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Trial Scenes in Anglophone Theatre

Last edited 22 December 2022

Ger. Gerichtsdrama / Gerichtstheater

Even though the portrayal of trials has been of major significance throughout the history of anglophone theatre, there is no common generic term for such plays (such as, for instance, ‘courtroom drama’ in the context of film). With the exception of the tribunal play as a widely acknowledged dramatic subcategory (section 2), the following therefore avoids such generic labelling. This resistance against generic pigeonholing is also reflected in the diverse functions dramatic trials may serve; as explained in more detail below, they further suspense or channel voyeuristic impulses, negotiate individual or collective responsibilities and identities, interrogate constructions of ‘truth’, debate moral questions, intervene into socio-political discourse, or criticise legal institutions.

1. From the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century

The origins of trial scenes in anglophone drama date back to the medieval mystery plays which brought to the stage various biblical stories. The most famous English mystery plays are the so-called cycles, for example the York or the Chester Cycle. Both larger and smaller plays such as The Lord’s Resurrection (probably first performed at Beverley in 1220) depict the trial of Christ (Harris 1992, 109–11). During the 14th and 15th centuries, English law began to develop into a more complex system and furthermore diverged from the various legal traditions of learned law in continental Europe. During late medieval and early Tudor times, literary negotiations of these changes chiefly take place within the morality play, an allegorical genre in which the hero encounters personified virtues and vices vying for his attention. Mankind (anon., c. 1470), one of the most popular and prototypical examples, portrays the eponymous hero’s descent into sin as well as his subsequent repentance. As one of various meta-theatrical elements, the play features a mock trial, “an elaborate parodic reversal of the sacrament of Penance” in which the vices try to win over Mankind by making him relent to the Deadly Sins (Harris 1992, 164). Whereas in earlier works such as Mankind or The Castle of Perseverance (anon., c. 1405) Justice mostly takes the form of divine authority in the Last Judgment, in later morality plays such as Liberality and Prodigality (anon., c. 1567) Justice tends to appear in the shape of a secular judge (McCutchan 1958, 405 f.). From the 16th century onwards, the figure Equity gradually emerges in opposition to Justice, ultimately substituting the latter entirely (ibid., 410).

After the institution of the Court of Chancery as a court of equity, the rigid and largely centralised English common law, with its foundations in royal edicts and parliamentary statues, became increasingly fractured. From the late 16th century onwards, equal-ranking judiciary institutions competed with each other for authority and jurisdiction (Raffield 2014, 53). This increasing lack of transparency finds expression in the early modern revenge tragedy, in which an avenger “prosecutes a crime in a private capacity, taking matters into his own hands because the institutions by which criminals are made to pay for their offences are either systematically defective or unable to cope with some particularly difficult situation” (Eisaman Maus 1995, ix; on legal concerns in the early modern revenge tragedy see also Mukherji 2009 and Dunne 2016). Numerous Elizabethan or Jacobean revenge plays – such as Cyril Tourneur’s Atheist’s Tragedy (c. 1609) or John Webster’s The White Devil (1611) – dramatise court proceedings that are distinctly dysfunctional but that have a central bearing on the tragic plot’s resolution nonetheless. Since most revenge plays are located outside England, such court scenes often implicitly juxtapose the English and continental European legal systems (Syme 2012, 69 f.).

Early modern trial scenes equally feature in the plays of Shakespeare, e.g. in his comedy The Merchant of Venice (c. 1605). The Jewish moneylender Shylock seeks retribution for the constant humiliation he has to bear in the Christian city of Venice. Notably, he engages the law in his revenge plot: in evocation of one of the play’s many antisemitic clichés, he urges Antonio to enter into a contract offering him an interest-free loan. Should Antonio not be able to refund Shylock within the agreed period of time, Shylock will receive a “pound of flesh” (Shakespeare 2010, 4.1.98) of Antonio’s body in recompense for his losses. During the following trial, the judge repeatedly appeals to Shylock’s conscience, asking him to show mercy. Shylock, however, insists on his contract:

The pound of flesh which I demand of him
Is dearly bought; ’tis mine, and I will have it.
If you deny me, fie upon your law:
There is no force in the decrees of Venice.
I stand for judgement: answer, shall I have it? (Shakespeare 2010, 4.1.98–102).

