Inherit the Wind In Our Times - 1980s - Present

"Here we go again. It hasn't stopped.
Civilization is always on trial."
- Jerome Lawrence, March 1995

After the Storm

By the mid-1970s, the social, political and cultural upheaval of the previous decade had settled down to a dull roar as American society found itself spent from the outpouring of protest and emotion associated with the rights consciousness movements and the Vietnam War. The Watergate scandal and Nixon's subsequent resignation only added to the country's disillusionment and frustration. By the early 1980s, America was eager to ease the hurt of the past and move away from the antagonism. The radical modernists grew up and started families, and while they did not lose their revisionist ideals, their beliefs lost some of the urgency and anger of the past decades. Concurrent with this departure from radicalism was the general shift toward conservatism in the political structure of the nation beginning with Reagan's election in 1980. Like the period following World War I, during which the Scopes trial made its entrance, fundamentalism saw an increase in popularity throughout the country in the 1980s, particularly noticeable in the rise of evangelistic religion and televangelism.

The liberal, progressive views, however, prevailed, manifested, for example, in the evolution-creationism debate, which had been less vocal since the actions of the 1967 Tennessee legislature and the 1968 Supreme Court. In 1987, however, the issue once again reached the Court in the case of Edwards v. Aguillard, in which the Court in a 7-to-2 vote found unconstitutional a Louisiana law which required creationism to be taught alongside evolution in public schools. Though the law did not mention God or the Bible, the clear intention was to include creationism as a science equal to the theory of evolution. At the time, this ruling seemed like the final defeat for creationism and the fundamentalist push to teach the idea in the schools.

Expressing this general sentiment in society was the production of NBC-TV's second take on Inherit the Wind in March 1988, starring Jason Robards as Drummond and Kirk Douglas as Bryan. This Inherit, however, lacked the cultural impact of the other versions. The broadcast gained the attention of few critics and journalists and passed through the culture fairly unnoticed. As the only available review suggests, Inherit was discounted as "liberal melodrama" without any parallel to contemporary society. This version of Inherit, therefore, although it came on the fringe of the fundamentalist upsurge, reveals little about the modernist-fundamentalist conflict at the time.

'It's Never Over'

In November of 1995, Vanderbilt University hosted the symposium "Religion and Public Life: 70 Years After the Scopes Trial.": As scholar after scholar spoke, the idea emerged that " society has not come very far from the issues raised at the Scopes trial: the place of evolution and creationism in the classroom, the lines between church and state; the professional responsibility of educators and the democratic rights of parents and citizens in devising curriculums, and much more" (31). Each of these issues lies at the heart of the modernist-fundamentalist conflict as each concerns the power to regulate society and guide the future generations. Scientists for years had avoided tangling themselves up in this conflict for, by their very nature, the issues involved were contentious and volatile. But with the rise of fundamentalism, the debate returned to the public forum. This "battle between rural piety and city cynicism", which Dayton staged in 1925, may not be all that removed from the present (32). During only the first few months of this year, the creationism-evolution debate reached a height unforeseen since the 1967 retraction of Tennessee's anti-evolution law. Unlike 1987, with the single case from Louisiana, 1996 has seen a sweeping cultural need to revive this debate and its artistic manifestation in Inherit the Wind.

A Revival of the Past in a Trial for the Present

Forty-one years, almost to the day, since Tony Randall first crossed the National Theatre stage as the cynical reporter E.K. Hornbeck, Inherit the Wind brought him back to Broadway this March at the; this time, however, Randall stands behind the scenes as the artistic director of the National Actors Theatre, exhilarated to be producing the "huge hit" of his day which gave him his "breakthrough" role (33).
It's been a recurring dream over forty years that I'm standing backstage to go on again in Inherit the Wind. I've had the dream for years (34).
Randall's persistence and his enthusiasm for the show succeeded in drawing two great stars to his stage, and George C. Scott joined the cast as Drummond, complimenting Charles Durning's portrayal of Brady. Although both actors seem tired as they labor across the stage (Scott, in fact, missed a number of performances because of illness), their presence is imposing, nonetheless. As the two joust back and forth, the audience cannot help but feel the tensions between these two formidable cultural forces.

