John Owen Havard | Legal Drama: A View from the Bridge

By John Owen Havard

A View from the Bridge (1955) by Arthur Miller, recently treated to an elemental restaging by director Ivo van Hove, features a narrator—whose role resembles that of a Greek chorus—drawn from the Italian enclave of Brooklyn in which the play takes place. The importance of this figure with respect to the unfolding drama of unspeakable desires and their tragic consequences acquires added heft from his profession: he is a lawyer. If Greek tragedy disclosed the core truth of an experience, whereby an individual grappled (not least through the consequences of their actions) with the “truth” of “who they are,” the law supplies an added layer to this process of revelation and reckoning. Legal questions have an obvious bearing on the guilt-ridden worlds of tragic drama. When sentenced to murder, an individual becomes “guilty” (not least in newspaper reporting), as what they did becomes, in the penal system, what they are. But what do these different orders of truth, and the discourses and practices by which they operate, have to do with one another? In his 1981 lectures at Louvain, published as Wrong-Doing, Truth Telling, Foucault would take up these questions as they intersect with that of “avowal,” in which “he who speaks obligates himself to being what he says he is” (WT 16). Locating these lectures within Foucault’s writings creates dramatic ripple effects that profoundly unsettle prevailing assumptions about the developing priorities of his thinking—not least in revealing the convergence between disparate modes of truth-telling. In the conclusion of this post, I will return to Miller’s play, in which sexuality, criminality, and truths of various kinds spectacularly collide. First, I will show how attention to these lectures reveals similarly striking connections that Foucault instilled with a sense of drama all his own.

Opening Avowal

Foucault had recently situated criminality and sexuality in separate cellblocks, as it were, if also neighboring ones. Introducing the concerns of Subjectivité et vérité, his 1980–81 lectures at the Collège de France, Foucault differentiated sexuality from the terrain investigated in his previous studies. In contrast with madness, pathology, or crime, truthful discourse (“discours vrai”) operated in an altogether different fashion here (in ways that look ahead, as Bernard Harcourt has noted, to the practices of the self—and “arts of living”—that would dominate his final lecture courses). Although sexuality, too, would become institutionalized, this would entail an altogether different relationship with the self and depend on discourses as distinct as the DSM-5 and a private diary. Madness, crime, sexuality, and illness were hardly, of course, distinct categories. Foucault recognized as much, employing these labels heuristically and remaining attuned both to their porous boundaries as well as the ways they became conflated within mutually-reinforcing regimes of power [1]. We might nonetheless suggest that Foucault overstated the case here and speculate that he himself recognized as much, taking as our evidence the importance his lectures at Louvain a few months later would place upon precisely the term by which he made this emphatic distinction. Foucault built upon this observation that the truth of sexuality would be institutionalized in a completely different fashion in noting that “discours vrai” was here organized around “la pratique de l’aveu.” Foucault’s lectures at Louvain in April would emerge at the interstices of this earlier analysis, as though in the cracks between the distinctions he laid down in these recent lectures. Far from the truth of criminality taking shape solely within institutionalized procedures, under the coercive direction of outside professionals, Foucault’s invitation to speak at Louvain by the School of Criminology would bring him to the realization that avowal of the true self—no less than with sexuality—remained crucial to the practice of penality.

Making Drama

Foucault turned once again to Greek drama as a means of teasing apart differing orders of truth. In On the Government of the Living, his 1979–80 lectures at the Collège de France, he had drawn upon what he termed the “mechanism” of Oedipus Rex to delineate coinciding processes of “alethurgy” (the “set of possible verbal or non-verbal procedures by which one brings to light what is laid down as true” GL 7). That play united a “divine half, religious, prophetic, ritual alethurgy, with an oracular, divinatory half … and then a human half, the individual alethurgy of memory and inquiry, with a murder half”; the “totality of the truth” was thus “if not completely said, at least grasped fully … when they recall their memories” (GL 30–1). Alethurgy not only encompassed prophecies and oracles here, but the testimony of those servants that observed Oedipus’s crime. These servants, or slaves, who “found themselves, as if by chance, on the scene of the truth” were “in the truth and not inhabited by it. It was they who inhabited the truth, or who, at least, frequented a reality, facts, actions, and characters on which they can deliver, in the name of their identity, in the name of the fact that they are themselves and are still the same, under their conditions, a true discourse” (GL 38). This truth required reinforcement; indeed, the play needed the possible “falsehood” of the slaves “for the telling of the gods to become true” while also needing “the truth-telling of the slaves for the uncertain truth-telling of the gods to become an inevitable certainty for men” (GL 42).

