Nearly thirty years after the Scopes Trial left the headlines, two playwrights brought the historical drama back into the public discourse through Inherit the Wind. At the time when Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee began writing the play, the country was settling into the affluent years of the mid-1950s. But beneath the perceived prosperity, a thread of social tension persisted. McCarthyism flourished, playing into the anti-Communist sentiment at the time. And as the trials continued unchecked, the American public became more anxious and fearful of this seemingly uncontrollable movement sweeping society.
As Lawrence and Lee sought to make sense of this climate of anxiety and this challenge to intellectual freedom, they found the nearest parallel in the Scopes Monkey Trial three decades past. This concern for the direction of the country and the desire to bring history to life gave birth to Inherit the Wind. Though the play was actually complete by 1950, the playwrights waited until 1950, until the climate was right (10). And although they sought to recount the essence of the Scopes Trial, Inherit the Wind is a dramatization not a history lesson; it is a story about a conflict in American culture that was as current in 1955 as in 1925.
The story of Inherit the Wind did not actually jump from the written word to the New York stage. In fact, for nearly two years, Jerome Lawrence's and Robert E. Lee's agent, Harold Freedman, tried in vain to sell the play to a producer. By the end of 1954, however, Margo Jones, a Dallas producer, was willing to bring the play to life at Theatre '55. The play opened with mostly local professional actors on January 10, 1955, to rave reviews. Broadway producer- director Herman Shumlin took the cue and brought Inheritto New York with Jones on board as associate-producer. The popularity of the play in Dallas was a huge draw and Shumlin was able to assemble a brilliant cast.
Heading the star-studded Broadway cast was Paul Muni as Henry Drummond (the Clarence Darrow representation). Muni was a veteran stage and film actor, who came out of a six-year retirement to take on the role. Joining Muni at center stage was Ed Begley, a well-known character actor, playing Matthew Harrison Brady, and a young Tony Randall as E.K. Hornbeck, the Baltimore newspaper reporter. The skillful direction of Shumlin was a strong selling point, as was Muni's reported brilliant performance. But, for both, the cast and crew and director, it was the strength of the script and the power of the dialogue which brought them to Inherit.
For Begley, the role of Brady was one he relished. As he said in a profile from the original programme, he often played parts " which call for frustration and incomplete achievement ... 'I guess you might call me the most successful failure in town,' grins Mr. Begley" (12).
With the reported brilliance and strength of the cast, Inherit the Wind opened on Broadway at the National Theatre on April 21, 1955.
Despite the play's overwhelming popularity, the historical accuracy of Inherit became an issue almost immediately. On one side were the producers, directors and other theatre personnel connected with the play. For them, the Scopes trial was a dramatic piece of history that could be made even more so by translating it to the stage. Their main promotional idea was to emphasize this historical relevance. Memos back and forth between the producers and the promotional team described the play in clever soundbites which blurred the line between history and drama. One executive working with the play, for example, suggested:
In All the Delirious Twenties, Nothing Made the World Laugh so Hard, or Get so Hot under the CollarBut for some, this blending of theatre and history was quite problematic.
A Battle of Giants: The Greatest Verbal Boxing Match of the Century
The Trial that Started in a Monkey Cage and Turned into a Circus
The Epic Day-in-Court of a Man Who Won a Trial and Lost Everything
Carnival in the Courtroom
The Greatest wits and the Biggest Half-Wits of the Crazy Twenties Met in a Little Tennessee Town - and the Laughter Was Heard around the World (13).
"The fabulous 'Scopes Monkey Trial,' with all its gaudy exuberance, which occupied stage one for a long time in 1925, and locked the giants of fundamentalism and science in a Herculean clash, provided the basis, for the record breaking Broadway hit Inherit the Wind ... Shumlin ... created a vibrant, pulsating, slam-bang production, acclaimed by the critics as entertainment first and history by incidence" (14).
On the other side, however, some people thought Inherit as a history lesson could be dangerous for two reasons. First, there are significant discrepancies in the accounts of the trial between Inherit and the trial records. Lawrence and Lee opened their play with a disclaimer that Inherit is not history. But, as the promotional quotations reveal, some people viewed the play a responsible learning tool. A second problem with using Inherit as an accurate representation of history is the potential for bias which Lawrence and Lee loaded into the play. There are subtle references to the benighted South, mainly represented in the character of E.K.Hornbeck, the reporter from Baltimore. The play suggests, through the filter of Hornbeck, that the monkey trial was a southern failure and a sign of the region's ignorance and stagnation. He loathes the suffocating society of Hillsboro and longs to return to the North. From the Southerners' perspective, Hornbeck, Drummond and the North are intruding. Tom Davenport, the attorney assisting Brady, repeatedly refers to Drummond as "the gentleman from Chicago,"' letting the words slide off his tongue in scorn. Neither Hornbeck nor Davenport look beyond the regional labels to the actual people involved.
Despite these biases, Lawrence and Lee come down decidedly in favor of tolerance and freedom of thought and belief, using Drummond as their mouthpiece. As the evolutionist-fundamentalist conflict heightens and the tension between two sides becomes even more fierce, the issue becomes more polarized. Lawrence and Lee saw this happening in American culture and used the play to search for some form of mutual respect, if not consensus. Drummond expresses this most clearly when he reprimands Hornbeck for denouncing the just-deceased Brady:
You smart-aleck! You have no more right to spit on his religion than you have to spit on my religion! Or my lack of it! ... I tell you Brady had the same right as Cates; the right to be wrong!
He looks from one volume to the other, balancing them thoughtfully, as if his hands were scales. He half-smiles, half-shrugs. Then Drummond slaps the two books together and jams them in his brief case, side by side.For Drummond, there is no right or wrong, only different perspectives.
Though the play seemed to reach some resolution about the conflict itself, American society at large continued to tackle the issue. The opposing beliefs in American society were, and are, too wieldy to find a solution in this one play. As the play revived the issue of evolution, the debate over the Butler Law also resurfaced. The existence of a law which infringed upon intellectual and academic freedom roused the modernists again, this time in the form of the American Civil Liberties Union.
In 1955, the Butler anti-evolution law in Tennessee was still on the books. Teachers for years had been maneuvering around the law and were teaching evolution where they could. But to the ACLU the existence of such a law was a threat to democratic freedom and the right to freedom of thought. On July 10, 1955, the ACLU formally requested that Tennessee Governor Frank G. Clement initiate the repeal of that law. For the ACLU, this was a prime opportunity to demonstrate the enduring strength of the First Amendment - 30 years after the first debate.
This debate, however, never materialized, and the Tennessee anti-evolution law was to remain on the books for more than a decade after Inherit the Wind crossed the stage. The fundamentalist roots of Tennessee were not yet prepared to align themselves with the forces of the future.