. Up from my cabin, sea-gown scarf'd about me, groped I in the dark to find out them. Shakespeare really put some work in this. And this is the only play I've really studied from him. But he really is good.

Agnes Wilcox

OK, pick up the pace, y'all.

Inmates

Zip, zap, zop.

Jack Hitt

After a few months, the rehearsals begin to resemble a routine. They always start with some silly voice relaxation exercises.

Inmates

Zip, zap, zop.

Jack Hitt

The cast is such a mix. There's Chris who is a member of Toastmasters International and, when not rehearsing, likes to listen to Journey on his walkman, while his good pal Brad, a former gang-banger, has a subscription to a lapidary magazine. Then there's Edgar, a former Post Office employee, and Mike, a fight coordinator and a devout Wiccan. And then Stan, who's obviously a college-educated businessman now trying his hand at writing Zane Grey Westerns. And of course there's Hutch, the killer whale. What keeps them coming back to D-168 where Agnes, this tiny, tough lady, bosses them around? Here is Edgar.

Edgar Evans

She makes us feel human, man. She really does. When I go in there I have to take my clothes off and get butt naked and bend over and spread my cheeks so some man can look up my butt. You know, all the humiliating things that they do to us here. And when she comes in and does what she does, for that minute, those two and a half hours-- all these guys with PhDs and could be doing other things, they come in. I at least can feel human in here.

I think this is taking me to be sane. For just one day. Just one day I'm sane enough.

Jack Hitt

This is Brat Jones, another one of the Hamlets.

Brat Jones

If you don't keep exercising your mind, then you start to lose it, right? You know that's possible, right? This gives me an opportunity to see a society beyond what I'm used to. I'm familiar with rap music and videos and big butts on the TV and all that. But let me come back to something that I'm not familiar with. Let me get into something else. That did open my eyes into getting into reading Sylvia Plath and Frost, and Wadsworth, and different other people.

Jack Hitt

Everybody had powerful answers for why they were in the play. One guy with a third grade education level said that he was surprised to find out that he wasn't stupid, just uneducated. And for almost all of them, acting was beside the point. But one inmate got bit by the drama bug and bit hard. His first step onto the boards was a revelation.

James Word

I'm James Word. I'm 32 years old. And I play the role of Laertes. My wife told me that I should be an actor. She's had the opportunity to see me deal with certain people on certain levels, and she's seen me change my--

Jack Hitt

Certain people on certain levels. OK, come on. Let's-- as we say in the editorial business, let's air that out a little bit.

James Word

Well, I've always wanted to be a con. And I've always wanted people to like me. I wanted to be liked. And the environment that I was in-- people liked the bad guy. Those were the heroes in our neighborhoods, the bad guys. And so, I went from this real quiet church guy to this real bad guy. And I'd get around them and I'd be like, yeah, I'm this and that, and would act it. You know what I'm saying? Act big, bad, tough, and I don't care, when that really wasn't me. Because when I went home at night, I felt bad about what I did. And most of the time, was scared to death doing what I was doing. And my wife saw that. And I think that's one of the reasons why she's like, you can be an actor.

Jack Hitt

James Word looks like an actor. He's young and handsome with a smile that can carry him through just about any situation. He plays Laertes, the brother of Ophelia. For the first few acts, Laertes was played by an Amish pedophile. That's another story. But the Amish pedophile got transferred. And so-- it's almost legend in the prison now, like something out of 42nd Street, James Word stepped into the role. He created a sensation among the cast when they realized what a really forceful performance could do for a character. Word made a lasting impression, even on the killer whale.

Big Hutch

You come along in Act Four and you get this guy, James Word. And Word's playing Laertes. And he was in it, especially when he was mourning the death of Ophelia. Is it Scene Four? He makes his interest. And he's going to be after the king, the queen, stop them. Hold up. And man, you should have seen this guy Word, man, he come in there like-- dropped to his knees and he did, why? Why? I said, man, that should have been my part there.

