Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. “Inherit the Wind” Comes Back Home to the Bible Belt

 

Inherit the Wind, a drama by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, tells a highly fictionalized version of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. In the real trial, The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, a substitute high school teacher was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which prohibited teaching human evolution in state-funded schools. But it was not a trial of real facts – it was a phony case manufactured by the American Civil Liberties Union.

When the Butler Act passed, the ACLU lost no time peppering the state with pamphlets offering to defend anyone who violated the Act. The problem was: the Act went unenforced – and was widely understood to be a symbolic political gesture. In fact, Tennessee had another statute that required public schools to use a specific science textbook that did teach human evolution. So, if the ACLU was ever going to challenge the Act in court, they had to manufacture the facts themselves.

The organization found an ally in George Rappleyea, a businessman from the small town of Dayton, Tennessee. During a meeting of local business leaders, Rappleyea convinced the pillars of his community to sponsor the ACLU’s test case in their county. Rappleyea was against the law himself and others supported it, but the primary argument Rappleyea made to his peers was that the media circus around the trial would be great for business. The others agreed. Now they just needed a defendant.

Rappleyea convinced 24-year-old John Scopes to go on trial. Scopes couldn’t remember whether he had ever taught human evolution while substituting at the local high school, but that hardly mattered. He simply incriminated himself so that the ACLU, Rappleyea, and the businessmen of Dayton could put on their trial.

Rappleyea and others shamelessly promoted the trial as an epic entertainment event. Two of the most famous men in America were recruited to serve as lawyers: three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and legendary litigator Clarence Darrow for the defense. The media and public were so enthralled that the trial became the first ever to be broadcast on the radio.

So, you can see why, even many years later, the trial would still be good theater.

Inherit the Wind was first produced in Dallas, Texas, in 1955. After the play was passed over by several Broadway producers, Dallas theater legend Margo Jones produced the piece at the Magnolia Lounge in Fair Park. The production was a hit, and the play went on to Broadway…and film and television and high school curricula everywhere.

In Lawrence and Lee’s dramatized telling, a Bible-thumping community of illiterates viciously prosecutes an earnest local school teacher for violating a state statute that bans the teaching of evolution. The William Jennings Bryan character (called Matthew Harrison Brady) is portrayed as a showboating buffoon and the Clarence Darrow character (called Henry Drummond) is a steadfast advocate for truth, justice and the American way. The townsfolk come across as stupid, bigoted and angry, while Drummond and his defendant are saints. There is a cynical character on Drummond’s side – a journalist named E.K. Hornbeck, but both he and Drummond sincerely distain biblical literalism and hold its adherence in contempt.

Despite attempts at subtlety in its closing scene, Lawrence and Lee’s play has a strong political thesis, which is delivered with all the nuance of a hand-grenade. In short, the play is political propaganda, and it always has been. Aside from the obvious messages about faith versus science, the play’s authors also meant to attack the “McCarthyism” of the 1950s. For years, theaters around the country have continued to stage the show as a metaphor for their own cause du jour – from climate change to gay rights.

So, I was particularly interested to see what Dallas Theater Center would do with the play in its current production, which was helmed by DTC’s artistic director, Kevin Moriarty.

DTC is proud of the play’s Dallas origins, but Moriarty is careful to avoid a “nostalgic” production. His version is not set in the 1920s or even the 1950s. The action takes place during a summer “not too long ago,” which is clear from the moment you peek at the stage. The set is furnished with only stackable chairs and (in the second act) folding tables. The racially diverse cast wears modern dress in hues of tan, grey and blue. Standing in front of a chalk-white background, the actors look almost like a Gap ad. I say “almost” because the background is not completely white. Scrawled in four-foot font are the words “READ YOUR BIBLE,” along with a cartoon image of a bleeding monkey lying on its face, impaled by a giant cross.

The performance begins not with the lines of Lawrence and Lee, but rather with personal testimonials from three members of the ensemble. Calvin Scott Roberts recounts with condescending good-humor his Muslim mother’s literal interpretation of the Koran’s Adam and Eve story. Alex Organ recalls his fundamentalist Christian upbringing, where his faith hinged on believing that every word of scripture was historical fact. Chamblee Ferguson tells the story of a “theological scientist” who came to his Sunday school class and said that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time – that T-Rex could breathe fire and was the dragon slain by St. George.

