"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Literature in the News: Inmates Perform Shakespeare’s The Tempest

I came across this article in an Ohio newspaper called, The Morning Journal, which caught my interest.  It’s about inmates at a correctional facility in Grafton, Ohio, apparently not far from Cleveland, performing Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest.   

Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” bears themes of justice and forgiveness amid creativity, and the inmates at Grafton Correctional Institution have spent several months creating their own rendition of the play.
 On June 5, the troupe debuted its performance before an audience of peers in preparation for a series of weekend performances for friends and family.
 Directed and adapted by retired Oberlin College professor Phyillis Gorfain, the production took about eight months to prepare. Gorfain, along with five Oberlin College students, worked with the 18 inmates three times a week to develop the play. 

Now the article says nothing as to why they are having inmates perform the play, or any play,, other than it seems to interest them.  I was hoping to read that this was a new method to reduce the recidivism rate or perhaps to readapt the prisoners into society, but it says nothing to its objectives.   

Damien Davis, who played several roles in the production, said the inmate theater group formed from mutual interest in theater and acting.
 “It was all word of mouth, really,” Davis said. “People who are interested in drama, they all coincided with one another. We had all these friends and they actually inspired us to go out and do this.” 

So it was just “mutual interest.”  Hmm, now that’s a rather brainy sort of jailbird.  As it turns out, GraftonCorrectional Institution is a minimal to medium security facility, so we’re not talking murderers and gangsters.   

Now The Tempest is a rather interesting play for inmates to perform.  It involves a shipwrecked magician, a past rape, an enslaved, dehumanized person, a murder attempt, some unsavory characters who are trying to usurp the magician’s leadership, and a love affair between the magician’s daughter and a young man.  I can see the how it would relate to prison life: crime, incarceration, discontent, uprising, innocence.  And the play ends with redemption, pardons, forgiveness, and a marriage unifying the different factions.  In aesthetic terms, it ends with wholeness.   

[Inmate] Peoples said the experience had a therapeutic effect on him. He said he feels people who become accustomed to living a certain way might lose their sense of humanity. Participating in the play made him feel human again, he said.
 “No matter what life is about, being in prison or not, we’re all human,” Davis said. “We all make mistakes, and we all grew from them.” 

And apparently this Grafton is not the only correctional facility to put on Shakespeare plays.  You can also read how Phyillis Gorfain started putting on these performances.  Perhaps they will have as beneficial effect to rehabilitation.  We can hope. 

The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s most popular play, but I have to say I have always felt it overrated.  Most agree that it is Shakespeare’s last play he wrote without collaboration, and the character of Prospero—the magician—pulling all the factions together into a harmonious conclusion is meant to represent Shakespeare’s farewell.  A playwright after all is a sort of magician.  Here are the play’s closing lines.
 Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
 And what strength I have's mine own,
 Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
 I must be here confined by you,
 Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
 Since I have my dukedom got
 And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
 In this bare island by your spell;
 But release me from my bands
 With the help of your good hands:
 Gentle breath of yours my sails
 Must fill, or else my project fails,
 Which was to please. Now I want
 Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
 And my ending is despair,
 Unless I be relieved by prayer,
 Which pierces so that it assaults
 Mercy itself and frees all faults.
 As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
 Let your indulgence set me free.

The charms are gone, the spell is broken, and he asks for your mercy and applause.  The characters are great, the conflicts engaging, and the setting of the play visually attractive.  The problem with the play for me is that the magic that resolves the conflicts seems rather artificial for me.  And while the conflicts are developed, the resolutions come rather quick, perhaps too quick.  I just got the impression that an old, tired Shakespeare wanted the finish off the work.   

But I have to say, I read the play as an undergraduate, which is ages ago.  Perhaps I’m being unfair.  I’ve been looking for a Shakespeare play to read this year, and while I wanted to read one I’ve never read before—one of my life’s missions is to read all of Shakespeare’s plays—I think The Tempest deserves another reading, this time from a matured man.  Perhaps my reaction to the play some thirty years ago was from a young man’s perspective, and to some degree The Tempest requires a more mature state of mind.  So add this to my list of reads for the summer.

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