Theater in the Courtroom: The Chicago Conspiracy Trial

85 Pages Posted: 27 Oct 2002

See all articles by Pnina Lahav

Pnina Lahav

Boston University - School of Law

Date Written: September 30, 2002


The Chicago Conspiracy Trial (otherwise known as the Chicago Seven Trial) is a Rorschach test of American society in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Following the riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, leaders of the antiwar movement, the counterculture and the Black Panthers were put on trial for a "conspiracy to cross state lines with intent to incite a riot." The trial has been too easily dismissed as a circus, not worthy of legal attention, when in fact it does contain important legal insights. This paper suggests that the theory of the theater provides the key to unlocking the trial's significance. The paper applies Peter Brook's theories of the theater and argues that in Brook's terms, this trial is "rough" rather than "deadly" theater. By staging events that are generally unthinkable in the courtroom, such as the binding and gagging of Bobby Seale or the appearance of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin in court dressed in judicial robes, some terrifying truths about law were captured and made visible. These truths are terrifying not only because they deviate from expected norms of civility and depict the degree of violence generally hidden from the public view. They capture archetypal motifs from the collective conscious and unconscious, thereby invoking the universal struggle about the appropriate relationships between the person and the government.

In conclusion, the paper looks to the reaction of subsequent courts sitting on appeal and as courts of retrial, and discusses the extent to which they were willing to face the messages contained in these scenes.

Keywords: political trials, Chicago Conspiracy Trial, trials, law and literature, law and theater, law and theatre, theory of the theater

JEL Classification: K40, K42, K14

Suggested Citation

Lahav, Pnina, Theater in the Courtroom: The Chicago Conspiracy Trial (September 30, 2002). Available at SSRN: or

Pnina Lahav (Contact Author)

Boston University - School of Law ( email )

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