The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Execution of Justice is a two-act play centered on the 1978 murders of George Moscone, the mayor of San Francisco, and board of supervisors member Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the United States. Much of the play is set in the courtroom at the first-degree murder trial of Dan White, the man accused of the murders. In the scenes of White’s trial, it becomes increasingly clear that justice is being “executed”—not in the sense of being carried out, but in the sense of being destroyed—by the wily defense lawyer and the biased judge.

At the trial, Thomas Norton, attorney for the prosecution of Dan White, seems to think the argument for first-degree murder is so obvious that it is unnecessary for him to make a strong case against the accused. He also fails to anticipate the support for White from those who share his antigay views. Douglas Schmidt, the defense lawyer, virtually wins the case in the jury selection process: He allows no one who is homosexual, an ethnic minority, or liberal-minded to serve on the jury. In his opening remarks to the jury, Schmidt establishes the idea that although White did the shooting, the question the jurors should consider is “Why?” Schmidt repeatedly leads the defense witnesses to say what he wants them to say and undermines the prosecution witnesses by asking if they are gay and belittling their professional expertise. The judge overrules most of Thomas Norton’s early objections, and Norton essentially gives up in his role as prosecutor.

Schmidt also tells the jurors that because Dan White’s recent diet consisted of nothing but “junk food” such as chips, candy, and Twinkie cream-filled cakes, he was suffering from diminished capacity to make rational decisions. This “Twinkie defense” proves effective for Schmidt. The jury finds White guilty only of the reduced charges of voluntary manslaughter, and the judge imposes a prison sentence of seven years and eight months with the possibility of earlier parole. Once the verdict and sentence are announced, gays and other protesters march and riot, followed immediately by the police responding in San Francisco’s historically gay district, the Castro, by clubbing down homosexuals on the street and in gay bars. The multiple connotations of “justice” and “execution” are evident throughout the entire play.

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Execution of Justice adopts devices of epic theater throughout its performance. There is no house curtain; the scenes are open, fluid, and interspersed; and the themes are didactic and socially relevant. The innovative use of documentary films, slides, and audiotapes, and the incorporation of quotations from the actual trial transcripts, provide a strong sense of realism and convey a powerful message of the damage caused by hatred and intolerance. The openness and fluidity of the scenes create a sense of immediacy, as though the action is going on presently rather than merely in the past.

Much of the play, particularly the courtroom scenes, is told in chronological order, but the script often breaks the linear chronology and repeats symbolic moments. The repeated taped sounds of high heels echoing through hallways, people out of breath, and mumbled Hail Marys become a haunting refrain. Audiotape is first used very early in act 1. In a phone conversation, Dan White told his wife Mary Ann to meet him at the church, where he later tells her that he shot the mayor and Harvey Milk. The same audio is used at later times to punctuate various incongruities between justice and intention, just as the church setting is incongruous with murder and Dan White’s apparent lack of repentance. This early scene is immediately followed by an amplified gavel sound and a clerk announcing the opening of the trial, but instead of moving to the trial setting, the Cop,...

(The entire section is 419 words.)


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Betsko, Kathleen, and Rachel Koenig. Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987.

Bienen, Leigh Buchanan. “Emily Mann.” In Speaking on Stage, edited by Philip Kolin and Colby Kellman. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.

Burke, Sally. American Feminist Playwrights. New York: Twayne, 1996.

Savran, David. In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.