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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 339-367

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Lethal Theatre:
Performance, Punishment, and the Death Penalty

Dwight Conquergood


I'm not going to struggle physically against any restraints. I'm not going to shout, use profanity or make idle threats. Understand though that I'm not only upset, but I'm saddened by what is happening here tonight . . . . If someone tried to dispose of everyone here for participating in this killing, I'd scream a resounding, "No." I'd tell them to give them all the gift that they would not give me, and that's to give them all a second chance . . . . There are a lot of men like me on death row—good men—who fell to the same misguided emotions, but may not have recovered as I have. Give those men a chance to do what's right. Give them a chance to undo their wrongs. A lot of them want to fix the mess they started, but don't know how . . . . No one wins tonight. No one gets closure.

—Napoleon Beazley 1 [End Page 339]

There will be no lasting peace either in the heart of individuals or in social customs until death is outlawed.

—Albert Camus 2

Like it or not, you are putting on a show.

—John Whitley 3

Show, spectacle, theatre, these representational media are
central to the rituals of state killing.

—Austin Sarat 4

In 1975 Michel Foucault published Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, a landmark book that opened with two astonishing chapters, "The Body of the Condemned" and "The Spectacle of the Scaffold," harrowing accounts in gruesome detail of the performance of capital punishment in the premodern era. 5 These chapters served as points of departure for charting the historical shift from the dramatic infliction of corporal and capital punishment to modernity's more subtle and insidious infiltrations of power through mechanisms of discipline linked with knowledge. Punishment transformed, Foucault argued, from a theatre of violence and repression to a medical model of rehabilitation metonymically connected to other normalizing mechanisms and internalized techniques of coercion, compliance, and surveillance. According to Foucault, the performance of power in modern society has changed radically from spectacular capital punishments—that point at which the violence of the state is most nakedly displayed—to undercover capillary penetrations, insinuations, secretions, and circulations of power that is difficult to flesh out. He closed the book with the confident claim that "we are now far away from the country of tortures," the spectacle of the scaffold, because contemporary legal punishment "appears to be free of all excess and all violence." 6

I reread Discipline and Punish in the summer of 2001, during the same time that I traveled twice in eight days to Terre Haute, Indiana, to march and stand in vigil outside the prison death chamber to protest the serial executions of Timothy McVeigh and Juan Raul Garza, the first federal prisoners put to death since 1963. I found Foucault's opening chapters on executions more resonant and familiar than later chapters titled "The Gentle Way of Punishment." Emotionally drained from attending the June 11 and June 19 executions, I kept writing "not in June, 2001" in the margins of passages about how modern judicial punishment had advanced well beyond the [End Page 340] deployment of raw, physical force. I drew an incredulous exclamation point across from this passage in the conclusion: "There is nothing in it now that recalls the former excess of sovereign power when it revenged its authority" on the body of the condemned. 7

To be fair, Foucault wrote Discipline and Punish in 1975, at a time when the medical model of rehabilitation was in the ascendancy in penological thought and practice. The death penalty was rarely deployed, and France, along with the rest of Europe, was on the verge of abolishing capital punishment for good. Although it is amazing to think of it now, the United States was in step with and even ahead of the international community on the issue of the death penalty. In 1975, there were no...


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