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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.