Jury Duty

One of the best-reviewed shows of the current Broadway season has been a ’50s drama with a message for today: Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men, which examines the psychological push-and-pull of the jury process. In 90 tense minutes, a group of 11 jurors, all inclined to vote for the death penalty in a murder case, are turned around by the reasonable doubt of their 12th colleague: a role made famous by Henry Fonda in the 1957 film version.

A busload of 49 Moravian students went to see Twelve Angry Men in January. In return for the trip, they agreed to return to campus, have dinner, and discuss the play with four Leadership Center students: Katie Suib ’05, an international management and Spanish major; Michael McCartney ’05, a history major; Adam Spaugh ’05, an English major; and Julia Gasdaska ’07, who hasn’t yet chosen a major but is leaning toward elementary education and English.

Three of the four have been student advisors, and all four have a long-running interest in theater. Their interview was scheduled around rehearsals for the College’s winter production of Royal Gambit, a play about Henry VIII (played by McCartney) and his six wives. Suib and Gasdaska played Katharine of Aragon and Jane Seymour, and Spaugh was the stage manager.

The Leadership Center co-directors felt strongly that students should lead the post-play discussion, and they left their four leaders to figure out their own strategies.

As it turned out, strategies almost were not needed. “I wanted to plant ideas for discussion,” said Mike, “but I didn’t have to.”

“I primed them with introductory questions,” said Adam, “but they opened an avalanche.”

The group leaders found that discussion jumped right away from plot to issues, and from there, way beyond the guilt or innocence of the unseen defendant. “The real leadership,” Mike said, “is in [the single juror] standing up alone in the first place, not in persuading them to take his side.” Julia had a pre-law student in her group, who said, “You don’t really know if he’s right or wrong.”

Katie said: “We talked about the possibility that this could really happen. Could one person actually do that? One of the qualities my group found was his ability to doubt himself. He’s not all-knowing.”

“Our conclusion,” said Adam, “was that even if you don’t know whether you’re right, you stand up for what you believe.”

All four noted that the lively discussions among their groups would surprise some of their instructors. Moravian students, especially first-years, have a reputation for reticence in the classroom, where discussions proceed haltingly, if at all. “I see it all the time,” said Julia. “They’re afraid to be wrong.”

In the post-play discussions, however, “there are no absolutes,” said Mike. “And people are willing to volunteer their ideas.”

In 1954, when this play was written, juries were almost always all male and, in many states, all white. The students wondered at the course of the drama if, for instance, a woman were cast in the pivotal role of Juror No. 8—or if multicultural casting were to change the composition of the jury. “It’s harder standing up to people who are mostly like you,” said Mike.

The students were so eager to talk about the play, said Mike, that when discussion officially broke up after dessert, “I dismissed my group but people came up from other groups and asked to join in.”

Katie asked: “And how often does that happen at the College without a professor?”

The crucial vote scene in Twelve Angry Men, in which Juror No. 8, played by Boyd Gaines (standing in the back, second from left, in white shirt and dark tie) in the Roundabout Theater’s production, talks the other jurors into “reasonable doubt.”

Photo: courtesy of Roundabout Theater