6/17/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
When I learned earlier this year that Inherit the Wind, starring Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehy, was playing at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway, I made plans to see it. I’d seen the 1960 film version, starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March, and while in college, I’d read the original 1950 script. But I’d never seen the play performed on stage.
Watching the action with nearly 800 other theatergoers, I wondered what had driven the producers to revive, in 2007, a play depicting the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial. And besides the fact that Plummer and Dennehy were the stars, what made people pack the space each night for so many weeks?
Simply stated, the themes and tenets of Inherit the Wind are as salient in America in 2007 as they were in 1955, when the play appeared on Broadway for the first time at the National Theatre.
My fellow theatergoers and I didn’t have to willingly suspend disbelief as we embraced the fictional characters of Matthew Brady (William Jennings Bryan), Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow), Bertram Cates (John Scopes) and E.K. Hornbeck (H.L. Mencken). Given many of the events and trends currently engulfing our nation, we were seeing art imitating life, not the other way around.
Although the script, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, describes the real-life jury conviction of John Scopes, a high school science instructor, for teaching evolution, its subtext harshly reminded 1950s’ viewers that the values and principles that made the nation unique were being poisoned by the evils of McCarthyism.
I am certain that Inherit the Wind was revived, in 2007, to remind us that we again have permitted the forces of darkness, ignorance, intimidation, fear, divisiveness and arrogance – unleashed by neoconservatism, the broad reach of the religious right and the benighted policies of the administration of George W. Bush – to poison the American landscape.
To wit: Fear itself, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, became the thing to fear. Creationism, morphing into “intelligent design,” returned in some quarters like gangbusters, with religion becoming the litmus test for being a viable candidate for the U.S. presidency. (Raise your hand if you believe in evolution.) So-called faith-based initiatives, propped by the White House, enjoy federal tax dollars and are permitted to discriminate as they please. And now we have the new Creation Museum in Kentucky that scorns centuries of genetic research.
Patriotism, love and loyal support of the country were redefined as blind support of Bush’s failed policies and adoration for the man himself. Indeed, if you didn’t blindly love and support Bush and his policies, you were branded with the scarlet letter “T” for “traitor.”
Gay-bashing and homophobia became family values. And attempts to enshrine discrimination in the U.S. Constitution, based on sexual orientation, became part of many right-wing political platforms.
Civil rights, the freedoms underpinning the First Amendment and justice at all levels of our legal system, including the traditions involving the hiring and firing of U.S. attorneys, became casualties of this dark turn in our history.
Truth, as demonstrated by the Bush crowd, has become “truthiness.” Created and defined by satirist Stephen Colbert, truthiness is stuff a person claims to know “from the gut” and to hell with the intellectual legitimacy of evidence, logic and “true” facts. Think, for example, about reasons the administration put forth for invading Iraq. Truthiness even has invaded our science laboratories during the Bush era. Notably, stem cell research is hampered by religiosity. Global warming is treated as a matter of opinion, even as glacial ice melts in plain sight and polar bears search for food on new land.
The performance of Inherit the Wind now on Broadway is a powerful wake-up call for George W. Bush’s America just as it was for Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s America when it was written.
My hope is that the results of the midterm elections signal that we are coming to our senses and that we understand the wisdom of Proverbs 11:29, the King James Bible source of the play’s title: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind/and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.”