In this thesis, I examine the role performance plays in the adversarial criminal jury trial. The initial motivation behind this inquiry was the pervasiveness of a metaphor: why is the courtroom so frequently compared to a theatre? Most writings on this topic see the courtroom as bearing what might be termed a cosmetic resemblance to a theatre, making comparisons, for instance, between elements of costume and staging. I pursue a different line of argument. I argue that performance is not simply an embellishment of the trial process but rather a constitutive feature of the criminal jury trial. It is by means of what I call the performance of tradition that the trial acquires its social significance as a (supposedly) timeless bulwark of authority and impartiality.
In the first three chapters I show that popular usage of the term ‘theatrical’ (whether it be to describe the practice of a flamboyant lawyer, or a misbehaving defendant) is frequently laden with pejorative connotations and invariably (though usually only implicitly) invokes comparison to a presupposed authentic or natural way of behaviour (‘not-performing’). Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu I argue that, whatever legal agents see as appropriate trial conduct (behaviour that is ‘not-performing’), they are misrecognising the performative accomplishments and demands required of both legal agents and laypersons in the trial. This performance constructs and maintains a gap between legal practitioners and laypersons which is essential to maintaining the status of the legal profession, and which continually positions the trial in legal and popular belief.
I then look at specific moments of ‘anxiety’ where alterations to traditional procedure provoke debate as to the otherwise unnoticed or unarticulated value of live performance. In Chapter 4, I examine the growth of the private advocacy training industry that frequently positions lawyers as actors. Resistance to the idea of acting demonstrates the tainted status of performance terminology as well as legal agents’ belief that lawyers are acting naturally. I argue instead that lawyers have always been trained in acting: an habituated performance style I term legal naturalism. In Chapter 5, I examine the television broadcasting of trials. Some legal agents argue that broadcasting risks ‘theatricalising’ the trial—causing participants to ‘act up’. However, this overlooks the fact that the court has a long history as a source of popular entertainment. I argue that resistance to broadcasting also stems from a reluctance to remit control of the trial to external producers. Broadcasting invites greater scrutiny into a process that if not always fair, needs to be believed in as fair and has historically been tightly self-regulated by the legal field, through its reliance on live performance’s ‘essential’ quality—its inability to be captured and subsequent disappearance. In Chapter 6, I examine the debates around CCTV testimony, which demonstrate a consistency of belief in live or ‘face-to-face’ confrontation to produce juridical ‘Truth’ that can be traced back over 800 years.
The final chapter of this thesis examines sexual assault trials. This chapter brings together all of these sources of anxiety. Although often termed ‘exceptional’, sexual assault trials highlight how essential live performance is to manufacturing the authority of ‘The Law’ through the weight given to demeanour assessment, and because these trials make visible the sustained symbolic violence characteristic of adversarial criminal trials that is particularly traumatic for sexual assault complainants. Examination of sexual assault trials also reveals the double-edged position of performance in the trial. The exploitation of the symbolic value of live performance is the source of much trauma, yet the performance of tradition is also essential to maintaining popular belief in the adversarial criminal jury trial.