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The Use of Symbolism to Make Political Statements in Twelve Angry Men

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Introduction

The courtroom drama has been present for as long as there has been a concept of justice. From Oresteia to The Merchant of Venice to Law and Order, it has been essential in the public’s understanding of both the law and their rights as a citizen, not only informing of culture and values of the times, but also playing a monumental role in forming them. The advent of television brought the theatre to the home, bringing forth a new frontier in the form of prime-time programming. Sitting down and watching television after dinner became a staple in the American way of life. The engagement American society had with televised material, fictional or genuine, reinforced public understanding of information- and in terms of courtroom dramas, actual courtrooms and judicial processes. 

One such pieces of television is Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men, a 1954 courtroom drama detailing the deliberation of twelve jurors regarding the verdict on a homicide case. Rose adapted his play for for the big screen following the success of the teleplay, which is accredited by many, including the American Bar Association, as one of the greatest legal movies of all time.

The play has a one act structure, hence has a flowing narrative undisturbed by intermissions. It also has only one set, that of a jury room in court. These simple features frames well the slice of an essential component of the American democracy, showing the small happenings behind the huge system that is the judiciary, translating the abstract to the concrete to viewers.

As in all fictional or interpreted texts, theatre inherently embodies a certain viewpoint of its writer- the authorial intention. In this essay, I would attempt to analyse the perspective of the playwright and his intended purpose for the play. As it was written under a certain context that allows for subtle political commentary, I chose to explore the research question “How does Reginald Rose use symbolism to make political statements in Twelve Angry Men?” Due to its range of characters and the context during which the play was written and performed, The context informs and former approaches the theatrics of trial from the jury’s perspective, with its ambiguity Written for a different time and place for a different audience, topics explored in Twelve Angry Men remains significant in today’s society- “democracy, justice, social responsibilities and pressure of the times”. 

I would first outline the historical and social contexts behind the production of the teleplay, then describe how the contexts and texts are mutually informative. Afterwards, I would examine the texts use of symbolism with directing choices, characters and theme, finally synthesising my exploration in accordance to today’s context.

In this exploration, I will be referring to the original 1954 teleplay script and the script of the subsequent stage play, both by Reginald Rose. They have a similar context of composition and near identical content, with the former more details on the set and characters and the latter containing more dialogue. As both are works of Rose, I find that looking at both scripts allows for a more thorough understanding of his authorial intention.

Context

Reginald Rose wrote Twelve Angry Men after his own experience serving as a juror on a case of manslaughter. In his experience with a pillar of American society “facing a strange man whose life is more or less in his hands”, he saw the potential for an “exciting and potentially moving experience for an audience”.

Twelve Angry Men is set in the United States of America, where the courtroom drama was and still is one of the most popular genres on television. The 1950s saw the rise of the television. Within a decade, it became the primary medium from which many historical events were broadcast and brought to the home, in turn influencing public opinion. Originally broadcast as a live production teleplay to critical acclaim and subsequently adapted to one of the most iconic legal films of all time, Twelve Angry Men embodies many aspects of 1950s American society, socially and politically. Then considered a lengthy television drama for its fifty minutes total running time, to “meet the demands of the new medium”, the drama had to be condensed, but remains poignant in its message. In the mid-fifties, America was knee deep in the long standing Cold War between the United States and the USSR, within its borders the partisanship and rivalry between the two major parties continue as it had since the founding of the state. Twelve Angry Men was broadcast in such a context, where television was most influential and political tensions run high, that the connection between them and the play was critical in examining its purpose. 

The Cold War

Early in the Cold War era, President Henry Truman led the advocacy for American values of freedom and democracy in opposition to the threat of communism with his “Campaign of Truth”. Essentially providing pro-United States propaganda through the use of media, such as the radio station Radio Free Europe that counters the Communist-centric news media and “exposes their lies” in eastern Europe, American ideas are promoted internationally by the United States. Domestically, cinema and television in particular were used as tools to raise morale and reinforce American values. The ways in which the United States and USSR differ were picked and dramatised, the superiority of the American values and way of life highlighted. Elevating American politics and diminishing the USSR’s communist ideas is more often than not the primary purpose of film and television.

