“Do you think you were born with a monopoly on the truth?”
It’s easy to forget the quiet fun that comes with reading plays. I stumbled upon 12 ANGRY MEN when I was shelving books at my store, and I picked it up and read the whole thing in less than day (not a huge feat, it’s about seventy-nine pages). Reading a play was a nice break in between the dense nonfiction I’ve been reading, and after finishing it, I’m eager to explore the play format further.
12 ANGRY MEN takes place in 1954, and covers the case of an ostensibly guilty sixteen year old boy accused of killing his father. The prosecution has evidently done a very effective job of condemning the young man, and if he is found guilty, he will be taken to the electric chair. All the jurors are ready to deliver the guilty verdict within the first five minutes of deliberation — everyone except Juror 8, the only juror who finds a reasonable doubt within in the case. In the next seventy-something pages, the eighth juror gradually sheds light on the details of the case, revealing the other jurors’ own prejudices and preconceived notions.
Rose uses the play (the entire thing takes place inside one room) to discuss issues of prejudice, racism, class, as well as the apparent faults in the US legal system. It’s so very well done, and forces the reader to question: are the decisions we make based on evidence or emotion? Is it every really possible to separate the two?
The characters come from a wide array of walks of life – a Wall Street broker, a man from the slums, parents, business owners – but none of them are stereotypes. The pacing is brilliant. It spans only a few hours in the evening, but you feel the seconds creep along with the anxious and upset jurors.
What keeps me from giving this creative wonder five stars is that it’s quite difficult to keep the characters separate from one another. None of them are named, only Juror 1/2/3/etc., so it’s a bit confusing to keep up with who believes what, whose position is shifting, where each person comes from.
12 ANGRY MEN is a fun, quick read that deals with absolutely relative subject matter. The recent court case of Trayvon Martin re-alighted a conversation about the fallibility of juries, the prejudices we each come to the table with, and this play is a wonderful and timeless explanation of human nature under pressure.