The Quality of Mercy

reviewing Trounstine's book

Jean Trounstine broke into jail in the mid-1980s and was not paroled until the mid-90s, when federal cuts in education spending took away the Pell grants her drama program depended on. To use a second time-trodden prison-education cliché, she had a captive audience while she was there, at the women’s prison in Framingham, getting the “inmates,” as they are known in this euphemistic era, to “exit the dreary prison world when you are onstage” and “enter a world where you can be anyone you choose.” We have reason to suspect, between the covers of Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama in a Women’s Prison, a vivid and tuneful memoir of the author’s experience, that she made time less hard to do, and maybe even liberating, for many women there. By virtue of their immersion in the long sentences of Shakespeare, these “Desdemonas suffering because of jealous men, Lady Macbeths craving the power of their spouses, Portias disguised as men in order to get ahead, and Shylocks, who, being betrayed, take the law into their own hands,” must have felt that their own sentences were shorter.

The prison at Framingham, collective home to a few hundred convicted female felons at a time, is the largest women’s jail in Massachusetts, and the only one that anyone ever hears about, usually in reference to privileged-class radicals who took arms against a sea of national troubles during the Vietnam War and got arrested for it. The women in Jean Trounstine’s book are not the well-bred peers of Susan Sachs and Katherine Ann Powers and Patty Hearst whom we’ve read about in the papers. They’re mostly women of poor or working-class means, denizens of triple-deckered neighborhoods doing time for crimes that didn’t get profiled in The New Yorker. In this they resemble their neighbors from back home—the thousands of men in the enormous warehouse prisons at Walpole and Norfolk in the pine swamps south of Boston. They’re known by pseudonyms in the book, and one of them, by the author’s confession, is somewhat fictional—a hybrid composite of two or three real people who in turn may have gone by pseudonyms and aliases on the street.

Altogether, Trounstine brings six women to life in her book—or make that seven, because she brings her own complicated self sympathetically to life as well—in a series of six miscellaneously narrative chapters that culminate in an account of their proudest dramatic production, The Merchant of Venice, performed in the spring of 1988. In illustrative four- and five-page episodes strung like variegated beads on a single string, Trounstine shows, rather than tells, the story of that one particular production—or rather, the story of the painstaking preparation that went into that one particular production of Shakespeare’s “problem” play. Depending on the character under scrutiny, any one chapter may depict a chaotic or cathartic improv session, a worrisome run-in or surprising understanding with an officer, an account of a journal-writing workshop, and/or a story about a struggle to run a successful rehearsal against the odds of bureaucratic barriers and turmoiled actors. Trounstine’s crafted anecdotes, complete with idiomatically rendered dialogue and disarmingly honest commentary, tell us as much about life behind the bars as they do about life behind the curtain. We get the implicit political point that even the women who are in for the most heinous of crimes imaginable are worth a shot at rehabilitation. With a catalytic nudge onto the stage, which is a safe platform for the channeling of emotion, the women, suggests this impressive writer and director, may be capable of some measure of moral transformation.

How would the distant world of Shylock’s mythical Venice connect to these women’s lives? And how would the play come to embody the subversive message of mercy that the women might benefit from, both in their dealings with each other and in their treatment from the state? Consider the somewhat outlandish plot:

In need of money to court in style the wealthy Portia, Bassanio (not the name of one of the Framingham guards) borrows from the Jewish moneylender Shylock with the understanding that his devoted friend Antonio, the magnanimous merchant of Venice himself, will pay Shylock back when his fleets return with riches from around the world. Resentful at the hypocritical treatment he’s received from these Christians who condemn him for usury but come begging for loans when they’re hard up, Shylock loans the money to Bassanio on one notorious condition—that Antonio surrender to him a pound of his own flesh should the ships not come through with money to pay off his friend’s loan. Compounding Shylock’s resentment toward the goyim, his daughter Jessica, not fond of her embittered father, elopes with a Christian named Lorenzo. When Antonio’s ships all fail to come in, Shylock gets ready to exact his pound of flesh. He gets his day in court with Antonio and is going to have his pound of flesh right there. The symbolic scales (of meat more than of justice) are waiting to be loaded, and Antonio’s ready to go under the knife, when Portia, disguised as a male examiner, finds a loophole in the law—proving, in effect, that if one ounce more or less than a pound of flesh is torn from Antonio, or if Antonio’s blood is drawn in the process, then Shylock will be guilty of breaching the contract and subject to punishment by the state. Shylock is stripped of his possessions and his religion as well, his yarmulke yanked from his head. But not before Portia, in a merciful effort to let Shylock relent from his stubborn insistence on revenge (and be spared the punishment he doesn’t know he’s in for), opens a long speech to Shylock with words that represent the spirit of Trounstine’s rehabilitative work with the women at the Framingham prison. “The quality of mercy is not strain’d,” she says. “It falleth like the gentle rain from heaven/ Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest—/ It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.”

