Plot and Creation: Dead Man Walking
Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J.
Dead Man Walking is adapted from Sister Helen Prejean’s 1993 memoir of the same name, which was also made into a major motion picture directed by Tim Robbins and starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Prejean’s book, subtitled An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, chronicles her experiences serving as spiritual advisor to two inmates on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary—Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie—as well as her early activism and efforts
to abolish the death penalty nationwide.
The narrative in Dead Man Walking is not merely a straightforward account of its author’s respective relationships with Sonnier and Willie. It is interwoven with statistics on crime, punishment, and the uneven, often prejudicial administration of the death penalty in the United States; overviews of political attitudes toward and misinformation about the death penalty among the American population at the time of the book’s writing; and anecdotes from the author’s journey from a local community organizer and educator to a full-time advocate for the abolition of the death penalty—work that Sister Helen continues to this day.
Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s operatic adaptation borrows and expands upon elements found in both versions of the story, Prejean’s text and the Academy Award–winning film. In both the film and the opera, for example, the two death-row prisoners Helen advises are amalgamated into a single character: in the film, Matthew Poncelet; in the opera, Joseph De Rocher. The elements of the original crime described in the opera also derive from those committed by Sonnier (the shooting) and Willie (the stabbing), respectively. The double murder of a young teenage couple corresponds to Sonnier’s alleged crime, but the inclusion of the perpetrator’s family in the events leading to the execution—particularly his mother’s tearful appearance at the Pardon Board meeting and final visit with her son, both of which take pride of place in the film adaptation—is taken from Prejean’s experience with Willie.
There are also important distinctions between what occurs in Prejean’s text and in Heggie’s opera. Whereas Joseph De Rocher’s quiet confession is a dramatic highpoint of the opera, neither Sonnier nor Willie ever admitted to their crimes—both maintained their innocence to the bitter end. In fact, Sonnier claimed that it was his brother Edward, then serving a life sentence at Angola, who fired the murder weapon. (In Prejean’s memoir, Edward confesses to the murder in a last-ditch effort to halt his brother’s execution.) In the film version of Dead Man Walking, however, Helen’s advisee does ultimately confess to the crime before his execution.
Other elements from Tim Robbins’s film that made its way into the opera include the execution by lethal injection, whereas both Sonnier and Willie were executed by electrocution; Helen’s fainting spell, which occurred while she was working with Sonnier; and a short scene where Helen is pulled over by a cop while speeding down the highway. (This incident apparently happened to Prejean while filming the movie, and she insisted it be included in the script.)
A wooded area near a lake in Louisiana
Two teenagers have been skinnydipping in a lake surrounded by woods. As they get out of the lake, they turn on their car radio and then lie down on a blanket on the ground to dry off. Two men slowly approach the young couple. Suddenly, they attack, raping the girl and shooting the boy. One man holds the girl down as the other stabs her. There are screams, then silence.
Hope House, an educational center run by the Sisters of St. Joseph in the New Orleans projects
Sister Helen and Sister Rose lead a group of children in a hymn, “He Will Gather Us Around.” Helen keeps making mistakes as she sings. After the parents arrive to pick up their children, Helen admits to Rose why she has been so distracted: She has just received another letter from the death-row inmate she has been writing, Joseph De Rocher, asking to meet in person. Despite Rose’s warning, Helen agrees to visit Joe.
A highway, on the three-hour drive from New Orleans to Louisiana State Penitentiary
As Helen drives toward Angola, the prison where Joe is held on death row, she wonders what he will be like in person. She drives by the exit to her hometown and reflects on the happy days of her childhood. Her thoughts continue to race, and she drives more and more quickly—until she is pulled over by a policeman. Impressed that she is a nun, the policeman lets her go with only a warning and a promise to pray for his sick mother.
Louisiana State Penitentiary
When Helen arrives at the prison, she is greeted by Father Grenville, the prison’s chaplain. He cautions her that Joe shows no signs of remorse—instead, he maintains his innocence—and has been known to lie and insult others. Helen acknowledges Joe’s crimes yet remains invested in his human dignity. When the chaplain leaves, she meets the warden, who warns her that Joe will likely ask her to be his spiritual advisor, requiring her to stay by his side until his execution. As they walk through death row, the prisoners taunt her from their cells.
Finally, Helen is led into the visiting room. She waits nervously until Joe arrives. Neither is comfortable, and when Helen asks Joe if he is afraid, he admits that while he fears some things—walking to the execution chamber, the possibly excruciating pain of lethal injection, the effect his death will have on his mother—he adamantly declares that he is not afraid of her. Joe recalls the many things that he misses about his life of freedom before asking Helen if she will come back. She promises to return.
The courtroom, a meeting of the Pardon Board
Sister Helen, Joe’s mother, and the families of the murdered teens address the Pardon Board tasked with recommending to the governor whether the condemned person should be granted clemency. Joe’s mother tearfully addresses the board, saying that although she is horrified by the crimes Joe is accused of committing, she knows there is good in her son. She is interrupted by an angry outburst from Owen Hart, the father of one of the victims. The families wait in the parking lot for the Board’s decision. When Helen introduces herself to the victims’ parents, they accuse her of betrayal. A paralegal exits the courthouse announcing that the Pardon Board has rejected Joe’s petition for clemency.
Knowing that Joe’s only hope is for the governor to grant him clemency, Helen begs Joe to confess to his crime. The warden comes in and tells Helen to leave. Outside, she becomes faint from hunger as a cacophony of voices begins to pound in her head. The warden comes out of the visiting room and finds her slumped on a bench. He informs her that the governor has rejected Joe’s request for a pardon. The voices return and Helen faints on the floor.
