Academic journal article Comparative Drama

The Liberal Trial Play: Notes toward the Formation of a Genre

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

The Liberal Trial Play: Notes toward the Formation of a Genre

Article excerpt

Classical tragedy is marked by its recurrent recourse to the law and is traversed by multiple modes of adjudication. In Sophocles's Antigone, for example, the conflict between the dictates of the positive law-giver and the duties of the natural law heroine instantiates the paradigmatic, Hegelian agon--the structural conflict at the heart of tragedy--between mutually exclusive but independently justifiable legal claims. (1) Aeschylus's Eumenides, another seminal jurisprudential play, dramatizes the divinely ordained exchange of retributive for deliberative justice, inaugurating the modern Athenian polity and providing an origin myth for Western democracy. It is well attested that Attic tragedy's almost obsessive concern with legal concepts reflected the theatre's function as an alternative forum for the exercise of participatory citizenship in the rapidly evolving polis. Theatres and law courts were embedded in and sustained the "agonistic culture" of Athenian public space; both were "closely bound up in the mediation of conflicting social values" and "the responses of Athenian citizens as jurors and Assemblymen... were inevitably influenced by the fact of their having been members of theatrical audiences, and vice versa." (2) Those who attended the Dionysian festival came to be entertained, but with respect to both the competition between the tragedians and the fate of their characters, they did so in a judicial frame of mind.

While tragic protagonists, indicted for the commission of crimes by mortal and divine authorities, are condemned (or rarely, as in Orestes's case, absolved) within the plays to which they belong, tragic form also evokes the operations of justice beyond the dramatic frame, permitting reappraisals of plays' verdicts. Whether or not the tragedy dramatizes a trial, it cannot help but become one. It is a commonplace to observe the juridical role of an audience in bearing witness to a character's actions and re-adjudicating the evidence. According to this logic, the play itself might be regarded as performing a kind of advocacy. "When a reasonably good man like ourselves commits a tragic error," Kathy Eden explains, "the completed play demonstrates, much as the forensic speech tries to do, that the protagonist deserves a milder judgment: not the rigid justice of the law, but pity, equity, and pardon." (3) Here, the operations of judgment extend beyond the plays' mimetic content, into the formal relationship that obtains between a play and its audience. By virtue of their structurally juridical as well as their thematically jurisprudential qualities, Greek tragedies are legally inflected in a double sense.

By ascribing the reversal or mitigation of the courts' judgments to "the completed play" [my italics], Eden implies that tragic dramaturgy, like a trial itself, permits arguments both for culpability and exculpation, terminating in the protagonist's extra-legal vindication, rather than insisting on it throughout. Eden's argument here accords with Arthur Miller's observation that "in one sense a play is a species of jurisprudence," in which "some part of it must take the advocate's role," while "something else must act in defence, and the entirety must engage the Law." (4) A similar argument is advanced by Harold Hobson, who asserts, in a review of A Man for All Seasons, that "the dramatic interest of Mr Bolt's play... is that of a prolonged cross-examination." (5) On the modern stage, where the motif of the trial continues to exert a pervasive influence, prolonged cross-examination--the extension of adjudication beyond the courtroom, in the pervasively inquisitorial treatment of the protagonist--is the defining characteristic of a small but tremendously influential group of British, European, and American plays.

Identifying the strategies adopted by playwrights in transforming legal-historical events into theatre, the present article focuses on one German, two American, and three English plays: Brecht's Life of Galileo (1938), Miller's The Crucible (1952), Lawrence and Lee's Inherit the Wind (1955), Shaw's Saint Joan (1923), Rattigan's The Winslow Boy (1946), and Bolt's A Man for all Seasons (1960). …

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