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Monkey Business

MCT’s Inherit the Wind re-enacts the first “trial of the century”

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“He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.” Proverbs 11:29.

The Scopes “Monkey Trial,” which lasted for a couple weeks in a hot July of l925, was maybe less troubling to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee than one might suppose. In fact, it’s been suggested that the trial was planned and embraced by at least some of the locals, who hoped it would put them on the map. The arrest of John T. Scopes, a science teacher and football coach who taught Darwin’s theory of evolution out of a textbook that was part of the standard school curriculum, was a collaborative scheme between a willing Scopes, Dayton boosters and the American Civil Liberties Union in one version of that event. The town fathers responded eagerly to a call from the New York-based ACLU to test the constitutionality of the Butler Law, which prohibited the teaching of evolution in the public classrooms of Tennessee. Oklahoma, Florida and Mississippi already had such laws; in the wake of World War I, there was a trend across the country toward fundamentalist religion. A test-case trial was seen as a promising attention-getter within that social context, and a possible economic boon for a backwater.

The trial did gain a lot of media attention for the small community of Dayton by providing the arena for a legal squaring-off between two prominent lawyers of the time—Clarence Darrow, who defended the right of Scopes to teach evolution, and William Jennings Bryan, who represented the fundamentalist Christian opposition.

Darrow hoped to lose the case, so that it could be appealed at a higher court. This happened, Scopes was fined $100 and the case was appealed in 1927 at the State Supreme Court in Nashville, which then ruled in Scopes’ favor. However, that decision was based on a technicality, which was a blow to Darrow’s efforts, because it meant that the Butler Law was effectively shielded from being constitutionally tested.

In the play about the Scopes trial, Inherit the Wind, written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee thirty years later, Darwin’s theory of evolution is treated as an issue of enlightened common sense and the creationists are represented as entrenched, anti-intellectual conservatives closely linked to a bigoted South. The Darrow character nails down the Bryan character on points of logic. The Chamber of Commerce boosterism is downplayed, replaced with a courtroom crowd reminiscent of what Atticus Finch had to deal with in To Kill A Mockingbird. John Scopes becomes a beleaguered crusader for truth and a heroic victim, not just another state employee trying to fulfill the dictates of his job and willing to moonlight as a media figure.

The popular film version of the play, which appeared in l960, had Spencer Tracy in the role of the Clarence Darrow character, Henry Drummond. You don’t get more secular humanist than that. But that was the beginning of the glorious ’60s, when these things had social clarity, if not resolution. Now—after experiencing the resurgence and continuation of extreme conservatism, with its politico-religious figures such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Buchanan—we look at any staging of Inherit the Wind with less complacency. The actual origin of man no longer seems to be the important question. (If you had a particular kind of religious upbringing—one that dwelt a lot on “mysteries”—then theories of evolution and creationism never seemed all that incompatible, anyway.) What matters now is the question of how power is gained and wielded in this country through the assumption of moral authority and, in the face of that question, how intellectual freedom in public classrooms can be protected and flourish.

And the answer to that, my friends, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’, etc. and so forth.

MCT presents Inherit the Wind Friday, Jan. 21 through Sunday, Jan. 23 and again Thursday, Jan. 27 through Sunday, Jan. 30. Showtimes 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 6:30 p.m. Sunday, and matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets $14 Thursday and Sunday nights, $18 Friday and Saturday nights, $11 weekend matinees. Call 728-7529.

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