Twelve Angry Men, originally televised in 1954 and adapted into a movie in 1957, is set at the height of the Cold War, likewise commits to showing the superiority of the American democracy and justice system. This purpose was even recognised with the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel award, which honours works that comprehends and delivers well jurisprudence in the United States.

Partisanship in the United States

On an international level, the Cold War was a war of ideologies, the capitalism of the United States and the communism of the USSR, their hostility manifested in acts of indirect conflict such as the arms race and mutual threats and propaganda. In the United States on a national level, the Cold War manifested in the alienation of any Communist ideas both on a grassroots level through media, and officially by the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee or the HUAC, an investigative committee for communist ties or sympathies that is part of the House of Representatives. Often associated with the anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy, they came into prominence due to their “Communist witch hunts” as a result of the Red Scare, which involved many public figures on the “Hollywood blacklist” who were deemed Communist sympathisers. The HUAC lost its influence later in the late 1950s as it was condemned by former president Henry Truman and became the subject of much satire in the 1960s when they began investigating opposition to the Vietnam War. In the face of extremism from the left in communism, and to the right in the HUAC and McCarthyism, a new bipartisanship of moderate liberals and conservatives was formed. Impossible back in the economically stagnant 1930s, the prosperous 1950s with its technological advancements and booming trade allowed for this unlikely alliance.

“What happened was that old issues died, and on new issues the former friends or allies have become enemies, and former enemies have become friends. Thus: liberal intellectuals have had to switch their attitudes towards Wall Street – symbolising both the great financiers and the giant corporations they organize – and towards ‘small businesses’.”

The Democratic part of the alliance was made up of “cold war liberals”: ex-Communists and social democrats while the Republican wing were “corporate capitalists”: business and financial leaders in banks and corporations of the East Coast, north and midwest. With moderates of both parties, “liberal intellectuals” and “Wall Street”, making up a ‘bipartisan’ coalition, they had great collective power, controlling the political landscape, solidifying the United States position in this critical time of international politics.

With regards to Twelve Angry Men, Rose commented on the alliances in the play saying “the alliances formed formed for purely intellectual reasons and those formed for emotional reasons alone reminded us of larger and more important alliances we can see at every turn in our newspapers, locally, nationally, internationally.” Written in the context of the Cold War, it can be reasonably inferred that one of these national alliances is that of the “corporate liberal”.

The Teleplay

At first glance, the case seems to be open and shut. Several compelling pieces of evidence were used by the prosecution in Twelve Angry Men. First the old man who lived below the accused boy, heard the boy yell “I’m going to kill you”, the father’s body hit the floor and saw the boy running down the stairwell as he escaped the crime scene. The second testimony was the woman’s, who saw from across the street through the windows of the elevated train the boy stab his father. The murder weapon who was thought to be “one of a kind”, the jurors have “never seen one like it before in their lives and neither had the storekeeper who sold it to the boy”. The alibi that the boy provided cannot be proven, he had said that he went to the movies but had no eyewitnesses and “couldn’t even remember what pictures he saw”. There was supposedly motive for the murder – neighbours heard their loud arguing and the father hitting the boy, he himself admitted that a few hours prior to the alleged murder, he had been “slapped or punched” by his father. Lastly the boy had been arrested for car theft and had a history of being involved with violence including knife fights, which while not in direct correlation to the boy’s guilt in the case at hand, proved to some jurors he was one of “those people” that have a tendency for crime. Given these facts, the jury is expected to deliver an unbiased verdict based only on the evidence heard in trial.

All evidence seemed to point towards the undoubted guilt of the boy for eleven of the twelve jurors. However, the burden of proof befalls the prosecution – defendant are innocent until the prosecution is able to prove to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt the defendant’s guilt. Reasonable doubt is a recurring topic in the play, which was mentioned by the judge in the very beginning, saying “if reasonable doubt in your minds as to the guilt of the accused… then you must declare him not guilty”. As the play goes on, each juror starts to doubt the absolute guilt of the boy, which ultimately turned a not guilty verdict.