Eventually, Shylock’s case is granted, but only through a stratagem concocted by the judge who, in a self-referential nod to the “irreducible element of performance” inherent in all court proceedings (Farmer 2010, 467), is merely played by the cross-dressed Portia: he asserts that Shylock may well be entitled to Antonio’s flesh, yet not to the blood that would inevitably be spilled should Shylock try to cut Antonio’s body. For this somewhat arbitrary resolution, the play’s trial has been read as a reflection upon the intricacies and snares of Elizabethan contract law (Raffield 2014, 55).

Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (c. 1604) paints a picture of similarly questionable legal authorities. After having disproportionately sentenced Claudio to death for impregnating a woman out of wedlock, the Viennese governor Angelo receives a petition for mercy from Claudio’s sister Isabella. Angelo offers to spare Claudio, but demands sexual favours in return. Within the play’s dubious gender politics, sexualised violence forms part of the criminal offense, its private redressing, as well as public punishment: before Angelo sleeps with Isabella, she has been secretly substituted with his former fiancée Mariana. And in the concluding trial against Angelo, he is sentenced to marrying Mariana. In this way, women are to some extent reduced to objects of the law. Angelo’s trial, too, is characterised by arbitrary moments and decisions; scholars have herein identified analogies to the oftentimes fraught workings of the English judiciary system, especially those of Chancery (ibid., 55; for a more detailed discussion of the play’s trial scenes see Bernthal 1992). In plays such as the above, therefore, “while the innocents are ultimately spared, the happy resolution comes about in spite of an inadequate system of justice rather than because of it” (Syme 2012, 70 f.). In other words, these plays call into question the authority, integrity, and independence of the early modern judiciary as such.

After a turbulent period of pre-Restoration theatre closures, Puritan censorship, post-Restoration licensing, as well as the 1774 ban on all theatrical entertainment, literary history has assigned 18th- and 19th-century drama a subordinate role – especially if compared to the simultaneous ‘rise of the novel’ (on the regulation of theatres and its consequences see Thomson 2006, 3–29; 69–88; 221–239). Even though one of the most prolific periods in British theatre history in terms of creative output, only few of these plays have been canonised. Many more apocryphal works are either lost entirely or partly inaccessible, and hence remain comparatively understudied. In light of such lacunae, identifying significant plays with significant courtroom scenes proves a difficult undertaking, but those that do stand out can often be assigned to more lighthearted forms of entertainment. The Licensing Act of 1737 allowed the commercial staging of plays only at theatres with a royal license, and only after the works in question had been submitted for approval to the Lord Chamberlain (ibid., 88). The law thus offered ample cause for dramatic critique and ridicule. Since these regulations did not apply as strictly to plays that included musical interludes, theatre diversified generically. The stars of a rapidly developing scene of musical theatre were W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, in whose comic opera Trial by Jury (1875) a woman sues her former fiancé for a ‘breach of promise of marriage’ (on Trial by Jury’s negotiation of a ‘breach of promise’ suit see also Lettmaier 2009, 158–165). In a ludicrous twist that is characteristic of Gilbert and Sullivan, the entire jury, as well as the judge, fall in love with the plaintiff themselves and accordingly side with her. That way, legal professionals and laypeople are presented as equally inadequate. The fairness of court proceedings is thus called into question, but merely in the form of harmless satire. More serious examples can be found in 19th-century sensation dramas such as The Trial of Effie Deans; Or, The Heart of Midlothian (1863), Dion Boucicault’s stage adaptation of Walter Scott’s eponymous novel. Sensation plays were popular for their seemingly authentic imaginings of sensationalist events such as trials (Voskuil 2002, 245). Another example of this genre is W. Travers and N. Lee’s Jessie Farleigh (1863), which dramatises the trial surrounding the murder of a child. Bound together by the thrill of their spectatorship, in these plays “Victorians envisioned a kind of affective adhesive that massed them to each other in an inchoate but tenacious nineteenth-century incarnation of the English public sphere” (Voskuil 2002, 245).

