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Deconstructing Justice: Murder in the First

To what extent can people who have gone through severe psychological trauma truly be held accountable for their actions? To what extent is justice truly served in the federal justice system? These questions, along with the more generalized themes of hypocrisy and brutality, are explored in Dan Gordon‘s play Murder in the First. Already having written the respective literary and film versions of Murder in the First, Gordon discusses what transforming this story into a theatrical work has meant to him, its deeper themes and why he loves writing for the stage:

Your writing has spanned various mediums, with notable novels, films and of course plays. What do you think the most frustrating and rewarding aspects of each respective medium are and do you have a personal favorite?

Motion pictures are by far the most frustrating from a writer’s point of view, not only because they are so difficult to get made if they are not based on a comic book, video game, end in “man” or “men” and have a number after them. This is so because the writer is rewritten at will and often as a way of avoiding making a decision about whether to green light the picture or not. Theater is the most satisfying for a writer because you’re involved in all aspects and no one can change a word for better or worse without your written permission. It’s good to be king!

Murder in the First itself has been a novel, a film and now ultimately a play. What inspired you to transform it into a stage production?

I didn’t care for the film. I thought the director was trying too much attention to his wondrous camera moves than focusing on the actors’ performances. Also, he added a good deal of gratuitous violence which I absolutely abhorred. To me it was a kind of porn, and if I’m after porn I’ll take mine neat and not disguised as an “artsy fartsy margarita.” So, I decided to transform it into a play where the actors would be the focus along with the text.

Based off an actual event, Murder in the First raises fascinating questions regarding themes such as brutality, hypocrisy and injustice. Why do you think this particular story was so important to tell?

We’re all tested in life as to what things we’re willing to stand up for. Sometimes we’re tested as to what things we’re willing to live for, and sometimes die for. I find that an ennobling process. Both Willie and Henry face that test, and in the process a bond of love and brotherhood and respect is forged between them, not dissimilar to that which is formed between comrades in arms in war.

In general, do you think a play or film based off an actual historical event tends to inspire a stronger reaction from an audience and can thus better convey its  message? How does the fact that Alcatraz was a real prison influence the entire message of the work?

People tend, I think, to pay a bit more attention when they know that something of the sort actually happened. Of course, this isn’t a documentary and an awful lot of things were fictionalized to create what I hope is a compelling drama.

In the play, young lawyer Henry Davidson is tasked with defending an Alcatraz prisoner on trial for committing a violent murder. What do you think are the most admirable and questionable aspects to Henry agreeing to pursue this case? Do you think you would take on such a case if you were in his position?

In the beginning, all Henry thinks about is his career. He mouths platitudes about justice but the truth is he’s looking to become a young Clarence Darrow. It’s self-aggrandizement. Gradually, however, he really becomes outraged at the injustice which has befallen his client and finally grows to love him almost as the brother he never really had. When he is finally tested Henry passes, I think, the moral test. He states his case, but knows the decision is not his to make. He literally backs away from Willie to put him center stage. The decision will be Willie’s and Henry will back him either way. I like to think that I would have done the same. I’ve been in a few wars and I know that the difference between cowardice and heroism is an incredibly thin line and the same man is capable in equal measures of being both, and not a few times, is. All our knees begin to knock when the first shots are fired. The trick isn’t being unafraid. Everyone’s afraid. The trick is advancing even though you’re afraid.

Henry’s following quote illustrates the issue of how deeply psychological trauma can have an impact on a person is relevant to the play: “the real murderer is the co-conspirator who held the psychological gun in a steel grasp, loaded it and pulled the mental trigger.” In today’s society, do you think something should be done differently in order to better understand and explore this issue?

Our prison system is far from perfect and we as a society suffer for it. Our justice system is far from perfect and we as a society suffer for it. God help you if you are ever at the mercy of either or both.

Finally, regarding your career as a writer, how would you describe your writing process? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Writing for me is a joy because I’ve developed, I think, a very good set of work habits which makes the process fairly effortless. But the truth is, I believe, we create nothing. It all comes from the Almighty and we are the vessel through which all that is transmitted and our job as writers is to maintain that vessel in good working order, perfect our craft to be able to transmit that God given inspiration in the most compelling manner, and to be worthy of whatever gift, with which, by the grace of God, we’ve been blessed.

Known for his work in television, film and theater, Dan Gordon is a UCLA graduate who majored in Film and Television. His screenwriting credits include Passenger 57, Murder in the First, The Hurricane and the television series Highway to Heaven, while his play writing credits include Irena’s Vow and Murder in the First. He has founded the Zaki Gordon Cinematic Arts Center at Liberty University and is a member of the Director’s Guild of America.

Dan Gordon


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