Show Trials, Part 7

That was Saturday; it wasn’t until Sunday that I began to rage and fume like a hot beer on a hot day. On Monday I acknowledged that the Show Trials can be staged only in an imaginary courthouse, as fictional fictions, not actual fictions. On Tuesday I remembered the genesis of the Show Trials.

Anne and I would drive down to Myrtle Beach to visit with my Alzheimer’s-addled father and his wife – this was after we had moved to North Carolina to help care for him but before he moved in with us and before we subsequently moved him into a nursing home back in Myrtle Beach so his wife could visit him more often. On the drives back up to Durham we would be trying to solve whatever new problems had presented themselves during our visit, but heading down there we would let our minds wander onto darkly antic paths inspired by our troublesome parents. On one of those trips we conjured a story about my father having killed off my mother for the sake of his girlfriend. On another drive to the Beach we invented the Show Trials. Farcical cases would be tried at the Courthouse, with the judge modeled on a Mississippi bantam rooster of a man who had served on the bench just before the building was decommissioned half a century ago, with the Colonel Lynch of unreconstructed legend figuring prominently as bailiff. But the trials themselves had not yet crystallized into tightly structured, abstract, single-themed, multi-act performances that would come to figure so prominently in my private imaginings.

For a time Anne’s grandfather had been the county game warden. He wore a uniform and everything. It must have been a part-time job, since mostly he ran the family cattle farm. I doubt he spent much time checking hunting and fishing licenses; mostly he would have been rousting out the poachers trespassing on his and his neighbors’ private land. I don’t know if he carried a gun, though I presume he did since his quarry would typically be armed. As we drove down to South Carolina to see my father, Anne and I would picture her Old Paw up in Virginia being called to testify at court. We could imagine some of the cases. Farmer Jones shooting and butchering Farmer Brown’s cow, which had for the umpteenth and final time broken down the fence to graze in Farmer Jones’s greener pasture. Farmer Smith shooting a UFO out of the sky, with the warden called in to impound the aliens as trespassers.

Boxes filled with old court records are probably stashed away someplace in the county archives. We could go through the dockets and summary judgments looking for weird and entertaining cases that had actually been tried in the old Courthouse. Then the Show Trials could re-enact these cases. Even if – especially if – there were no complete transcripts documenting the actual unfolding of the trials, we could craft narratives for the prosecution and defense, call witnesses, introduce evidence, make closing arguments, staging these trials as historical re-enactments “based on actual cases.” And of course we would also intermingle some wholly imaginary cases. As a “historic” courthouse the cases could come from any era. We’d keep it moving: some cases would be judged or dismissed in thirty seconds, while the longest would last no more than five minutes before judgment or continuation. The docket for a full session would constitute a mashup of fact and fiction, past and present and future, official justice and vigilante justice and injustice.

We’d need to round up some local talent to put a show together. Writers, actors, a researcher, a technical advisor on jurisprudence, a director, a prop maker, a costumer, lighting and sound techs, a promoter. Hell, we might even get real lawyers to play lawyers in the Show Trials – they’d probably get a kick out of it. We’d put together a trial run, stage it for a real audience. If we liked doing it, and if the audience liked witnessing it, we could do it again, once a month maybe. No air conditioning? Everybody gets a hand fan, an old-fashioned paddle-shaped one like they used in To Kill A Mockingbird. Can’t sell tickets for courthouse events? We’ll pass the hat, or just do it for the sheer hell of it. Can’t serve alcohol in the courthouse? We could teatotal the refreshments in tribute to the Prohibition – no doubt Colonel Lynch’s great-great-great-grandniece would frown approvingly. Or one of the neighboring businesses could host the recess and serve drinks. Too bad there’s no bar. At the Opera House in Nice, during the intermission of Die Walküre, I had adjourned with the guy seated next to me, artistic director for the Hong Kong Arts Festival, to the bar across the street, where we mingled with tuxedo-clad orchestra members bracing themselves for the rest of the ordeal. Musicians too we’d need to recruit for the Show Trials.

My high-modernist art-installation version of the Show Trials doesn’t suit the Courthouse Key Keepers? Maybe the original freewheeling anarchy, the one Anne and I had sketched out driving down Route 40 toward South Carolina, would be more up their alley. It might even (heavens forfend) turn out to be entertaining, not just to theorists and aesthetes and activists and frustrated novelists but to the locals. Aren’t those reasons enough for me not to want to do it?

Not quite. The deal-breaker would be if the performances were allowed to stage only the quirks of justice while turning a blind eye to the miscarriages.

The Cavaliers were Royalist noblemen who fought for King Charles against the Parliamentarian Roundheads and lost. They exiled themselves to the New World, where they set themselves up as lords of a plantation culture, the work done by lower-class English and Scots-Irish who through destitution, kidnapping, or court sentencing found themselves locked into indentured servitude. A pregnant woman’s term of indenture would be extended, since expectant and new mothers couldn’t work hard enough to meet their obligations. The master might even rape his own servant, extending her indenture after he impregnated her. Afterward came the African slaves.

Within a few generations the Cavaliers began to shift allegiance away from the English kings and toward aristocratic self-rule. Even the defenders of Colonel Lynch’s reputation acknowledge that he would torture suspected Tories, hanging them from the “Lynch tree” — not by the neck but by the feet or the thumbs — until they shouted “Liberty Forever.” And if a defendant did not “give voice to that patriotic utterance”? The DAR brochure assures its readers: “The death penalty was never imposed.” But the unrepentant Loyalist would not be released, would remain pinioned to the tree presumably until nature took its course. Kind of like the witch trials in Puritan New England: if you confessed you were guilty; if you refused to confess it was a sure sign of guilt. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Speaking of the Puritans, New England historian Alice Morse Earle recalled that “the pulpit of one unpainted church retained until the middle of this [nineteenth] century, as its sole decoration, an enormous, carefully painted, staring eye, a terrible and suggestive illustration to youthful wrong-doers of the great all-seeing eye of God.” It is unknown whether in 1848, when the Courthouse first opened for business, the eye behind the judge’s seat was already surveying the proceedings, an esoteric sigil emplaced by the anonymous Mason who put the finishing touches on the building, or whether some devout Massachusetts carpetbagger painted it there after the War.

The Courthouse with its Colonel Lynch commemorative plaque and its Mississippi judge, its peeling pillars and its slave auction block, its eight rows of pews cowering before the Victorian judgment seat and the penetrating gaze of the Eye of Justice – these are actualities specific to a particular place in the world. It’s the place where my wife was born and raised, the place that may or may not be calling her back with me in tow. And it is a courthouse after all, a hall of justice, not just any old abandoned building that’s being tricked out as a cultural history museum as dead as the past it entombs. It calls to me even as it repulses me. It has valences and affordances. It inspires.

The building itself is barely worth a second glance; the town either. It’s the Show Trials that pull them together into an imaginary ecology, a ficticity that pulls me in with them. Maybe the ficticity would lure others, enough to put on a show and to occupy a couple of rows in the gallery. Would it change the actually existing town and its residents, close the regional dump or at least make it stink less, bring justice or at least a sense of injustice?

Maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe it’s better to ask if the people who make up the Show Trials, the gallery members just as much as the cast and crew, can enter into the ficticity they’re collectively conjuring around themselves. In that alternate world there is justice, there is truth, maybe even beauty, even if their contours are unrecognizable in the already-existing world from whose shores the ficticitous voyagers have set forth.

Merry Christmas from all of us here at Ficticities.

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