You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

This hour we're going to be talking about science on the stage and talking about two very different plays, but sort of connected by a theme about monkeys. And first we're going to talk about The Ensemble Studio Theatre's presentation of a new play called "Serendib." Let me just tell you a little bit about The Ensemble Studio Theatre. They present their First Light Festival, and it's a festival all about science and scientists, and the centerpiece this year is this play called "Serendib," not Serendip with a P on the end; "Serendib." But they're connectible. We'll get into that a little bit later. And it's a comedy based on the playwright's experience working with a team of primatologists observing monkeys in the wild. And when this happened, he came back and said, gee, I should write a play about this.

Let me introduce the playwright, David Zellnik.

Mr. DAVID ZELLNIK (Playwright, "Serendib"): Hi, there.


Mr. ZELLNIK: Thank you.

FLATOW: And with him is Dr. Don Melnick, because he's important. When playwrights write plays and they do them about science, you want to have somebody to look at the science of the play and say, gee, is that close to home? Does that have anything to do with what goes on in the real world? And someone who really knows about that is Dr. Don Melnick. He's the Thomas Hunt Morgan professor of conservation biology at Columbia University. He and his wife, primatologist Mary Pearl, were science advisors to Mr. Zellnik and "Serendib." Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. DON MELNICK (Columbia University): Thank you.

FLATOW: Tell us about this play, David.


FLATOW: How did you stumble on the idea?

Mr. ZELLNIK: It's serendipitous indeed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZELLNIK: I - a few years ago, in 2004, I had a little extra time, and I had a little extra money, and I wanted an adventure. And a friend suggested I log-on to and see what kind of studies they had people participating in. Basically you pay an amount of money and you get to work with scientists or conservationists. And so I chose Sri Lanka. It's always fascinated me, and the civil war was in a ceasefire then. And I've always been fascinated by monkeys, so I got to indulge my sort of Jane Goodall fantasies.

FLATOW: And what they were doing there? What were you observing?

Mr. ZELLNIK: They are - Dr. Wolfgang Dittus and his team has been observing Toque Macaques in Polonnaruwa, which is an ancient capital of Sri Lanka, for - it's about 40 years now, I think.

Dr. MELNICK: Yeah, next year it'll be 40 years.

FLATOW: It'll be 40 years.

Mr. ZELLNIK: And they track 20 to 30 troops of Toque Macaques in the site, and you know, tell their stories and track, you know, if they're expanding their territory or what the genealogies of the monkeys are and...

FLATOW: Well, what made you decide to write a play about what was going on there and...

Mr. ZELLNIK: Well, a few things. I was overwhelmed with the place. It's a really magical place. There's all these overlapping layers of wonderment there. They're historical ruins and there's the sense of history there, and then there is the science study and the scientists observing monkeys, and then there are these monkeys living very much in their wild state there, which is different than how the monkeys in the cities of Sri Lanka live, and it was just magnificent.

FLATOW: And you chose to concentrate on a couple of different themes in the play.

Mr. ZELLNIK: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: One theme was how the scientists almost - they make a monkey out of the scientists. Scientists actually start behaving like the monkeys they're observing.

Mr. ZELLNIK: Well, I'm definitely hoping that instead of a one-to-one ratio between scientists and monkeys, there's a sort of creative tension of how much are the monkeys and the scientists alike. I do have the monkeys played by the scientists, using puppets, and each scientist plays the monkey that is perhaps closest to him or herself in status within a troop. But there's definitely differences, and there's many ways humans are like monkeys, and many ways we're not. And so by having one actor play both, I'm hoping to maybe explore and open up questions about how much we are alike and we're not.

FLATOW: And you also talk about the friction within science between scientists and critical of each other's work.

Mr. ZELLNIK: I definitely have observed that. There's - the site is sort of cut off from the rest of the city, this monkey camp, so it's definitely sort of a hothouse of conflict and discussion, and it's really exciting to be in the presence of that.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You bring up a very important issue about whether these scientists who are observing the monkeys are actually doing real science or not. You bring in a Russian competitor to the science who's observing.

Mr. ZELLNIK: Right.

FLATOW: And he says this is not laboratory stuff. You can't make any real conclusions just by watching monkeys.

Mr. ZELLNIK: Well, I do think there is a question of how soft the science is with long-term observation. It's not repeatable. The data is all filtered through a human writing down what he or she sees. And I think the world is a much richer place for the observational science of the past few generations -the Jane Goodalls and the Dian Fosseys - but it definitely is very anecdotal. It's a lot about specific animals you see and how you interpret what they've done or how they're behaving

FLATOW: Mm-hmm, Dr. Melnick, what do you think of the play, I mean in terms of accuracy, and what was your role exactly ensuring that it was close…

Dr. MELNICK: It's actually - giving another example of serendipity, I had actually worked in Polonnaruwa 20 years before David arrived there, and I worked there on a number of occasions in the 1980s. It's an extraordinary place from a scientific point of view, because it is by far the longest-running continuous observational study of primates. It'll be 40 years next year. It's an extraordinary accomplishment to be able to run a project like that for 40 years.

