The real trial of the 20th century did not involve some imbecile driving a Bronco in a low-speed chase. Instead, it happened nearly a hundred years ago. In it, the greatest trial lawyer in American history, Clarence Darrow, faced down famed orator and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. The issue: freedom of thought in this country. And your reporter: H.L. Mencken, whose acidulous portraits of the participants redefined American journalism.
The Scopes Monkey Trial was one of history’s stress points, in which the irresistible force of progress met the immovable rock of belief. A comparable event might have been Galileo’s forced recantation of his theory that the earth revolved around the sun. But the Scopes trial happened in an American courtroom, where a commitment to reason and fairness — however tenuous — acted as a moderating force on the violent passions which attended the issue. Those who went to the Scopes trial had a chance to see their assumptions and beliefs — not just young John Thomas Scopes — put to the test.
The issue had been occasioned by a Tennessee statute which prohibited the teaching of human evolution in the public schools. King Canute had long ago taught us the folly of legislating science (by unsuccessfully commanding the tide not to roll in), but it is a hard lesson, and not everyone has learned it. (For example, the legislature of Indiana once considered, but rejected, a statute which defined Pi as being equal to 3.2). Scopes, a substitute science teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, defied the law and taught evolution anyway — from a state-prescribed textbook. The Scopes trial ensued.
The courtroom can be a form of theater, and in this companion piece I describe how the Scopes trial differed from its thinly veiled counterpart, Inherit the Wind, now undergoing a fascinating, powerful, superb revival at Compass Rose Theater. Suffice it to say that Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee took an event which had all the elements of a first-rate drama, sweetened it with fear and romance, and created a theatrical event which has riveted audiences for sixty-two years.
In it, science teacher Bert Cates (Daniel Prillaman) languishes in jail for having taught evolution to his Hillsboro, Tennessee sixth-graders. The prosecution means to make an example of him, and so District Attorney Davenport (Kienan McCarthy) has called in the great Matthew Harrison Brady (Gary Goodson) to direct the prosecution. Brady, a three-time, unsuccessful, candidate for the Presidency is, if not the second coming for these rural, rabidly religious townspeople, at least the equivalent of their personal archangel — “the warrior who always fought for us ordinary people,” as Mayor Bannister (Joe Mucciolo) says. When Brady arrives in town it is time for a festival, where his adoring fans press themselves — and their foodstuffs — upon him. (Brady, who loves to eat, essentially hooverizes the picnic table, much to the dismay of his loving wife, played by Janise Whelen).
But Cates is not without allies. A Baltimore paper has sent its best journalist, E.K. Hornbeck (Andy Ingalls) to cover the trial and has hired the best lawyer in America, Henry Drummond (Andy Clemence) to defend Cates. Drummond is a wizard in the courtroom, able to provide juries with the gift of empathy. “I saw Drummond once in a courtroom in Ohio,” the fierce fundamentalist preacher Reverend Brown (Don Myers) spits. “A man was on trial for the most brutal crime. Although he knew, and admitted, the man was guilty, Drummond was perverting the evidence to cast the guilt away from the accused and onto you and me and all of society.” Thus we see that the townspeople not only hate Drummond for his beliefs and for his advocacy, but they fear him as a necromancer who will corrupt the town’s righteousness.
Drummond and Hornbeck support what Cates represents, but Rachel Brown (Katherine Boothroyd), the preacher’s daughter, loves who Cates is. She doesn’t give a fig about evolution — is in fact in her father’s party on the subject — but Hillsboro’s enthusiastic hatred for all things non-Bible, including Burt, causes her no end of dismay. And it gets worse for her, since Cates has confided things to her that he has told no one else — and Brady is eager to get her on the stand to share those things with the jury and the world.
You probably know how this develops. Drummond tries bring witnesses expert on the subject of evolution to the stand, but Brady objects because it doesn’t matter what the theory of evolution says, since its teaching is illegal regardless of its contents. The judge (James Bunzli) agrees and Drummond, desperate, calls the only expert witness he can: the foremost expert on the Bible, Matthew Harrison Brady. Brady, as relaxed as a lion being invited to have dinner at a lamb’s house, agrees to testify.
The Compass Rose production succeeds because the three leads are brilliant, and most of the remaining cast is exceptionally able. Make no mistake: Brady, Drummond and Hornbeck, like their real-life counterparts, are superstars, and the actors who play them must show it on stage. Goodson, Clemence and Ingalls do.
More than a fight over evolution, the opposing forces in Inherit the Wind consist of a belief so powerful that it removes the need to bother with further thought, as personified by Brady; a skepticism which requires one to discomfort himself by relentless questioning, as personified by Drummond; and a cynicism which allows one to heedlessly dismiss without examining, as personified by Hornbeck.