James Word

I knew I had done a good job. I did. I knew I had done a good job. But when it was over, and everybody was leaving and shaking hands and interacting with each other, the comments that were coming afterwards-- we had our questions and answers. And so many people were just, man, you were so good. Have you done this before? You should do this more. You should continue this. And that feeing for me was just-- it was one of the best feelings I've ever felt. It was like the day my daughter was born. And it made me want to be better. Not just in acting. I mean, it just opened up a whole world for me. Like man, if I apply myself, I can pretty much do whatever I want.

James Word As Laertes

Oh, treble woe, fall 10 times treble on that cursed head, whose wicked deed thy most ingenious sense deprived the of. Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead, till of this flat a mountain you have made to o'ertop old Pelion, or the skyish head of blue Olympus.

Jack Hitt

The first chance I get to see Word in action is at tonight's rehearsal, where Laertes goes to the grave of his sister, Ophelia. Word was a natural and talked about acting that way too. Laertes' emotions, in the final act, roller coaster from grief to fury to shameful regret. To pull it off, Word channels Laertes' character in a way that should make any method actor cringe with jealousy.

James Word

Coming into Act Four, he was very angry, violently angry. And I can identify with that and I can play that role very well because I've been playing that role all my life.

James Word As Laertes

Must there no more be done?

Inmate Actor

No more be done.

James Word As Laertes

Lay her in the earth and from her fair and unpolluted flesh may violets spring. I tell thee, O churlish priest, a ministering angel shall my sister be when liest howling.

James Word

You know what I'm saying? And Laertes, he falls into the manipulation. And he becomes a bad guy for a little while because he's being deceitful now. I never really looked at it and it's somewhat cowardly. And I can relate that to my past life as a criminal. To put a gun in somebody's face, that's an unfair advantage. And that's a cowardly act. That's what criminals are. We're cowards. When we're criminals, we are cowards.

Jack Hitt

Do you feel like you can be Laertes because so much of Laertes is inside James Word?

James Word

I am Laertes. I am. I am.

Ira Glass

Coming up, what the ghost of Hamlet's father could teach you about murder. In a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act One. Act V, Scene 1.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. If you're just tuning in, what we're doing today is that we're devoting our whole show to Jack Hitt's story from the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, where over the course of six months, Jack watched prisoners rehearse and stage Act Five of Hamlet. Again, here's Jack.

Jack Hitt

As the performance day grew closer, and I spoke to more and more of the actors, it became clear that each actor used his past, in dense psychological ways, to understand his part. All the Hamlets saw themselves in their version of the Dane. And Edgar would stop me in the hall to tell me that he thought evil King Claudius had some redeeming qualities. But for one actor, the relationship was even more complicated. He used his part to help understand his past.

Danny Waller

My name is Danny Waller. I'm 44 years old. The character that I've played was the ghost of Hamlet's father. The reason I chose that, when I first read the script, the words jumped out at me. And they made me feel things that I haven't felt before.

Jack Hitt

What, in your experience, drew you to those particular words?

Danny Waller

I took a man's life. And I felt he was talking to me through that. That he wanted me to know what I put him through.

"I am thy father's spirit, doomed for a certain term to walk the night, and for the day confined to fast in fires, 'til the foul crimes done in my days of nature are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid to tell the secrets of my prison-house, I could a tale unfold whose lightest words would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood and make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres."

There's one other spot that goes like this, "Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatched, cut off even in the blossoms of my sin, no reckoning made, but sent to my account with all my imperfections on my head." And it was pretty much the same way with him. He was taken before his time.

Jack Hitt

So when you read the character, do you feel like-- who's talking when you say those lines?

Danny Waller

I'm the body up there. But the words are coming from mostly William Pride, the man that I killed. He's mostly the one talking.

Agnes Wilcox

There's not much defense between the actor and the word, as you get with an actor who puts his or her training between the two. These guys call it like they see it. And it's true, it's just dead true.

Jack Hitt

That's Agnes, the director. Besides putting on plays at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center Visiting Room, she's mounted shows on more familiar stages, the acclaimed Actor's Studio in New York, the Berkshire Festival in Stockbridge, and the Eugene O'Neill theater center in Connecticut. After becoming the Artistic Director of the New Theatre in St. Louis, she started an outreach program to take professional actors doing dramatic works by writers like Don DeLillo, and perform them before prison audiences. In time, the prisoners became the actors. And in more time, this side project took over her entire theater company. Now, this is what she does, directing prisoners, who may not have the chops of professional actors, but have an intimacy with the material that doesn't exist anywhere else.