Characters

Albeit one of the most memorable details about Twelve Angry Men, the naming or lack thereof of the jurors was purely because of practicality. According to Rose, he “omitted the sometimes annoying chore of selecting names for his characters” as “a dozen names would be quite meaningless to a viewing audience”. Nevertheless, the lack of character names enables their function as symbols- they aren’t specific people, rather micro representations of a group in American society at large, able to instill greater meaning into the limited time allowed for the teleplay. With the character descriptions in the teleplay script, we can deduce that the jurors represent a spectrum of alignments in American politics, with juror 4 that embodies a typical conservative capitalist and so on. Portraying jurors in contrast to each other highlights the themes of pluralism when they find common ground in determining the guilt of the boy on trial, echoing that of moderate liberals and conservatives in the Cold War. 

Despite having a cast of well-rounded ensemble characters, a few stand out as representations of certain groups in particular. Juror 4, the conservative capitalist, jurors 3, 7 and 10 the right-wing extremists, juror 11 the refugee and juror 8 the liberal protagonist.

Juror 4 is one of the last jurors to change his guilty verdict. Described as “a man of wealth and position”, he is educated, eloquent and presents himself well. He was only concerned with facts of the case rather than personal biases, reminding the jury numerous times to “discuss the facts”. He wears a tie and eyeglasses, his manner of speech proper and polite, even when there is difference in opinion. When juror 10 starts an argument with juror 8 due his vote for not guilty, juror 4 stepped in saying “they ought to behave like gentlemen”. He was also an active member in discussion in the jury room, according to juror 3 “making all the arguments”. While without juror 8’s prompt to consider further the case and initially supporting the status quo, he had no emotional attachment to the case, opinion unaffected by personal biases. He was hence able to approach the case critically, changing his verdict, saying “I now have reasonable doubt” upon considering enough information that supports this stance. A stockbroker by occupation, his character represents the “enlightened corporate capitalist” that makes up moderate conservatives in the Cold War Period. This brand of conservatives made up the Republican part of the Cold War bipartisanship that parallels that of juror 4 and 8 which according to Rose is an alliance “formed for intellectual reasons”.

In contrast, jurors 3 and 10 rely on instincts over facts in their verdict, an alliance “formed for emotional reasons”. This is shown not only in their initial insistence upon the defendant’s guilt but also the reason they changed their verdict to not guilty. 

Juror 3 is “intolerant of opinions other than his own”, believed he was “entitled to his own opinion”, and was the last juror to change his vote. He had “never seen a guiltier man in his life”, and said multiple times that just by sight, he “could see” that the boy was guilty. It was revealed at the end of the play that he was blinded by the fact that the defendant reminded him of his son, repeating that “it was his father”. He changed his vote at last with a simple “all right”, recognising that the defendant wasn’t his son and that he was alone in his guilty verdict. In contrast with his long rants within the play, his final decision shows the irrational rage he had prior. 

On the other hand, juror 10 was influenced less by his own personal life, but prejudice against the boy’s “type”. He constantly uses “these people” or “them” to refer to the boy, whose race remained ambiguous in the play, only described as “the boy” like the jurors are indicated by their numbers, but it is likely that “these people” referred to by juror 10 was the Hispanic population that was a notable minority in the East Coast. Arriving in the jury room, juror 10 said that “you’ve got to expect that” and “you know what you’re dealing with”, referring to the minority from which the boy is from. His combination of using “them”, suggesting intentional distancing from the subject, “what” when the word is used for an inanimate object or animal rather than human being, and even “wild animal” to demean the boy reveals juror 10’s bigotry towards ethnic minorities. He is sarcastic and easily provoked, initiating most arguments with the other jurors. He also takes believes that he is more informed than other jurors, seen in his demeanour, speaking “wisely” to juror 7 about his prejudice and in his final monologue insisting that he was “only trying to tell the other jurors” that “those people lie”. Other jurors turned away from him while juror 4, though then holding the same opinion that the boy was guilty, became fed up with his outbursts and threatened to “split his skull”. Juror 10 did not change his mind about the boy’s guilt, but was threatened by the collective power of the other jurors, causing him to change his verdict.

