Normally I don't go and see all that many, if any, contemporary plays (namely plays that have been written during my life-time), and after seeing Hangmen I realised why - they tend to be quite boring. Okay, I probably shouldn't bag this particular play too much, however despite it being English black comedy (which tends to be really good), the play itself didn't hold my interest all that much. The main reason that I went and saw it (and it was one of the National Theatre Live productions by the way) was that it was advertised at another film/play that I saw recently (As You Like It) and it looked quite interesting (and it also gave me an excuse to get out of the house for a while, since I tend to travel all the way to Brighton to see these film/plays).
Okay, it did have some amusing moments in it, but it seemed to run more like a soap opera than a traditional black comedy, and I didn't find myself laughing all that much (but then again it is black comedy so they tend to not produce continuous reams of laughter as other comedies tend to do, though they will have some absolute pearlers in them). The thing is that from what I gathered this is actually a particularly popular play, and after it's initial production is soon found its way to the Royal Court Theatre (not that I am hugely familiar with London's Theatres - the only one that I actually know is The Globe). They did that a spiel at the beginning about the Royal Court, but as I mentioned I'm not hugely familiar with the peculiarities of the various theatres (though I do get the impression that a number of them have their own particular style of plays).
So, What's it About?
I guess that is a particularly good question, but before I continue here is a trailer that I found on Youtube:
Okay, it was the joke about executions in China that initially caught my attention, however this trailer doesn't necessarily tell you what the play is actually about. So, the play is set in the north of England (and there are a few in jokes that probably only native English folk would actually get, which is probably another reason that I didn't warm to the play) and is about the life of a former hangman named Harry Wade (though for much of the play he is referred to as The Hangman). The reason he is a former hangman is because he was made redundant after the death penalty was abolished, so he now finds himself running a pub.
The play begins in a prison cell were a poor fellow has finished his last meal and is now about to be executed for the murder of a young girl. The thing is that he goes to the gallows protesting his innocence. Mind you, it is never revealed in the play whether he was actually innocent, but this event is a dark cloud that seems to haunt Wade throughout the play, not that Wade is all that phased by it because he sincerely believes that this guy was guilty (though a number of others seem to think otherwise).
The play then jumps two years into the future where Wade is now running a pub with his wife, and a stranger enters the pub and begins to court his daughter (and is also enquiring about a room that is available). Wade's wife is a little suspicious of the guy when she attempts to contact his references to no avail, and when she reveals this to him he flies into a rage and then storms out. After he has gone Wade's old assistance (who was sacked because of an inappropriate joke he made about one of the prisoners he executed) comes in and starts suggesting that this particular character is actually up to no good, and may be the person who was guilty of the crime for which the other person was executed.
Then, when Wade's daughter doesn't return they suddenly start to become a quite concerned.
The Executioner's Job
One of the big problems that I found with this play was that there didn't feel as if there was actually all that much that I could comment on. It wasn't like Shakespeare, or even Bernard Shaw, where I could write a huge blog post on the subtleties and ideas that came out of the play. However, as I think about it a bit more there is probably a bit more to Hangmen that just a bunch of guys hanging around the pub having a conversation with a retired (or should I say retrenched) hangman. Even then I am still not comfortable with actually giving any spoilers because even though I thought the end was somewhat unsatisfying, I still feel as it would be best if I don't ruin it for anybody who might end up going and seeing it.
Anyway, the job of an executioner would be an interesting one in that it is your job to basically kill people. It isn't like the police force where killing people is something that happens in the job, but isn't necessarily the focus of the job, or even the army (though there are parts of the army where having the ability to be able to end somebody's life is required). Instead it is one's job to actually end somebody's life, and as such one probably needs to not have too much emotion, or sentimentality. It has been suggested that ending somebody's life is actually a really hard thing to do, to the point that members of a firing squad will not necessarily have live bullets so that they don't purposely miss the target.
However, try as I might, I simply did not feel that Wade was all that emotionally distant from humanity. Sure, they had the interview near the beginning of the play where we are given an insight into Wade and his thoughts on the role, and the one thing that we do learn is that there was this sense of competition between Wade and another executioner - Peirpont. The question of how many he actually killed was also raised, though he was very reluctant to answer that question. What does come out though is that he and Peirpont were both asked to go and participate in the Nazi trials, and Wade turned the opportunity down because of the Grand National.