Inherit the Wind
closes November 26, 2017
Details and tickets
Consider Brady. He has been lifted up by the intoxicating roar of the crowd for decades, and is in love with it and thus with himself. He styles himself the king of the common man, and his supporters agree, but by the time he gets to Hillsboro he has taken on the mien of a British Lord. Peering down at Mayor Bannister, he says “You are the Mayor, are you not, sir?”; when asked to pose for a photograph, he says “I shall be happy to oblige!” This is not a man of the people; this is a King, condescending to his subjects.
So the first thing Goodson must be is a benign monarch. He is; from the moment he steps into the theater — down the main aisle, shaking the hands of audience members who he incorporates into his coterie — Goodson projects the aura of a man who is large and in charge, and has been for many years. He floats in a sea of confirmation bias, and pounces on every opportunity to turn things to his advantage; on those occasions Goodson, a large man with a neatly-trimmed beard, glows in predatory delight. Brady is not a bad man — the play gets its title from a scriptural verse Brady quotes to calm the dyspeptic preacher, who has just turned against his daughter — but he is unable to distinguish between his faith in God and his faith in himself, with disastrous results. When Drummond begins to shake Brady’s confidence in himself, Goodson allows us to see Brady’s veneer begin to fade, and as things get worse he collapses like an old building which has long been hollowed out.
Drummond, on the other hand, is an enemy of nonsense, even when the nonsense helps his cause. Growing up, you’ve probably met people like that: your science teacher, perhaps, or some sharp-tongued relative who has brought you up short with a well-timed, pertinent question. Clemence’s Drummond is like that: amiable and good-natured, but prone to ask questions where no one else will. He smiles constantly, but you can see the wheels turning; when he says something that quiets the room you instantly understand why. Part of that is the text, of course, but much of it is Clemence, who is the picture of controlled aggression throughout.
Ingalls, too, is Hornbeck perfected: an angel of destruction in an ice-cream suit. Like Brady, he is suffused in a cloak of self-confidence which permits him to bypass critical thinking about himself and devote his energies to eviscerating in prose those for whom he has contempt. And he has contempt for a lot of people, and their judgment. “I do hateful things, for which people love me, and loveable things for which they hate me,” he tells Rachel. In this role, Ingalls is a human sneer, snatching his pad of paper and gleefully writing down his bon mots immediately after uttering them. (“That’s so good,” he chortles when he does so, a nice add-on to the script by Ingalls and/or director Lucinda Merry-Browne).
These three fine actors receive strong support from the rest of the cast, particularly (and in no particular order), Prillaman as Cates, Boothroyd as Rachel, Bunzli as the Judge, Whelen as Brady’s wife and Myers as the bullying, fire-breathing preacher. Young Jackson Parlante does a credible job as Howard, one of Cates’ sixth-grade students. On opening day, some townspeople did not come in on their lines as quickly as ideal, and a few of the actors were fighting their lines, but this is a trivial problem and should be remedied by later in the run.
Compass Rose has one of the smallest stages in the area, and Inherit the Wind is a huge play, not only in the sense that it has seventeen distinct characters but that the play is set all over Hillsboro — in the Courtroom, in the town square, at a prayer meeting. Merry-Browne addresses this in a straightforward way, with a single set; when we are in Court the lawyers stand throughout, and those not involved in the immediate scene scurry up to a second level through one of three sets of steep steps. Someone ushers Mrs. Brady to her chair, which is not on the stage but in the first row of seats. Much of the setting is representational; there are only two jurors, and when it comes time for the picnic, only Brady eats. We are thus invited to be co-conspirators in Merry-Browne’s effort to bring the play to life; I recommend that you accept the invitation.
Merry-Browne has set the play in the 1950s (Renee Vergauwen’s costumes are spot-on). I’m not sure that’s the best choice — when the Mayor praises Brady’s service to President Wilson, it’s kind of a disconnect — but it does make a sort of melancholy sense to recognize that the struggle continues. In 1925, science was in conflict with the God of the Prophets. In 2017, it is at war with the god of the profits, and there is nary a Henry Drummond in sight.
Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee . Directed by Lucinda Merry-Browne . Featuring Gary Goodson, Andy Clemence, Daniel Prillaman, Katherine Boothroyd, Andy Ingalls, James Bunzli, Kienan McCartney, Don Myers, Joe Mucciolo, Thomas Nash Tetterton, Jackson Parlante, Janise Whelan, Rowan Burney, Martece Caudle, Natasja Handy, and Jayne Saxon Zirkle . Production supervisor Mary Ruth Cowgill . Lighting designer Marianne Meadows . Costume designer Renee Vergauwen . Properties Joann Gidos and Mike Gidos. Lauren Woehrer is the stage manager. Produced by Compass Rose Theater . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.