The documentary theatre, unlike conventional theatre, defines itself in terms of actuality, authenticity, and verifiability. Reality plays draw their power and identity from their use of "actuals," authentic materials such as transcripts, interviews, testimonies, published documents, and the like. These source texts can merely inform or inspire the play's text or they can actually compose it, creating a theatre that adheres as closely as possible to the textual and factual circumstances it addresses and "making reality the object rather than the subject of theater" (Favorini xix). And yet, within the wider structural framework of documentary theatre, there is vibrant debate and discourse concerning the proper use and application of the genre, whether it is an inherently political entity or an artistic endeavor. While critics, theorists, and writers of reality theatre can agree fairly easily on the principle that reality plays demand reference to and use of primary source materials, they have difficulty establishing a consensus on the balance between politics and aestheticism, objectivity and didacticism, point of view and propaganda. Peter Weiss elucidates what may be the cause of this uncertainty in his analysis of the ersatz nature of documentary theatre, heralding "the stage of the documentary theatre does not represent reality at a given moment, but the image of a fragment of reality wrested from the continuous flux of life" (Weiss 381). Indeed, though it seeks to offer scrutiny and criticism of the social issues of the real world, reality theatre is no facsimile of reality; what it offers is a lens through which the audience can begin to see and evaluate the factual or historical events depicted. Emily Mann's play Execution of Justice lends itself particularly well to an analysis of these contradictory elements and the artistic construction required for theatrical performance, as it explores all of these themes through its treatment of a controversial murder trial and the citizens affected by its outcome. What makes documentary theatre powerful is its ability to transform reality into art, and Execution of Justice, with its adept manipulation of source materials and careful formation of linguistic structures, does an exemplary job of expressing this transformative act.
[...] The final major structural element employed by Mann in Execution of Justice, the intertextual splicing together of disparate voices, creates a choral polyphony that characterizes the stylistic identity of the play. While certain sections of the play consist of fairly continuous passages from the trial, there are others where witness testimony, interviews, and the attorneys' interjections are found woven together. These provide the richest examples of how Mann transforms the text to suit her aesthetic needs, as well as how she forces the audience to analyze what they hear and see onstage. [...]
[...] (Savran 150) Execution of Justice manages to convince the audience, Mann thinks, that what happened in this trial was both ironic and unjust. There is no doubt that she expresses her own opinion through the play's language, exhibiting that willingness to take a side that Weiss considers so essential. And yet she also tells Savran that she sees Execution of Justice as extremely morally ambiguous, displaying so many levels of morality used and misused (Savran 149). Even as she embraces her own points of view expressed in the play, Mann values the uncertainty as well, as it pushes her audience members to consider their responses with care. [...]
[...] “Fourteen Propositions” announces The documentary theatre is, in the last resort, an artistic production, which it must maintain if it wishes to justify its existence .Indeed, a documentary theatre intent on being primarily a political platform, and which gives up being an artistic achievement, calls its own validity into question .It is only when it has succeeded, by means of its activity in the fields of analysis, control and criticism, in transforming real-life material and in endowing it with the functions of an artistic medium, that it acquires full validity in the critical debate pursued with reality. [...]
[...] Navigating this multiplicity is no simple task, but identifying the points of where theorists diverge can lead to a richer and more complete picture of what documentary theatre is and can be. In his “Fourteen Propositions for a Documentary Theatre,” Weiss denounces the impulse toward objectivity in these plays, arguing that documentary plays see objectivity as concept of which those in power make use in order to excuse their actions” (Weiss 387). He implies that the claim of objectivity on the stage is somehow a refusal to take responsibility for certain attitudes. [...]
[...] The analysis of Mann's Execution of Justice leads to the conclusion that the two conceptions are actually inseparable; both are necessary for these plays to be salient and effective. If we are to accept Weiss' assertion that it is the transformation of found text into the text of the play, the transformation of reality into art, that makes this theatre relevant, then we must also allow that documentary theatre has inherent political leanings. For how can a playwright or artist take these “actuals” and make them into something theatrical and performative without instilling his or her politics into the transformed text? [...]
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