Ryan's essay analyzes the coordination of the innocence argument and sentimentality in Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's TheExonerated (2003), a documentary play based on interviews with people sentenced to die for crimes they did not commit. The play's composition, performance, and reception reveal the challenges of creating art that is aimed at social reform and confirm the difficulty in assessing the political function or, in Fredric Jameson's sense, the political unconscious of American literature. As a celebrated example of political theater, The Exonerated also provides a forum for thinking through the contemporary terms and framework of conversations about state killing. Ryan argues that the play stimulates reform and elicits sympathy by substituting a false rhetoric of universal vulnerability for a more accurate assessment of imprisonment and judicial murder. The attempt to make the play accessible, emotional, and persuasive also sets real limits on how audience members are asked think about personal and social responsibility. Some of these efforts include a focus on the wrongly convicted instead of the guilty, a balance of white and black interviewees in the face of a racially unbalanced justice system, a rendering of pain as uplifting for audiences, and an encouragement of personal and financial solutions rather than structural and political ones.
Katy Ryan; State Killing, the Stage of Innocence, and The Exonerated. American Literature 1 March 2011; 83 (1): 121–151. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2010-065
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