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Political Aesthetes: Emily Mann’s Execution of Justice and the Identity Crisis of Documentary Theatre

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  1. Tensions were growing in San Francisco as the gay community expanded.
  2. Commissioned in 1982 by the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco to address a subject relevant to the area.
  3. Difficulties with delving into the intricacies of theories on documentary theatre and its purposes.
  4. The other word that Barranger and others use seemingly at cross purposes is ?propaganda.?
  5. Without formulating and expressing an opinion on the factual subject at hand, the playwright does nothing more than present information already known.
  6. Execution of Justice presents an amalgam of ?trial transcript, interview, reportage, the street,? in Mann's own words.
  7. In his interview of Emily Mann, called ?Hearing Many Voices at Once,? David Savran explores Mann's own perception of her piece.
  8. The final major structural element employed by Mann in Execution of Justice.

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. [...]

[...] Execution of Justice does much more than admit its artificiality through the aesthetically aware presentation of language; Mann's displays overt political themes and opinions through visual images. Her transformation of language fits rather nicely with Weiss' notion that documentary theatre welcome its artistic identity, but how do these visual images fit with the discourse on political messages? Both Weiss and Barranger call for a political theatre that clarifies some social issue and forces the audience to engage with their perceptions of the issue in a deep and meaningful way, but Barranger in particular is adamant that the play itself should not provide an opinion skewed in one direction or another, that ?objectivity? much be maintained. [...]

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