Throughout the 19th century, the theatre industry develops into an increasingly transatlantic phenomenon. Theatre troupes travelled back and forth between Britain and the US, “permitting easy transfer of the actors […] to move between the various venues that sprang up in the heyday of popular theatre” (Thompson 2016, 71). Theatrical forms and traditions – including, but not limited to, Shakespearean theatre and minstrelsy, that is, a nineteenth-century form of entertainment in which blackfaced White actors portrayed racist stereotypes associated with Blackness (Brody 1998, 74) – thus began to mingle, shaping each other and often blurring into globally popular theatrical forms. Given theatre’s concomitant affinity with issues particular to a specific societal or cultural context, however, after a brief foray into verbatim theatre and the tribunal play the following sections address the role of dramatic trials in twentieth- and twenty-first-century Britain, postcolonial countries (taking Ireland and South Africa as examples), and the US individually.

2. Verbatim Forms: The Tribunal Play

At the beginning of the 20th century, the dramatic portrayal of trials undergoes a renaissance, this time in increasingly documentary forms. Many of the plays mentioned in the following (regardless of their respective geographical context) are either partly or entirely based on real-life trials, a trend which has been labelled ‘verbatim theatre’ as a subcategory of documentary theatre. Whilst the term was first used in England by Derek Paget in 1987, verbatim theatre can be traced back to the 1930s in the US, when the government commissioned documentary plays about especially topical and divisive social debates. In the German-speaking theatre landscape, parallels may be drawn to the documentary plays of Peter Weiss, Heinar Kipphardt, and Hans Magnus Enzensberger which are based on real-life trials or inquests (Lane 2010, 59). In its most narrow sense, the term ‘verbatim theatre’ is not restricted to legal contexts per se. It simply denotes dramatic texts which reproduce words spoken by real people almost verbatim, so as to give voice to as many agents and viewpoints as possible and, importantly, lay “claim to veracity” (Hammond and Steward 2008, 10). Thus, verbatim theatre is often described as “an extension of journalism” (Norton-Taylor 2014). Since verbatim theatre has proven more flexible than this narrow definition suggests, however, it is often understood as a dramatic technique rather than a form in its own right (Lane 2010, 65).

For their dialogic setup and meticulous record keeping, court proceedings offer a particularly productive setting for verbatim forms. The tribunal play, which re-enacts real-life trials on stage in a seemingly exact reproduction, therefore forms a subcategory of verbatim theatre. With the playwright functioning as mere editor rather than author of the documentary material, the perception of unmediated ‘truth’ remains an illusion, of course, and proves as much instrument as constraint to dramatic agency: “by insisting on being approached as an accurate source of information, the tribunal plays enter into a contract of trust with the audience that automatically binds them to a different jurisdiction from that of drama” (Soncini 2015, 396). However, the concept of ‘truth’ is a slippery one even in the context of actual court proceedings, which do not lay claim to ‘truth’ at all. Rather, it is the judge’s role “to ensure only that the rules are respected and that the decision of the jury is justifiable on the basis of facts presented in court” (Farmer 2010, 470 f.). Tribunal plays not only explore the parallels between judiciary and theatrical performativity, but also aim to decipher the intricate stagings of political strategy and media coverage. In line with the audience-centric format of the tribunal, the audience take on the role of the jury who eventually have to arrive at a verdict themselves (Lane 2010, 59) – a verdict these plays deliberately withhold.

