HOW MANY PLAYS IN 12AM?
How many plays is 12 Angry Men?
12AM would not be the success it has proved if it were just about one thing: Brave Guy Manages Single-Handedly To Persuade 11 Other Guys To Do Right Thing, Saves Accused From Chair. Fine as far as it goes, of course, but if it were only that, it would not bear watching more than once and would certainly not hold our attention when reading and re-reading it as many times as we have (and will). What did Reginald Rose put in his play to make it engage our sympathy, titillate our interest and even manipulate our emotions?
Here are some suggestions: they apply to a greater or lesser extent, of course, to all good plays, films, novels or stories in general.
Character, development, fulfilment
Rose creates real people with a few deft strokes. For example, Warden’s first line (Y’ know something? It’s hot!), apart from telling us the temperature, gives us all we need to know about Warden - for the time being. Later, we learn that Warden is actually a great deal more complex than just a wise-cracking moaner. We see characters develop before our eyes: Binns, the quiet one who is unassumingly proud of possessing a watch with a second-hand is nonetheless the person who unlocks the final proof (the spectacles) that demolishes the case against the accused. Each of these characters ultimately leaves the jury room changed (in fact, the character who evolves least of all is probably Fonda!).
To give shape to this development, we should understand where they have been, both in the immediate past (the trial) as well as their respective biographies.
We may also consider where they go afterwards: for example, does Binns go home elated, having carved out a respected place in a world of men? What of Cobb? After the shattering self-revelation at the climax of the play, does he face the world a sadder and a wiser man, or go and get drunk in an effort to forget all about it?
The jury is a classic example of disparate people thrown together for a short duration. All of us have been in such situations: how do we approach them? How do we let people know who we are and find out who they are? Are there people we aspire to impress or decide to ignore? As the play develops, the network of sympathies and antipathies appears, alliances form, shift and dissolve.
Is Cobb a tragic hero?
Aristotle fans or students of French neo-classical theatre will recognise that 12AM respects the three classical unities: of action, of place and of time. This could simply be because that’s the way you write a television or film script, but might it raise the idea that Rose nods to the classical rules - perhaps to the extent of seeing his story as a tragedy, i.e. a tale in which a tyrant falls, inspiring fear and pity among the audience? Just asking.