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Theater

The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial: Act I

SMA Podcast April 26, 2020 93 6


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The courtroom drama han been a theatrical staple for centuries, stretching back to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and even, if you consider the Greek chorus as an unsworn jury, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King.  In more modern times, Broadway has had its share of courtroom dramas, from Inherit the Wind to A Man for All Seasons, but only in a few instances has virtually the entire play taken place in the courtroom. Two good examples of the latter both involve military courts: Saul Levitt’s The Andersonville Trial, and Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.

Theatergoers with training in law often squirm a bit when they attend a legal-themed play (or, for that matter, movie), because in many instances, the playwright or screenwriter has exhibited no regard for authentic courtroom procedure. Herman Wouk (who died in May 2019 just days before his 104th birthday) did his homework. A naval reserve officer in World War II who served as executive officer aboard the U.S.S. Southard, and was decorated for valor, Wouk knew how Navy men talked; but he had no legal training, and there was no template for a World War II court-martial trial for mutiny, as none had actually occurred. Wouk scrupulously read the 588-page manual called Naval Courts and Boards, and apart from certain minor omissions for the sake of brevity, the action of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial strictly adheres to courtroom regulations as practiced in 1945, the time of the play. Wouk also studied psychoneurotic case histories in creating the character of Captain Queeg — but let’s not give away the plot.

Act I: The Prosecution

Act II: The Defense

The time of the play is February 1945. The scene is the General Court-Martial Room of the Twelfth Naval District, San Francisco. At the end of Act II the scene shifts to a banquet room in the Hotel Fairmont, San Francisco.

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