Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"Twelve Angry Jurors?"

Reginald Rose is probably rolling over in his grave, again. Shameful use of alliteration, I know but it opens the door to some thoughts prompted by a recent network news report dealing with the new, bi-lingual production of West Side Story.

And, what’s that got to do with Reginald Rose? Well, Rose as you probably know is the author of “Twelve Angry Men”, an intense drama that peels away the layers of bigotry, hatred and machismo as twelve men decide the fate of a teenage boy accused of murdering his father. While it’s believed the “boy” is of Puerto Rican or Hispanic descent, we never know for sure--only that a guilty verdict by the twelve white, middle-aged men will send him to the electric chair.

It is regarded as a “classic” and has been formally honored as such by the Library of Congress and the American Film Institute. West Side Story is likewise regarded as a classic. And yet, 90-year-old,Arthur Laurents, who penned the original story of gang rivalry on New York’s upper west side, is behind the play’s revival, in which the Sharks sing in Spanish and their rivals, the Jets sing in English. Having seen the original stage production, I, like many others, have no problem with this. Because, well, let’s face it, English-Spenglish, Spanish-Manwich, it’s what Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein did with lyrics and music respectively, that made the 20th Century version of Romeo and Juliet what it is. The well-worn plot is secondary.

Not so with Twelve Angry Men, which is why many are likely to bristle at the repeated efforts to modernize it, as was the case recently with the production at the Bethel Park Community Center, under the title, “Twelve Angry Jurors”, to allow for the fact that women were also deciding the boy’s fate. I think it is safe to say that Rose wrote it as he did, not just because the story preceded women’s lib and other aspects of the later Cultural Revolution in the United States, but also because the dynamics in that jury room were only intensified by the tenor of the times. We were in the heat of the Cold War and the McCarthy era, which brought out the worst in millions of Americans. Juror number eight, played by Henry Fonda, was the voice of reason in a room choking with ignorance, men feeling they must live up to what was then a narrow-minded version of what the male role in society was. And some how most of them initially thought, deciding this boy’s fate was a way of getting even for all that was wrong in their lives. Getting over those hurdles, so prevalent at the time, stood in the way of the justice the defendant ultimately received. The dynamics of men, then burdened with so much male baggage, played a key role in the intensity that play brought to the stage and later to film. It seems to me that to attempt a production of it with less than those ingredients serves only to subvert an American Classic that deserves to be left as is.

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