VCE Outcome 1: Twelve Angry Men

How do the characters of Rose’s play contribute to the understanding achieved by an audience?

In writing Twelve Angry Men Reginald Rose created characters that would present a cast of stereotypes for his audience to easily identify. In the script, Rose gives very little explicit direction as to the actual character or make-up of the men, and they initially appear to be anonymous. They are named only as “Foreman”, “2nd Juror”, “3rd Juror” etc, and mostly lack for props or costumes. Yet each is swiftly unmasked as subtle differences reveal their nature, and equally the purpose of the author in Twelve Angry Men is revealed.

The title of the play immediately presents a context removed of compassion, and in some ways of wisdom. Men are stereotypically characterised as barbaric and uncommunicative. A unified pack of twelve men easily presents to the mind an image of a sporting team before it does that of a board of academics, and the given description of their emotion further suggests that battle-lines have been drawn and that brawn will achieve more than brains in the contest. Twelve Angry Men is a cautionary narrative that describes how such individuals can, with great difficulty, overcome their primal instincts.

The angriest men on the jury would like to think of themselves both as the most American, and with the best reasons to be angry. The 7th Juror is shown through his language and his dialogue to be a fan of that most American fascination – baseball (and in case you didn’t know, it is a really lousy sport!). A true “Yankee”, he resents the “Goddamn waste of time” he has already suffered (how ironic!) and is impatient to vote and “go” to the ball-game he has tickets for that night. The 10th Juror quickly reveals himself to be “an ignorant man” through his bigoted descriptions of “them”; he argues “the kids who crawl outa those places are real trash”. His vitriol later achieves a climax when he rants “They’re against us. They hate us, they want to destroy us”, and then threatens to “cave in” the head of a juror who objects, but by that stage all the jurors are able to see that he represents the most racist elements of society. The 3rd Juror typifies the American Dream: the 3rd Juror “started with nothing” and has achieved wealth and success. It is later revealed that this man wants to avenge himself on his “goddamned rotten kid” who threatens to ruin everything he has worked to achieve. Rose is able in his script to expose the failures of all these typical and true Americans, and challenge their bitter prejudices with the democratic values of civic duty, equality and justice.

The 9th Juror is not angry but subdued. It is not by chance that the 9th Juror is “an old man”. As such he is able to identify of one witness “This is a quiet, frightened, insignificant old man who has been nothing all his life, who has never had recognition, his name in the newspapers… A man like this needs to be recognised, to be listened to, to be quoted just once.” This is the message that the author wishes to impress upon his audience: that the elderly have a voice in society that has been disdained. It is a message later confirmed when the 6th Juror asserts “A guy who talks like that to an old man oughta really get stepped on y’know.” Rose wants the audience to realise that wise and valuable voices in society have been ignored to the detriment of democracy. The 9th Juror is the first to change his verdict, not because he has actually changed his mind but because he recognises a need to discuss, deliberate, and mostly just to listen (pun intended).

Rose argues throughout the play that minority groups have been effectively silenced by a vocal and dominant majority. When the 9th Juror changes his vote he asks “Would you like me to tell you why?” Two angry jurors insolently answer in the negative, and this is particularly hypocritical of the 7th Juror because he has just demanded such knowledge of a different juror. Addressing this hypocrisy, a second character in the 11th Juror is cast deliberately to strongly demonstrate how the values of democracy in America can be forgotten and lost. The 11th Juror is a migrant (or refugee) from Germany who greatly enjoys the position of responsibility placed upon him as a juror. When he observes “I have always thought that in this country a man was entitled to have unpopular opinions,” the audience quickly considers because of his nationality that he is contrasting the rights of Americans with those who suffered at the hands of fascists in Europe before and during World War II. In contrast to the 9th and 11th Jurors, the 5th Juror is young and quick to defend his origins, but even he has to exercise a vernacular and sarcastically ask if the “trash” of Harlem “still smells on me.” A split soon develops in the jury room between the dominant “angry” Americans, and the socially less-powerful representatives of minority groups, and this occurs when the latter are increasingly given the opportunity to present their own opinions freely.

Further, the author wishes to demonstrate that a democratic justice system must defend and serve the cause of equality in the eyes of both the law and society. Although an angry 3rd Juror rails against a society that celebrates “Love Your Underprivileged Brother Week”, the newest citizen of America can calmly respond with “I don’t have to defend my decision to you. I have a reasonable doubt in my mind.” This dispute, cast between these two jurors, is intended to demonstrate a battle between a false image of nationalist power and a true model of citizenship and understanding. Patriotism is not determined by birth, but by action that is just.

The hero of Twelve Angry Men never loses sight of his responsibility to the court. He wants the jurors to appreciate that “It’s not easy for me to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first,” and tells them plainly, “This isn’t a game.” It is never the case that he seeks to prove the innocence of the accused, for he understands “Nobody has to prove otherwise. The burden of proof is on the prosecution.” Angry jurors criticise his actions, accusing him of being a bleeding heart and “a golden-voiced preacher”, but the 8th Juror never loses his temper or his reason. Even when the 3rd Juror attacks him with a knife, he remains steadfast. I don’t know which group or class the 8th Juror is meant to represent, simply because I would want for such courage and determination to represent the best in all of all. Perhaps that is all that Reginald Rose hoped for too, and his story inspires all of America to follow this example.

The characters of Twelve Angry Men might appear anonymous, but audiences easily understand them. The lack of gravity demonstrated by “Baseball” is contrasted with the sense of civic responsibility demonstrated by the migrant watchmaker, and he is finally compelled to act. The bigotry and hatred of the 11th Juror is overturned when all the jurors gain the kind of insight into personal failings first discovered by the “Old Man”, and so the audience appreciates how equality must triumph over false prejudice. Ultimately the purpose of Reginald Rose is, as shown through the 8th Juror’s persuasion of the 3rd, to warn all America not to convict others out of a desire for retribution. In Rose’s play, the masks worn by an angry society are removed to reveal a capacity to achieve true democracy. A guilty nightmare of repression is abandoned and the jurors wake up to live the dream of democracy (oh that’s cheesy! Sorry!).

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