Law and Theater: “A Case of Libel” (Part II)
Last week, I discussed the factual background of Reynolds v. Pegler, the real case that forms the background of the play “A Case of Libel.” Today, I will discuss the play itself.
The play turns the real case of Reynolds v. Pegler into the fictional case of Corcoran v. Bendix. Dennis Corcoran stands in for Quentin Reynolds, an experienced and well-respected journalist. After he writes a favorable review of a book attacking his old friend Boyd Bendix (Westbrook Pegler), Bendix turns on him, writing a series of scathing columns attacking Corcoran’s patriotism, politics and morality. Corcoran turns to Robert Sloane (Louis Nizer) for assistance. Sloane is initially reluctant to take the case, but eventually Corcoran persuades him to accept the challenge.
The scene alternates between Sloane’s office and the courtroom, and covers several years of time, from Corcoran’s initial meeting with Sloane through the verdict. This allows the audience to see not only the courtroom jousting between Sloane, Bendix and Paul Cleary (Bendix’s attorney), but also Sloane’s discussions with Corcoran and his wife Anita. These discussions are almost as interesting as the trial sequences, as Sloane attempts to explain to his clients what potential difficulties they face in bringing a libel suit to court. The climax of the play is Sloane’s cross-examination of Bendix. I won’t reveal the ending, but if you read last week’s post, you should get a fairly good idea….
“A Case of Libel” is a good legal drama. It isn’t on the same level as the great legal dramas such as “Inherit the Wind” or “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but it is a solid dramatic work. From a legal standpoint, the discussions between the Corcorans and Sloan regarding the difficulties of defamation cases are very good. Every lawyer has a responsibility to inform his or her clients about the potential downside to their actions. This can be a difficult challenge, but Robert Sloane provides a good working model of how to approach this task.
The courtroom scenes are also well done. I found the closing arguments particularly fascinating. Henry Denker, the playwright (and also an attorney), does not use the closing arguments from the actual trial. He does a good job of presenting compelling arguments for both sides. Although our sympathies are clearly with Corcoran and Sloane, Cleary makes a good argument for his version of freedom of the press.
It is interesting to compare the play with Louis Nizer’s memoirs. It is beyond the scope of this brief article to go into too much detail here. But Denker did manage to include a number of details from the actual case. Most of these details will not be noticed by the audience, but they are fun to spot.
The play is not perfect. My biggest complaint is with the character of Boyd Bendix. While he is a much stronger character in the courtroom than the real-life Westbrook Pegler (at least according to Nizer’s portrayal of him), he comes across as almost a parody of a right-wing anti-communist crusader. I would like to have seen a little more insight into why Bendix acts the way he does. But, by the same token, Pegler’s motivations for attacking Reynolds with such vitriol are also a bit murky. Perhaps Denker decided to just leave well enough alone and concentrate on his heroes. Unfortunately, a hero is only as good as his or her villain. A stronger Bendix would make Sloane’s challenges a little more rewarding.
I’m going to inaugurate a new measure for grading the legal dramas I cover in Black’s Blawg. I call it the “Mockingbird Scale.” It ranges from one to ten. One mockingbird is for plays worthy of Lionel Hutz*, while ten mockingbirds are reserved for shows worthy of Atticus Finch himself. “A Case of Libel” gets seven mockingbirds:
NEXT WEEK: I will look at something a little different: Two plays covering the same material, the life, trial, and execution of Joe Hill, a labor leader of the early 20th century.
*Before anyone complains, I am as big a fan of “The Simpsons” and of the late, great Phil Hartman as almost anyone. Lionel Hutz is simply the most inept fictional attorney I could think of. If anyone has another option, I’m open to suggestions.