After these opening editorial remarks, Moriarty has kept the original script intact, which can be distracting, considering his gender-bending casting. Matthew Harrison Brady, for instance, is played by the charismatic actress Liz Mikel, but Moriarty doesn’t change the character’s name or male pronoun. Nor does Ms. Mikel affect any masculine traits. Akin Babatunde – a bald, hefty man of late middle-aged – plays Mikel’s “wife.” There are a handful of other gender-bending bit parts in the show, and at no time does Moriarty change the name or gender of the characters. Even for those of us who are used to non-traditional casting, it’s distracting.

This is one of those productions where most of the cast is on stage most of the time, and indicate that they are now part of the action by standing up or toward the audience. Moriarty expertly uses the vast blank space on the stage, filling it with myriad gap-model tableaus. The actors, however, don’t always seem to know why they are moving from here to there – why they are saying what they are saying. Except for Chris Hury (as the Mayor), who seems to have an inner life, the actors tend to declare their lines with a wink and smile, like slick politicians. All the performances are professional, but almost none is deep.

Moriarty has taken Lawrence and Lee’s realistic theatrical propaganda and stripped it of its realism. What’s left seems eerily like a play by Bertolt Brecht. Naked propaganda. Political street theater. In works like The Private Life of the Master Race, Brecht alienated audiences intentionally. He knew that if spectators got too involved in the inner life of the characters – the humanity of the moment – they may miss the political message of the story.

I don’t know if Moriarty meant to alienate his audience, but if he did, Thursday night’s performance was highly successful. When I say that he alienated us, I don’t mean people failed to enjoy it. Clearly some in the audience liked it a lot. People guffawed at some lines, and some rose to their feet during the curtain call. The standing ovation may have been politeness. But I suppose that audience members who agreed with the play’s strident anti-religious tone genuinely enjoyed it – just as some right-wingers may enjoy a film by Dinesh D’Souza. They don’t cheer because they were entertained, enthralled or enlightened; they cheer because they feel vindicated.

Inherit the Wind sometimes poses as a show advocating free speech. But now that Darwin is mandatory and the Bible is banned, mounting a new production of the play is hard to justify on those grounds. Inherit the Wind, like so many other “free speech” plays, is really about promoting ideas the playwright agrees with and kicking everything else out of the public square.

I hinted earlier that Lawrence and Lee’s final scene has a false conciliatory tone, in which the defense attorney Henry Drummond reveals that he has a soft place in his heart for the Bible. But in Moriarty’s production, even that olive branch is ripped from the religious members of the audience. After all of Lawrence and Lee’s lines have been spoken (and most productions would have ended), Henry Drummond returns to the stage with a paint-tray and roller and begins to whitewash the word “Bible” from the back wall. Fade to black, fade to darkness.

There are 17 comments.

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  1. MarciN Member

    This is a fantastic post. Thank you.

    I only learned the true story of the Scopes Trial a few years ago when I went on a hunt to learn more about eugenics. I came away from my reading to now be a loyal fan of William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was right, that embracing evolution wholeheartedly and teaching it to kids as fact would lead inevitably to the cheapening of the worth of a human life.

    • #1
    • June 12, 2017, at 11:13 AM PDT
    • 17 likes
  2. OmegaPaladin Moderator

    Inherit the Wind completely butchers the history of the case – in addition to the above, Bryan was very friendly with Scopes, and offered to pay the fine himself.

    The real kicker was the fact that A Civic Biology outright advocated eugenics and had exercises where students designed sterilization programs.

    • #2
    • June 12, 2017, at 12:03 PM PDT
    • 13 likes
  3. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Thatcher

    Nice review. Seeing the play and movie as a child had a powerful impact on me. It was only years later that I discovered the real tale was much more complex and interesting than the simple-minded theatrical presentation of the trial. I wrote about it on Ricochet a couple of years ago; you can read it here.

    • #3
    • June 12, 2017, at 12:20 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  4. MarciN Member

    Gumby Mark (View Comment):
    Nice review. Seeing the play and movie as a child had a powerful impact on me. It was only years later that I discovered the real tale was much more complex and interesting than the simple-minded theatrical presentation of the trial. I wrote about it on Ricochet a couple of years ago; you can read it here.

    I just want to send readers over to your linked-to article too.

    This one and yours are an excellent pair.

    Two good writers.

    Thank you.