In the Louvain lectures, the slaves in Oedipus Rex become conduits for “truthful speech [une parole de vérité]”: “a speech that is entirely true because the one who speaks may say: ‘Yes, I did that. Yes, I am the one, autos. I saw it. I heard it. I gave it. I did it.’ And with this word, despite the fact that it emanates from the mouth of a slave who is threatened with execution, Oedipus’s truth will appear. The chorus recognizes and accepts this truth. It alone ensures justice” (WT, 79). With the unfolding of the drama, diverse truths thus become braided together. While there was “individual anagnōrisis,” Oedipus’s tragic recognition, corresponding to “the emergence of truth in the subject,” there was also, Foucault notes, “the axis of establishing the truth not in the eyes of Oedipus but in the eyes of the chorus, a character that I believe to be absolutely central, as it is in all Greek plays. For if indeed Oedipus is searching for the truth, he is doing so precisely so that the chorus can recognize it—the chorus, that is, the citizens, the people in assembly, or what is constituted as the judicial body with the responsibility for discovering, establishing, and validating the truth.” This was the “axis” of the “establishment of truth in valid and legitimate juridical terms: (WT 63).

Christianity introduced drama of its own. In tandem with the shift in institutional context, Christian practice collapsed various kinds of truth, turning these processes inwards. Not only did Christianity impose upon the individual “an obligation to search for the truth of oneself” however; there was an added obligation “not only to discover the truth, but to manifest it” (WT 92, emphasis added). Describing the resulting acts of penitence and renunciation, Foucault noted that, in contrast with the ancients, there was “something … if you will, very theatrical, but in which what is shown, what must be shown, is the truth of the subject himself. What he truly is” (WT 116). This resulted in a practically obsessive, or at the least obligatory and obediently made repetition: “a sort of vertical relationship through which one examined [surveille] oneself and constantly examined one’s own thought” (WT 148). The question thence became “how to join together, into one unique subject, the subject of spiritual veridiction as it was constituted through these monastic techniques and the subject of law which, for that matter, was implicated by the institutions” (WT 152).

“To show her what he is!”

We come here to the core question around which Foucault’s lectures hinge: why would avowal remain so important, even when the law had already made a determination of guilt? Foucault acknowledged the performative function of legal practice—whereby deeming an individual “condemned” makes them so—but drew a distinction with aveu, or confession, from the condemned themselves:

when the accused declares his guilt, it is more than symbolic, if you will, and it is not performative: the accused who declares his guilt does not thereby transform himself into the guilty party. And yet avowal is, I think, essential in this whole system. Neither performative nor symbolic, I would suggest instead, if changing the usual meaning slightly, that avowal is of the order of drama or dramaturgy. If one understands the “dramatic” not as a mere ornamental addition, but as every element in a scene that brings forth the foundation of legitimacy and the meaning of what is taking place, then I would say that avowal is part of the judicial and penal drama. It is an essential element of its dramaturgy, in the full sense of the term.

“[W]e could say,” Foucault concludes, “that avowal is one of the most intense elements of the judicial drama and one of the most necessary” (WT, 210). Precisely why may remain a mystery. We can nonetheless begin to appreciate why these questions might matter to Foucault, and so to us, by turning to some more recent instances of “judicial and penal drama.”

