Torture and Dershowitz: a York prof’s provocative new play


“A ticking bomb, a suspected terrorist, an FBI Interrogator, an administering officer, a judicial monitor…and not much time.” That’s the teaser for a thought-provoking new play by Professor Robert Fothergill of York’s Faculty of Fine Arts.

Fothergill’s latest creation, The Dershowitz Protocol, is bound to spark discussion: it’s a play about torture.

Running Aug. 7-17 at the Artword Theatre (right), 75 Portland (south of King, east of Bathurst), The Dershowitz Protocol stems from comments made by Harvard University law Professor Alan Dershowitz (below, left), after whom the play is named.

“If the judicially sanctioned torture of suspected terrorists might actually forestall a repeat of the 9/11 bombings, why not use it?” That question posed by Dershowitz grabbed Fothergill’s attention.

“In its starkest form, this is the question that Alan Dershowitz debates in the most provocative chapter of his recent book, Why Terrorism Works,” said Fothergill. “Considering the issue in terms of ends-versus-means utilitarian ethics, he argues that torture carried out under legal warrant, subject to safeguards and accountability, might be preferable to a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy of unsanctioned basement brutality.

“Dershowitz writes: ‘In any event, there are legal steps we could take, if we chose to resort to torture, that would make it possible for us to use this technique for eliciting information in dire circumstances…. It is impossible to avoid the difficult moral dilemma of choosing among evils by denying the empirical reality that torture sometimes works, even if it does not always work’.”

But who would actually carry out the torture, and under what conditions? These are probing questions asked by Fothergill. “How would the safeguards and judicial constraints be enforced? What might the process actually be like?”

Fothergill’s play sets out to explore the situation in which investigators, desperate to get information about a so-called “ticking bomb,” resort for the first time to a “rigorous interrogation.” The interrogation is carried out under the rules and conditions laid down in what is known – fictionally – as the Dershowitz Protocol.

The play, running as part of Toronto’s Summerworks Theatre Festival, is produced by Mark Cassidy (MFA ’99), an alumnus of York’s Graduate Program in Theatre. Other York alumnae and one current student are involved, too: Marvin Hinz (MFA ’96,) Ravi Khajuria (BFA ’99) and Niki Landau (MFA ’03), who have acting roles in the production; Angie Stillitano (BFA ‘03), the stage manager; and Leslie Wright, (to graduate with a BFA Nov. ’03), who is working on set and props.

The Dershowitz Protocol times are as follows.

  • Thursday, Aug. 7, 8pm
  • Saturday, Aug. 9, 11pm
  • Sunday, Aug. 10, 9.30pm
  • Monday, Aug. 11, 6.30pm
  • Wednesday, Aug. 13, 6.30pm
  • Saturday, Aug. 16, 6.30pm
  • Sunday, Aug. 17, 8pm

Tickets are $9. For more information about the play and Summerworks Theatre Festival, call 416-410-1048 or visit

About the playwright

Robert Fothergill is a playwright, critic and theatre historian, as well as a highly respected professor. His drama, Detaining Mr. Trotsky, about the internment of Leon Trotsky in a prison camp in Nova Scotia in April, 1917 (Canadian Stage Company, Toronto, 1987), won a Chalmers Award and several Dora nominations.

Public Lies (Tarragon Theatre, Toronto, 1993), nominated for a Chalmers Award, addresses issues of truth, propaganda and media manipulation by dramatizing episodes in the Canadian career of John Grierson, documentary film pioneer and founder of the National Film Board.

Borderline, set in a refugee camp on the border of Rwanda and Tanzania, won second prize in the 1999 Herman Voaden Canadian Playwriting contest and was professionally workshopped under the direction of Bill Glassco. Other writings include Private Chronicles (Oxford 1974), a critical study of English diaries, and a chapter on “Radio and TV Drama” in Volume 4 of the Literary History of Canada (University of Toronto Press, 1990).

Before joining the Faculty of Fine Arts Department of Theatre in 1994, serving as Chair from 1994 to 1999, Fothergill was a long-time member of the English Department at Atkinson College (now Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies), specializing in dramatic literature and criticism.