    • #4
    • June 12, 2017, at 12:55 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  5. Jim Beck Member

    Afternoon Gumby,

    About how much of your op information came from Summer for the Gods? The OP was super.

    • #5
    • June 12, 2017, at 1:17 PM PDT
    • Like
  6. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Thatcher

    Jim Beck (View Comment):
    Afternoon Gumby,

    About how much of your op information came from Summer for the Gods? The OP was super.

    That was my starting point, as I mentioned in the piece. It led me to do a lot of follow up to learn more about the background of the case and the controversy over Darwinism in the early 20th century. My memories of Dad playing the organ grinder in a local production of the play always stayed with me.

    • #6
    • June 12, 2017, at 1:25 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  7. Jim Beck Member

    Thanks Gumby

    • #7
    • June 12, 2017, at 2:25 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  8. Hypatia Inactive

    I read Bryan was a Prog whose main objection was to “social Darwinism” and Spencerism. Just like today, Progs object to the idea of survival of the fittest in a social sense. It makes it seem like on some level, it’s people’s own fault if they can’t make it. Even bleeds into the anathema that, although created equal before the law, all humans are not born with the same talents and abilities. That’s why we aren’t supposed to call America the Land of Opportunity any more.

    • #8
    • June 13, 2017, at 7:50 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  9. Ontheleftcoast Member

    Travis Vaden: But it was not a trial of real facts – it was a phony case manufactured by the American Civil Liberties Union.

    And to what end would the ACLU have done this? Lest we think that the ACLU of 1925 was the warmly patriotic organization it is today, consider this:

    The ACLU was established in 1920 by Roger Baldwin (1884-1981), who served as its executive director until 1950. Baldwin was a socialist who counseled subterfuge as the preferable means of promoting his political agendas in the United States. In a private 1917 letter (to the journalist/activist Louis Lochner, who was affiliated with a radical organization), Baldwin wrote: “Do steer away from making it look like a Socialist enterprise. We want to look like patriots in everything we do. We want to get a lot of flags, talk a good deal about the Constitution and what our forefathers wanted to make of this country, and to show that we are really the folks that really stand for the spirit of our institutions.” In the ACLU’s early years, Baldwin hailed the Russia of Lenin and Stalin as “a great laboratory of social experimentation of incalculable value to the development of the world.” In 1928 Baldwin told his allies: “I am for socialism, disarmament, and ultimately for abolishing the state itself as an instrument of violence and compulsion. I seek social ownership of all property, the abolition of the propertied class, and sole control by those who produce wealth. Communism is the goal.”

    • #9
    • June 13, 2017, at 9:54 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  10. Illiniguy Member
    Illiniguy Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Back when I lived in Hermann, Missouri, we did a production of Inherit the Wind in the main courtroom of the Gasconade County Courthouse, which was built in 1896 (I played E.K. Hornbeck). We did 3 weekends and had standing room only throughout. Doing it in the courtroom really gave the play a realistic feel. We had a ball.

    • #10
    • June 13, 2017, at 10:23 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  11. Hypatia Inactive

    It is a great play. And it is now the definitive version of events, no matter what the facts actually were. Y’know, like when Gertrude Stein complained that Picasso’s portrait of her didn’t look anything like her, and the artist answered, “It will.”

    Ars longa, vita brevis……

    • #11
    • June 13, 2017, at 11:28 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  12. Ontheleftcoast Member

    Hypatia (View Comment):
    It is a great play. And it is now the definitive version of events, no matter what the facts actually were.

    Yes, but Han Solo shot first!

    • #12
    • June 13, 2017, at 11:36 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  13. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    MarciN (View Comment):
    This is a fantastic post. Thank you.

    I only learned the true story of the Scopes Trial a few years ago when I went on a hunt to learn more about eugenics. I came away from my reading to now be a loyal fan of William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was right, that embracing evolution wholeheartedly and teaching it to kids as fact would lead inevitably to the cheapening of the worth of a human life.

    You’re a fan of the lifelong WJB or the WJB of the trial?

    • #13
    • June 13, 2017, at 2:27 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  14. Duane Oyen Member
    Duane Oyen Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The consistent ubiquitous portrayal is of all people who believe in a Creator- which included most of the (predominantly Deist) founding fathers, and today includes, according to Gallup, 89% of the public- as being Young Earth fundamentalist Bible thumpers; Pascal, Paley, Francis Collins, Arthur Erdman, Steve Meyer, etc.

