Categorized | Arts, Community

Are We Not Men? Revisiting the Scopes Monkey Trial on Stage

Posted on 10 October 2012

The Cast of Center Stage’s production of “Inherit the Wind.” (Tom Kochie photo)

By Annette Hinkle

Playwrights are at their best when they create pieces of powerful social commentary through the subtle use of metaphor. When done well, the best plays are those that effectively convey all sides of a complex and controversial issue — and manage to do so without ever broaching the subject itself.

This weekend, Center Stage at Southampton Cultural Center opens a production of “Inherit the Wind.” Like many of the plays he chooses for Center Stage, director Michael Disher finds the best scripts are those that require audiences to think — offering the world not in black and white, but in shades of gray that reflect reality.

That’s certainly true of “Inherit the Wind.” Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s play premiered in 1955 and though it was based on the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, according to the playwrights themselves it was, in-fact, meant to be a commentary on the McCarthy trials taking place at the time.

Ironically, while McCarthyism is long gone, the issue of Darwin and the Bible is not. Evolution vs. creationism is still a battle being waged in many school districts across the country. It marks political and social lines in the sand and makes this play as relevant as ever — if decidedly more literal than the authors may have originally intended.

Last fall, the cast of Center Stage presented John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” which appealed not only to adults, but was something that segued nicely into the curriculum of student audiences as well. Disher finds “Inherit the Wind” to be an apt follow-up

“It’s a good script and provides good opportunities for actors as well as for middle and high school students,” notes Disher. “It’s a piece of theater that isn’t just a piece of literature. It also deals with history, religion, civics — real matters on stage.”

“It covers so many disciplines, it seemed a no-brainer, which requires a lot of brain work,” he adds. “And there is no definitive answer.”

Set in the Tennessee town of Hillsboro, the script is loosely based on the ?1925 case of the State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes. Commonly referred to as the Scopes Monkey Trial, high school science teacher John Scopes was accused of violating Tennessee law by teaching evolution at a state-funded school — which was illegal at the time.

“This teacher’s arrested and because it was 1925, on the advent of radio, it received international exposure,” explains Disher. “It got even more attention when the prosecuting attorney came into town and was William Jennings Byran, who of course had run for president unsuccessfully, but had a great amount of clout and was a supporter of fundamentalist religion.”

Scopes attorney was also a heavy hitter — Clarence Darrow, a leading member of the ACLU, defender of the infamous teenage killers Leopold and Loeb, and onetime friend of Bryan’s.

“These were two big, big legal minds coming in that had a bit of notoriety connected to them,” adds Disher. “Darrow and Jennings knew one another, but at this point they were at opposing tables. When you have two steadfast and staunch supporters on opposite sides of whatever belief, you have fireworks.”

In the play, Scopes is depicted in the character of Bertram Cates, the educator arrested for teaching Darwin’s “Descent of Man.” Act 1 focuses on the background information that sets up the trial and the media circus that arrives with Bryan and Darrow (in the play, the characters are Matthew Harrison Brady and Henry Drummond respectively.)

For Disher, it’s always challenging to make a courtroom drama exciting, and he finds the epic struggle in this play is not the battle over the written material as much as it is a battle between two legal giants.

As part of his argument in Cates’ defense, Drummond puts Brady himself on the stand as a Biblical expert, and using passages from the Bible illustrates for the jury the inconsistencies that exist in a literal interpretation of it.

Disher finds that’s where Drummond is most effective in his defense.

“The question is do you take the Bible literally or as a guideline, or as something like an Aesop’s fable or Greek mythology,” asks Disher. “For many, church and state are one and same. I was born and raised in North Carolina. I know how powerful church and God is. Separation of church and state is still debatable in many regions of this country.”

“Maybe it’s easier for some to believe a Biblical statement because it doesn’t cause a great amount of thought. Science is difficult to understand,” he adds. “But can you live a completely scientific life with no regard to a structure to govern the conscious?”

“The Bible is a good book — but it’s not the only book. That says it all,” notes Disher. “Do not discount archeology, biology, history, these are proven sciences. Incorporate them so we find better ways to live as a human race.”

Ultimately, finding respect — and truth — in both positions is the message that Disher hopes audiences will come away with.

“With courtroom dramas, it’s essential for audience members to think,” he says. “I want them to feel they’re in courtroom watching this unfold. Interestingly enough, I don’t think people can tell you the outcome.”

In fact, in the play Cates is found guilty, but fined a modest $100 — a simple slap on the wrist.

“In my opinion, though he won the case, that’s where Brady fails — the jury,” adds Disher. “The townspeople are fundamentalist and have creationist beliefs, he plays right to them and assumes they’ll jump on the band wagon.”

But they don’t. While faithful to their own religious beliefs, the jury also believes in mankind’s ability to ponder the most difficult scientific questions of the day.

“Instead of Drummond saying Darwin is right and the Bible is wrong, he instills in the jury the fact people have the right to think,” explains Disher. “Why do we have this God-given right if we’re not going to use it by asking questions that may elevate us to another level?”

“That’s where Drummond begins to influence certain people on the jury. It’s not enough to get them to acquit the teacher, but it certainly raises an awful lot of questions though,” he adds. “And I hope it does for the audience as well.”

Center Stage at Southampton Cultural Center presents “Inherit the Wind” Thursday, October 11 through Sunday, October 28, 2012 at SCC’s Levitas Center for the Arts, 25 Pond Lane, Southampton. Performances are Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $22 ($12 students) and $20 for seniors on Fridays at the door only. Tickets are available in advance at www.scc-arts.org or by calling 287-4377. Student performances will be offered Monday, October 15 and Tuesday, October 16 at 9:30 a.m. A discussion with the actors will follow student performances.

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