Audience and jury

Author Ayn Rand wrote a play about a murder trial. Audience members were invited to play the jury and determine the end of the play – thus creating one of the first choose-your-own-adventure plots in history.

Jury summons
Unknown, possibly work for hire for Albert H. Woods, producer of the play [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Okay, first things first. I loathe Ayn Rand’s objectivism: it gives philosphical cover for the most selfish of human vices. Night of January 16th, first performed in Los Angeles in 1934 under the title Woman on Trial, certainly carries some of the early hallmarks of this philosophy. But I find it interesting because of its gimmick.

The play portrays the trial of a secretary accused of murdering her employer, a wealthy businessman. Many of Ayn Rand’s works focused on wealthy businessmen. Audience members were invited to be on the jury (see the “summons” above) and listened to the evidence from the defender and the prosecution, just like a real trial.

Unlike a real trial, they did not have to come to a unanimous conclusion – they voted, and the majority outcome determined the final scene of the play: the defendant is found guilty or not guilty by their decision. When this play came to Broadway they added to the spectacle and the schtick by inviting celebrities to join the jury: Babe Ruth, Hellen Keller, and the champion boxer Jack Dempsey.

I call it an early choose-your-own-adventure work, but it could also be seen as an early example of audience participation. Either way, the gimmick kept it alive on Broadway for seven months.

[Endnote: the alternative title for this post is “Objectivism!”]

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