In the first place, the tribunal play has been championed by London’s Tricycle Theatre (renamed Kiln Theatre in 2018), which between 1994 and 2012 (re-)staged real-life trials that were of particular interest to the wider public (for more detail one the Tricycle Tribunal Plays see Kent et. al. 2014). These include, amongst others, inquiries into the UK’s involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq (Justifying War: Scenes from the Hutton Enquiry, ed. Richard Norton-Taylor, 2003; Called to Account: The indictment of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair for the crime of aggression against Iraq – a hearing, eds. Nicolas Kent and Norton-Taylor, 2007), the so-called London Riots in 2011 (The Riots, ed. Gillian Slovo, 2011), or the British Army’s strike on a protest march in Northern Irish Derry on 30 January 1972 (Bloody Sunday: Scenes from the Saville Inquiry, ed. Norton-Taylor, 2005). Such productions function as dramatic interventions into public discourse surrounding these trials, a discourse perceived as lacking in sufficient or impartial media coverage. They aim to approach a ‘true’ version of events that has been denied to the public so far and thus “open[] hitherto closed doors” (Billington 2014, 2). Richard Norton-Taylor, who as a journalist and editor of a number of tribunal plays has been directly involved in their production, describes this as “the methodical process of cutting through these layers of duplicity […] until an accurate, though not always orderly, account emerge[s]” (Norton-Taylor qtd. in Hammond and Steward 2008, 106).

3. Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Britain

On the one hand, theatrical trials in 20th-century British drama can be found in late offshoots of the Golden Age of Crime Fiction. The most famous representative of this genre, Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution (1953, adapted from her 1925 short story “Traitor’s Hands”), examines the inherently theatrical nature of all court proceedings. But rather than as merely decorative, it depicts the judges’ meticulous robing ritual, choreographed cross-examination of the witnesses, and addressing of the jury as quasi-audience as factors that significantly impact the conclusive verdict (Billington 2017). In doing so, the play emphasises “the importance of orality and immediacy – that all the actors in the drama that is the trial must be present and that judgment, whether by judge or jury, is to be based on what has taken place within the spatial and temporal limits of the courtroom” (Farmer 2010, 467). Whereas Christie’s play examines the grim business of murder in a serious fashion, the trial takes a more comical turn in John Mortimer’s The Dock Brief (1957), a legal satire in which a barrister takes joy in defending a man charged with the murder of his wife.

On the other hand, such popular forms of entertainment coexist alongside more political works dealing with topical social debates or scandals that have made the news. Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy (1946), for instance, takes up the widely discussed case of George Archer-Shee, who was charged with theft during his time as a cadet at The Royal Naval College, Osborne. Rattigan addresses the harmful effects of social pressure and the importance of an immaculate reputation, a fragile construct that may be easily damaged by false accusations and bring about the ruin of entire families. The play’s central court scene is merely reported through the accounts of the family, witnesses, and lawyers. Through re-positioning the court proceedings within a private context, Rattigan shifts attention towards the case’s reception rather than its exact procedure (Feldman 2014, 285). Societal fixation on morality and propriety – and not least the judiciary’s role in safeguarding these values – is similarly debated in Cause Célèbre (1977). Rattigan here attends to the so-called Rattenbury Trials during the 1930s, in which Alma Rattenbury, together with her 18-year-old lover, was charged for having murdered her husband. Characteristic of Rattigan’s wider interest in questions of (sexual) morals, rather than the murder itself the play interrogates the sensationalist and often hypocritical ways in which the case was debated in the media. Another work that centres on questions of morality and conscience is Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (1960). It discusses the Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More’s (1478–1535) refusal to grant King Henry VIII his wish to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to re-marry. The trial in which More is sentenced to death is of major importance to the play and to Fred Zimmerman’s 1966 screen adaptation.

