The Art of Argument

“Arguendo tells the story of Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc., a Supreme Court case brought by an ensemble of exotic dancers who claimed that a restriction on public nudity was a violation of their First Amendment rights to artistic expression. Just as it did in Gatz, a six-hour staging of The Great Gatsby, the Elevator Repair Service assembled the show entirely from the original text of the oral argument and some of the interviews of the dancers.


As case after case is brought up and analyzed, it becomes obvious that the logical extension of this ruling, however odd, will affect future rulings. After all, the lawyers and justices refer to a case (Ward v. Rock Against Racism) that dealt with whether a noise ordinance was an unconstitutional limit on free expression. Rock bands unsuccessfully argued that their message could only accurately be communicated when delivered at earsplitting volume. Whatever the musicians’ personal interest in nudity, it is unlikely that they realized that losing Ward could bar the door to exotic dancers in the future. Their case had a longer shadow than the original players could anticipate. The question of murder-dance as expression no longer feels like a non-sequitur.

The audience doesn’t have much trouble keeping up as the citations fly thick and fast, because Arguendo makes one of the best uses of projection I’ve ever seen in a play (video designer Ben Rubin). The back wall of the stage is given over to columns and columns of tiny text, which swoop over and zoom in when a lawyer or a justice references a specific test or precedent. The aide-memoire doesn’t feel like a crutch for the audience, since the actors interact with it as well, gesturing to pull up points that support their line of argument, or scrolling ahead to parry. When, at the end of the show, the text dips along with the actors in an animated bow, it feels well deserved.

The overall impression of the wall of text isn’t of a weighty, dependable history book, but of a fragile tapestry, with nine curators and caretakers frantically trying to keep the fabric from unravelling. The judges, flying like dervishes across the stage, seem much less interested in the plight of the dancers than the problem of ruling as narrowly as possible, so that Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc. is never called up in a future court to cause new problems.”

Read more at The American Interest