Inherit the Wind, at the National Theater, has a theatrically stimulating air about it. The entrance of the star, Paul Muni, is as artfully planned and as tingling as anything local stages have witnessed for quite a time. Although the play is, on the whole, more theatrical than dramatic, it brings two relatively new and manifestly gifted writers to Broadway's attention.
Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, the authors, have borrow their title from Proverbs 11:29: "He that troubleth his own house, shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise at heart."
For subject matter, the playwrights offer a free and fictitious adaptation of the 1925 Dayton, Tenn., trial of John Scopes for teaching evolution in the local high school. This was the so-called "monkey trial" which starred William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow for the defense.
Hero of Events
Hero of the events at the National is Henry Drummond (Mr. Muni), a shambling and shaggy defender who enters the nameless Southern town to take up the cause of one Bertram Cates, the intellectual law breaker. With halting step and halting manner, his force and purpose concealed at first behind a misleading mildness, his demeanor marked by a shrug of the shoulders and puzzling raising of the eyebrows, Mr. Muni carefully prepares for the attack which finally annihilates Matthew Harrison Brady, his opponent.
Under the direction of Herman Shumlin, who produced "Inherit the Wind" in association with Margo Jones, the deliberateness of the preliminary action is well used for theatrical effect. Employing a crowd sufficiently sizable to win the gratitude of the Actor's' Equity Association, Mr. Shumlin utilizes Peter Larkin's two-level stage for exiting patterns of movement. One feels that the townspeople are actually dramatis personae. Oddly enough, while this intensifies the atmosphere, it may at times tend to detract from the personal drama of the characters.
The upper level street scenes are played frequently in half-light or semidarkness. By contrast, Abe Feder has illuminated the courtroom scenes with blazing brightness. Such devices, with the contrasts they help to achieve, intensify the mood of what Mr. Shumlin (in the New York Times) described as a play 'of men struggling for what they believe in, making errors, but not out of evil."
Even thought the odds are all against him, Henry Drummond is, from the start, the plays' undoubted champion of enlightenment. It is not the known outcome of the play that lessens suspense and dramatic conflict; it is the fact that Drummond's opponents never seem the equal of the defense attorney from Chicago.
The Rev. Jeremiah Brown whose daughter, Rachel, is in love with the offending pedagogue, is a white-lipped fanatic preaching fundamentalist dogma. The townspeople take their lead from him.
Except in one or two instances, Brady is portrayed as a man whose pompous fatuity know no limits. Perhaps Mr. Begley is not doing full justice to the part; his kindness seems always taken from bland unction. Had the "Great Commoner" indeed become such a shell of his former self as this portrait implies?
"Inherit the Wind" is, among other things, an attack on literal interpretation of the Scriptures. Barred from calling the scholar witnesses whom he has expected would be allowed to testify, Drummond places Brady on the stand and attacks him by quoting Bible passages and then demanding that Brady interpret them. When Brady blunders into an explanation which offends his admirers, they turn on him. In an agonized effort to recover ground, he collapses, is carried from court and does not revive.
The authors reveal the true measure of Drummond in a quiet but extremely affecting scene, masterfully played by Mr. Muni, in which the Chicago lawyer defends his late opponent against the jibes of E.K. Hornbeck, a professional critic modeled after H.L. Mencken. Drummond's is an indictment of all dogma - whether springing from blind ignorance or blind intellectualism.
Judging from some of the interviews they have given, the authors of "Inherit the Wind" regard their drama as having a present-day significance.
If so, it begs a good many questions. Such a plea for freedom of though as is made in this instance can scarcely lack appeal for those who prize freedom of thought. But the issue of the Scopes trial - at least as they are presented at the National - do not seem to compare in complexity with the challenge confronting a free nation in today's Communist-menaced world. Stated simply, this challenge is the need to preserve individual liberty while apprehending subversion.
The performance at the National is a good one. Mr. Randall give a nice edge to Hornbeck's flippanices; Bethel Leslie tautly conveys the inner conflict of a minister's daughter in love with a local rebel; Karl Light makes the school teacher an unpretentious man of conscience; Staats Cotsworth delivers the Rev. Brown's brief tirades with harsh zeal; in the small role of Mrs. Brady, Muriel Kirkland introduces a welcome tenderness to the prevailing forensics of the play.