In Twelve Angry Men and Doubt


An inherent element of playwriting is the concept of limited space. The action of a play is confined to "a fictional universe which contains all the characters and events," (Wilson, 297). On the stage, scenes are visually limited to certain physical parameters, but this can also be seen on the page. There are only so many locations that a character can visit in their course of action, so the script itself is also limited in terms of space. Most plays will clarify their location within stage directions, and in plays like Twelve Angry Men and Doubt, a limited setting is taken advantage of. While many other playwrights would seek to create a play that varies in scenery, John Patrick Shanley and Reginald Rose decide to limit the location of their plays to convey themes of uncertainty within the script.


In Twelve Angry Men and Doubt, the structural convention of limited space is utilized to heighten a sense of anxiety—by limiting the action to very few physical spaces, the playwrights intentionally create discomfort and suspense in the audience. An inherent element of playwriting is the concept of limited space. The action of a play is confined to “a fictional universe which contains all the characters and events,” (Wilson, 297). On the stage, scenes are visually limited to certain physical parameters, but this can also be seen on the page. There are only so many locations that a character can visit in their course of action, so the script itself is also limited in terms of space. Most plays will clarify their location within stage directions, and in plays like Twelve Angry Men and Doubt, a limited setting is taken advantage of. While many other playwrights would seek to create a play that varies in scenery, John Patrick Shanley and Reginald Rose decide to limit the location of their plays to convey themes of uncertainty within the script. In Twelve Angry Men and Doubt, the structural convention of limited space is utilized to heighten a sense of anxiety—by limiting the action to very few physical spaces, the playwrights intentionally create discomfort and suspense in the audience.  In Twelve Angry Men, the entire play is limited to one room as the jury decides the fate of a young man. The concept of limited space is an inherent element to this play, and is likely why the script is so widely revered. The jurors are bound by law to remain in a room until they vote unanimously, either guilty or innocent.


Since the jury cannot leave until they make a decision, the characters are essentially trapped in their environment. Any sense of conflict, distress, or hostility can not be ignored by the characters or the audience, since they physically can not leave. This creates an ideal environment for generating discomfort within a play—one could argue that a more crowd-pleasing play would diversify its setting in different scenes, as to not bore the audience. When one sits in the same room for a long time, they start to get agitated and impatient. It is human nature to want to roam our environments, so when we feel trapped, we panic. It can be difficult to retain the audience’s interest when you choose a single setting, but Rose used this sense of panic to his benefit. The conflict of the play is already very high-stakes, with the life of a young man on the line. By establishing a high-stakes situation in a confined space, all it took was one dissenting opinion to set the whole room on fire.  As arguments begin to spark, a feeling of distress engulfs the jury’s disputes. Each character has highly conflicting opinions, but since they cannot leave, they have no choice but to fully flush out their differences. In the production at Ford’s Theatre, jurors were almost constantly pacing about the room. At first, their pace was causal and pleasant, but as arguments developed, characters began anxiously pacing, walking fast and nervously. This acting choice heightens the element of distress—by walking around a locked room, we are able to tell that they are eager to make a decision and leave. Most characters have been ignoring their deeply-rooted racial prejudices and halfhearted understanding of reasonable doubt. Limited space allows them to confront these immoral beliefs, as Juror 8 challenges each of their conclusions.


Characters like Juror 3 have an intensely strong stance on the situation, but being confined to a one space still pressures him to cave in. A different play would have followed each of the jurors home, revealing their backstories and home lives. By establishing only one space, the audiences feels the same sense of discomfort that the jurors are feeling, and are possibly challenging their own understanding of the justice system.  A main theme of Twelve Angry Men is the concept of reasonable doubt—can we be absolutely certain of something that we did not witness? Certainly, the play Doubt focuses on this as well, proposing the question of another man’s innocence, Father Flynn. The concept of limited space is explored in this play as well, as all scenes take place within one of three locations—the pulpit, the office, or the garden. Each set retains some element of influence on the characters. Scenes in Aloysius’s office are reserved for intense debates on Flynn’s innocence. Scenes in the garden are reflective and speculative, retaining a sense of calm. This leaves the sermons, which I believe humanize Father Flynn to further complicate our opinion of him. By intentionally not revealing his innocence, the script will forever generate an element of anxiety and discomfort. A more thorough play would have included scenes of Donald and Father Flynn, or Donald’s home life, to reveal the truth of what happened. But since its scope is so limited, we are forced into the same uncertainty that is seen in Twelve Angry Men. Evidence can stack up against an individual, but we can’t truly know someone’s guilt without witnessing it. Since the audience and the prosecuting parties are given the same small amount of evidence against the suspect, we are just as doubtful and apprehensive as the characters on the page. 