These two jurors symbolise political extremists, who due to their personal biases on issues are unable to see issues from the other side. Instead of understanding the injustices of the case like juror 11, or seeing that the facts overwhelmingly support that of doubt over guilt like juror 4, they surrender to the collective power of the other jurors instead of reconciling the decision themselves.

Juror 11 is a refugee from Europe whose honesty and insight reveals much of the plays theme. He believes that the social responsibility of Americans to serve in jury duty to be what is “remarkable about democracy”, and “one of the reason why America is strong”. Although timid, whenever he speaks he delivers poignant points. He criticised the emotional attachment of the jurors making arguments unrelated to the facts of the case, saying “they had nothing to gain or lose by the verdict” and “should not make it a personal thing.” As a refugee, he symbolises someone who went to America of his own will, realising the greatness of the American democracy and actively strives for it. 

Juror 8 stands out immediately in the play as the first sole voter of “not guilty”. Although described as “quiet” and “thoughtful”, facing emotional jurors he had to defend his stance, while maintaining that he did not necessarily believe in the boys innocence, he was willing to examine the indispensability of his guilt. Willing to bridge the gap between the different jurors in spite of opinion, open to interactive discussion and basing his initial verdict on the simple fact that “he doesn’t know”, he fits the mould of the “Cold War liberal”. He is an example of how active citizenship is essential in democracy. Had all jurors not consider the implications of an outright verdict of “guilty”, the boy would have been put to death. Through the portrayal of juror 8, not only is the democratic system of government defended, as his one vote enabled the discussion which acquitted the boy, juror 8 and the ideology that is attached to his character elevated. Juror 8 embodies personal responsibility and the pursuit of justice. His character description is wholly positive, he “constantly seeks the truth”, is “of strength tempered with compassion” and “will fight” for “justice to be done”. The hero of the story, juror 8 also makes a hero the then “liberal intellectuals” that first initiated the alliance with the “Wall Street” conservatives.

Stage Directions and Setting 500

In writing Twelve Angry Men, one of the things Rose found of vital importance was to portray “physical problems such as the weather, the time, the uncomfortable room” in the play. Set in a jury room described as “large, drab, bare” and “badly in need of a painting”, there is a sense of unkemptness and emptiness, aptly symbolising the initial one dimensional nature of the open and shut case. Whether it was due to practical constraints or creative choice, Twelve Angry Men’s use of one set- a nondescript jury room- ingeniously communicates tension. Although the room is described as large, its single table and the chairs around it traps the characters. With every passing minute the jury cannot reach a consensus, the claustrophobia already represented by the set intensifies. The weather was revealed by Juror 7 saying it is the “hottest day of the year”, which adds to the stifling nature of the jury room. 

Referring to the original teleplay, the events of Twelve Angry Men occurs in “a large Eastern City” in the teleplay (specifically New York in the play). The large city in contrast with the confinements of the jury room can be seen in the recurring motif of the window. Juror 8 ‘looked out the window” in the beginning of the play and on multiple other occasions throughout. Other jurors also did so in turning away from juror 10’s outbursts. The juxtaposition of inward and outward represents the wider meaning of the play- while the play may be on a single discussion by a jury, the play’s message lends itself to interpretation in wider society. The fact that the play is in one act also contributes to this.

Characters have props that emphasise their personalities, for instance juror 4, his use of eyeglasses and the newspaper shows his inquisitive nature and certain level of education. His rubbing of his eyeglasses symbolises the gradual clarity of the case in his eyes, which lead to his ultimate verdict of not guilty.

Conclusion

Written and adapted numerous times since its first official airing in 1954, Twelve Angry Men remains one of the most notable and influential legal dramas ever made.