Joe is alone in his cell doing pushups when the warden enters to tell him that the date for his execution has been set: August 4, at midnight. Joe ignores the warden and keeps doing pushups. But when the reality of his predicament begins to sink in, he passes through bursts of anger and fear as he thinks back to the crime.
Sister Helen's Room
Helen wakes up screaming from a nightmare about Joe and his victims. Rose rushes to her side and comforts her. When Rose reminds Helen that Joe has already been convicted of his crimes, Helen retorts that only God can choose whether to forgive him. Rose reminds Helen that she has agreed to help Joe—and she can only do so if she can forgive Joe herself.
August 4, around 7PM, Joe’s prison cell
Helen and Joe sit in his cell. They both know that Joe’s execution is only a few hours away, yet they still manage to make small talk, laughing and reminiscing about Elvis Presley. Helen encourages Joe to tell her the truth about the crime, but he angrily refuses. In the meantime, Joe’s mother and two brothers have arrived for their final visit with him. Helen accompanies him. Joe’s mother asks Helen to take a photo of the family and reminisces about happier times. The guard arrives to lead Joe away.
The death house
Outside the death house, the families of Joe’s victims arrive to watch his execution, and they accuse Helen of being on Joe’s side. Only Owen Hart expresses doubts about the closure and comfort Joe’s death will bring. In a quiet moment with Helen, he invites her to visit him; she promises she will.
Inside the death house, guards prepare Joe for his execution. Left alone with Helen for the last time, he admits his guilt. The guards arrive to take Joe to the lethal injection chamber. As he walks, Helen walks behind him, her hand on his shoulder, reading from her Bible. In the background, the families and inmates can all be heard reciting the Lord’s prayer. Joe apologizes to the victims’ families before the lethal injection needle is inserted into his arm. In his final moment, Joe says to Helen: “I love you.” After his death, the witnesses leave, and Helen is alone with Joe. One last time, she sings her hymn: “He Will Gather Us Around.”
Terrence McNally is born on November 3 in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Jake Heggie is born on March 31 in West Palm Beach, Florida. He learns piano as a child and starts writing music at age 11 before beginning more serious composition study as a teenager. Having graduated from Columbia University the year prior, McNally is hired by novelist John Steinbeck to tutor his sons while the Steinbeck family travels the world. During this trip, Steinbeck asks McNally to write the libretto for a musical adaptation of his 1952 novel East of Eden.
From 1979 until 2008, McNally is a regular guest panelist for the Texaco Opera Quiz during weekly Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts.
Heggie graduates from UCLA after spending a gap year studying piano at the American University in Paris. After finishing college, he begins performing recitals with his piano teacher Johana Harris. They continue to tour until focal dystonia in Heggie’s hand forces him to turn his attention to composition.
McNally publishes The Lisbon Traviata, the first of a trilogy of plays—including Master Class (1995) and Golden Age (2014)—inspired by opera and specifically the Greek American soprano Maria Callas.
Heggie moves to San Francisco and takes a job in public relations at San Francisco Opera. He continues to compose music, focusing on art songs.
Sister Helen Prejean publishes Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. The book remains number one on The New York Times Best Seller List for 31 weeks and is eventually translated into ten languages.
McNally’s play Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994) opens off Broadway in October and transfers to Broadway the following February. It wins the Tony Award for Best Play and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play.
McNally’s Master Class, about Maria Callas, opens on Broadway and wins the Tony Award for Best Play and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play.
Heggie wins the G. Schirmer Art Song Competition for his setting of “If you were coming in the fall…,” a poem by Emily Dickinson.
Prejean’s memoir Dead Man Walking is adapted into a major motion picture directed by Tim Robbins and starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Sarandon goes on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress, and Robbins and Penn receive nominations for Best Director and Best Actor, respectively.
Heggie is appointed composer-in-residence at San Francisco Opera, where general director Lotfi Mansouri commissions him to work with McNally on a new opera for the 2000–01 season.
Heggie releases his first album of original compositions, Faces of Love, featuring songs for voice performed by sopranos Renée Fleming, Kristin Clayton, Nicolle Foland, Sylvia McNair, and Carol Vaness; mezzo-sopranos Zheng Cao, Jennifer Larmore, and Frederica von Stade; and countertenor Brian Asawa.
McNally contributes the libretto for The Food of Love, an opera by American composer Robert Beaser.
Dead Man Walking premieres at San Francisco Opera in a production conducted by Patrick Summers and starring Susan Graham as Sister Helen, John Packard as Joseph De Rocher, and Frederica von Stade as Mrs. Patrick De Rocher. Erato Records releases a live recording of the premiere production the following year. Since its premiere, the opera has been performed internationally more than 150 times.
Heggie composes The Deepest Desire: Four Meditations on Love, set to original poems by Prejean. The premiere performance features mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and conductor Patrick Summers.
Heggie composes a chamber opera, Three Decembers, with a libretto by Gene Scheer based on an original work byMcNally, Some Christmas Letters (and a Couple of Phone Calls, Too) (1999). Heggie’s opera Moby-Dick, adapted from the 1851 Herman Melville novel and with a libretto by Scheer, premieres at Dallas Opera. Moby-Dick is scheduled to premiere at the Met in the 2024–25 season.
Virgin Classics releases a new live recording of Houston Grand Opera’s production of Dead Man Walking, starring DiDonato, von Stade, and Philip Cutlip. The same year, Carnegie Hall commissions Heggie’s The Breaking Waves, a setting of original texts by Prejean premiered by DiDonato.
McNally receives a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement.
On March 24, at 81 years old, McNally dies in Sarasota, Florida, from complications of Covid-19.