Bertie, one of the six recipients of Trounstine’s benevolent and tough-minded characterizations, is a flamboyant young Jamaican woman doing time for infanticide, apparently with real remorse. Overcoming interpersonal antagonisms with a couple of her peers, she successfully plays the supporting role of Gratiano (a friend of Antonio and Bassanio) in The Merchant of Venice. She shines as choreographer and singer in Rapshrew (the women’s own adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew) and, rumor has it, ends up trying to compensate for her inexcusable crime, upon her release and deportation to Jamaica, by having another baby.

Bertie almost laughs as she calls Shylock names like “despicable dog.” But disguised as Gratiano in her suit and hat, she manages to come off as cruel, and stands, pointing angrily at Shylock, her words clipped and harsh, “Can no prayers pierce you?”

Kit is a tough one, yet almost against her worse judgment she pulls through in her way as well. A scraggly, toothless, hardscrabble white woman with a bewitching cackle and a volatile restlessness, she starts out the very portrait of self-defeated cynicism—habitually manipulative from years of scoring hard drugs on the street, sorely missing her daughter (Noreen the Bean). But she earns the respect of her peers and herself with her witty journal writing, her constructive and collaborative research project on the absence of toilet seats in the prison, her cathartic enjoyment of a sound-and-movement acting exercise, her performance in a stage adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, and her proud involvement as stage manager of The Merchant of Venice production.

The women laugh, as they comment on how she puts her words together well, and Kit’s mood begins to improve. She starts into a tale of how, that day, Gina decided to do laundry in a ragged T-shirt, and got her shirt and then her breast caught in an old-fashioned washing machine, one with a wringer. Although it sounds painful, and at first we wince, Kit is reading in a monotone that strikes us as particularly funny, and every time she gets to a place in the story that seems absolutely outrageous, she looks up, holds up her hand, and says, “Swear to God.” Then she laughs at herself, a frog-in-the-throat sort of laugh.

There’s Rose, the former prostitute and cokehead with “a forty-one-page record” and one mangled hand. Damaged goods, she’s had it rough out on the street—has apparently been raped by a woman with a broomstick, for example—and seems stoned and remote in drama class at times. She has chronic emotional problems and doesn’t seem like the likeliest candidate for rehabilitation; but she’s the one who tells a Boston Globe reporter that Trounstine’s acting class makes it easier to “face my mistakes.” According to Trounstine, she “pours herself into Shakespeare’s words” when rehearsing the role of Shylock, and is consumed by the role when it calls for her to utter one of the two most quoted speeches in the play, beginning, “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands?” She dies of AIDS a few years after the production of The Merchant of Venice.

It is Shylock’s famous monologue, in which he expresses his sense of being wronged by the Christian merchant and betrayed by his daughter. Rose is so full of emotion that at first she seems afraid to throw herself into the scene. I ask her to look at her hands, and she does—first one, then the other—and finally, without my asking, she repeats the line, this time with feeling, “Hath not a Jew hands?” She says it louder, letting the word “hands” resonate inside her, letting her sense of injustice build as she goes on, “Organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?”

Everyone is dumbstruck. Rose places the script on her lap and looks at me. Her eyes are watery, and the struggle gone from her voice. “Does it really hurt like this, for actors, onstage?”

“Some actors pretend,” I answer, “but they’re not good enough to play Shylock.” Rose nods, somewhat for my sake but more perhaps for her own, drinking in the idea that she can communicate something about herself through this character. She looks at me.

“You know, Jean, I want a beard, a long one, white, like those pictures of God. And a scroll. Shylock has to have something to wave around.”

There’s Rhonda, the eloquent, college-educated, middle-class black woman who “carries herself with the confidence of an Elizabethan at a ball.” She participates in a kinder and gentler sort of “scared straight” program for at-risk kids who visit the prison, tenderly (and not quite secretly enough to be safe) takes a lady lover in prison, and says of her entranced engagement in the central character of Portia, “This play is controlling me better than all the tricks the Department of Corrections has ever had up its sleeve.”

“We do pray for mercy,” she says to Rose, who as Shylock tries to shrug her off. But Rhonda is passionate now, looking into the eyes of all of us, her courtroom. Words seem to come easily, tumbling out of her mouth: “And that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.” She wends her way from woman to woman, the preacher’s daughter ministering to her congregation.