Towards the end of the 20th century, British drama increasingly turns to the law and its various institutions. Most radically, this shift in perspective can be found in David Hare’s Murmuring Judges (1991), which forms part of a trilogy of plays on three major British institutions – the legal system, the Church (Racing Demon, 1990) and the Labour Party (The Absence of War, 1993). In Murmuring Judges, Hare attempts a sharp bout at the judiciary by investigating a contentious law case from the perspectives of the court, police, and prison system; as the play progresses, more and more grievances at the individual levels emerge. The judiciary is here presented as elitist, prejudiced, corrupt, and self-involved, as evidenced by Justice Cuddeford’s belief that “[i]t’s the judge’s court. It’s his. He runs it as he sees fit. And, in English law, it’s very important he does” (Hare 1993, 7). The verbatim play The Colour of Justice (ed. Norton-Taylor, 1999) highlights racism as such a major structural problem. Based on the transcripts of hearings after the murder of the Black student Stephen Lawrence in 1993, the play re-visits the first criminal case that engendered a wider public debate about structural racism in the British legal system. Notably, the play was so popular that the BBC decided to broadcast a performance at the Tricycle and thus “finally give the public access to explosive material” (Billington 2014, 2).

Next to this interrogation of systemic racism, in the 21st century, trials in British drama put gendered power structures centre stage. Nina Raine’s Consent (2017) and Suzie Miller's Prima Facie (2019) explore the ontological status of 'truth' in a legal sense, also asking how much trust or value the judiciary assigns to the voice and testimony of women who are survivors of sexual assault. Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin (2020) investigates gendered, legally sanctioned power imbalances and structural violence against women even more forcefully. The play is set in 18th-century East Anglia, when a cuckolded husband charges his wife with the murder of a child. Following a convention of English common law that dates back to the 13th century, a Jury of Matrons – traditionally called to determine potential pregnancies of female convicts and, in such cases, suspend or commute sentences (see Butler 2019) – is formed to rule on whether the death sentence should be enforced. When asked by one of her fellow matrons why they should pardon the convict, midwife Elizabeth Luke replies:

Because she has been sentenced to hang on the word of a cuckolded husband. […] Because every card dealt to her today and for many years before has been an unkind one, because she has been sentenced by men pretending to be certain of things of which they are entirely ignorant, and now we sit here imitating them, trying to make an ungovernable thing governable. (Kirkwood 2020, 64)

For its all-female jury, as well as the fact that about two thirds of the play portray said jury’s deliberation behind closed doors, the play has been named “a winking feminist twist on [Sidney Lumet’s film] Twelve Angry Men” (Akbar 2020). Rather than presenting a tale of female solidarity of some sort, however, Kirkwood shows the matrons as “upholders of a misogynistic legal system that disbelieves and condemns a woman on a man’s word” (Akbar 2020), thereby acknowledging that such systemic problems do not proceed squarely along gendered lines.

4. Postcolonial Contexts: Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Ireland and South Africa

Formed in opposition to British drama, Irish drama has to be approached as a separate dramatic tradition, and here, too, theatrical versions of real-life court cases abound. George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (1923), written shortly after the Joan of Arc’s canonisation by the Roman Catholic Church – a striking reversal of her original sentence –, is one of the most famous courtroom dramas written in the English language. Shaw’s text is based on various textualisations of Joan’s life and trial by the Inquisition, and its primary themes are the blurry boundaries between religious faith and fanaticism, as well as sexism, and the concept of justice in the eye of the Church. Shaw presents the different agents’ viewpoints in a decidedly neutral way without indicating major partiality, which is why he himself insists that “[t]here are no villains in the piece” (Shaw 2003a, 50). Nevertheless, the play also calls into question the legitimacy of clerical judiciary per se. During the trial it becomes clear that Joan should be sentenced to death at all costs in order to set an example, and so in the play’s Epilogue even the ghost of the Executioner admits: “I who am of the dead, testified that day that you were innocent. But I do not see how The Inquisition could possibly be dispensed with under existing circumstances” (Shaw 2003b, 163).

