by Mel Freilicher
In the furor of attempting to clean out my disastrously cluttered home office before school starts again, I came across a recent issue of the National Education Association’s magazine dedicated entirely to teaching Darwin. Before tossing it, I read some astonishing and depressing statistics about the high percentage of Americans who disbelieve in evolution (including, if I recall correctly, about 25% of those with a college education, and more than 50% of those without one). Mostly that issue detailed how teachers might use the mass of scientific evidence from a wide array of disciplines to make the case for Darwin.
That this case still needs to be made is in itself bizarre, of course, since “The Origin of the Species” was published in 1859. It can’t be accounted for simply by the many home-schooled children of fundamentalists, or by graduates of Christian academies such as the chain that unsuccessfully brought litigation against the UC system a few years back for not accepting their creationism course as a legitimate science entry requirement. Even before the right wing’s aggressive and sustained push to control local school boards, many public schools in conservative regions had been teaching evolution– as a thoroughly discredited theory; I vividly remember one student (she’s now a science writer!) from a small, predominantly Mormon town in northern California who was totally shocked when she came to UCSD, and learned that such debunking was hardly a universally accepted truth.
“ Inherit the Wind”
Currently, the Old Globe is staging an excellent production (like most of its offerings) of “Inherit the Wind,“ the fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial.” Its Playbill emphasizes that this drama could be set at virtually any period in American history–though, of course, the actual setting was Dayton, Tennessee where, along with several other states like Mississippi and Arkansas, teaching evolution was illegal; Texas had banned evolution from the state’s official school textbooks. Partly as a result of the trial, numerous subsequent attempts in the South failed; some states did manage to change textbook terminology: evolution, for instance, became “development.”
This trial itself was inherently ultra-theatrical; some of its transcript is incorporated into the play. High school teacher John Thomas Scopes had answered an ad which New York’s recently organized ACLU placed in Tennessee newspapers for someone to challenge the law; at the same time, the town boosters urged Scopes to bring this case to court, hoping for publicity (but not the avalanche they ended up receiving) to stimulate local business. Scopes never contested the facts: he had been teaching evolution out of the officially adopted state biology text. He never testified. In the end, nothing changed except public opinion, since this was the first trial to be broadcast live on the radio; Scopes received a minimal fine, and the law stayed on the books.
The trial famously pit the radical, agnostic and ferociously eloquent defense lawyer Clarence Darrow (whose closing arguments could last up to 8 hours spread over 2 days) against William Jennings Bryan, a former progressive and 3 time presidential nominee of the Democratic party who in his heyday had fought Wall Street on behalf of farmers and debtors, demanded direct election of senators, and helped push women’s suffrage into the Constitution. An isolationist, Bryan had resigned as Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state when the president moved the country closer to entering World War 1. Always a staunch Presbyterian, Bryan had increasingly become a fundamentalist, espousing the belief that the Bible was the literal word of God.
While the Globe’s production is fine, some of the script’s weaknesses seem to stand out more sharply in the absence of Spencer Tracy’s indelible performance as Darrow in the 1960 film, directed by the progressive Stanley Kramer (“The Defiant Ones“; “Judgment at Nuremberg”; “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”): the ending seems especially melodramatic, as Bryan drops dead in an apoplectic fit while spouting scripture, occasioning a final exchange between Darrow and the character who plays journalist and trenchant social critic, H.L Mencken. Darrow accuses him of cynicism; Mencken retorts with sentimentalist. Both appear to be more types than individuals here. Actually, Darrow was a true radical whose work was extremely significant: a fascinatingly complicated and contradictory figure, as his biographer, John A. Farrell, makes clear.
The Theater of the Absurd
Since the judge refuses to allow Darrow’s panel of distinguished scientists and theologians to testify, the play as well as the trial turn on Darrow calling Bryan as a surprise witness; with some chutzpah, Bryan assents, even though as prosecuting attorney he could have been exempt.
Using the “extraordinary miracles” of the Bible, like the flood, Darrow basically browbeats Bryan into admitting that the Bible needs to be interpreted, and not taken literally–but not before Bryan spouts considerable blather, heard by everyone out there in radio land.
The play in its current incarnation is rather ironic: written in 1955, it was seen then as mostly a critique of McCarthyism, and a defense of free thinking. But since the Cold War has been evaporated by all the hot ones, antievolutionism and fundamentalism again appear to be most pressing issues. From my perspective, if this material were to be used today, it would best be left to a student of Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and the theater of the absurd.
For instance, Darrow asked Bryan if he believes that the Biblical passage in which Joshua commands the sun to stand still really happened. The transcript records:
Bryan: I believe that the Bible is inspired, an inspired author. Whether one who wrote as he was directed to write understood the things he was writing about, I don’t know.
Darrow: Whoever inspired it? Do you think whoever inspired it believed that the sun went around the earth?
Bryan: I believe it was inspired by the Almighty, and he may have used language that could be understood at that time…instead of using language that could not be understood until Darrow was born.
Darrow: So it might not, it might have been subject to construction, might it not?
Bryan: It might have been used in language that could be understood then.
Darrow: That means it is subject to construction?
Bryan: That is your construction. I am answering your question.
Darrow: Is that correct?
Bryan: That is my answer to it.
Darrow: Can you answer?
Mel Freilicher is an author of several books, and a longtime writing teacher at UCSD and SDSU.