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Court as a theatre: ‘There are great similarities between drama as an art form and the legal world’

The Lucia de Berk case or the suicide of Slobodan Praljak at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia: certain trials keep popping up in media. In her dissertation, Tessa de Zeeuw examines the cultural appeal of such cases and analyses artistic responses. ‘Artworks sometimes have the tendency to “fix” what went wrong in court by turning it into conclusive story after all.’

For her PhD research, De Zeeuw researched, among other things, the trial of Lucia de Berk, the nurse who initially got sentenced to life for the murder and attempted murder of seven patients, but was ultimately acquitted. Her story was adapted into several plays and a film. ‘There are parallels between drama and the legal world’, states the PhD student. In a trial there are clear roles and there is generally a clear dramatic course. When this dramatic course is interrupted, this can lead to problems. ‘When there is no clear verdict or people don’t fit into one role, the coherent image of jurisdiction is disrupted.’

‘Justice was given the part of perpetrator’

Precisely those cases, in which the judicial ‘theatre’ takes a different course than usual, can lead to cultural re-enactments. De Zeeuw focussed on disruptions by events or processes that she, following the work of theatrologist Hans-Ties Lehmann, qualifies as ‘postdramatic’: ‘When cases like that are re-dramatised, an unambiguous story is created after all. We can clearly see this in the adaptations of the Lucia de Berk case. In the film and plays she was supposed to be the victim. Justice was given the part of perpetrator: it is said to have harmed an innocent woman. In reality it is still unclear what exactly happened.’

At the same time, the opposite also happens. When war criminal Slobodan Praljak drank poison in front of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and later died from it, his supporters celebrated this break from the traditional dramatic course of a trial. ‘Sometimes, people respond very enthusiastically when transparency is created in the form of the trial. In the case of Praljak, his suicide was in line with the criticism of the sovereign power that the court was. The disruption of the traditional judicial theatre destabilised that power and was therefore politically applauded in some quarters.’

More to research

So two contradictory results, that offer enough room for further research. De Zeeuw: ‘I have been appointed as a university lecturer and I have received a small grant from LUCAS to write a Rubicon proposal. I am very happy with that, because I really enjoy teaching lectures. In addition, I would like to delve further into the re-dramatisation of seemingly unsolvable cases, so it is nice that I am given the opportunities to do that.’

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