- Documentary Trial Plays in Contemporary American Theater by Jacqueline O’Connor
Documentary Trial Plays in Contemporary American Theater constitutes a welcome addition to the growing body of research concerned with forms of documentation in the theater. By investigating what she calls the “documentary trial play,” O’Connor sets out to explore “complicated questions…about law and the execution of justice, about art and the resolution of emotion” (21). Through theatrical reenactment of the procedures of justice, she argues, communities of performers and spectators can symbolically “re-open” the cases, and can debate their cultural and social ramifications in ways legal proceedings cannot. In close readings of nine such documentary trial plays, first produced between 1970 and 2000, O’Connor deliberates and interrogates the boundaries that (often very tentatively) separate fact from fiction, the courtroom from the theater, and the individual from the social. [End Page 98]
The documentary trial play, O’Connor states in an initial definition of the genre, “comes about through the blending of verbatim excerpts from legal transcripts, media coverage of the events, and first-person interviews, the last compiled either at the time of the trial or, in some cases, months or years later” (4). Not all of the trial plays analyzed in the book are concerned with trials in a strictly legal sense; some also deal with judicial hearings such as the infamous congressional investigations conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the McCarthy era. Moreover, O’Connor’s notion of the “contemporary” in her title is relatively broad and reaches back to the 1970s; while the trials that precede the plays even date back as far as the 1890s, the historical, political, and aesthetic territory covered by the book can be roughly delineated as the post-World War II United States.
In four main chapters, O’Connor discusses nine plays and the courtroom proceedings they are based on. Importantly, she points out, documentary trial plays hardly ever focus on “ordinary” trials, but instead dramatize legal action in which broader cultural, social, and political issues are negotiated. In these cases, the rationality of the law is often doubtful, and reflection on it determined to a large extent by political and ideological considerations. This focus on exemplary cases also explains why at times O’Connor seems to say more about the trials themselves and their historical circumstances than about the aesthetics of the trial plays she purports to analyze. The strong emphasis on the historical bases of her theatrical archive is also evident in the larger structure of Documentary Trial Plays: its four chapters are structured along thematic lines (chapter 1 deals with Vietnam War protests, chapter 2 with the McCarthy era, and so on) rather than in terms of formal, aesthetic, or theatrical considerations. While this is not necessarily a flaw, it points to the complexities of writing about documentary art, which is so explicitly entangled with larger historical realities that it is often difficult to foreground aesthetic and production processes and decisions.
In the first chapter, “Judicial Identification,” O’Connor examines two documentary trial plays related to illegal forms of protest against the Vietnam War: Daniel Berrigan’s The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (1970), about Catholic activists (of whom Berrigan was one) burning draft cards, and Ron Sossi and Frank Condon’s The Chicago Conspiracy Trial (1979), about protesters who refused to exit public parks during the 1968 National Democratic Convention in Chicago. In her reading, O’Connor focuses on the relationship between law and morality, and the tricky question of the extent to which laws are reflective of moral considerations at all. How can we assess the role of the legal system, she asks, in matters of political dissent? This question is particularly pronounced in the way the plays position the figure of the judge. An abstracted representative of the law’s rationality, the judge is always also an individual, a human being with his or her own—and often contradictory—moral standards and opinions. [End Page 99] While these...