(Swans - June 14, 2010) Several years ago when I was living in London, I was passing through Selfridges department store and came upon one of those cosmetic demonstrations that are occasionally held to beguile customers into purchasing beauty aids. The girl in the center of the group was extolling the virtues of a new cleansing cream that miraculously evaporated makeup. I was, at the time, about to start rehearsals for a small Grand Guignol effort called Sherlock's Last Case, the final stage-direction of which read: "The great detective's face, doused with acid, gradually disintegrates before our eyes." I speculated that some concentrated form of this cleansing cream might provide a solution for this daunting stage effect. But the product in question, efficient for its own uses, was in no way helpful in dissolving Sherlock's splendid visage, and after a few moments, I left the store en route to my theatre.
A few yards up Oxford Street, still cogitating the best way to obliterate the features of the Great Sleuth, I suddenly felt two burly hands catch hold of me from behind. Another pair of hands grabbed my other side, and I found myself indecorously hauled into a black maria, which, as I later discovered, had been tracking me since I left the store. Feeling distinctly like K in Kafka's The Trial, I eventually overcame shock long enough to blurt out: "What the hell is going on here?!" The bobbies, who were making themselves rather over-familiar with my person, muttered between gropes: "We're just taking you down to the station house for a little while."
At the station, I was told that I was to be booked as a "suspected person loitering with intent to commit an arrestable offense" under the Vagrancy Act of 1824 -- in spite of the fact that no incriminating evidence was found on my person. I protested my innocence, became rude and angry, stood on my constitutional rights (momentarily forgetting they did not apply in the UK) and threatened counter-action for false arrest. If I were innocent, they taunted, what was I, a solitary male, doing in he midst of a group of women at a cosmetics display? I explained that I had a professional interest in the display but thought better of launching into a description of the rather elaborate Sherlock Holmes plot as this might create suspicions of mental imbalance in addition those already aroused.
In any case, to make a long and harrowing story short, I had been spotted by a store detective behaving suspiciously (also dressed suspiciously, i.e., beat-up blue jacket, red shirt, faded jeans, incriminating long hair), the police had been alerted, and I had been duly tailed and pounced upon.
When I explained the particulars of the incident to my solicitor, I was told that, although innocent, I must be prepared to be found guilty. I couldn't quite reconcile this irrational advice with the sober and sensible voice relaying it. It was made clear to me that because a store detective was bringing the charge, and her job was to spot and catch felons, there was a strong possibility the verdict would go against me. The fact that I was innocent was, in some curious way, not relevant to the case.
After about six weeks of waiting for a trial, it was over in a matter of moments. I was acquitted and awarded costs. The police were gently rapped on the knuckles but, on the whole, treated with immense cordiality, the magistrate appearing to be highly solicitous of their delicate feelings. Irrationally, I waited for the store detective (a girl in her early twenties) who had testified against me to come forward, admit her mistake, and apologize, but the look on her face simply said: "Well, this one slipped through the net, now back to the hunt."
Shortly after this episode, I was asked by a Swedish theatre to look at Measure For Measure as a possible future production. When I sat down to re-read it, I found all the ambivalent attitudes to the law provoked by my case, reawakened.
I had always vaguely understood that the connection between law and justice was strictly semantic; that in fact questions of right and wrong were not material to the conduct of the law, which was exclusively concerned with legalities and illegalities. The law, if you were a criminal, was something to elude; if an attorney, something to outwit; if an ordinary citizen, something to avoid. Like crime itself, it could be used to get its own way and, being a weapon, the important thing was who held it and to what purpose it was being used. We are all in the gravitational tug of the law -- even if our greatest preoccupation is only the parking fine or the fear of losing sovereignty in the World Trade Organization. The legal context is the furniture of the social context and we sprawl on it every day of our lives. In terms of that ubiquity, there is no escaping the law.
Deep in the bowels of Measure For Measure I find one of the few subversive ideas Shakespeare ever trickled out of his bourgeois sensibility: that human fragility, fragile as it is, is still potent enough to destroy the fabric of man-made law, and therefore one should not respect an institution merely because it demands one's respect, but only to the extent that it fulfills the ideals for which it stands. By demanding respect, the law uses a subtle intimidation against the citizenry thereby protecting itself from criticism and malfeasance. The "trappings of the law" are not synonymous with the functions of justice, and to insure that justice does prevail, it must be mercilessly scrutinized by the very people in whose name it is being imposed. In short, a healthy disrespect for the law is the best way of combating its tendency towards corruption.
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