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State Killing, the Stage of Innocence, and The Exonerated
American Literature (2011)
  • Katy Ryan, West Virginia University

This essay considers the innocence argument and sentimentality in Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s The Exonerated (2003), a documentary play based on interviews with people sentenced to die for crimes they had not committed. The play’s composition, performance, and reception reveal the challenges of art committed to 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 theatre, The Exonerated also provides a forum for thinking through the contemporary terms and framework of conversations about state killing. The play promotes reform and elicits sympathy by substituting a false rhetoric of universal vulnerability for a more accurate assessment of imprisonment and judicial murder. The effort to make the play accessible, emotional, and persuasive sets real limits on how audience members are asked think about personal and social responsibility. Some of these moves include the focus on the wrongly convicted instead of the guilty, the balance of white and black interviewees in the face of a racially unbalanced justice system, the rendering of pain as uplifting for audiences, and the promotion of personal and financial solutions rather than structural and political ones.

  • death penalty,
  • wrongful convictions,
  • innocence,
  • theatre
Publication Date
March, 2011
Citation Information
Katy Ryan. "State Killing, the Stage of Innocence, and The Exonerated" American Literature Vol. 83 Iss. 1 (2011)
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