More recent revivals of Twelve Angry Men modified the composition of the all-white male jury, with several stage adaptations casting female jurors and the 1997 film revamped to included black jurors. Looking at Twelve Angry Men through modern lens, with characters in the play symbolising factions of American society, one may find the racial homogeneity of the characters in the original production flawed. However, the purpose of the play is emphasised if not dependent on this lack of diversity. The 21st century musical phenomenon Hamilton, that casts actors of colour with the purpose of, according to writer and composer Lin Manuel Miranda, telling “a story of America then, by America now”. Like Twelve Angry Men, Hamilton depicts American values and ideals. However, unlike Hamilton whose story is of the notorious founding fathers, Twelve Angry Men is a story about the mundane everyman who for the most part does not experience the discrimination that causes an understanding of the accused boy as a racial minority in society, an exception being the refugee juror 11, who because of his own plight was more sympathetic and fair in his judgement of the boy’s character. The prevalence of justice despite preconceived notions of the defendant’s race and background is essential to the plot. 

The characters symbolise more than who they are at face value. Juror 8 is not just an architect who thinks rationally, but represents the enlightened American liberal. In having juror 8 pioneer true justice and succeeding in doing so, Rose is able to not only demonstrate to American audiences the quintessential American democracy that thrives when there is a pluralist bipartisanship, but in portraying juror 8 as the hero the superiority of liberal attitudes and ideas.

Twelve Angry Men was praised for its cinematic strength but factual weakness, however its core purpose is not to show in complete accuracy how juries deliberate and reach a final verdict. Rather, it is a piece of dramatic text intended to influence the audience of the success of the American democracy and the active, liberal position one should take in politics according to Rose.

Works Cited

  • Papke, David Ray. “Conventional Wisdom: The Courtroom Trial in American Popular Culture.” Marquette Law Review, 1999, scholarship.law.marquette.edu/mulr/vol82/iss3/1.
  • Brust, Richard. “The 25 Greatest Legal Movies.” ABA Journal, Aug. 2008, www.abajournal.com/gallery/top25movies/88.
  • Chilton, Martin. “The 20 Best Courtroom Films.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 20 May 2016, www.telegraph.co.uk/films/2016/05/20/the-best-courtroom-and-law-films/12-angry-men/.
  • Rose, Reginald. Six Television Plays. Simon and Schuster, 1956.
  • Bernhard, Nancy. “U.S Television News and Cold War Propaganda, 1947-1960.” The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1999.
  • Raw, Laurence. “Twelve Angry Men on Television and Film.” Open Library of Humanities, 18 May 2017, olh.openlibhums.org/articles/10.16995/olh.102/.
  • Feinberg, Melissa. “Cold War Propaganda: the Truth Belonged to No One Country – Melissa Feinberg | Aeon Essays.” Aeon, 11 Dec. 2017, aeon.co/essays/cold-war-propaganda-the-truth-belonged-to-no-one-country.
  • Shaw, Anthony, and Denise Youngblood. “Cinematic Cold War: The American and Soviet Struggle for Hearts and Minds.” University Press Kansas, 2000.
  • Biskind, Peter. “We the Jury”. Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties. Bloomsbury, 2001.
  • Riesman, David, and Nathan Glazer “Intellectuals and Discontented Classes.” in Daniel Bell, ed.. The Radical Right. Doubleday, 1964.
  • Rose, Reginald. “The Trying Talesman.” The New York Times. April 7, 1957
  • Rose, Reginald. Twelve Angry Men. Penguin Books, 2006.
  • “12 Angry Men.” 12 Angry Men Script, www.scripts.com/script/12_angry_men_58.
  • Delman, Edward. “How Lin-Manuel Miranda Shapes History.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 1 Oct. 2015, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/09/lin-manuel-miranda-hamilton/408019/.

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The Use Of Symbolism To Make Political Statements In Twelve Angry Men. (2021, August 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 17, 2022, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-use-of-symbolism-to-make-political-statements-in-twelve-angry-men/
“The Use Of Symbolism To Make Political Statements In Twelve Angry Men.” GradesFixer, 06 Aug. 2021, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-use-of-symbolism-to-make-political-statements-in-twelve-angry-men/
The Use Of Symbolism To Make Political Statements In Twelve Angry Men. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-use-of-symbolism-to-make-political-statements-in-twelve-angry-men/> [Accessed 17 May 2022].
The Use Of Symbolism To Make Political Statements In Twelve Angry Men [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2021 Aug 06 [cited 2022 May 17]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-use-of-symbolism-to-make-political-statements-in-twelve-angry-men/
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