Agnes Wilcox

When Claudius is in the chapel and speaks about his sin and his regret and his ability to undo it, it broke my heart. Because the man playing it felt all of those things fully. And I know these guys have deep regrets, but it was palpable. The audience was stunned. You could hear a pin drop. And that was especially true with the inmate audience. He says, "Oh my offense is rank. It smells to heaven. It hath the primal, eldest, curse upon it. A brother's murder."

Edgar As Claudius

Pray can I not, though inclination be sharp as will, my stronger guilt defeats my strong intent. What if this cursed hand were thicker than itself with brother's blood? Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens to wash it white as snow?

Edgar Evans

My name is Edgar Evans and I'm 39 years old and I play the King, King Claudius, in Hamlet.

Edgar As Claudius

And like a man to double business bound, I stand in pause where I shall first begin, and both neglect.

Edgar Evans

I don't consider myself no great actor or nothing, but I try to do the best I can. And when I did the speech, I was looking upward. The chapel is at an incline there. And I was just looking up toward the top and it was like no one was there but me. I literally, honestly, didn't see a soul in the chapel when I was saying this. Maybe even-- and I'm just, I'm not saying this for-- it seemed almost like I was praying this actual speech to God.

Edgar As Claudius

But O, what form of prayer can serve my turn? Forgive me my foul murder? That cannot be, since I am still possess'd of those effects for which I did the murder, my crown, my own ambition, and my queen.

Edgar Evans

I have a wife and four kids. And by being incarcerated, I've felt that I've really let them down. When I said that speech and my wife was here in the visiting room, I don't know if it had an impact on her. I don't know if she truly understood all of the content. But I wanted her to hear that speech more than anybody.

Edgar As Claudius

O, wretched state, O, bosom black as death. O limed soul, struggling to be free art more engaged. Help angels. Make assay. Bow, stubborn knee and hearts with strings of steel, be soft as sinews of the newborn babe. All may be well.

Jack Hitt

Edgar wouldn't tell me his crime. Although, I found myself playing a constant guessing game with all of them about this. They wouldn't discuss the past. That was then, they said. This is now. But I had to know. So one morning, instead of visiting, I went to downtown St. Louis, not far from the arch, and sat in a records depository reading old case files. It was more horrible than I thought.

One guy I particularly liked shot a man in the head twice at point blank range. Another of my new friends raped his pubescent daughter, impregnating her. Later there was an abortion. Another friend grabbed a man getting out of a car, put a gun to his chest during a robbery and pulled the trigger. Others had sodomized children, younger children, the age of my own children.

I didn't fall asleep for a long time in my frigid Ramada Inn room. At 3:00 in the morning, I had one of those cinematic nightmares. I dreamed that a very good friend of mine, an editor at a magazine, had me over to dinner. She got angry with someone else there, pulled out a gun and plugged him twice right in the face. Then she asked me not to talk about it with anybody.

I panicked. And the next thing I knew I was sitting up in my hotel bed, panting like a sprinter. It didn't take Freud to figure out what it meant. Someone I knew and liked was a murderer. I wanted to talk to the cast about this, but I was anxious. I know this sounds crazy, but I was afraid I might hurt their feelings. I felt like they have betrayed me. But strangely, I felt that I had betrayed them too. There was only one day left to talk, just before the final performance. So before curtain, I asked Brat to sit down with me. I could barely spit out my question.

Jack Hitt

You know, we came in here three months ago or five months ago, and met you all for the first time as actors. And so yesterday, we decided to go down to City Hall and read everybody's record. And I have to say, since I met you as an actor first and now I know what you did, it's very hard for me to wrap my mind around this other guy that's on paper. And, so I want to know how you do it. How do you square the Brat Jones of-- what was it, 13 years ago?

Brat Jones

Yeah, yeah.

Jack Hitt

--with the one that I see on the stage tonight?

Brat Jones

It's taken a lot of practice. I'm trying to discover who I am now. It's not been easy. I was off into the drugs and all those things when I got locked up for that case. And I slowly had to come out of those things. Because I always knew in the back of my mind that I had already went to the lowest point in life, so now it was time to see what I could do as far as going to the highest point in life.

