Wednesday, August 16, 2023

INTERROGATION: Courtroom Dramas on the Stage -- Guest Post by Amnon Kabatchnik

While many books have been published about courtroom fiction in film and on television, the topic of stage courtrooms has been largely ignored. In order to fill the void, I penned  Courtroom Dramas on the Stage Volume I and Courtroom Dramas on the Stage Volume II, both published recently by BearManor Media. 

Volume I deals with trial plays produced in Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the Elizabethan era, early America, and beyond. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Pierre Corneille, Lord Byron, and Nikolas Gogol are among the playwrights represented.

In Volume II, I concentrated on trial plays mounted  during  the twentieth century. The first decade featured notable dramas by Leo Tolstoy (The Living Corpse, Russia, 1900), Alexander Bisson (Madame X, France, 1908), and John Galsworthy (Justice, England, 1910). The trend continued with authors of the main stream writing plays populated with judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, jurors, witnesses, and the accused, often charged with murder in the first degree. Elmer Rice, Ayn Rand, Ernst Toller,  W. Somerset Maugham, Richard Wright, Maxwell Anderson, and Arthur Miller, Herman Wouk, Jean Genet, Aldous Huxley, William Faulkner, William Saroyan, James Baldwin, Terence Rattigan, Jeffrey Archer, Aaron Sorkin, others. 

Veteran mystery writers joined the fray, concocting courtroom melodramas. Among them were Gaston Leroux (TheMystery of the Yellow Room, 1912), A.E.W. Mason (No Other Tiger, 1928), Agatha Christie (Witness for theProsecution, 1953), and Henry Cecil (Settled Out of Court, 1960).
 Both volume I and volume II present the trial plays chronologically, including a plot synopsis, production data, opinions by critics and scholars,  as well as biographical sketches of playwrights and key actors-directors.

Following are several tidbits of plays that feature an Interrogation by the authorities which may or not lead to indictment and trial.

Oedipus the King (429 B.C.) by Sophocles is the first known play to introduce the motif of crime and punishment, and the step-by-step investigation of a murder by interrogating witnesses. The city of Thebes is afflicted with a terrible pestilence and the  priests decree that salvation can only occur by learning who had killed the former king, Laius, who apparently has been murdered by a band of highwaymen. King Oedipus undertakes to solve the case by summoning and questioning palace attendants, shepherds, and priests.

The Victorian melodrama The Courier of Lyons (1854), by Charles Reade, is based on an actual robbery-and-murder that took place in France in 1796. An innocent man is accused of multiple homicides committed during a mail heist until a judge draws the confession of a look-like culprit.  Victorien Sardou's play La Tosca (1887), written as a star vehicle for the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt, unfolds in Rome of 1800. Through a cross examination, Scarpia, chief of the secret police, an early, perhaps the first of sadistic, lecherous police chieftains seen on stage, breaks the resistance of the opera singer Floria Tosca to find out the hiding place of an escaped Republican leader. 

"Innocent until proven guilty" is the ruling principle of the American judicial system. But in The Third 
 Degree (1909), playwright Charles Klein spotlights a perversion of this precept. Howard Jeffries, an unhappy young man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, confesses to murder after enduring a "third-degree" questioning.  Adapted by Sidney Kingsley from an Arthur Koestler novel, the grim action of Darkness at Noon (1951) is confined to a Russian prison, where one of the inmates, a Communist commissar, is grilled to admit that he had been part of a plot to assassinate a political leader. The Prisoner (1954), by Bridget Boland, unfolds in a gloomy set divided into an interrogation room and a prison cell. A battle of wits develops between an interrogator who represents a totalitarian government and a Cardinal considered a national leader. A Shot in the Dark (1961), by Frenchman Marcel Achard, introduces a young, idealistic magistrate who is assigned his first case -- seemingly a cut-and dried murder -- and faces a prime suspect, a sexy maid who was found unconscious, nude, and clutching a gun alongside her dead lover, the chauffeur.

In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1964), by Germany's Heinar Kipphardt, goes back to the hysterical era of McCarthyism when in 1954 J. Robert Oppenheimer, "the father of the atomic bomb," was summoned to a congressional hearing regarding his security clearance.  In Agnes of God (1980) by John Pielmeier, a court-appointed psychiatrist is assigned to determine the sanity of a young nun accused of strangling her own newly born baby with its umbilical cord.  Ariel Dorfman's Death of a Maiden (1991) is the story of Pauline Salas, a married South American lady, who recognizes in a guest house, Doctor Roberto Mirnada, the man she believes raped and tortured her fifteen years earlier as she lay blindfolded in a military detention center. Pauline slips into Roberto's bedroom, hits him with a blunt instrument, binds him to a chair, and gags him with her panties. Then, at gun point, she orders her shocked husband to serve as the doctor's defense attorney in "a trial."

In addition to the section about interrogations, the two volumes of Courtroom Dramas on the Stage contain chapters about Lawyers and judges out of court, trials that occur off stage, and jury room plays.

Amnon Kabatchnik, now retired, was a professor of theater at SUNY Binghamton, Stanford University, Ohio State University, Florida State University, and Elmira College. He directed numerous dramas, comedies, thrillers, and musicals in New York and across the United States. He is the author of Sherlock Holmes on the Stage as well as the seven-volume series Blood on the Stage.


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