Scopes trial play still valid, entertaining

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

“All rise,” the bailiff said, and the cast members playing a court audience in Inherit the Wind stood up.

But the bailiff insisted, looking severely at the audience members whose seats were interspersed with those of the cast. “All rise,” he repeated, and everyone got to their feet as the actor playing the judge entered the room.

The innovative staging of the 1955 play at the Carriage House Theatre in Ann Arbor was necessitated by the space — an actual, very small carriage house — and served to underscore one of the play’s stated points: we are all complicit when we choose not to think.

Inherit the Wind is a dramatic presentation of the Scopes “monkey” trial, written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. The real-life 1925 trial concerned a Tennessee schoolteacher who purposefully broke a law which forbade teaching evolution, and brought out heavy-hitter attorneys including William Jennings Bryan (who had run for president) and Clarence Darrow, a civil libertarian who had won some high-profile cases. (Darrow studied at, but did not graduate from, the University of Michigan Law School.)

The actual trial was the first to be aired on radio, and was quite a media circus in its time.

The play is not intended to be a faithful reproduction, and the playwrights have claimed they wrote Inherit the Wind (named after a Bible quote) to address “McCarthyism,” the congressional interrogation of alleged communists in the 1950s.

Even beyond those two temporal events, “It's about the right to think,” Lawrence has stated.

The play is a rousing drama and provides three challenging roles: that of Clarence Darrow (called Henry Drummond in the play), Bryan (called Matthew Harrison Brady), and Baltimore reporter H.L. Mencken (E.K. Hornbeck, played in the Ann Arbor production by a young woman).

It is also very funny at times. As Darrow/Drummond says, “When you lose your power to laugh, you lose your power to think straight.”

But the star of the drama is really the courtroom, providing the interplay between conflicting ideas, and an opportunity for subtlety that distinguishes the play.

Inherit the Wind has been revived twice on Broadway, and was made into a popular movie in the 1960s.

Spectrum Theater in Grand Rapids mounted a production as recently as summer 2010.