I had to postpone my initial summons to serve jury duty, as it fell on the single day I was given to paint the floor for my last show (coincidentally, it was a play about a man on trial for murder and a lawyer suborning perjury). I had rescheduled my civic duty for yesterday and was looking forward to taking complete advantage of my free time with Guare's House of Blue Leaves and a collection of Kafka's fiction that Collin bought for me.
The morning began with a 20 minute orientation video on the process a juror undergoes. It opened with a hilariously low-budget historical reenactment of the medieval concept trial by ordeal, where an accused man was bound and thrown into a river. I actually giggled audibly when the film over-dramatically quoted Aristotle as the man was pulled from the water and declared innocent. Next came a brief history of judicial systems and the establishment of the jury, some clips from Perry Mason (no joke) and then an explanation of how our present day court system works. At first, I was proud when the concept of a trial was likened to a piece of "dramatic theatre," due to the high level of conflict between two parties and a final resolution. Yet as the metaphor was extended to describe the people of the court as a "cast of characters," I began to feel a little uneasy. After all, a trial is serious business. Its purpose is to decide if a person is innocent or guilty, not to entertain and enlighten the spectators. Should a civil event of this magnitude be so lightly compared to theatre?
But informative-film-narrator-extraordinaire Diane Sawyer is right. A trial is theatrical. It revolves around the conflict of two opposing parties. Lawyers are playing characters because often times they don't personally believe in who or what they are defending. Their tactics are highly skilled speech and manipulation of emotion. Those on trial may be acting too, trying to portray a specific character that the jury will sympathize with. They even rehearse. The action is live and immediate, and those present are being asked to pass judgment on the characters. A good play will ask that you involve yourself as well as the elements of the play in this final judgment. But in a courtroom, the theatricality comes from trying to keep our true selves out. The accused should be judged solely on the evidence and on the interpretation of the law. Personal beliefs are not to be imposed on the situation. Therefore, a trial is one step removed from reality, perilously balancing between theatre and life. Passion and emotion are stripped from the courtroom in the attempt to collect a perfectly impartial group of people, which logistically produces a fairer trial, rendering the theatricality absolutely necessary.
Is this resemblance to be celebrated or feared? Should it make us proud or uneasy? I can’t help thinking maybe it should be a little bit of both. What do you guys think?
Still, it’s something interesting to mull over when I go see Equus tonight, a play that questions whether or not we have the right to judge another human being, and what the consequences of those judgments are.