One of the things I’m finding quite frustrating, looking through the texts that are studied in Australian high schools, is that so many of them are American–classic American, yes, and there are easy connections to be made with issues that affect Australia, given, like the US, it’s a former British colony and now an advanced capitalist, post-industrial society, but still, not Australian; and so it seems to me that injustice is always elsewhere and we don’t really have the courage to guide young people through the inequities in our own society–past and present–for fear of upsetting parents and politicians.
The recent withdrawal of Indigenous and multicultural issues from some parts of the Australian curriculum in favour of the ethnic majority’s ‘Christian heritage’ is an explicit version of the retreat that’s evident in this long-time focus on American and British texts. When I was in school, for example, I studied The Crucible by Arthur Miller; To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee; a range of Black American and British WWI poets; and Shakespeare’s King Lear. We did look at Camus’s The Stranger for a North African-French twist. I loved all of these works. And I had the very best English teacher, who was the first person I knew who called herself a feminist. I still remember some of the conversations we had about the issues that each of these poems, plays, and novels raised. I think I’m basically an existentialist because of The Stranger; it probably helped that there was a soundtrack in the form of a Cure song at the time, too. But, for someone who grew up mostly in far north Queensland, I didn’t learn anything about the Indigenous history of this country. I could rail against the injustices meted out to African Americans, but couldn’t even see those on my very doorstep.
Part of this ongoing focus may well be that there’s a lot of supporting material for these classic American and British texts; it’s quite time consuming to create whole units from scratch, and then there’s the suspicion that the Australian text won’t stand the test of time–it’s issues won’t be universal as those in the established texts apparently are. It makes me wonder about Americans studying American texts. Are the issues too confronting for their students? Or do these texts raise issues that are considered part of a distant past, despite all evidence to the contrary?
Twelve Angry Men was first written for television and it bears the hallmarks of early television plays: a single setting; it’s character and dialogue driven; and at seventy or so pages, succinct in its exploration of social issues in just over an hour, perhaps up to an hour and a half to allow for advertisements in the American broadcast system. These features also make it an ideal text for students in their middle high school years to examine.
Despite my reservations about its study over other texts in the Australian context, Twelve Angry Men is the very best example of what was possible in the early years of television, even if the film version is more well known now. The characters are so tightly drawn; every utterance conveys nuances of their distinct dispositions, while managing to embody a range of social groups that made up the US in the 1950s–at least as represented by white men. This latter point is one that needs to be discussed, but the play does examine this privilege afforded the jurors, if in a broader discussion about the death penalty and the ideals of the American judicial system.
Even as I write this, as much as I find to admire about the play–the arc of Juror No. 5 is just perfect–I can’t get away from my initial reservations about its use in the Australian context, and there are more concerns that have arisen during this reflection on it. I hope these implicit dynamics of the play are brought up in discussions in Australian classrooms.
(As an aside, I noted that the LA Theatre Works adaptation I listened to, before I read the play, reveals the final verdict of the jury by allowing Juror No.3 some redemption that isn’t available to him in Rose’s script. On the one hand, this can be accounted for in the shift from the affordances of the close-up in television–in a direction to see it written–to the aural emphasis of live performance–Juror No.3 blurts it out as he finally recognises his own motivations; on the other hand, this alteration clearly arises out changing ideas about the motivations of the kind of behaviour exhibited by men like Juror No. 3)