Sims: Of course, it gives you a chill.
Sorkin: But the people in the balcony should be burning the courthouse down. They should be out in the street chanting, “No justice, no peace!” Instead, they are [written as] docile; they are quietly respecting the guy who I most identify with in the story, the guy who seems like my father, the white liberal guy. We all want to be identified as one of the good ones, and that’s what they’re saying to Atticus. And I do think Atticus is one of the good ones—it’s just a little harder than that, and it’s where Calpurnia’s dynamic with him comes from in the play.
Sims: It’s an ongoing conversation in 2019—what the limits of empathy should be.
Sorkin: And I’m not sure that there’s an answer to that, but I know those questions are being asked very loudly because of the monumental election we had three years ago and the one we’ll have 11 months from now.
Read: The dark side of empathy
Sims: Ed, are these things you’re thinking about, or are you more trying to inhabit the person?
Harris: I’m just trying to live it more and more every night. I’m trying to fill up this character with humanity.
Sims: Have either of you seen the recent Broadway revival of Oklahoma? I bring it up because that’s a musical that ends with a crime being covered up—the death of Jud—and a miscarriage of justice, and then the ensemble sings a song and everything’s happy. But this revival tries to interrogate that [ugliness] a little more. And then I had forgotten that To Kill a Mockingbird also ends with a crime—the [murder] of Bob Ewell [by Boo Radley, trying to protect Scout]—being covered up!
Sorkin: Isn’t it amazing? I had forgotten about it too, and I couldn’t believe it!
Sims: It’s a story about the greatest lawyer of all time—Atticus—and he’s complicit in this crime!
Sorkin: This novel ends with, as Scout said, “the most honest and decent person in Maycomb” covering up murder with a judge and a sheriff. Why didn’t that ever come up in my eighth-grade class? I saw that and thought, Well, I can tell this exact same story, but can’t that [tension] be part of it from the beginning? But that even raises new questions that people have talked to me about—that Boo Radley gets a different kind of justice than Tom Robinson gets. Never are the judge and the sheriff saying, “We gotta get Tom out of here!” [for his protection].
Sims: And there’s infinite understanding for Boo.
Sorkin: Right. Now I have a defense for that, which is that Atticus and the judge, when they arrange for Tom Robinson to have a jury trial, sincerely believe that it’s going to be a good thing for Maycomb, that justice is going to be done. They do not anticipate [Tom being found guilty]. Atticus’s mantra is “There is nobody in this town so far gone that they would send an obviously innocent person to the electric chair.” And they do.
Sims: There’s mob justice at work—Bob Ewell is disgraced and Atticus successfully proves the way [Bob is] treating his daughter, but the town’s reaction is just to excommunicate [Bob], not to make the leap forward of finding Tom innocent. It’s been an interesting year for these great American works getting interrogated on Broadway.
Sorkin: They’re not getting repainted. We’re just taking another look, given the times we’re living in.