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Independent Press Award

2024 Distinguished Favorite

Courtroom Dramas on the Stage

Amnon Kabatchnik

Trial plays mounted in 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 penning 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, Ariel Dorfman, David Henry Hwang, Aaron Sorkin, others.

Veteran mystery writers joined the fray, concocting courtroom melodramas. Among them were Gaston Leroux (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1912), A.E.W Mason (No Other Tiger, 1928), Agatha Christie Witness for the Prosecution, 1953), and Henry Cecil (Settled Out of Court, 1960).

Quite a few plays were inspired by real-life events. Caponsacchi (1926) is based on a poem by Robert Browning, depicting a double murder among the clergy in Rome of 1698. Sophie Treadwell's expressionist drama Machinal (1928) focuses on a sensational 1927 murder case in Queens, New York, in which an ordinary stenographer kills her much older husband when she feels stifled at home. A Pin to See the Peepshow (1951), by F. Tennyson Jesse and H.M. Harwood, introduces a twenty-eight-year-old London millinery who, with the aid of her younger lover, plans to eliminate a bossy husband. On the evening of October 3, 1922, he is found stabbed to death on a side road.

The entries, presented chronologically, include a plot synopsis, production data, opinions by critics, and biographical sketches of playwrights and key actors-directors.

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