Subproject C04

Show-Trials. Dramatizing the Law as Social Practice

This project focuses on the role the law plays in show-trials as a social practice, which emphasizes the complex relation between law and politics. Here, ‘show-trial’ does not mean show trials as exercised by totalitarian regimes, for instance, but trials that have received extraordinary coverage in the news media and that are occasionally adapted for the stage, such as the NSU-trial in Germany. Taking such trials as its point of departure, the project analyses how theatrical elements become constitutive of the law and how ‘scenes’ of law influence the theatre in return. The project places a special focus on the political as one of the key elements law and literature share: when the political is ‘on the scene,’ whether on the stage or in the court room, law and theatre’s reciprocal constitutiveness is clearly visible. The common theatrical constitution of both court room and stage is based on their respective publicness and shows in their rhetoric, performativity and affectivity. The project sets the social practice of legal action as theatrical practice and theatrical action in the media and on the stage in analogy. Pragmatically speaking, the law is not irrevocably textually codified, but executes its real function only in the performance of lived law. The theatre shares this practice and emphasizes the political dimension of legal actions: on the stage, interpreting the law is a political practice; the show-trial turns the courtroom into a stage for politics. Both the court room and the theatre thus serve as spaces for the political in show trials; they become the main arena for the political to be enacted. The theatre stages processes of interpretative legal actions from a metaperspective, it reflects and questions them. Theatrical production therefore contributes to the law’s social meaning. Thus, it is not only politics and legislation that form the foundation of civil society, but literature shares this function to a considerable extent. Contemporary plays and productions negotiate law, when they stage both the social and the dramatic aspects of legal actions (Zeugen! by Rimini Protokoll, Kongo Tribunal by Milo Rau); when they test law’s limitations in light of current political troubles (Terror by Ferdinand von Schirach); or when they stage trials as political drama (Das schweigende Mädchen by Elfriede Jelinek, Die Moskauer Prozesse by Milo Rau). ‘Real’ trials also have a dramatic nature. This becomes most obvious considering that they are usually open to the public. The public nature of the court, which has only recently been extended to other media, enables show-trials on the ‘stage’ of the court room. Such show trials often stage the political. This is evident, for instance, in the highly politicized NSU-trial, when Ralf Wohlleben uses the stage of the court room for radical right-wing propaganda (such as conspiracy theories about the death of Rudolf Heß). Using such show-trials as its point of departure, the project tries to show how the dramatic and theatrical elements of the law impact its form, content and legitimacy. The court room here serves as a space that combines three important dimensions of staging the law as social practice: dramatic battlefield, political stage and legal space per se. The court room thus materializes the relation of law and politics. The political show trial on the theatrical stage constitutes the high point of this relation. The project therefore extends its focus towards demonstrating how theatrical productions serve as negotiation, scenario and re-enactment of the nexus of law and politics and traces how theatrical elements of the law manage to influence this relation.


Prof. Dr. Stefan Arnold, LL.M.
Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster
Lehrstuhl für Bürgerliches Recht, Rechtsphilosophie und Internationales Privatrecht
Universitätsstr. 14-16, JUR 442
48143 Münster
Tel.: +49 251/83-29721

Dr. Kerstin Wilhelms
Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster
Germanistisches Institut
Schlossplatz 34, SH 102
48143 Münster
Tel.: +49 251/83-30152

Research Assistants

Leon Fried
Hanna Luise Kroll