Perhaps the best play on Broadway this season is “To Kill a Mockingbird” the Aaron Sorkin adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel now running at the Schubert Theater on West 44th Street. Led by Jeff Daniels, the show has a superb cast but it’s the Sorkin script that shines most.
The novel is a classic and stands on its own, but Sorkin’s interpretation of the drama set in the Depression era South tells the story with a modern sensibility through several flashbacks to the courtroom where a black man, Tom Robinson, stands accused of raping a white woman. In telling the story this way, instead of a more sequential narration like the novel, Sorkin brings into high relief the essential message that is, to my tastes at least, buried under layers of childhood reminiscence and Jim Crow era Southern custom in the novel.
What becomes clear in Sorkin’s telling of the story is that Atticus Finch, a true believer in the Christian ethic of not judging anyone until “You’ve crawled around in their skin,” is finally, in his adulthood, awakened to the workings of the world. As an attorney the question that looms is whether or not Finch is corrupted to some degree. Spoiler alert–it’s not possible to go through life without at least compromising some of your cherished beliefs.
Sometimes the world is dismissive or uncaring as when Finch’s children led by the unforgettable character of Scout, get into routine childhood scrapes. But other times the world is cruel, and gratuitously so, as when Finch’s client, Robinson, is wrongfully convicted of a crime for which there is ample exculpatory evidence or then when Robinson is shot “trying to escape” from state prison despite a crippled hand that would make his trying to climb the prison’s fence a farce.
Finch is an officer of the court, an attorney, who holds the justice system in reverence worshiping the law in abstract rather than as it is practiced daily by venal and corruptible humans. Finch believes in the perfectibility of the human race, that enough logic and education can eventually bring any corrupt soul around to do the right thing. Yet all those around him including townspeople and his domestic, Calpurnia, who acts like a partner and a mirror image, try and fail to educate him. To offer a modern interpretation, haters are just going to hate.
The world and all of us in it are imperfect. Sometimes that imperfection works to our disadvantage and sometimes not. All of this comes to a head in the last scene when Bob Ewell, Finch’s antagonist dies under suspicious circumstances. The official version of the incident, offered by the local sheriff and the judge, is that Ewell fell on his own knife but the more likely reality is that Boo Radley, a neighborhood savant more likely kills him when Ewell tries to kill Scout and her brother, Jem, walking home on a moonless night.
Radley could have rightly been charged with murder, but Finch immediately turns the suspicion to his son, who suffers a broken arm in the confrontation with Ewell, trying to make the case that Jem did the killing in self-defense. A charge against Radley would be hard to defend since he already has a charge of stabbing his own father with scissors. The script doesn’t dive very deeply into Radley’s character besides offering a vague insight that he may not be fully compos mentis.
In the circumstances, Finch is prepared to defend his son through the legal process but he is finally persuaded that Ewell met his fate by his own hand. The judge and sheriff display a different kind of corruption, the kind routinely practiced every day as law enforcement and the justice system balance guilt and innocence with decisions about what they can prove and sell to a jury. Sometimes bad guys go free in the process and sometimes the innocent face the legal system.
Throughout the play, Finch has been careful to uphold the Christian ethic, to do the right thing for the right reasons, to adhere to both the spirit and the letter of the law. All this despite the hard evidence of his experience that people don’t always do the right thing and that innocence before the bar of justice is no guarantee of acquittal.
Finch could easily refuse the assistance of the sheriff and judge in making the problem go away, he is an officer of the court after all and has a duty to pursue justice. But the sheriff and the judge persuade Finch by implying that a kind of justice has already been done to Ewell, perhaps not the kind of justice that Atticus Finch knows well but more of the karmic variety that gives Ewell his just deserts for having been the motive force behind Tom Robinson’s unjust conviction and eventual murder.
So, was Atticus Finch corrupted in the process or was he simply given a long overdue education in reality? Sorkin’s script brings the question into sharp focus through the eyes of a loving and impressionable daughter, Scout, who we learn grows up and attends law school–and comes to accept the official version of Ewell’s demise.
But the story doesn’t end there. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a totem for liberals and those who want to see the story as an allegory for today’s racism and corruption, and the redemptive power of justice, perhaps for good reason. While that might be a valid viewpoint it might be wiser for us to consider Sorkin’s and Lee’s larger point that being on the “right” side of history or justice, is not enough to achieve what’s good or even simply an acquittal.
Another playwright, Tennessee Williams once observed the same conundrum and concluded that it takes much more than good intentions to affect change and justice and concluded that we humans are always seemingly running out of time to do the right thing. In another context Williams observed that our time for acting, our lives, are always slipping away, and good intentions have to be supported by action, or as he wrote, “…the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.”