Jack Hitt

It was a hard question for any of them to answer. They all said the same thing. But I'm this guy now. I'm not that guy. Are we forever the prisoner of our actions? It's a good question. It was Hamlet's question. And it's the unresolvable conflict in our penal system. Why do we put people in jail? To rehabilitate them and restore them to our company or to punish them, regardless of how much they might change? One can't hold both these ideas in one's mind simultaneously. That's why our prison debates on TV and in Congress are so vehement and incoherent. The two sides cannot be squared by mere politics. They can't even be squared by the people at the center of the debate. Here's Danny.

Danny Waller

When I first got this sentence, I said, I'll go ahead and just die in here. Because I don't deserve to be out there the way I am. That was 13, 14, years ago. But a person changes. I'm no longer the criminal I used to be. I know that I will not do any other crimes out there. But I took a man's life. Do I deserve to be out there? I cannot say.

James Word

Hamlet, thou art slain. No medicine in the world can do thee good. In the is not a half an hour's life-- no medicine in the world, blah, blah, blah. I can't get it. I forgot. Line.

Agnes Wilcox

The treacherous instrument is in thy hand.

Jack Hitt

It's opening night, dress rehearsal. Word has flubbed his line again. Things aren't going well. The only time the authorities would allow a dress rehearsal is in the hour before actual curtain. This is the first time the cast has seen the acting stage, the first time in costume, the first time they have real props-- skulls and shovels, the shovel is a story in itself, given every prison fear of shovels. You can use them to dig tunnels, remember? The authorities insisted on using only a flimsy, cardboard replica. Everyone is tense, even Agnes.

Agnes Wilcox

Guys, let's double the pace so we can get through this, get it all up. The sight is dismal--

Inmate Actor

The sight is dismal.

Agnes Wilcox

And our affairs--

Jack Hitt

We are in the prison chapel where their first performance will be held before an audience of inmates. Six months after my first visit, it is, at last, show time.

Male Inmate

Alan, how you doing today?

Jack Hitt

Armed guards let the audience in the door one by one. Agnes calls her actors together in a corner and gives them the final pep talk.

Agnes Wilcox

Paul, Edgar, could I have you? OK, things to think about. Make sure to stand still on yours and other people's punch lines. If something falls apart, pick it up, go somewhere with it. Make up words. I don't think anybody here has memorized it, so we're safe. And mostly, this afternoon people were working so hard. I don't think you had much fun. Hard work is behind us. This is the night to just have a blast. One for the team.

Jack Hitt

Once the play starts, Danny and Stan deliver their lines OK, but all that antique Elizabethan wordplay isn't connecting with the audience. But then midway through the scene, the crowd starts to really respond to the emotion in Ophelia's funeral march. Laertes is the last mourner, humming at the side of the grave, tossing rose petals on her corpse. Right away, the action picks up. The Hamlet's appear, taunting Laertes about the sincerity of his grief. They quarrel and exchange insults. A duel is proposed, which culminates in the last swordfight scene.

Most directors block this scene as a professional fencing match. Agnes has it looking like a knife fight in an alley. The audience totally gets it. Word holds his arms slightly up from his sides, his hand gripping his sword like he would a shiv. He and one of the Hamlets are circling each other like thugs. Word jerks his shoulders forward-- a pure back alley feint, a fake move meant to intimidate his opponent, something all of them have probably seen right in the yard.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]

Then the room goes quiet as the actors start slicing one another, leading to Laertes' death scene.

James Word As Laertes

Hamlet, thou art slain. No medicine in the world can do thee good. In thee is not a half an hours' life. The treacherous instrument is in your hand, unbaited and invenomed. The foul practice has turned itself on me. No. Here I lie, never to rise again. Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet. Let mine and my father's death be not upon thee.

Jack Hitt

The audience, like a living thing, leans forward in unison to watch Word slide down the chapel wall and die. There are no cackles of discomfort, no shouts from the gallery, just breathless silence-- the silence of recognition.

In all, there were three performances. And on the final night, before family and dignitaries, the entire cast found the magic that Paul said would happen during that first read-through. The actors knew that this would be the last time they'd get to perform as a group. So when Danny and Stan came out for their final gravedigger appearance, somehow those Elizabethan jokes worked.

