It’s hard to believe but Larry McMurtry actually wrote his novel ‘Lonesome Dove’ to savage the traditional Western. He tossed in random cruelties, prostitutes, diseases, meteorological catastrophes, murderous madmen and dull-witted cattle. All the entertaining elements Hollywood Westerns traditionally left off-screen. Yet to McMurtry’s puzzlement, his dark satire was welcomed as a sweeping saga of the grand old sort, a ‘Gone With the Wind of the West,’ as he put it.
McMurtry threw as much mud at the myth as he could, and director John Ford was still right: ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’
And so it is with ‘the Monkey Trial.’ The Dallas Theater Center is promoting and staging a revival of the classic 1955 courtroom drama ‘Inherit the Wind’ in ways that say one thing, while the director and authors believe the play says another. In advance interviews, DTC artistic director Kevin Moriarty has accurately cited playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee’s introduction to the printed version of the play – in which they declare it was not written as history. It’s not a lightly revised version of the infamous, 1925 court case in Dayton, Tennessee. That’s when former presidential candidate-turned-popular-evangelist William Jennings Bryan helped prosecute John Scopes for teaching evolution in a public school. Scopes’ defense was led by the outspokenly liberal attorney Clarence Darrow.
The play was certainly inspired by these events and occasionally draws on them (though it rarely uses actual court testimony). But Lawrence and Lee basically meant they didn’t write ‘Inherit the Wind’ to re-hash what was – in 1955 – a dusty, 30-year-old controversy about faith vs. science. They did not want to create a museum diorama. Moriarty has said that reading their intro caused him to view the play with fresh eyes. His production would daringly reinterpret the play by simplifying it, shedding both its period setting and its traditional treatments (notably the 1960 Spencer Tracy film). By presenting it without such distancing details, the play would be fresh and relevant to our time.
That’s because in the ’50s, Lawrence and Lee were more concerned about the rise of American anti-intellectualism and the threat of a bullying, paranoid, right-wing populism. Which would seem to echo louder today, more than Christian creationism vs. science in the classroom. Seen this way, ‘Inherit the Wind’ should be classified as another metaphoric treatment of McCarthyism – alongside ‘The Crucible’ and ‘High Noon.’ In each case, the independent stalwart makes his lonely stand against the angry and fearful majority.
But as McMurtry learned with ‘Lonesome Dove,’ what an artist intends is not necessarily what his audience sees. After all of Moriarty’s statements – and Lawrence and Lee’s original declarations – the DTC production is pretty much the same-old, same-old indictment of backwoods, small-town, Biblical literalism. The DTC itself promotes the drama precisely as a re-match of faith vs. science. No one seeing the ads – with a monkey clutching a cross and the question, ‘When Religion and Science Collide, Who Wins?” – is likely to think of the play any other way.
Of course, selling conflict sells tickets, especially when we’re talking about riled-up religion and politics. Yet Moriarty’s staging sends the same message. It’s difficult to see this revival of ‘Wind’ as particularly ‘fresh’ other than in its ultra-spartan production values – possibly inspired by director Ivo van Hove’s radical ‘theater-laid-bare’ ideas. All we have on this white, blank stage are chairs and office tables. The only bold gesture on the naked set – so naked that no set designer is credited – is the back wall. It’s emblazoned with a large caricature of a chimp impaled by a bloody crucifix and the command, ‘Read Your Bible.’
Nope, doesn’t look like anti-McCarthyism is on the menu this evening. Nor are they serving anything anti-Trump. We’ll be served cold leftovers of Darwin vs. God.
Moriarty’s onstage prologue confirms this, even as it aims for ‘contemporary relevance.’ He’s added a prologue in which actors recall early encounters with Biblical literalism or spiritual doubts from their own lives. Moriarty has used such preludes before, and their purpose seems to be to connect the actors more to the theatergoers, humanize them (as if they weren’t already). But having self-consciously revealed some detail from their ‘real’ lives, the actors immediately step back and become actors, they shift into different characters. So the prologue actually draws attention to this illusion, to their purpose as performers. The prologue also introduces a fake-folksy didacticism that ‘Inherit the Wind’ hardly needs more of. Essentially, the prologue says, “Why, these issues are still timely! They’ve even impinged on my own life.”
But surely, relevance is something a play enacts; it’s not something a performer asserts.
As for the rest of Moriarty’s staging, some theatergoers are not able to see past its most visually provocative choice: the gender-and-racial-neutral casting. A black actress (Liz Mikel) portrays Matthew Harrison Brady (the play’s stand-in for William Jennings Bryan), while a black actor (Akin Babatunde) portrays his wife. Such non-traditional casting has practically been the DTC’s stock in trade. ‘In the Beginning’ had a biracial Adam and Eve way back in 2009. Sally Nystuen Vahle recently portrayed Ebenezer Scrooge. For those who object to such casting, one might wonder what shows they’ve been seeing at the DTC that they’ve managed to miss this approach for so long.
In this case, I’d argue the casting works to good effect.
What’s surprising about Moriarty’s bare-bones approach is that it honestly becomes effective – for awhile at any rate – even if much of it initially feels contrived. It strips the play down to its strength: the courtroom cross-examination. The staging is so minimal one suspects cost-savings inspired it as much as any dramatic vision. (Recall all those audience headsets in the recent revival of ‘Electra’ or the giant cast required for the DTC’s ‘Tempest.’ Those productions were expensive.)
