“Inherit the Wind”: Making a Monkey of U.S. Fundamentalists

By Lucy Komisar
Inter Press Service (IPS) – May 25, 2007

Credit:Joan Marcus

Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehy in Inherit the Wind.

The international focus on fundamentalist Islam might obscure the fact that western nations have their own experiences with fundamentalist religion — among them the country whose government has most targeted radical Islam, the United States.

It’s common knowledge here that much of the support for President George W. Bush comes from fundamentalist Protestants whose faith in the literal word of the Bible matches fundamentalist Muslims’ belief in the literal word of Mohammed.

The problem for U.S. citizens who believe in freedom of thought and the separation of church and state occurs when religious activists attempt to force their beliefs on everyone else. This has been an historical problem in the U.S. education system, even as recently as 1999 when the Kansas Board of Education voted to delete the teaching of evolution from the state’s science curriculum.

The controversy was resolved when state voters in 2006 ousted the fundamentalist majority.

However, a sense of continuing conflict — not to mention the hardly-veiled contempt many educated people here have for the fundamentalists — is palpable among the New York audiences filling the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway to see a riveting star-studded production of Inherit the Wind.

The production is a revival of the 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee that tells the story of what came to be known as The Scopes Monkey Trial.

In 1925, John Scopes, a small-town Tennessee science teacher and football coach, was tried and convicted for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. He had violated a state law that forbade teaching any theory conflicting with the biblical assertion of divine creation. Ironically, the title of the play comes from the Bible, from Solomon: He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.

The play is not only about the enforcement of religious orthodoxy; it’s about attempts to stifle free thought. The authors wrote it in 1950 as a riposte to the threat to intellectual freedom mounted by Senator Joseph McCarthy, who used the banner of anti-communism to squelch progressive voices.

In the play, science teacher Bert Cates (Benjamin Walker) is jailed for the crime of explaining evolution to his students. Help comes quickly from a Baltimore newspaper which hires Henry Drummond (portrayed by Christopher Plummer as a wry, sophisticated lawyer) to defend the young man. To chronicle the story, it dispatches its prize reporter, smartly played by Denis O’Hare as a sarcastic, fast-talking cynic.

In fact, Scopes didn’t just happen to get indicted for the crime, he was sought out to test the law by the American Civil Liberties Union. He was defended by Clarence Darrow, to this day the most famous lawyer in U.S. history. The journalist is based on the acerbic critic and columnist, H. L. Mencken.

The lawyer for the prosecution was William Jennings Bryan, here Matthew Harrison Brady (an almost curmudgeonly good ole boy as played by Brian Dennehy). Bryan was a three-time Democratic candidate for president who really did care about working people. But his fundamentalism turned him small-minded and smug.

The highlight of the drama, and the case, is when Drummond/Darrow, who has been refused by a biased judge the right to place eminent zoology, geology, or other professors and scientists on the stand, calls Brady/Bryan, who agrees to be questioned. Drummond makes a fool of him, getting him to insist that a great fish really swallowed Jonah, getting him stuck in historical time-frames defined by the generations of biblical begats, and finally leading him into declaring that God talks to him. There was lots of audience laughter at that.

At one point, from the stage, comes the comment: Why did God plague us with the power to think? As Drummond makes clear, it is the right to think that is on trial.

Dennehy makes Brady, who had to be cleverer than this fellow
appears, into a demagogic, crowd-pleasing opportunist. (Well, there have been plenty of such phony evangelists around).

The staging by Doug Hughes uses music and pageantry to add to the flavour. Even while patrons are taking their seats — some on stage on courtroom benches — performers, accompanied by mandolin and guitar, sing, You can’t make a monkey of me, a popular song of the time.

The production is spellbinding, no less for the fact that religious fundamentalists peddling creationism are still around, and politicians are still playing up to them.

On May 3, 10 frontrunners for the Republican nomination for U.S.
president participated in a nationally televised debate. In a show of hands, three out of the 10 (Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo) said they did not believe in the evolutionary account of human origins.

Inherit the Wind. Written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Directed by Doug Hughes. Starring Brian Dennehy, Christopher Plummer, Byron Jennings, Denis O’Hare, Terry Beaver, Steve Brady, Anne Bowles, Bill Buell, Bill Christ, Carson Church, Conor Donovan, Lanny Flaherty, Kit Flanagan, Beth Fowler, Sherman Howard, Katie Klaus, Maggie Lacey, Jordan Lage, Mary Kate Law, Philip LeStrange, Kevin Loomis, David M. Lutken, Charlotte Maier, Matthew Nardozzi, Randall Newsome, Jay Patterson, Pippa Pearthree, Scott Sowers, Amanda Sprecher, Erik Steele, Jeff Steitzer, Henry Stram, Benjamin Walker, Andrew Weems. Sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto.

Lyceum Theatre, 149 W 45 St. Mon-Sat 8pm; Wed & Sat 2pm. Running time: 2 hours. Through July 11, 2007. $76.25 – $96.25, $36.25 seating on stage. 212-239-6200. http://www.inheritthewindonbroadway.com/. For more about the real story: http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/biotp.htm

Photos by Joan Marcus.

Story on IPS site

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