There’s Mamie too, Framingham’s resident gardener. A large and hearty African-American woman from Georgia, and a prolific creative writer, she waxes poetically of rescuing “from a small box at the foot of my bed,/dried petals, still deep purple and soft white/from an envelope long since buried.” She’s a former healthcare worker, but ironically is doing time for arson—okay, for setting another woman on fire. She’s working on a prison novel called The Other Side of Dignity and has already written a one-act play called Misgivings that the women perform in prison. She’s already getting sick with a brain tumor by the time Trounstine starts teaching her, is dying of the tumor when Trounstine visits her guarded room at Shattuck Hospital in Boston, and is dead by the time her classmates put on The Merchant of Venice.

Watching Mamie struggle to sit on the floor is painful. She has to place one hand against the wall and squat slowly, the other hand braced on her knee. “Ohhh, this is work. Mercy,” she says, “my back’s not what it used to be.” Someone makes sure there’s something for her to sit on, a coat, a hat, something softer than wood. “Thank you, girls,” she murmurs. The women protectively edge in, sitting in a sort of semicircle around her. “I don’t know what I’d do without you girls.”

“You should give her an A just for being here,” Kit says in a spurt of kindness.

“I give you all a lot of credit for being here—considering all the hassles you have to overcome on a daily basis. I’d probably have blown it and spouted off to someone, been in Max for weeks by now.” At my comment they all burst into laughter and begin talking about times they almost went to Max or when they were locked for days or how some women scam the D officer and avoid lockup.

“Let’s begin the play,” I say to Mamie. Everyone rustles through her script.

And finally there’s Dolly, a ballsy, forthright woman from the scrappy borough of Chelsea (underneath the Tobin Bridge), doing a long sentence for (allegedly) inspiring her boyfriend to kill another man. She’s the one who holds the whole place together, the one who mediates arguments among the women. She delights in playing the title role of Lysistrata (the protagonist of the Greek comedy who rallies her fellow women to boycott the beds of their husbands till they agree to stop waging war), and also shows her leadership and bravery by playing Antonio, the merchant of Venice himself, condemned to lose a pound of his flesh to Shylock in lieu of a promised repayment of a loan. She’s been the victim of more batterings from husbands and boyfriends than Antonio’s ships have from storms, yet she is the most resilient of the bunch, and ends up getting paroled her first time up before the board. She does the occasional book-tour talk with Trounstine and provides living proof that prison education programs could keep the recidivism rates down.

Turning to Bertie, who sits next to her and seems delighted to be addressed, she reads, “I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano-/A stage, where every man must play a part, /And mine a sad one.”

“He’s just not getting anywhere fast,” Dolly says. “He’s held back by something inside him.” Then, in a voice thick with a Boston accent, she says to Bertie, “Antonio’s in trouble, or so they say.”

Bertie says, “You sound like that old merchant from Chelsea.” Bertie starts calling Dolly “Antonio.”

Kit gestures at Dolly and then says to us, “Antonio from Chelsea. Another Eye-tal gambler.”

It was courageous of Trounstine to accept the recommendation of one of her students to put on The Merchant of Venice, a play famous for its troublesome portrayal of the ambiguity of the letter of the law and for its unsettling description of Jewish identity in Christian society. There was the danger, notes the author, that Shylock would be more despised for his ethnicity by the prison audience than pitied for his pathetic outcast’s attempt at revenge against his oppressors, and that they would “walk out with more prejudice against Shylock’s ethnicity.” But at the crowded performance, Trounstine hears an uninhibited spectator call out, in a moment of classically Aristotelian catharsis, “Ain’t nothing wrong with being a Jew if that’s what you are.” She was quickened by what she calls “the danger of art,” and so, as it turned out, were the players.

In one sense, Shakespeare Behind Bars is an ordinary and heroic story about teaching and learning, perfect preparation material for teachers within the walls and out. It’s made extraordinary by the unlikeliness of the learners, women mostly from neighborhoods segregated from polite society in general and the university atmosphere in particular, and by the unlikely likability of the women.

This is not a great time for rehabilitation programs of any sort. In a developed country exceeded only by Russia and South Africa in its percentage of incarcerated citizens, and in serious denial about the paltry standard of living for many of its free citizens, prisoners who come from the culture of poverty are used as convenient scapegoats. Their lives of crime are blamed on a lack of individual responsibility and initiative, religious faith, and respect for authority. They are not usually seen by the washed masses as pathological expressions of the gun-toting, competitive, materialistic society that produces them. Their crimes are often inexcusable, it’s true, and their victims didn’t necessarily have it coming. But it’s interesting that the perpetrators are punished like the witches of Salem—like Hester Prynne with her scarlet letter—rather than treated, say, to readings of The Scarlet Letter that provide insight into the moral contradictions of this culture.