TWELVE ANGRY MEN by Reginald Rose
originally published in 1954
Twelve Angry Men is a fascinating meditation on a certain misplaced faith in the US judicial system. In this play by Reginald Rose, a jury of twelve men is serving on what appears to be a cut and dry case: a sixteen year old boy stands accused of murdering his father, and there are multiple witnesses who claim to have seen him do it. While initially eleven of the twelve men are in favor of a guilty verdict, there is a lone dissenter – Juror #8 – who hopes to talk through the evidence they were presented to make sure no facet of the case has been left unexamined. In the discussion that follows, more and more holes begin to emerge in a case which had initially been deemed air-tight, and more men are willing to consider the possibility of the boy’s innocence.
This is an incredibly tense and moving piece of drama. Even just reading this I was on the edge of my seat, thoroughly invested in this case – though of course, the specifics of the case aren’t really The Point. Twelve Angry Men is a reflection on human nature, on the temptation to swallow ‘facts’ without questioning them, on the difficulty required to go against the grain. The questions that are raised about this case go beyond simple clarification – they require a deeper examination of human behavior. After all, just because someone heard the boy yell “I’ll kill you!” – is that really enough to convict him, when that phrase is used colloquially so often? These are the sort of questions that Juror #8 asks of his peers and the audience, and the discussions that follow are appropriately challenging. While a certain herd mentality characterizes the conversation at first – eleven of the twelve men attempting to silence the only one who disagrees – individual personalities begin to emerge for each of these twelve men over the course of a drama which becomes more and more divisive.
The flaws in the US judicial system that Reginald Rose illuminates are downright terrifying. Why must jurors be silent – why are those who decide the fate in life or death cases not more involved in the process? Why can’t jurors speak up, ask questions? How can objectivity on a jury ever be reached when jurors are bringing in their own beliefs and prejudices?
We don’t ever find out whether the boy is guilty or innocent, but we do find out which verdict the jury reaches, and that alone gives the play a satisfying conclusion. But again, it’s not this specific case that will haunt readers and viewers as much as the challenging discussion that unfolds over the course of the play. This was a terrific, thought-provoking, and quick read: highly recommended for anyone who enjoys theatre, or stories which concern themselves with themes of the law and justice.
If you’re interested in how the film adaptation starring Henry Fonda compares, check out my friend Chelsea’s review HERE!