THEATERS ON both coasts are alive with the sound of gavels. A Broadway revival of "Inherit the Wind," the 1955 play (and 1960 film) that fictionalized the Scopes Monkey Trial, opens today, its larger-than-life attorneys once again battling over the Bible and the Big Bang. The staged version of "Twelve Angry Men," which originated as a 1954 teleplay (and became a 1957 film), is running at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre. In a cramped jury room, 12 men -- angered by prejudice, tiresome civic duty and the summer heat -- sit in judgment of a teenager accused of murdering his father.
The courtroom as theater is as old as "Oedipus Rex." We have come to organize our lives around the law, and our cultural consumption is overwhelmingly fed by the calories of courtrooms.
These portrayals of strutting lawyers and edgy jurors represent an entire genre of entertainment devoted to the law as drama -- slow-moving, often without the requisite happy end, yet riveting nonetheless. That "Inherit the Wind" and "Twelve Angry Men" have undergone so many creative incarnations demonstrates the litheness of law as spectacle and that the public seemingly never tires of trials.
All that is serious or silly gets tangled up in the courts. Our 2000 presidential election turned into Bush vs. Gore. The corporate fraud scandals of Enron, Tyco and WorldCom all wound up before a judge. The salaciousness of Anna Nicole Smith's fight to inherit millions has bled into the wranglings over her death. The O.J. Simpson trial, that 1990s daytime soap opera, lurks like a dormant virus. The grandest show of the legal system stubbornly refuses to leave our nervous system.
And we have found new trials to feed our addictions -- Sean Combs, Michael Jackson, Robert Blake and now Phil Spector. Ironically, there are even trials designed to free us of our competing addictions, such as the cases against Big Tobacco and the Big Mac.
The law, after all, and its centerpiece, the trial, are ready-made for drama. There is something about judgment, handed down by fellow human beings, without revenge, that exerts a serious hold on the public imagination. We watch and emulate the very spectators who inhabit actual courtrooms. Men and women confront one another at their most vulnerable, and human. The longing for justice, and the horror of injustice, is irresistible -- in art as in life.
Americans remain hooked to their Court TV as if it were the cable equivalent of life support. The "Law & Order" franchise multiplies and syndicates without end. David E. Kelley's "Boston Legal" is an offspring from his earlier "The Practice," which wouldn't have existed had he not written episodes for "L.A. Law" 20 years earlier. Legal thrillers by Scott Turow and John Grisham virtually imprison readers on park benches and in airline seats. And there are thousands of people who depend on the syndicated "Judge Judy," "People's Court" and "Judge Alex" for the moral lessons of our day. Indeed, traditional soaps like "General Hospital" have lost Nielsen share to these actual dramas.
The legal system might be America's true national pastime. We are drawn to the spectacle of trials, with lawyers as cunningly disarmed gladiators and elevated judges who can resolve all conflicts peaceably, with brains and a gavel rather than blood and gore.
The adversarial nature of the legal system also appeals to Americans' tendency to reduce everything to a competition. Trials also speak to our desire to believe in a single truth, that reasonable doubt can be overcome and that what actually happened is, indeed, knowable.
Despite all the evidence that truth is elusive and that the law often gets it wrong, we remain mesmerized by the legal system as a lurid artifact of our culture. And so we wait, and we watch.