Similar to Rose, Shanley uses limited space to create intentionally uncomfortable conversations. In Scene 8, Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn have an intense argument in her office. Although either one of them could leave at any moment, the conflict between the two has reached a tipping point—its time for someone to cave in, but we aren’t sure who will do it. This compares to Twelve Angry Men, in which a limited environment compelled the prejudiced jurors to flip their vote. In a certain sense, the structure of a Catholic church can be defined as a highly limited space for its clergy. A priest or a nun would spend a majority of their time in solitude, frequenting the same few spaces every day for years. While this modest lifestyle is part of being a nun, Sister James eventually caves in to her doubt surrounding Flynn, and flees her environment to visit her sick brother. Although it may be a legitimate excuse to escape, it is clear that James could not handle the limited space of the sisterhood when faced with discomfort and fear. By delivering a line like “It was good to get away,” James is subverting her own vow of obedience, which asserts that a nun will lead an eremitic lifestyle, literally confining her to a limited space (Shanley, 50). Nuns are obliged to surrender themselves completely to their community, only seeking to serve Jesus and their parish, but not themselves. This reveals that despite her vow to lead an isolated lifestyle, she can not handle such strong feelings of discomfort in a confined location. Even the highly-conservative Sister Aloysius does not scold Sister James for this outlook, because she understands the intense turmoil James is facing. 


Throughout the play, Sister James maintains Flynn’s innocence, and Aloysius seeks to prove his guilt. In the final scene, at first it seems that Aloysius succeeded in convincing James (and the audience) that Flynn is truly guilty, and that they are content with banishing him. However, Aloysius’s final words reveal that none of us can be truly certain about events outside of our visual perception, no matter how convinced we are. Like Juror 3, Sister Aloysius is seemingly tenacious, confident in her beliefs, and unwilling to rationalize further. Both characters have their own interpretation of events that they believe are true, and claim their suspicion as fact. Because these repressed feelings of uncertainty exist in a confined location (Aloysius is bound to her post as principal), they eventually bubble over and erupt in the final scene. The limited space of their circumstances clearly lead these characters to buckle under the responsibilities that faced them. They physically could not escape without confronting their personal morals and beliefs. When we are faced with something that makes us question our reality or deeply-rooted beliefs, we tend to storm away, physically avoiding a feeling of entrapment. Most of the time, we can repress these feelings of uncertainty and move along. Because characters like Juror 3, Juror 4, Sister James, and Aloysius are physically restrained to a finite environment, their emotions have to come to a head. Another character in a different play might have went home to discuss a conflict with a loved one, or went to seek a third party’s assistance. The characters in these plays can not escape their reality without painfully confronting the uncertain nature of speculation on their own. 


Stage directions are purposefully bare in both scripts, not focusing on environmental details or action, but entirely on dialogue. This contrasts the choices of Henrik Ibsen in Hedda Gabler, another single-location drama, which includes paragraphs of descriptions to guide the director’s vision. The script of Hedda Gabler relies heavily on setting to establish a plot point—their home is an active and relevant part of the story, especially in its historical context. In Doubt and Twelve Angry Men, the visual aspects of the setting are not relevant on the page. One could argue that they could effectively be delivered as radio dramas and be just as coherent, while Hedda Gabler might lose context without visuals. One way for a single-location drama to retain the audience’s interest is for its characters to interact with their surroundings. Hedda Gabler does this well, but Doubt and Twelve Angry Men take place in intentionally dull locations which limit the character’s level of interactivity with the set. Choices like these continue the effort to stir up a feeling of discomfort in the audience, who is eager to see cathartic action. When we see conflict through dialogue rather than action, our sense of anxiety continues to build.


Shanley and Rose knew they were tackling highly controversial issues in these plays, namely racial inequality in the justice system and sexual abuse in the Catholic church. These topics often make people uncomfortable, as many are unwilling to face injustices in seemingly trustworthy institutions. Instead of shying away from confrontation, Shanley and Rose boldly lean into the discomfort of these debates to create highly thought-provoking plays. By utilizing the dramatic structure of limited space to their benefit, the playwrights are able to heighten this sense of unease. Doubt and Twelve Angry Men present us with a prison-like setting, never allowing us to witness the external events that would prove a man’s innocence. This heightens the fear of the unknown, and creates an ideal environment for suspense and discomfort. These confined environments cause characters like Juror 3 and Aloysius to react wildly, eventually causing them to cave into their doubt in the play’s final lines.