From the beginning of the 20th century onwards, the time of the Irish Literary Revival, Irish literature and Irish identity move in staunch opposition to British identity, with Irish drama increasingly focusing on the crimes of British colonial rule in Ireland. The Northern Ireland Conflict, otherwise known as The Troubles, is of special significance here: Roger MacHugh’s Trial at Green Street Courthouse (1945), for instance, investigates the trial following the death of Head Constable Thomas Talbot, who was killed by a republican revolutionary in Dublin on 12 July 1871. And Owen McCafferty’s one-scene play “Courtroom No. 1” (2000, as part of the multi-authored Convictions) shows a victim of the Troubles who is questioned by a disembodied voice. The premiere took place in the former Crumlin Road Courthouse in Belfast, and the courtroom here functioned as a “purgatorial setting” in which the victim struggles to make sense of his suffering (Phelan 2010, 200). Eventually, however, neither the open-ended political discourse surrounding the Troubles nor their dramatic reappraisal provide the kind of clarifications and, thus, salvation he seeks.

Of course, there are many more postcolonial countries and literatures that would deserve closer scrutiny in the context of dramatic trials. However, one further example that stands out especially is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a court-like institution formed at the end of South African apartheid. Established by then president Nelson Mandela in 1996, the committee investigated politically motivated crimes against Black citizens between 1948 and the early 1990s, calling survivors of systemic racialised violence to give testimony. Chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the TRC aimed to provide truth and reconciliation not only in a political but also religious sense. Some of the cases were staged in public after initial private inquiries, thus implying that in a trial “there can be no proper justice without this element of openness to the public” (Farmer 2010, 468). Inherently theatrical for its public hearings and prominent broadcast in the media, the TRC’s “‘extravagant drama’ was, at once, authenticated as the primary site of ‘truth’ and discredited for its emotional ‘excess’” (Bharucha 2001, 3767). Next to a wide reflection in fiction and film, the TRC’s dramatic negotiations include Jane Taylor’s Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997), John Kani’s Nothing but the Truth (2002), and Paavo Tom Tammi and Michael Lessac’s Truth in Translation (2006). Debbie tucker green’s truth and reconciliation (2011) also draws analogies to the search for truth and reconciliation in other genocidal conflicts, extending the focus to Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Bosnia, and Northern Ireland (on this play see also Riedelsheimer and Stöckl 2017).

5. Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century USA

One of the earliest significant court proceedings in American drama constitutes Bayard Veiller’s melodrama The Trial of Mary Dugan (1927), which – in a somewhat sensationalist and voyeuristic way – follows the trial of the eponymous showgirl who was charged with the murder of her rich lover. The play repeatedly addresses the audience as if they were the jury, a strategy which Ayn Rand’s Night of January 16th (1934) takes even a step further by literally handing over control of the play’s outcome to the audience. Rand’s play is loosely based on the alleged murder of the Swedish industrialist Ivar Kreuger, also known as ‘The Match King’. It is set in the courtroom of the murder trial, and before the play begins, individual audience members are selected to function as the jury. Depending on their verdict, the performance concludes with one of two alternative endings.

Arguably the most prominent American play set in a courtroom is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953), which dramatises the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, between 1692 and 1693. The play shows how entirely unjustified claims and spiteful rumours get out of hand until amounting to mass hysteria that cost the life of innocent people. The play culminates in a trial against various defendants in which the inquisitors recognise their mistake. Still, they find the farmer John Proctor guilty of engagements in witchcraft, because they fear an acquittal would undermine the authority of the Church. Eventually, with Reverend Hale even a representative of the Church questions the court’s authority: “I denounce these proceedings, I quit this court!” (Miller 2000, 105; on the play as commentary on the ailing American judiciary system see also Samuelson 1995). Originally a parable of the hunt for communists during the McCarthy era (1947–1956), more recently the play has been discussed apropos of the increasing departure from facts after Donald Trump’s election into the office of US president (Rintoul 2020) – an analogy Trump himself furthered by repeatedly stylising himself as the victim of a supposed “witch hunt” (Markham-Cantor 2019). Eric Bentley’s Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been? (1972), written almost twenty years after The Crucible, is able to engage with McCarthyism in a more explicit manner. It is based on the transcripts of hearings held at the so-called House Un-American Activities Committee that searched for alleged communist activities amongst literati and artists, including Miller himself, especially.

Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit (1979) turns to race relations as a major focus of twentieth- and twenty-first-century American drama more generally. The play is based on the trial following the so-called Sleepy Lagoon murder in 1942: José Gallardo Díaz, a member of the Mexican American community, was found dead near a swimming hole in Commerce, California, without any indications as to either his cause of death or potential perpetrators. Without sufficient evidence, the police arrested seventeen Mexican American men, twelve of whom were later sent to prison. The case fuelled racialised violence against Mexican Americans and other minority ethnic communities, known as the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. During these riots, White mobs attacked non-White Americans wearing so-called Zoot Suits. This particular type of clothing was considered fashionable amongst, for instance, Mexican American and African American communities. At the same time, however, Zoot Suits proved popular amongst some criminal circles and were thus identified as an alleged marker of organised crime. Valdez’s play dramatises the fate of the (fictionalised) Henry Reyna, leader of the notorious and predominantly Mexican American 38 Street Gang, thus positioning the Sleepy Lagoon murder as brought about by a conflict between two rivalling gangs. The play stages two different trials ­– the initial court proceedings which are significantly marked by prejudices and during which the defendants are largely found guilty based on their ethnicity, and the subsequent appeal hearing in which the original life sentences are repealed. Upon its New York premiere in March 1979, Zoot Suit was only the second Chicano play to be performed on Broadway. This is not only noteworthy insofar as, for many of the predominantly White Broadway audiences, the play provided the first encounter with both the Sleepy Lagoon case itself and the institutionalised racism that many Mexican Americans are faced with to the present day. Moreover, it allowed the Chicano community authorship and prerogative of interpretation in a debate that had hitherto been led almost exclusively by White media (on this play see also Rossini 2008, 63–76).

A number of other US court cases of wider popular interest, too, have been re-visited or symbolically re-tried, and often in the form of the tribunal play. To name but a few, Daniel Berrigan’s The Trial of The Catonsville Nine (1971) stages the court case against nine anti-War activists who burned several hundred draft papers relating to the Vietnam War. Emily Mann’s Execution of Justice (1985) identifies the trial of Dan White, murderer of gay activists and politicians Harvey Milk and George Moscone, a miscarriage of justice and questions White’s lesser conviction for manslaughter rather than first-degree murder. Further, her Greensboro: A Requiem (1996) investigates the 1979 Ku Klux Klan attack on anti-Klan protests in a predominantly black neighbourhood of Greensboro, North Carolina. Such community-centric works are both “theater texts and cultural documents; they situate themselves on a shifting border between imagination and the law; they enact not just dramatic events but legal crises as well” (O’Connor 2013, 5). They symbolically re-open cases that are perceived as inadequately investigated and tried, thus seeking to establish a form of justice that the judiciary withholds (on the above and other American tribunal or trial plays see O’Connor 2013).

Even though both Harper Lee’s iconic 1960 novel and its 1962 screen adaptation have been more influential, To Kill a Mockingbird also continues to be a favourite on the American stage – not least since its topic, racial inequality, seems as pertinent now as it did in the 1960s. Whereas for a long time, theatres relied on Christopher Serge’s 1970 adaptation, 2018 saw the Broadway premiere of another version, this time by Aaron Sorkin. Like the novel, Sorkin’s play is set in 1930s Alabama and depicts lawyer Atticus Finch’s defence of Tom Robinson, a Black man who is wrongly accused of rape. Whilst the novel has been criticised for its ‘White savior narrative’, Sorkin’s adaptation recalibrates some aspects of the novel’s racial politics, because in the twenty-first century, “a work about racial injustice in which its principal black characters have no agency would be intolerable” (Green 2018). The play furthermore abandons the novel’s structure, so that the trial becomes much more central and functions as an organising element. Ironically, the Broadway production got into two legal disputes itself, one with the Lee estate who claimed the play would “deface” the adapted novel (Green 2018), and the other because Sorkin’s lawyers tried to prohibit any commercial stagings that used the version by Christopher Serge.



