Law in Popular Culture

The Theater's 12 Greatest Courtroom Dramas


Lawyers love the stage.

They may not care for the theater, but they love what it represents: the issues, the words, the conflict, the rhetoric, the liturgy, the drama.

It’s almost trite to note the similarities between the stage and the courtroom. Lawyers, in their own way, are actors and critics, directors and playwrights, script doctors and casting agents. They love the high-wire feel of a live performance, the adrenaline rush of a storyline playing itself out before an audience—the theater’s jury of peers.

Each August, we devote our cover story to some nexus of law and culture—television or books or film. And this year we’ve trained our experts on works that have become the theater’s greatest court-related plays. From Sophocles to Mamet, our judges have selected 12 courtroom dramas they deem the best ever.

There are revelations. There are disappointments. Like actors who have trouble in the transition from stage to film, there are classics that didn’t make the grade because they were dwarfed by their incarnations on television or the silver screen. And you can log your surprise, express your displeasure or offer your own choices in the comments below.

As in courtrooms across the country, where drama is created in the heroic conflicts of everyday lives, law in the theater—law as theater—is something special and spontaneous. Even when the script is followed, there is almost always the element of surprise.

So let the lights dim. Let the curtain rise. Call the house to order. The jury has reached its verdict on the 12 greatest courtroom dramas ever staged.

Click the link to read about all 12 stage plays and see their Playbills in gallery format.

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OFFSTAGE

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Here are a few plays that didn’t make the final dozen, but are worthy of your notice:

Night of January 16th: Ayn Rand hated the title of this play, which she originally called Penthouse Legend. The play enacts the trial of a young woman who is accused of murdering a wealthy industrialist. The play’s conceit lies in its verdict, which is determined not by the script, but by a jury selected from the evening’s audience.

Zoot Suit: This hip Chicano musical meditation on racial identity—written by Luis Valdez, with music by Daniel Valdez and Lalo Guerrero—juxtaposes the Los Angeles “zoot suit riots” of the 1940s with a spurious murder charge against a young Mexican-American pachuco who has volunteered to fight in World War II.

The Runner Stumbles: Playwright Milan Stitt explores the very human temptations of a small-town Catholic priest who is accused of murdering a young nun. The play uses the priest’s trial to provoke questions of moral responsibility and faltering faith.

The Crucible: Arthur Miller’s retelling of the Salem witch trials doesn’t have its original immediacy, the McCarthy-era circa 1953, but his literate tale of personal betrayal, mass hysteria and public deceit still plays well against the synthetic cultural values of reality entertainment.

To Kill a Mockingbird: The classic book/movie has been adapted for the legitimate theater by Christopher Stergel, and has played in venues as diverse as Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and the Utah Shakespeare Festival. In Monroe County, Ala., the play is part of an annual cultural event that celebrates all things Mockingbird. Says Journal juror Dennis Rendleman, “Even though the ghost of the movie hovers over any production, the trial scene is still superb.”

Measure for Measure: In one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known farces, an officious stand-in for Duke Vincentio attempts to enforce some long-standing but seldom enforced laws regarding sex among Vienna’s citizens. Not exactly Griswold v. Connecticut, but funnier.

Race: David Mamet’s latest Broadway production is a meditation on primal prejudice that revolves around the ever-changing testimony of a white man charged with raping a black woman.


MEET THE JURY

Preet Bharara has been U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York since August 2009. He served as staff director of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts before becoming U.S. attorney. His favorite stage play is Glengarry Glen Ross.

Peggy Hill is a graduate of Fordham University School of Law and a Broadway and off-Broadway producer. Her stage credits include a recent Broadway revival of David Mamet’s Speed the Plow and Mamet’s new play, Race.

Daniel J. Kornstein is a founding partner of Kornstein Veisz Wexler & Pollard in New York City. A graduate of Yale Law School, he is a past president of the Law and Humanities Institute, and past chair of the Committee on Law and Literature of the New York County Lawyers Association. He has published seven nonfiction books and numerous articles about law.

Keith Lieberthal is the director of strategy for a leading primary research provider in New York City. He previously served as general counsel for Tommy Hilfiger USA and was an associate at Covington & Burling. He sits on the board of New York Stage & Film.

Jeffrey M. Marks is a Chicago trial attorney and an actor, singer, dancer, musician and theater technical director. As a judge for the Jeff Awards, recognizing excellence in Chicago theater, Marks sees some 150 productions each season. He also volunteers for Lawyers for the Creative Arts. His wife, Stevi, a theater director, cringes at the Southern accent he uses when re-enacting scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird.

Michael P. Maslanka practices employment law in Dallas. He also writes a column called the Literate Lawyer. His favorite stage play is The Merchant of Venice.

Dennis Rendleman is ethics counsel to the Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility in the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility. He has performed in more than 35 theatrical productions and appears in The Ghosts of the Library at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill. His favorite play is Macbeth[noir], a production of Macbeth that he adapted and directed in the style of film noir.

Michael Riedel is the theater columnist for the New York Post and co-host of the syndicated PBS series Theater Talk. He’s a frequent guest on Imus in the Morning and on BBC television and radio. He’s working on a book for Simon & Schuster about the transformation of Broadway from a dying business in the 1970s to the multibillion-dollar global empire it is today.

Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist and law professor at Fordham University, where he is director of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society. He also is the editor of Law Lit: From Atticus Finch to The Practice: A Collection of Great Writing About the Law. Rosenbaum’s favorite stage play is Macbeth.

Michelle Zierler’s legal career has included stints at Miramax Films, Canal+ (in Paris) and Playboy Entertainment. A graduate of New York University’s law school, she is the director of the Program in Law and Journalism at New York Law School and an avid patron of the arts. Her favorite legal-themed stage plays are Aaron Sorkin’s The Farnsworth Invention (which, she says, too few people saw) and the Public Theater production of The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino.


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