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  • Staged: Show Trials, Political Theater, and the Aesthetics of Judgment by Minou Arjomand
  • Michael Shane Boyle
Staged: Show Trials, Political Theater, and the Aesthetics of Judgment.
By Minou Arjomand. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. 232 pages + 21 b/w illustrations. $75.00 hardcover, $74.99 e-book.

Staged: Show Trials, Political Theater, and the Aesthetics of Judgment describes the proximity of theater to justice in the twentieth century. As Minou Arjomand argues, theater is not just a Schillerian “moral institution that teaches laws.” It is, more crucially, “a space where people judge in the company of others without recourse to a universal law” (53). Arjomand focuses her study on West and East Germany in the 1950s and 1960s, an apt context for her argument given how fraught public conversations about justice and judgment were following World War II. The period was marked by two kinds of courtroom performances, the show trial and the trial play. Arjomand addresses both but, as a theater historian, she reads the former through the latter, centering each of her four chapters around the work of a distinct figure, including Hannah Arendt, Bertolt Brecht, Erwin Piscator, and Rolf Schneider. Drawing judiciously from fields like philosophy, legal theory, and performance studies, Staged explains how theater was suited both aesthetically and infrastructurally for collective reflection on what constitutes justice. As a brick-and-mortar institution that gathers people together to pass judgment on what is presented before them, but which lacks anything like “the coercive power of the law,” theater offers a counterweight to the courtroom. In a divided Germany, theater emerged as a space where audiences were taught why and how “to judge the law itself when the law is unjust” (21).

The philosophy of Hannah Arendt, especially her chronicle of Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial, is both the cornerstone of Arjomand’s argument and the focus of her first chapter. Arjomand breaks with standard treatments of Eichmann in Jerusalem that claim Arendt criticized the trial for being too much like theater. Arjomand convincingly argues that Arendt believed Eichmann’s trial failed because it was “the wrong type of theater” (24). The trial’s tragic mode, which hinged on the moving testimonies of survivors, was designed to evoke pity when distanced collective judgment and historical scope was what was needed. Arjomand insists we read Arendt as demanding an epic approach akin to the theater of Brecht that would have trained those following the trial to critically analyze the trial for what it revealed about social conditions that made possible Eichmann’s actions. Arendt’s own “theatrical philosophy” provides some clue as to the distance both she and Arjomand require (27). As Arjomand reminds us, much of Arendt’s post-war writing was first performed as lectures or speeches. Her thinking, in other words, was designed with a live audience in mind, itself a model for how to issue one’s judgment in the company of others, so as to cultivate the ability to weigh one’s personal view against those of others.

Having introduced Brecht in her ingenious reading of Arendt, Arjomand turns full attention to the German writer and director in the next chapter. The fact that so many of Brecht’s plays took the form of a trial prompts Arjomand to pronounce the [End Page 755] “courtroom trial” as the “formal model” for Brecht’s forays into political theater (60). In addition to providing Brecht with the perfect setting for experimenting with acting and spectatorship, the trial also offered him a convenient theatrical scenario for judging society itself. “What is so often put on trial on Brecht’s stage is,” Arjomand writes, “the courtroom itself” (59). The chapter covers considerable ground, but concentrates on the 1954 Berliner Ensemble production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Arjomand examines both the production and the production process, making careful archival use of rehearsal notes and Brecht’s notebooks. The very effort required to mount this exemplary epic production amounted to a kind of “learning play” for Brecht and his collaborators (76). The process required the ensemble to learn how to negotiate the political restrictions of socialist realism so as to articulate a critical perspective on the...


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