Inherit the Wind: Pro Hac Vice
Inherit the Wind is one of the great plays of the past century and Ocean State Theatre Company does it due justice as a masterpiece, originally produced in 1955 at the height of McCarthyism. In his “director’s note” in the program, Fred Sullivan, Jr., compares it to other political plays that reach general principles beyond their specific situation: “Like Miller’s The Crucible, Brecht’s Galileo, Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, Shakespeare’s Richard III and Henry IV or the musical 1776, it is a heightened metaphor, a poem, a work of art based on historical events to shed light on the human identity, struggle and condition.” Framed as a courtroom battle between evolution and creationism, as in Sullivan’s examples the real subject of the play is the dilemma of a thinking man under coercive pressure by society and state to conform his ideas to the demands of others in violation of his own conscience. Ultimately such dramas ask: If an individual sells out in the face of such circumstances, is there anything left of the person?
Young Tennessee schoolteacher Bertram Cates (Mark Dante Mancini) is charged under a new state law making it a crime to teach the theory of evolution in a public school. Fundamentalist preacher Reverend Jeremiah Brown (Chris Perrotti) is a leader of the effort to enforce the law despite his daughter Rachel Brown’s (Nora Eschenheimer) engagement to fellow schoolteacher Cates. Tom Davenport (Benjamin Grills) is the prosecutor pressed to pursue the case over the misgivings of Mayor Jason Carter (Cleo Zani) who is concerned about turning the town into a laughingstock. Rev. Brown and Davenport are aided by the local lawman (Frank O’Donnell), Judge Merle Coffey (Mark S. Cartier), and local citizens Jesse H. Dunlap (Jason Loete) and Mrs. Esther Krebs (Joan Batting). Several of the schoolchildren are involved, including Howard (Jonathan Olivera) and Melinda (Julia Bartoletti). The trial brings to the small town of Hillsboro celebrity lawyers Henry Drummond (Tom Gleadow) for the defense and Matthew Harrison Brady (Brandon Whitehead) for the prosecution, the latter accompanied by his wife Mrs. Sarah Brady (Karen Gail Kessler). Openly sympathetic to the defense is Baltimore newspaperman E.K. Hornbeck (Steven Liebhauser), frequently offering cynical commentary on the proceedings. Also in the cast in various roles are Milly Massey, Zachary Gibb, Gunnar Manchester, Rachel Dulude and Tobias Wilson. A sort of ventriloquist with a puppet monkey (Michael “Lenny” Contaxes) appears every so often.
Inherit the Wind stands or falls in any production on the performances of the two courtroom antagonists, Drummond and Brady, and in this Gleadow and Whitehead are outstanding as the two old friends and allies who, despite decades of mutual admiration and respect, find themselves bitterly opposed over a fundamental difference of deeply committed principles. Liebhauser as Hornbeck, Kessler as Mrs. Brady, and Eschenheimer as Rachel give particularly convincing performances. Brady is a complex character, raising the very real objection that allowing science to define the world as a ruthless competition for “survival of the fittest” will be inevitably dehumanizing, inferring that evolution bestows a scientific imprimatur to the “law of the jungle.” That is a misunderstanding of the theory of evolution which like any purely scientific theory makes no teleological claims: it aims to describe and explain what can be observed and is incapable of offering ethical insight.
The historical basis of the highly fictionalized account in the play deserves some explanation. In the 1920s, a series of state laws were passed, in Tennessee in 1925 and in Arkansas in 1928, prohibiting any teaching in the public schools, including even the colleges and universities, that denied the biblical account of the creation of humans. (Technically, such laws did not mandate the teaching of creation nor did they prohibit teaching that non-human animals evolved.) Contrary to the play, where the defendant faces jail time, the real law provided for only a fine of between $100 and $500, the equivalent of about $1,400 to $7,000 today.
The real defendant, 24 year-old John T. Scopes, was no innocent being dragged along by events, but was invited by town leadership in Dayton, Tennessee, to stage a deliberate publicity stunt to attract attention and notoriety to the town by responding to an advertisement placed by the then-new American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offering assistance to anyone willing to challenge the law. (The engagement subplot is pure fiction.) It should be understood that even in 1925, evolution of humans from apes was settled scientific fact – it is observable and undeniable, although its mechanisms were still at that time subject to debate – and it was a standard part of the biology textbooks required to be used in schools, so the new law put teachers in a bind: using the approved textbooks would make them criminals, while refusing to use the approved textbooks would get them fired. It seems that the new law sailed through out of purely cynical political motives in the expectation that it would be ignored, and had a group of town boosters not taken it upon themselves to set up what would become the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” that is likely what would have happened, as no one else was ever charged under the law until its repeal in 1967. Furthermore, Scopes was actually the school’s football coach and only occasionally taught classes as a substitute.
The publicity stunt worked, and only six weeks or so after the law was signed by the governor Scopes was indicted by a grand jury and his impending trial made national news. The Baltimore Sun paid Scopes’ bail and sent H.L. Mencken (the model for “E.K. Hornbeck”) to cover the trial. Three-time (1896, 1900, and 1908) unsuccessful presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan (the model for “Matthew Harrison Brady”) led the prosecution team, and famous criminal lawyer Clarence Darrow (the model for “Henry Drummond”) led the defense team. Scopes was convicted and fined $100, but the Tennessee Supreme Court on appeal upheld the constitutionality of the anti-evolution law while vacating Scopes’ conviction on the technicality that the jury rather than the judge should have set the fine. Five days after the jury verdict, Bryan died.
It took until 1968 for such laws to be finally ruled unconstitutional in a case arising out of Arkansas, and until 1987 for creationism to be ruled wholly unscientific in a case arising out of Louisiana. As recently as 2014, the Gallup polling organization reported that 42% of Americans believe humans were created in their present form within the last 10,000 years, a figure rising to 57% of those who have not completed high school, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. (It was also reported that 31% accept that human evolution occurred but with divine guidance and only 19% believe that human evolution occurred solely through natural processes, although, as noted, science makes no claim to be able to distinguish these two positions.)
At a deeper level, the play is not about evolution and creationism but rather is about the freedom of the rational individual to think differently from the orthodoxy the government uses the power of the state to enforce, a consistent pattern in American politics from the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 through the Sedition Acts of 1918, to the McCarthyism of the 1950s and the oxymoronically named USA PATRIOT/USA Freedom Acts of 2001/2015. Only a few months ago a senior White House counselor coined the Orwellian phrase “alternative facts” to describe the government’s insistence on provable falsehoods. Robert Love, in a 2007 Columbia Journalism Review article, reported the George W. Bush administration “credentialed fringe scientists and fake experts and sent them in to muddy scientific debates on global warming, stem cell research, evolution, and other matters. And as if that weren’t enough, the Department of Health and Human Services got caught producing a series of deceptive video news releases… touting the administration’s Medicare plan. The segments, paid political announcements really, ended with a fake journalist signing off like a real one — ‘In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting,’ and they ran on local news shows all over the country without disclosure.”
When 42% of the population believes in the demonstrable falsehood of “young earth” creationism, are we asking to be lied to?
Inherit the Wind, directed by Fred Sullivan, Jr., Ocean State Theatre Company, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick, RI. Through April 16. About 2h15m with 15-minute intermission. Free off-street parking. Handicap accessible. Refreshments and full bar available. Box office telephone: (401) 921-6800 Web: http://www.oceanstatetheatre.org/tickets/inheritthewind/ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/1830072307233020/