I don’t have a copy of the play, so quotes below are paraphrased

Clarence Darrow was a pioneering American civil rights attorney in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His career was sufficiently remarkable that a play was written about him by David W Rintels. It takes the form of a one-man show. Darrow is waiting for his opponent in a debate to arrive. The debate is on the existence of God, and his theistic opponent has been delayed by a thunderstorm, which amuses the agnostic Darrow. He then proceeds to tell the audience about his life.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a production of Clarence Darrow at the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall, London. A small, somewhat ramshackle venue, much more tea house than theatre, it was an arguably ideal setting for the play. Darrow was played by the excellent Michael J Shannon, who was every bit the country lawyer as soon as he walked onto the makeshift debating stage. Warm, charming, self-effacing and with a genuine Midwestern accent, his portrayal was highly convincing; I, and doubtless the audience, felt we were genuinely in the presence of the old lawyer.

Darrow told the story of his life more or less chronologically. His childhood in Ohio, riding with his father smuggling slaves up the underground railroad, his decision to become a lawyer, his first work and his marriage. His great trials, standing up for the working man, defending them against injustice and tempering justice with mercy. He would act out little vignettes of his trials, not usually portraying the witness’s answers but letting the audience infer them from the questions. This, demonstrates his skill at using witness examination as advocacy, but also led power to the piece itself:

Darrow: Your job is to pick slate out of the coal as it comes rushing down the shoot? Uh-huh, and you have to be pretty fast for that job? Yeah, so how many of your friends have lost fingers and arms as that coal came down? And you work every day? Twelve hours a day? And what do they give you to eat all day? Aside from that one potato to take with you? How old are you? Well, when will you be eleven?

That was the moment that sticks in my mind. “When will you be eleven?” The shock of it. The casual, kind voice revealing that the subject of this suffering is a mere child. Of course, in real life, the court would have known the age of the witness. Darrow, or rather the play, was talking to us, the audience here. Reminding us that our assumptions about the limits of the evils people are capable of inflicting are often wrong. This theme of doubting our instincts and prejudices was returned to several times. He criticised public opinion too. He told us about his friend John Altgeld, the Governor of Illinois who pardoned the Haymarket Anarchists and consequently never held office again. He also talked of judges who were so scared of public opinion they would imprison innocent men.

Darrow: One judge even told me privately that he agreed with me, but could not allow the appeal because the nature of the crime was so horrible.

Again, this short, almost throw-away anecdote exhibits the importance of allowing ourselves to doubt. The public, desperate for justice in a terrible case, allow themselves to become blindly certain of the guilt of a scapegoat, refusing to entertain or acknowledge the evidence of innocence. Yet, surely the more severe the accusation, the more important it is to doubt everything that is presented, to avoid ruining a further life on the strength of an opinion or a prejudice. Just as Darrow the man was able to raise a spark of reasoned doubt in the minds of the jurors he faced, Darrow the play forces the audience to think critically about the world they inhabit.

The play examined a good deal of the darkness of humanity, and yet, somehow it was hopeful. Some of this was down to the comic interludes; messages from the absent debate opponent still struggling against nature, short and silly anecdotes, quips about the law. However, their purpose was more to break up the proceedings, and to sate an audience who are, after all, supposed to be watching a play, not a lecture. The play was lighter for them, and it needed to be, but no less deep. Its optimism came from Darrow’s appreciate of humanity, and his conviction, eloquently demonstrated, that people, whoever they are, have a spark of something in them that compels them to strive to be better. He himself was self-avowedly flawed, he said he had had a human, rather than a good life. But he made it seem as if that itself was worthwhile enough.

I’ll leave the technical criticism to others, but as a sometime lawyer, I thoroughly enjoyed the play, the writing, production and performance. I have the unsettling sense of having enjoyed the company of one of the great figures of legal history, something that only theatre can provide.

Clarence Darrow, a play by David W Rintels
Performed at the Tea House Theatre, Vauxhall, London on 7th June 2013
Produced and directed by Susannah Tresilian
Starring Michael J Shannon as Clarence Darrow