On a balmy, perfect Friday afternoon, Michael Monk is thinking about blood, death and iambic pentameter. The 65-year-old employment lawyer – turned-playwright is the author of The Tragedy of Orenthal: Prince of Brentwood, a play about the O.J. Simpson case, penned in traditional Elizabethan style. First published in 2012, a second printing of the book has just been released to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the killings. Two murders most foul, a jealous lover spurned, justice denied – indeed, the O.J. tale is as Shakespearean as it gets.
Monk had been a big fan of O.J., he says, sitting at an upscale café in Santa Monica precisely two miles from where the murders occurred. On June 13, 1994, football superstar Orenthal J. Simpson allegedly showed up at ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson's home and stabbed her and her friend Ron Goldman to death on the patio walkway. Monk followed the resultant trial closely, and, as a big Shakespeare fan, it occurred to him that some of Macbeth's and Othello's soliloquies, which expressed the characters' innermost thoughts, might have been exactly what O.J. was thinking both prior to the murders and after.
After the shock of the verdict in 1996, Monk decided to tell the story as he believed it really happened. Transposing our modern vernacular into 16th-century verse form, he decided, would be “a great game.” Holed up in his study each night after work with 1,000 pages of trial transcripts, he cranked out a draft in 14 months.
“You have a subject that is explosive in size,” Monk says. “You have a massively great character, who has a tragic flaw, who then succumbs to that flaw and essentially wrecks his life.”
Like Othello, O.J.'s fatal flaw is jealousy. “How could someone who had so much going for him be motivated to do such a horrific act?” Monk asks, between sips of iced tea. “He has to have thought, 'I threw it all away. I ruined what was a ridiculously wonderful life.'?”
In defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, Monk had a clever and detestable villain. With the Rodney King beatings of 1991 (and the '92 riots) still fresh in everyone's minds, Cochran made the O.J. case about race, not murder. Of the defense team, Monk admits, “They did an extraordinary job. But it made me very angry. I believe they knew he had killed two people and still did whatever they could to make him a free man.”
Monk drew heavily from Cochran's actual closing speech, in which he rambled on like a Southern Baptist preacher and ingratiated himself to the jury. “It's a masterpiece.” Monk enjoyed writing him very much.
The events naturally lent themselves to the classic Shakespearean five-act structure: Act 1 tells the background of O.J. and Nicole's relationship. Act 2 is the murder. Act 3 is the investigation. Act 4 is the trial. Act 5 is the aftermath.
And the earthquake that occurred earlier the year of the murders, on Martin Luther King Day? That makes it into the book as a portent of racial tensions to come. There's even a play within a play – the trial. “Because every trial is a little play,” Monk says.
The story also falls squarely into the Bard's thematic wheelhouse. Appearance versus reality, justice and fairness, deception and self-deception are all Shakespearean favorites. “O.J. was beloved. Absolutely beloved,” Monk recalls. When O.J. was first considered a suspect, Monk scoffed, “Oh, come on. Are you serious?” He now thinks of the former NFL star as “a vile, despicable person.”
“When all this stuff came out during the trial, as a lawyer, I thought, 'He obviously did it.' It ought to have been a slam-dunk conviction.” But the prosecution blundered.
The choice of venue was perhaps the biggest blunder: “They could have tried it in Santa Monica. But the District Attorney chose to do it downtown instead.” Downtown, according to Monk, had better offices and computers. Downtown was more convenient. “The jury pool in downtown, however, is very different.” The jury ended up with nine black members, who proved sympathetic to the defense argument that Simpson had been framed.
Sometimes the factual material is so good, all a playwright has to do is get out of its way. Plotwise, Monk stays close to actual events. The slow-speed chase up the 405 freeway, Nicole's 911 calls, the calls the detectives made to Nicole's family, where her sisters insist, “O.J. did it! O.J. did it!” – dialogue for these scenes are reproduced nearly verbatim in the book.
The most difficult scenes to write, Monk says, were the speculative ones. Specifically, the murders themselves. For these, he turned to Othello.
Nicole's last words belong to Desdemona: “Kill me tomorrow; let me live tonight!”
“It is too late,” replies Simpson, who stabs Goldman, then “puts his foot on her back, pulls Nicole's hair back, and slices her throat with the knife.”
“Dear Lord,” Simpson cries, “I've slain them both.”
At the time of the murders, Monk lived in Santa Monica on 11th Street, less than two miles from the crime scene. “I knew the geography well,” he says. He drove the route O.J. likely would have taken from Nicole's Bundy Street condominium to his own house at 360 N. Rockingham. “The time frame is very tight from when he kills her, to when he goes home, to when he goes to the airport. But I drove it, and it's a remarkably quick drive. It can easily be done,” Monk says.
The murders, he believes, were premeditated. “He had prepared. He had the knife. He planned to go kill her that night. There was blood everywhere – his, hers.” In the play, O.J. parks his Bronco in a secluded Brentwood alley, cleans himself, wraps the knife in a towel and shoves the bloody clothing into a plastic bag: “The plastic bag in trash I will push down; / They cannot search each garbage can in town.”
The O.J. story is a tragedy on many levels. It is a family tragedy – two innocent people killed in cold blood – and a legal one. “As a lawyer, you like to think we have a pretty good system, that generally justice does occur,” Monk says. “But in this case, the killer did not receive punishment.”
It is, in a larger sense, a societal tragedy. In the wake of the Rodney King verdict, in which four obviously guilty white officers were acquitted after beating a black man, the black community took vengeance. They freed O.J. Yet as Monk points out, “Two horrible wrongs don't make a right.”
O.J. won the trial but lost almost everything else. He lost his home, his Heisman trophy – which was confiscated after he lost a civil case filed by the families of victims Brown and Goldman – his fortune, his career, his love and his pride. “It is sad that he lost the life he had, but he brought it upon himself,” Monk says. “You can kill people. And you can get away with it. But like Macbeth, it will haunt you the rest of your life. In that respect, he's a very sad human being.”
Monk's play ends not with a bang but a whimper. Though friends suggested having Goldman's father kill O.J., Monk opted instead for realism. In the end, O.J. tries to join in on a friendly round of golf, but the players refuse: “With all respect that's due to you, good Prince,/Methinks that we would simply rather not.”
The manuscript languished in a drawer for a decade, until Small Batch Books picked it up. During its initial run, Monk did little promotion, and the play sold only 264 copies. But it has since garnered critical acclaim – this year, out of more than 5,000 entries, the book won the prestigious Independent Publisher Book Award.
In the future, Monk hopes to produce The Tragedy of Orenthal for the stage. He has already sent it out to various local theater companies.
To send or not to send copies of the book to the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson, however – that is the final question. Thus far, Monk has refrained. “I'm just not sure if it's the right thing to do.”
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