Arts & Culture

This American Life Man-Fatuation Post: Act V

This week, NPR once again brings us the “Act V” episode of This American Life in which prison inmates put on a production of Hamlet. Read More

By / July 6, 2011
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This week, NPR once again brings us the “Act V” episode of This American Life in which prison inmates put on a production of Hamlet.  For me–and I imagine many of you–this is the TAL equivalent of that one Simpsons episode that seems to be on every time you tune into the The Simpsons, this is the one episode of TAL that they always seem to re-play. However, is this episode perhaps especially appropriate in the wake of the Casey Anthony verdict handed down yesterday?  That coupled with the Strauss Kahn affair might make this a good time to delve into the American justice system in a big way.

In Act V, a group of violent criminals are forced to re-marinate in the motivations and emotions that lead to their crimes in order to better understand a play that revolves around violent acts.   Clearly the people over at TAL believe this episode requires multiple listens, so lets see if we can mine this one for some extra contextual and perhaps topical meaning.

Early in the episode, we meet Big Hutch, a big violent prisoner who speaks in smooth heavy slang and would probably have a difficult time getting hired for a minimum wage job.  Yet, Big Hutch, it turns out is able to dissect and analyze the plot of Hamlet more thoroughly than almost any English professor you’re likely to run into.

“The environment I was in, people liked the bad guy, those were the hero’s in my neighborhood.”

These are the words of James, an inmate playing Laertes in the prison production.  After a few rehearsals James proves himself to be a natural born actor.  His fellow cast members concede that his presence completely bolsters the production and even the hard-to-please Big Hutch is a fan.   James describes his days as a criminal as merely performance, a put on way of being that went against his nature, to gain acceptance.  For me, the crux of this episode comes when James speaks about the way it made him feel to receive compliments for his performance from fellow inmates

“That feeling for me, 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.  It made me feel like, if I could apply myself, I could do whatever I want.”

This is certainly one of the most affecting moments of the show, a severe reminder that certain people simply don’t receive the kind of opportunities that so many of us take for granted.  In one moment of successful self-expression, we hear this person light up, and for the first time see the world as something he can contribute to.

Earlier in this episode, an inmate describes how the rehearsals for Hamlet feel like the only opportunity he has as a prisoner to feel human.

This time around, this episode of This American Life serves as a reminder of just how terrible prison actually is and at the same time, it’s a decent reminder of why it’s important for our justice system to air in the side of the defendant.   Moreover, “Act V” is a mediation on the nature of criminal acts, much like Hamlet itself.

Goethe said, “There’s no crime of which I do not deem myself capable,” and perhaps James and the rest of the cast of this week’s episode serves to remind us why it’s better for a hundred guilty to go free, than one innocent be locked away, and why there’s a need for programs like this in the prison system.  Or maybe I need to listen to this episode again.