The Liberal Trial Play: Notes toward the Formation of a Genre


The following article identifies a major category of dramatic writing on the mid-twentieth-century stage, the liberal trial play, and delineates its form. Beginning with a definition of the trial play as a dramatic work in which major plot developments are driven by or towards legal proceedings, the analysis then clarifies the significance of the designation liberal, denoting a concern with the conflict between the subject and the state, or indeed with established authority of any kind, prioritizing the claims of personal conscience, and the liberties of the subject, over political constraints. Rather than seeking (in vain) to align the genre’s seminal works in terms of their authors’ politics, the essay identifies a paradigmatic plot structure, which itself might be deemed liberal, in its capacity to dramatize the experience of the dissident subject caught up in the machinations of power. The discussion centers Shaw’s Saint Joan (1923), Brecht’s Life of Galileo (1943), Miller’s The Crucible (1953), Lawrence and Lee’s Inherit the Wind (1955), Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy (1946) and Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons (1960), analyzing stages (from indictment, through condemnation, to absolution) in the legal and extra-legal ordeals endured by the plays’ defendant-protagonists. Supplying a nomenclature to accompany the analysis of these processes (e.g. self-sacrificial reversal; the apostasy of the chaplaincy; filial-marital conflict; spousal absolution), the article contributes a new lexicon to the discussion of six seminal works, inter alia, whose relationships have never been adequately theorized.

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