Moriarty’s approach is so plain, it’s even plain-spoken. The actors don’t speak in dialects or accents. That’s a stumbling block for several in the cast because they portray multiple characters. Some of the townfolk be talkin’ and droppin’ their g’s, and darn it, some of ’em don’t, yet everyone sounds alike. No one has a discernible Tennessee twang or in the case of E. K. Hornbeck (based on the bilious journalist H. L. Mencken) no Baltimorese. Too bad. Lawrence and Lee’s dialogue is not so eloquent that leaving it unvarnished does it any favors.
So the actors have no historical props or costumes, no wigs, no real set pieces, no distinguishing voices or accents. Amid all this forced simplicity, they are left with just bare words and bare emotions.
Which, as noted earlier, is enough when it comes to the famous back-and-forth argument between Bryan’s righteous but blinkered Christian faith and the snapping skepticism of Drummond (the play’s stand-in for Clarence Darrow). Some of Drummond’s arguments (much like Darrow’s in real life) are of the village atheist variety, poking at failures of Biblical logic or narrative oversights. If God is all-powerful, can he create a mountain that he can’t climb? Who was Cain’s wife?
Yet this exchange still grips and entertains because Moriarty was right about casting Liz Mikel. She’s a larger-than-life performer bringing the kind of larger-than-life presence that Brady needs – without making him a blowhard or a fool. If he were, his eventual fall wouldn’t affect us much. As Drummond, Kieran Connolly has a wary, gimlet-eyed quality; he’s a scarred old brawler who, like many aging boxers, has had some human sympathy pounded into him. And in the role of Hornbeck, the play’s annoying and self-admiring wit, Alex Organ excels, once again, as a gleeful, jeering cynic.
But amid their other faults as writers, Lawrence and Lee fall into one of the things they treat with mild scorn: preachiness. “An idea is a greater monument than a cathedral.” If ‘Inherit the Wind’ has any truly famous, lasting quotation, it’s that one, one of Drummond’s comebacks. It’s a glib pseudo-profoundity. Chartres Cathedral, York Minster, La Sagrada Familia, Hagia Sophia: These cathedrals can awe a viewer with their aspirations and the abilities of the hundreds of artisans who built them over decades. The architecture, the sheer scale of these structures can crack open a mind, flood a person with appreciation for what our fellow, tool-wielding hominids are capable of – whether they did it out of simple faith or brilliant engineering.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of dumb ideas, bad ideas. In real life, one of the wisest reasons Bryan had for opposing the theory of evolution was that it offered the cold-hearted rich a bad, dumb justification for leaving the poor to their suffering. It was only ‘survival of the fittest.’ Poverty means the better and stronger and rich will persevere, deservedly so. Bryan was correct: However revolutionary Darwin’s insight was in biology, it led, mistakenly but eventually, to social Darwinism which led to eugenics which led to the Holocaust. And one can still hear stupid ‘law of the jungle’ justifications today behind some Ayn Randian proponents of free-market economics – as if hedge-fund trading were ordained by natural selection.
The late, great paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote that the average American, if he knows anything of the ‘Scopes monkey trial,’ knows three things: High school teacher John Scopes was persecuted for teaching Darwin, Clarence Darrow made a fool out of the Bible-thumping William Jennings Bryan in court and the entire case was a victory for freedom of thought. It kicked fundamentalism into retreat, prompting its long, declining influence on American politics (until its recent resurrection since Ronald Reagan).
All three ideas, Gould argued, are wrong. In the years immediately following the trial, some 41 anti-evolution bills were introduced in state legislatures across the country. So much for fundamentalism’s defeat by the ‘liberal imagination.’
Much of the reason we may remember any of this, remember the Scopes trial – remember it incorrectly as Gould pointed out – is ‘Inherit the Wind.’ That’s not to say the play is a bad or wrong-headed play, that its effects have been entirely misleading. Larry McMurtry never intended to mislead with ‘Lonesome Dove.’ It’s just that the play is a fiction, and as such, it doesn’t do what Lawrence and Lee thought it would. It has rarely – if ever – been taken as a warning against McCarthyite demagoguery. And this version certainly isn’t going to be seen as some brave stand against the current administration. For good reason – because that’s not what it argues.
Thrusting it forward like this on a glaring white stage tries to rip the play from all that historic background and make it speak anew. It mostly just feels naked, its weaknesses more evident.
Consider the long-winded ending in which Drummond defies the mocking Hornbeck. Drummond recalls Brady as the admirable presidential candidate he once supported. The playwrights are trying to soften their sometimes simplistic depiction of small-minded, Southern fundamentalists as motivated by a fear of big science, a fear of modernity in general – with those fears channeled by Brady. Actually, William Jennings Bryan had been a determined trust-buster and anti-imperialist, the leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic party for 20 years. For many Americans like Darrow, for a long time, Bryan looked to be our best hope for the future, a path to a more equitable America. Ultimately, in productions of ‘Inherit the Wind’ like this one, Brady/Bryan may become a touching failure, a publicity hound who lost his way and wound up inflaming a pack of know-nothings.
He may oppose their worst instincts but ineffectually. Otherwise, he’s never seen as having been particularly noble or wise.
But go ahead, print the facts – we’ll still remember the legend.