A group of high schools students in New York found themselves swept up in this excitement, coming down decidedly on the side of Drummond. For these children, the central issue of the play was an irrational law not a religious conflict; this idea was not unexpected in consideration their cultural environment in urban, liberal New York City (35). They see in the play what the playwrights always hoped audiences would see beyond the religious issue. Yet, the student's response is significant because it reveals the way in which Inherit has changed as a reflection of American culture during the past 70 years. Lawrence and Lee never intended Inherit the Wind to be a story about the creationism-evolution conflict. Instead, as Lawrence says, "[They] used the teaching of evolution as a parable, a metaphor for any kind of thought control. It's not about science versus religion. It's about the right to think." Randall seconds this thought, saying, " When we opened on April 21, 1955, I did not think the play would be taken seriously; the fundamentalists had became a lunatic fringe. The play is one-thousand times more pertinent today. You think this is over? It's never over " (36). And as this message of intellectual freedom may be lost in the shuffle, the conflict which emerges could never be more applicable than today in the face of the rise of the religious right. The issue of evolution, which was just a metaphor for the playwrights, has become the audience's obsession.

Modern-Day Fundamentalists

Although this connection with the present-day religious climate never was part of Lawrence's and Lee's plan, to deny the relevance is to ignore a powerful strain of thought in American culture today. As Randall says, "It wasn't meant to be political. It's an act of fortuity the way Pat Buchanan has come along and the Christian Coalition has become more powerful. At the time we did the play [originally], I thought the matter was settled. I thought the only people who believed the Bible literally were kooks ... Now they're going to control the next Republican convention " (37). Randall and the National Actors Theatre capitalize on this currency from the first image of the play. Draped across the entrance to the Royale Theatre there is a banner, quoting Buchanan's denunciation of evolution. This act signals the audience from the beginning that this is not an ordinary play. The lessons one learns within the theatre apply to the outside world. Never is Lawrence's and Lee's stage setting more applicable than in this performance of the play. The conflicted issue in Inherit the Wind can happen in any American town at any time if the forces of society are present.

These cultural forces surrounding the current staging of the Inherit have surfaced as two strains. One is the religious right's rhetoric of anti-evolution; the other is the recent debate in the Tennessee legislature, once again, about the teaching of creationism. Speaking out most vocally for the religious right is Buchanan. Buchanan has stated: "I think [parents] have a right to insist that Godless evolution not be taught to their children or their children not be indoctrinated in it "(38). The vehemence of Buchanan's speech reveals that behind this creationism-evolution debate, in addition to the idea of who will control, is the belief that the other side of the conflict is not only socially wrong but morally wrong. This applies precisely to the orthodox-progressive conflict which Hunter discusses. For characterizing the orthodox position is the fervent faith in the rightness of their beliefs. To them, there is only one truth, but to the progressives, there may be many - thus, the vast world of difference between the two groups.

Across the country, these two opposing belief systems are clashing not only in the public forum, but in the legislature's of numerous states. In Georgia, this year, the school district of Hall County has adopted a policy requiring that the teaching of evolution include discussion of creationism. Alabama is planning to insert a disclaimer in biology textbooks statewide reading: "No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact "(39). Tennessee, therefore, is just one of many Southern state adopting such policies approving of creationism. Just last month, March 1996, the Tennessee Senate considered a new "Monkey Bill", which would allow school boards to dismiss teachers who teach evolution as fact. And in February, the Tennessee legislature passed a bill urging homes, businesses places of worship and schools to post and observe the Ten Commandments, also rejecting an amendment to the proposed law that would exempt Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist houses of worship from complying. The evolution bill eventually failed in the Tennessee Senate by a 20-to-13 vote on March 28 of this year. But the very consideration of a law such as this suggests that, as the country, we are much closer to the past than we often realize.

Marching into the Future

Since Inherit the Wind first graced the Broadway stage, the play has been performed almost every night somewhere in the world. The immense popularity of the play - bordering on obsession - suggests that the issues Lawrence and Lee dramatized hit a nerve across social, regional and religious lines. But although people turn to the play in search of answers, they find themselves no closer than Lawrence and Lee did when they first conceived the idea forty years ago. Only the future will tell if there can be some resolution of the cultural conflicts in American society. But if the past seventy years are any example, we may be seeing Inherit the Wind again someday soon.

Table of Contents