    This is really the exact same tactic used by the global warming apocalyptics: any Lukerwarmer- be it Judith Curry, Matt Ridley, Pat Michaels, Roger Pielke, Freeman Dyson, or Will Happer, is “anti-science” and must be destroyed.

    You could actually put on a decent revised production of Inherit the Wind which was subtle, not propagandistic, and told the story straight. No one in the “arts community” these days believes in eschewing propaganda, it seems.

    • #14
    • June 14, 2017, at 8:03 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  15. Brian Wolf Coolidge

    James Of England (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):
    This is a fantastic post. Thank you.

    I only learned the true story of the Scopes Trial a few years ago when I went on a hunt to learn more about eugenics. I came away from my reading to now be a loyal fan of William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was right, that embracing evolution wholeheartedly and teaching it to kids as fact would lead inevitably to the cheapening of the worth of a human life.

    You’re a fan of the lifelong WJB or the WJB of the trial?

    Great question with a man like Bryan. I like Bryan of the trail, he seems a very sympathetic man. However William Jennings Bryan’s political career leaves little to admire. That is just my opinion of course.

    In a similar way I think Truman was a very interesting guy and I can’t help but root for him personally however as a President I have to really dislike and think we might have been better off he stopped being President right after World War II. He did so much to lock in the New Deal and get us off on the wrong foot after our great victory I can’t really admire him as President. His least popular move was probably one of his best is fighting the Korea way after he stupidly signaled he would not fight it. Anyway it is interesting thinking of some political figures and how they are admirable in their own way in private life but could not translate that into good politics.

    • #15
    • June 15, 2017, at 3:28 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  16. The Reticulator Member

    Brian Wolf (View Comment):

    James Of England (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):
    This is a fantastic post. Thank you.

    I only learned the true story of the Scopes Trial a few years ago when I went on a hunt to learn more about eugenics. I came away from my reading to now be a loyal fan of William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was right, that embracing evolution wholeheartedly and teaching it to kids as fact would lead inevitably to the cheapening of the worth of a human life.

    You’re a fan of the lifelong WJB or the WJB of the trial?

    Great question with a man like Bryan. I like Bryan of the trail, he seems a very sympathetic man. However William Jennings Bryan’s political career leaves little to admire. That is just my opinion of course.

    In a similar way I think Truman was a very interesting guy and I can’t help but root for him personally however as a President I have to really dislike and think we might have been better off he stopped being President right after World War II. He did so much to lock in the New Deal and get us off on the wrong foot after our great victory I can’t really admire him as President. His least popular move was probably one of his best is fighting the Korea way after he stupidly signaled he would not fight it. Anyway it is interesting thinking of some political figures and how they are admirable in their own way in private life but could not translate that into good politics.

    Theodore Roosevelt, for another example.

    • #16
    • June 15, 2017, at 5:49 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  17. Brian Wolf Coolidge

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Brian Wolf (View Comment):

    James Of England (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):
    This is a fantastic post. Thank you.

    I only learned the true story of the Scopes Trial a few years ago when I went on a hunt to learn more about eugenics. I came away from my reading to now be a loyal fan of William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was right, that embracing evolution wholeheartedly and teaching it to kids as fact would lead inevitably to the cheapening of the worth of a human life.

    You’re a fan of the lifelong WJB or the WJB of the trial?

    Great question with a man like Bryan. I like Bryan of the trail, he seems a very sympathetic man. However William Jennings Bryan’s political career leaves little to admire. That is just my opinion of course.

    In a similar way I think Truman was a very interesting guy and I can’t help but root for him personally however as a President I have to really dislike and think we might have been better off he stopped being President right after World War II. He did so much to lock in the New Deal and get us off on the wrong foot after our great victory I can’t really admire him as President. His least popular move was probably one of his best is fighting the Korea way after he stupidly signaled he would not fight it. Anyway it is interesting thinking of some political figures and how they are admirable in their own way in private life but could not translate that into good politics.

    Theodore Roosevelt, for another example.

    Politically Roosevelt and Truman were mixed bags. Mostly bad with some good things worked in. Both could have been worse. But I think you picked an excellent example of what I was talking about.

    • #17
    • June 15, 2017, at 7:19 AM PDT
    • 1 like

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