When Hermitage writer Susan Yankowitz talks about the play she’s working on, small crowds gather around her in fascination. I haven’t seen this phenomenon since 2009 when young artists sat on the floor surrounding a chair where Romulus Linney read his entrancing stories. Each story was an encouraging metaphor meant specifically for someone on the floor. But I digress.
Susan’s play is about animals in the Middle Ages that were placed on trial when they hurt or killed a human. Over a thousand such trials were documented in France, Ireland, the USA and England.
A horse was assigned a defense attorney when he kicked a man. Bees were tried after stinging a woman in 18th century England. But the bees didn’t show up for the trial. Animals were almost always found guilty but there was an occasional appeal. The main character in the play is a sow, a 400-pound mother pig, who ate a human baby, which apparently was quite common in those days.
Many trials were on bestiality, which always involved a man and a female animal “paramour” who were put on trial together. The most famous was in New Haven. In the 17th Century a man and a Jewish woman went on trial for bestiality because Jews were not considered human.
In fact there are so many of these cases that Susan is faced with the problem of which fascinating stories to cut from the script.
The play is narrated by the first attorney to defend animals, when in 1521 he represented a group of rats who ate crops, causing famine. The rats won on a technicality.
The play asks the question “What kind of justice do we give to those whom society sees as lesser creatures?” Could this pertain to Abu Ghraib, blacks, the poor?
How do you define suffering? Does a fish suffer? as a Swedish animal rights attorney asserted after a fisherman was tried for showing off his catch flailing on the hook? Where do we draw the lines, personally and societally?
Even God makes an appearance in this play. And why shouldn’t he, since most of the defense and the prosecution use the Bible as argument?
Susan’s subject reminds me of when I first read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and had the revelation that justice changes with the decades. Susan’s play magnifies that revelation using centuries. What was seen as just in the 1500s is laughable today. And how will we look back at justice in 2013? Will we laugh or be appalled?
That question can be found deep within Hermitage Fellow Rey Pamatmat’s play based on the trial of Trayvon Martin. But that’s for another blog….