The Licensing Act, 1737: 10 George 2 c.28: An act to explain and amend so much of an act made in the twelfth year of the reign of Queen Anne, intituled, An act for reducing the laws relating to rogues, vagabonds, sturdy beggars, and vagrants, into one act of parliament; and for the more effectual punishing such rogues, vagabonds, sturdy beggars, and vagrants, and sending them whither they ought to be sent, as relates to common players of interludes

Plays Discussed

Eric Bentley (1972): Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been?

Daniel Berrigan (1971): The Trial of The Catonsville Nine

Robert Bolt (1960): A Man for All Seasons

Dion Boucicault (1863): The Trial of Effie Deans; Or, The Heart of Midlothian

Agatha Christie (1953): Witness for the Prosecution

W.S. Gilbert/Arthur Sullivan (1875): Trial by Jury

David Hare (1991): Murmuring Judges;
consulted edition: David Hare (1993): Murmuring Judges, London: Faber and Faber.

John Kani (2002): Nothing but the Truth

Nicolas Kent / Richard Norton-Taylor, eds. (2007): Called to Account: The indictment of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair for the crime of aggression against Iraq – a hearing

Lucy Kirkwood (2020): The Welkin. London: Nick Hern Books.

Owen McCafferty (2000): Courtroom No. 1

Roger MacHugh (1945): Trial at Green Street Courthouse

Emily Mann (1985): Execution of Justice

Emily Mann (1996): Greensboro: A Requiem

Arthur Miller (1953): The Crucible;
consulted edition: Arthur Miller (2000): The Crucible, London: Penguin.

Suzie Miller (2019): Prima Facie

John Mortimer (1957): The Dock Brief

Richard Norton-Taylor, ed. (1999): The Colour of Justice

Richard Norton-Taylor, ed. (2003): Justifying War: Scenes from the Hutton Enquiry

Richard Norton-Taylor, ed. (2005): Bloody Sunday: Scenes from the Saville Inquiry

Nina Raine (2017): Consent;
consulted edition: Nina Raine (2018): Consent, London: Nicke Hern Books.

Ayn Rand (1934): Night of January 16th

Terence Rattigan (1946): The Winslow Boy

Terence Rattigan (1977): Cause Célèbre

Christopher Serge (1970): To Kill a Mockingbird

William Shakespeare (1604): Measure for Measure;
consulted edition: William Shakespeare (2020): Measure for Measure, ed. A.R. Braunmuller/ Robert N. Watson, London: Arden Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare (1605): The Merchant of Venice;
consulted edition: William Shakespeare (2010): The Merchant of Venice, ed. John Drakakis, London: Arden Shakespeare.

George Bernard Shaw (1923): Saint Joan;
consulted edition: George Bernard Shaw (2003b): Saint Joan, London: Penguin.

Gillian Slovo, ed. (2011): The Riots

Aaron Sorkin (2018): To Kill a Mockingbird

Paavo Tom Tammi/Michael Lessac (2006): Truth in Translation

Jane Taylor (1997): Ubu and the Truth Commission

Cyril Tourneur (1609): Atheist’s Tragedy

W. Travers and N. Lee (1863): Jessie Farleigh

debbie tucker green (2011): truth and reconciliation

Luis Valdez (1979): Zoot Suit

Bayard Veiller (1927): The Trial of Mary Dugan

John Webster (1612). The White Devil

History and Criticism

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Marlena Tronicke, marlena[dot]tronicke[at]uni-muenster[dot]de
CC License Icon Attribution 4.0 International This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

How to cite this entry

Marlena Tronicke (2022): Trial Scenes in Anglophone Theatre, in: Thomas Gutmann, Eberhard Ortland, Klaus Stierstorfer, eds., Encyclopedia of Law and Literature (last edited 16 October 2022),
doi: 10.17879/71089503012



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