The New Hangman By Laurence Houseman
In this play, unusual hero, the new hangman, refuses to carry out his share of work at the execution of a criminal. His revolt is against the inhumanity of taking a man‘s life in cold blood and the injustice of foisting such a terrible duty on a fellow man. Though shocked and embarrassed by the unexpected behaviour of the new hangman, everyone in the prison is secretly relieved.
Summary of The New Hangman
The action of the one-act play takes place in the office of a prison. The Governor of the jail is told about the arrival of the new hangman. He is also informed that the Deputy Sheriff would be attending the impending hanging. The Chaplain has also been informed about the hanging which is taking place after twenty minutes.
The prisoner is a bit restless and is crying. He vomits his breakfast. Then he is given two drinks which make him feel better. The Governor directs to give him a third drink if he wants. Meanwhile, the Chaplain who is drunk comes. He has to be present at the hanging but he feels disgusted and indecent to be present at a hanging.
The new hangman informs the chaplain not to worry as he is not going to hang the prisoner. He considers hanging as the dirtiest job as it is without all honour and respect. By refusing to do the hanging in the nick of time, he saves the life of a man because no one else is ready to hang
the prisoner. The Governor is forced to report the matter to the Commissioner who informs the Governor that he would seek advice from the Home Office. The new hangman, therefore, goes away.
Outside the prison, a large crowd is waiting. When the hangman comes out, they cheer. The Hangman tells them everything that has happened as a result of his refusal to execute. The crowd makes a lot of noise and indulges in repeated cheering.
The theme of this play is that capital punishment should be abolished. The author is strongly opposed to capital punishment. He considers it to be something like a murder.
He believes that the judgment against a criminal might not be the right one. The hangman says that the last time he assisted a hangman and they hanged a man who, he believed, was innocent. The others did not. But if the jury had been made to come and see their verdict carried out, they would have realized that the truth shows clearer on the drop sometimes than in the witness-box. If it was part of the law that judges and juries must be in at the death, there would be more acquittals. By refusing to hang the criminal, he saves a life. He registers a strong protest against capital punishment. He is the mouthpiece of the author. The writer speaks his inner feelings against capital punishment through the hangman.
Character Sketch of the new hangman
The new hangman is youngish, with a thin face, slightly lined. Dressed in black, he is the only one who is bareheaded. He carries his hat in his hand and presently has laid it on the desk.
He refuses to hang the criminal. The Governor tells him that it is not honourable. He replies that one cannot have much sense of honour left to become a hangman. He lost all his honour being an assistant. He applied for the job of a hangman because he thought by doing this he might save just one man‘s life, and shame a few others from ever taking part again in such a dirty business as this.
The new hangman is confident. When the Governor asks him what he will do after getting himself dismissed he tells him that he could go to a music hall in London just to stand up and be looked at for a week. He would be given at least three hundred pounds. A Sunday paper would give him another hundred for an interview. He is hopeful that someone would give him a cleaner job for a bit less pay.
The hangman is happy that by not hanging the criminal, he has made his conscience clear. He thinks that he has been a murderer and thinks he is making a public confession. He says that a hangman is a murderer who murders to order for money in cold blood. A hangman does not get any respect in society. He has to hide himself under a changed name. Decent men would not know him and a decent woman would not marry him.
Before becoming a hangman, the new hangman worked as an assistant to another hangman. The last time he assisted, they hanged a man who, he believed was innocent, but others did not. But if the jury had been made to come and see their verdict carried out, they would have thought so, too. The truth shows clearer on the drop sometimes than in the witness-box. The hangman believes that if it was part of the law that judges and juries must be in at the death, there would be more acquittals.
The new Hangman is appreciated by people when he comes out. He speaks to the crowd. There is cheering. In this way, the hangman makes himself popular and he wins our hearts too.
This one-act play takes place in a prison in the United Kingdom. Within the entrance to the prison is a sort of office, containing a desk, an office-stool, a hanging clock and a telephone. Along one wall stands a bench. Everything is severely plain, ugly as well-for even plain things in prison must not be beautiful. The office leads into a stone corridor, the door to which is now open. It is early morning and winter; for the clock says seven forty and it is still almost dark. A gas-jet gives dull illumination to the scene into which the cold morning light gradually enters.
The atmosphere is gloomy because the prisoner is going to be hanged. By reading about this setting, we get a clear picture of what is happening inside the prison from seven forty to eight o‘clock in the morning.
Title of the play
The title of the play is suggestive and quite apt and appropriate. It conveys the main theme to the reader. The whole story revolves around the protagonist i.e. the hangman. The writer rightly calls him the new hangman because the hangman in this play is quite contrary to the other hangmen. The hangmen hang the criminals in the prisons whenever they are ordered to do so.
The hangman of this play refuses to hang the prisoner because he thinks it is murder in the cold blood. The Governor insists that he should execute the criminal, but he continues to refuse.
Finally, he succeeds in his mission. Whatever the hangman does in the play is quite unusual or new. That is why the play is titled “The New Hangman”. He can be rightly called a novel hangman because he thinks and acts in a novel way. The title of the playsuits it well. It cannot have any other title other than this.