We may come back here to A View from the Bridge. In the “period around 1955,” Foucault noted, “there was a kind of latent crisis, if you will—something that we felt was falling apart” (WT, 241–2). While Foucault alluded most directly in this 1981 interview to challenges to psychiatry in France, his references to parallel developments in England summon a larger shift. Miller’s play—first performed in 1955—also depicted a world on the brink of collapse, albeit a collapse centered here around the very personal tragedy of Eddie Carbone (a man not “purely good, but himself purely, for he allowed himself to be wholly known” as the lawyer-chorus figure notes) whose obsessive desire for his niece spirals out in the wider community. The story of his inarticulate desires and refusal to see where they may lead intersected with a larger drama, however, in which Eddie’s status as both desiring and legal subject remain center stage. In van Hove’s recent production, the piercing light of tragic destiny (what Foucault terms “the divine sight that cuts through time and is atemporal” [WT 68–9]) coincided with the harsh glare of the lightbox—a minimalist set that one review described as “at once an amphitheater, a church and a giant microscope”—in which the characters, performing barefoot, appeared. This scrutiny particularly comes to bear during a pivotal later scene, in which Eddie, unleashing the drama that will hurtle the play to its conclusion, first kisses his teenage niece, before then hurriedly kissing her flamboyant male lover. Asked why, by the lawyer-chorus, he responds: “To show her what he is!”

“What”—and “who”—Eddie “is” remain the central questions here, both within the unfolding drama as well as its posthumous reckoning by the lawyer (whose concluding speech, describing Eddie as “wholly known,” laments that most of the “time now we settle for half” but “the truth is holy”—in a twist on Foucault’s observation about Oedipus Rex that “in opposition to the world of fate, atemporality, pure light, and the brilliance of the lightning that manifests the truth and guarantees destiny, the chorus asserts its right … to remain in the dark” WT 68). Rather than attempting to determine whether the play dramatizes repressed incestuous desire deflected onto homophobia, or vice versa, the elemental recent staging—which returned to Miller’s original plans for a stripped-down production presented in a single act, so as to more closely resemble Greek drama—instead called attention to the ways these questions take shape, dramatic shape at that, amidst colliding modes of truth. The “holy” truth of destiny intersects here, albeit obliquely, with the law (which in turn intersects, albeit incoherently, with sexuality, completing the circle with Foucault’s earlier reference to “la pratique de l’aveu” during his January lecture) [2]. We find more disquieting recent examples of the dynamics that concern Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling in the eminently Foucauldian Netflix series Making a Murderer, which documents in terrifying detail the ways a man with a reputation for sexual exhibitionism and a low-functioning teen are constructed as criminal subjects, with the orchestration of evidence working in synchrony with the emerging “truth” of their criminality. Given Foucault’s attention to the mutation of mandatory avowal into the disclosure of latent criminality, we may only read a recent proposal, however well-intentioned, that “[n]o one should be convicted of a crime—or even stopped by the police—without evidence of a criminal state of mind” with profound disquiet [3].



[1] For much of the twentieth century, after all, when queers were not facing treatment for mental disorders or classification as pathological, they were facing suspicion for crime. As Timothy Stewart-Winter has noted in a recent study, following the murder of three teenagers in Chicago in 1955, a “psychiatrist who worked frequently with the criminal courts … called on police to ‘round up every known sex offender and moron,’ further advising police that ‘there are several Chicago areas where persons with abnormal sexual attitudes tend to congregate.’” See Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 30.

[2] Disconnect nonetheless remains central here: this is aveu from the bridge after all. As Christopher Bigsby notes, the advice Eddie gives to his wife and niece about keeping quiet concerning the Italian cousins that live illegally with them—“if you said it you knew it, if you didn’t say it you didn’t know it”—applies “equally to himself. So long as his feelings never make their way into language he can deny them to others and to himself.” Arthur Miller: A Critical Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). Eddie is said to be suffering from “a passion that had moved into his body like a stranger” that the play makes the truth through which he is “wholly known.”

[3] Gideon Yaffe, “To Convict, Prove a Guilty Mind,” New York Times, February 12, 2016, A27.