For what it has to say, and the explicit way in which it says it, there is no more important play in New York that "Inherit the Wind," a dramatic evaluation of the famed Scope trial of 30 years ago. This is a play which, in the pleasant-tasting icing of excellent theatre, gets across to its audience the core of value beneath the icing: there is no more holy concept than the right of a man to think.
This is important beyond description. In an era when this one right along is taking a brutal beating, it is healthy and needful for creative men and women to take their stand in defenses of such a right. "Inherit the Wind" could have been much less a satisfying play and still would be a statement heartily to be embraced and supported.
The Scopes trial seems long ago and dimly away now. It seems ridiculous that an entire nation could have been aroused and flung into two bitter camps because a very small potatoes of a public teacher chose to state the theory of evolution in his classroom. That this teaching violated a statute of Tennessee was then and curiously is now true. Some statutory benefits came from the Scopes trial, but erasure of the law forbidding the teaching ofd evolution was not one of them. Nor is that of importance. What is of importance is that from that musty little town, whipped into fervor by the presence of William Jennings Bryan on the side of orthodox interpretations of the Bible, and Clarence Darrow, on the side of enlightenment and science, came a note of hope; that men could think of themselves without censure or impoundment and that the lost little soul of the trial, the accused, made it easier, even though by only a fractional amount, for the next accused thinker to take his stand for it.
This is the rub of what Darrow fought for. He had no great interest in publicly humiliating Bryan, he had no real concern with fighting the Bible orthodoxy. His own estimation of the case went far deeper than that and into the realm of something he looked upon as holier than sacred writ; the full, free, unmenaced and unbruised right of a human being to think.
This splendid theatrical presentation of the battle has been powerfully arrived at by the precise writing of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, and it has received determined and affectionate direction from its producer, Herman Shumlin. Mr. Shumlin is a man of thought as well as a man of theatre, and it is plain in his work with this play and the people in it that is courageously alongside the late Darrow in the conviction of what makes rights and what makes the struggle to retain them.
But nothing that the authors wrote and not enough of the direction Mr. Shumlin provided would have had the thrust essential to the play if a lesser actor than Paul Muni had occupied the principal role. His interpretation of the role that is frankly Darrow is a wonder of performance, a full-bodied and magnificent performance which stirs from the moment of silent, shuffling, round-shouldered entry until the legally defeated and when his convicted little client receives from Darrow the true import of what the trial has meant in terms of freeing the minds of humanity for their noblest purpose, thought. This is one of Mr. Muni's most colorful and brilliant performances in a long career of such. It reaches horizons few actors ever see, much less arrive at, and it has the stature of giantism.
Not discernibly less brilliant is Ed Begley in a role just as frankly Bryan. Mr. Begley brings to it the needful sonorous note, the pious humility of the professional religious layman who, spreading himself in an area where only he is saint and all adversaries are labeled sinful, gloats over and mocks his foe. When these two reach their moment of clinch in the play, the work at the National Theatre becomes a thrilling event.