I'm not really sure if he regrets turning this down, though the idea of him going to the Grand National instead of executing Nazi's seems to suggest that he is some sort of coward, not wanting to actually get his hands dirty. However I also got the impression that he was much younger at the time, and only starting out in his chosen profession, so maybe he was somewhat nervous about having to participate. However it is interesting that Peirpoint actually appears later in the play and gives him a complete dressing down, particularly in light of some of the comments that came out from the article. In the end one gets the impression that Wade was actually quite insecure and was always playing second fiddle to Peirpont (and when it is suggested that the guy at the beginning of the play would prefer to be executed by Peirpont than him it seems to strike a chord).
An Appropriate Penalty
With the exception of the United States pretty most advanced democracies have long since abolished the Death Penalty, and even in the United States nineteen states have abolished it. In Australia the last person to be legally executed was Ronald Ryan on 3 February 1967 (and he had been found guilty of shooting and killing a police officer). These days it is really only the dictatorships that still have the death penalty, and even then organisations like Amnesty International are relentlessly campaigning to have it abolished. Oh, before you jump up and say 'what about ...' I do realise that there are some advanced industrialised countries (such as Japan and Singapore) that still practice the death penalty.
The problem that I have with the death penalty is that it is permanent - there is no going back from it, and there is no opportunity for the person who has been subjected to it to be able to turn their life around and actually once again become a productive member of society. Okay, there are some out there who will remain unrepentant until their dying breath, and there are some whose crimes have been so heinous that allowing them to re-enter society is simply not an option. However, even though when I was younger I held the belief that the death penalty was a good thing because it cost too much to keep people behind bars, these days I tend to feel that giving people the opportunity to think about what they have done, and to give them the option of repentance, is a much better road to take (though the counter-argument is that people are not necessarily executed straight after the trail, and the period between when they are sentenced and when they are executed should give the ample time to repent).
The other concern that I have with the death penalty is that it can be politically motivated in that people who are perceived as being a threat to the government can be executed so as to silence them. Okay, I would like to think that such things don't occur in the advanced democracies, but there is always the danger that such a thing might occur. Okay, I can't imaging anybody being executed in the United States for anything less than murder, however when we consider some of the South-east Asian countries, where simple drug possession can lead to the gallows (or the firing squad) then such concerns come to the fore, especially if the drugs are planted.
Then there is the concern about access to justice. Sure, in the advance democracies there is an explicit (or even implied) right to be represented by a suitably qualified counsel, however there is also the tendency to tip the scales in favour of those who can afford experienced counsel. In Australia it is the middle class that tends to get hit the hardest since the lower classes have access to legal aid, while the upper classes tend to be able to afford the best lawyers - where if you are a member of the middle class then a simple criminal trial could completely wipe you out (and I've heard stories of people having to sell their house simply to pay the legal bill).
An Innocent Man
The final thing I want to touch upon is the question of innocence - what if the person who is executed is found, years after their death, to actually be innocent of the crime for which they were found guilty. This seems to be a nagging thing at the back of Wade's mind throughout the play, and there is always some doubt as to whether that particular person was guilty. Mind you, one of the themes running through the play, and the thing that leaves us guessing, is whether he actually was innocent, and the playwright does actually throw a huge amount of doubt onto it. Wade's position, of course, is that he is the executioner, not the judge or the jury - if somebody comes before him then all due process has been followed, and he can execute this person without guilt.
However there is still the idea that once an executioner, always an executioner. Once one has blood on their hands then it can be very hard to clean it off. Sure, he was executing people under the authority of the state, but having already executed as many people as he has, all one needs to do is to push the right buttons and that bloodlust once again fires up. While employed by the state he can comfort himself in knowing that the people he has executed have come to him through due process, but what if he takes matters into his own hands, and becomes his own judge, jury, and executioner? It is a question that in the end is left hanging for us to think about as we walk out of the theatre.
Hangmen - A Redundant Executioner by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.