Inmate As Gravedigger

Art a heathen? How does thou understand the scripture? The scripture said Adam digged. Could he dig without arms?

Jack Hitt

Having seen every performance, I can testify. The actors rose above their talents in that last show. Mike and Hudson as the belligerent priests, Buck and Tommy as the ambassadors, Sylvester as Fortinbras. You could feel the mutual support. Just as missed lines and other mistakes play off one another and can spiral downward into fiasco, the rhythm of the room can go the other way too. Strong lines beget better performances. The gang of Hamlets came together in a way they hadn't before. That little mob seemed like one voice. But the real surprise for me that last night was Hutch.

Big Hutch As Horatio

I am more an antique Roman than a Dane. There's still yet some liquor left.

Jack Hitt

It's here that Hutch's Horatio delivers his most famous line. The play is almost over. He's surrounded by corpses and speaks to his dying friend, Hamlet. In the other performances, I always thought Hutch had been plagued by what you might call the Jack Nicholson syndrome. The actor's persona is bigger than any role he might play. But tonight, Horatio has Hutch under control and the audience in his hand. He has the one great line to deliver. And as Hutch might say, he nails it.

Big Hutch As Horatio

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Jack Hitt

So Hamlet dies and Fortinbras takes over. And then the drums of Hamlet's funeral begin. On other stages, a curtain would fall. But here, beneath the cafeteria's unforgiving fluorescents, the actors just stop. From the back of the room, Agnes says simply,

Agnes Wilcox

End of play.

[AUDIENCE APPLAUSE]

Jack Hitt

The audience tonight is a mix of St. Louis' artistic elite. It's a theater crowd-- polite, well-dressed people. Many of them have helped fund this production. They want, and fully expect, to meet the talent afterwards. And for many of the actors this moment-- they call it the cast party-- is the most prized. James Word and Edgar Evans mentioned it specifically when I talked to them. Just the chance to stand around in a room full of normal people, drink a coke, and carry on about the play, the future, the weather, the freedom to chat and mingle like you were in the lobby of a theater instead of a bullet-proof visiting room.

[AUDIENCE AND CAST MINGLING]

In a high security prison though, when a play is over, it's over. No sooner had the bows finished than Danny, who doubles as the stage manager, turns right around and starts frantically striking the set. The guards had informed everyone that they'd have about 10 minutes for the cast part.

Like any play, all the work was for this moment, to get to the end of the last performance successfully. And now that it's here, these few minutes are shot through with a kind of melancholy. In the side room-- everyone sees him-- is the guard waiting to strip search them back into the yard. He wears a dull expression on his face and rubber gloves on his hands. But that would be 10 minutes from now. There's still time for pretending.

Inmate Actor

Thank you, sir. Thanks for coming out. We appreciate the support.

Audience Member

I really liked this act.

Inmate Actor

It was so complicated.

Jack Hitt

According to the prison commissioner, 97% of the people locked up today will someday join us on the outside. Manuel is leaving for a halfway house in 48 hours. He could have been out weeks before, but chose to stay in prison so he could finish the play. Hutch has a scheduled date for release. And a few more of the cast have parole board hearings coming up to decide whether they've changed enough and should be allowed to mingle with us on the outside. To that extent, this whole night, including the cast party, is just another rehearsal.

[MINGLING]

Ira Glass

Jack Hitt lives in New Haven. Since we first aired this program in 2002, Manuel, Tim, Edgar and Hutch have all been released from prison. They still get together though, regularly, with Agnes' group, Prison Performing Arts, in St. Louis to study, talk about, and perform Shakespeare plays. Chris, Brat, and Stan are still serving time and are also currently working on a production of Richard III with Agnes in prison. Danny and James are also still in prison but have moved to facilities that don't have prison performing arts programs. You can find out more about Agnes' group at prisonperformingarts.org.

Our program was produced today by Alex Blumberg, with Starlee Kine, Wendy Dorr, Jonathan Goldstein and me. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our show by Mr. Torey Malatia, or as we like to call him, Shamu.

Big Hutch

I control the killer whales. And I can eat up the minnows if I want.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Male Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.