Show Trials, Part 1

At quarter of seven the Courthouse door swings open. We should have set up a coat check, the greeter realizes as she watches the two women unwind their scarves and pull off their gloves. The conference room is plenty big enough, but tonight it’s serving as one of the venues. The museum rooms are locked; the genealogy library too. The greeter pulls out her cell and punches in a number. “Jamis, it’s me. Look, is there anyplace up there for people to put their coats? Right.” She slips a couple of programs off the table and hands one to each of the two women. “The docket for the late session of the Circuit Court. Up the main stairway there to your right. It’s not all that warm up there, so you might want to hang onto your coats.” Abruptly she has shifted her attention to the punked-out kids peering skeptically around the half-opened door.

The temperature is dropping noticeably as the two women ascend from the entryway to the landing. They pause to read the plaque mounted under the amateurishly rendered oil portrait:

Colonel Charles Lynch, 1736-1796. Served as Court Magistrate, Member of the House of Burgesses, and Commander of the Bedford County Militia and Mounted Riflemen.

Plaque presented by the Colonel Charles Lynch Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, 1928.

Not mentioned is the Colonel’s extrajudicial notoriety as vigilante patriot ringleader, rounding up suspected Tories and allegedly sentencing them to the chokehold of mob rule that still bears his name.

The central stairway empties directly into the back of the courtroom. Ranks of pews flanking the center aisle face the raised judge’s bench that stretches across the front. A high-backed chair, grotesque in its enormity, its dark wood intricately carved into neo-Gothic tracery, is positioned dead center, fronted on the bench by a small pitcher of water and a single glass; also a gavel resting on its block. Some sort of decoration is painted on the wall immediately behind the gargantuan judge’s chair. A man is seated on the left side of the bench: the clerk presumably, or possibly the court reporter. Two flags are mounted on poles propped up in the front left corner of the courtroom: the stars and stripes, and another unidentifiable one, with some sort of gold circular emblem presented on a purple field. On the other side of the bench a single chair, small and plain, is barricaded on three sides by heavy paneling, with a low door opening toward the gallery: the witness stand. Behind it, in the far right front corner, the jury box.

Advancing slowly up the center aisle, the two women visually scan the gallery. The front two rows on the side facing the witness stand are fully occupied, presumably by defendants and plaintiffs and attorneys. They select seats in the fourth row. From there they can see the decoration behind the judge’s chair more clearly: a lidded eye throws its penetrating gaze across the courtroom, with rays of raised plasterwork emanating outward in 360 degrees from the pupil. Evidently justice is not blind in this place.

What might be wrong about this narrative is the POV. I’m trying to write a simulation of readerless fiction, yet I’m writing from the perspective of the audience, of the two women coming to witness the court session. Shouldn’t I be writing a simulated proceeding in which the gallery is occupied only by participants in the trial? But then again, those awaiting their own trials are watching the trials of those called up before them. Clear the courtroom! One case at a time; everyone else wait your turn in the antechamber. But who is it that’s narrating these cases – the Court Reporter? It’s still audience, even sitting up there onstage at the right hand of the judge. The judge is audience too, as well as performer. Listening the testimony, scrutinizing the evidence, the judge renders a verdict, selecting one of the two competing narratives staged for his benefit by prosecution and defense. And that’s the essence of a fair trial: to plead one’s case before an ideal audience, an impartial expert god who hears your case and renders judgment based on merit. That’s the tragic farce of this imagined Show Trial: the judge is not impartial: he has already made up his mind: guilty. But that too is a fantasy, imagining that the gods actually bother to render any sort of judgment. They’re not watching at all. Neither innocent nor guilty, never getting your day in court, you are consigned forever to a seat in the antechamber. No, even that’s too optimistic. You enter the antechamber of your own volition; you can leave whenever you like; no one issues a summons, takes down your name, scratches you off the list if you go. Better: there is no antechamber, because there is no chamber. But that’s not right either, because some actually do get their day in court, pleading their cases before judges and juries of their peers. Are they the most worthy, or just the luckiest? Maybe they have an in with the bailiff? Even drawing the attention of Colonel Lynch would be an honor. The Eye of Justice is always looking elsewhere.

The moral of the Show Trial is anarchy: there is no judge; you are one another’s judges; you collectively are the jury. And if nobody is paying attention? Then you are your own judge, singularly. But there is no “you” to hear my pronouncement. I am my own judge.

So, do I witness my own case from the big rococo chair upfront, or from the jury box? I could imagine returning to the gallery, a one-man audience watching myself. From there I would be rendering judgment not on the merits of the case but on the merits of the whole spectacle: case, testimony, evidence, judgment, sentencing.

This isn’t even metaphorical. If I could choose, would I rather my fictions be judged by a judge – publisher, critic, literary scholar – or by a jury of my authorial peers, or by the gallery of readers? Yes, yes, yes. I want my day in court. I’ve already found myself guilty; I want external validation that my books balance the scales.

 

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