The one thing I would possibly take exception what David is saying is that, yes, it is a question of your doing individual observations of each animal, but when you spread it out over 40 years and over 30 groups and you individually identify every single monkey, and you're collecting data on many of them from the day they were born until the day they died, you have a collection - you might say it's anecdotes, but a lot of people say statistic is - statistics are just a very large collection of anecdotes. You have such an enormous data set that you can begin to see patterns in that data set.

It begins to approach what you would get in a very carefully controlled laboratory study, because one of the advantages of a laboratory study is the immensity of the data you can collect, but - and you could not really do that on most primates because they live a long time. But in this case, if you run a study for 40 years, you can begin to collect that kind of data and begin to see patterns.

Now, to me the interesting - obviously the interesting tension there is one scientist, or set of scientists, who believes that, you know, much of what happens in terms of dominance arch and who's dominant and who is not is contextual, it's sort of nature, it's the environment you're in and the interactions you have, and another coming in and saying, no, you know, basically giving a presentation of the biological determinist point of view: no, there are genes in there, and that animal would have become dominant no matter what, in what environment. So there is this tension between that.

But I think what David pointed out is really true. All science is done by people, and so it doesn't matter what science you're engaged in, you're going to bring a certain level of bias to what you're doing. It doesn't matter whether it's laboratory science or field science, just the questions you're asking are going to somewhat reflect that bias. But the other interesting part about field research is if you think about it, it's a disparate group of people who are suddenly put into a very small, confined space, and who are interacting with each other almost on a 24-hour basis...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. MELNICK: ...for month after month after month.

FLATOW: And it's like a - and you say, the part of the play, it's a reality program. You bring in some TV producers who turn their research - the laboratory to a reality show...

Mr. ZELLNIK: But yeah...

FLATOW: ...create the social, sexual tension that goes on there.

Mr. ZELLNIK: It's interesting, because I found myself, when I was there watching both the scientists and the monkeys, so I sort of wanted to have the observers be observed. And through the documentary filmmakers who come to make a documentary about the monkeys, we get some of those themes into the play.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Reading through my notes, scribbled in the dark, it's a great play. I really enjoyed it.

Mr. ZELLNIK: Thank you.

FLATOW: I congratulate you. I have a quote from the play that says, if I can read my handwriting: Hot people and cool animals; that's what people like. And that's what you gave them.

Mr. ZELLNIK: Well, yeah, it's cute animals, not cool animals.

FLATOW: I'm sorry.

Mr. ZELLNIK: It's similar. Yeah, those are - that's a rather cynical point of view from the documentary filmmaker, but I think the environmental movement has been very canny about using cute and cool animals as their sort of spokes-animals to help save the ones that maybe aren't so cute to us.

FLATOW: And you made that point in the play that - one of the characters say, we need this to preserve these animals. If we don't get the public attention from the documentary we can make about the hot people and the cute animals, you're not going to get your funding or the public attention.

Mr. ZELLNIK: I met a scientist there in Sri Lanka who very impassioned - a very impassioned woman - who said that scientists now can't afford to do what Dr. Dittus did 40 years ago because she said the natural world's on fire, which is a line that now is in the play. She said we all have to become activists now, we have to fight to save these species, we can't just have the luxury of sitting in the woods and watching them. And so whether that's true or not, that's definitely a point of view that threads its way through the play.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Yes, go ahead.

Dr. MELNICK: I was just going to say that, again, on that theme of serendipity, that it - I had spent about 15 years of my career doing basic science research, doing basic genetic work on various species. It was actually on my way to the Polonnaruwa site that I had an experience that really transformed what I was doing and really I begin to apply my science to conservation. So it's very much so, when David used the words in one of his characters that the world is on fire, how could we just focus on just what these animals are doing instead of the larger context.

We were traveling into the Polonnaruwa site on a road, and we were going down this road, and all of a sudden I - an elephant came out from this dry forest that exists in that area and just began browsing along the side - we stopped our jeep. We were bringing provisions in for months, and we stopped our jeep, we were just sitting there watching it. It was a beautiful thing to do. And these elephants are known to do - people who've watched elephants - they can just fade off into the brush almost before your eyes. And this elephant eventually did that and faded, and then we went into the - up to the camp, we worked for about three months, and we were on our way back to get more provisions, to the capital, and came to the area, and the whole area was gone. It had all been cut, burned, gone, all animals gone. And at that moment I thought, you know, I can't do this anymore. I can't just do my basic science research.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MELNICK: There has to be an applied part of this that's dealing with habitat preservation and species preservation. Otherwise all I'm doing is bearing witness to the end. I'm not really making a contribution and not really - in some ways, all I'm doing is taking from nature for my own career, but not putting anything back in.

FLATOW: Did you feel, when you were writing this play, that you had to make a statement like that, like he is saying? Or were you more interested in just a theatrical...

Mr. ZELLNIK: I was interested - I am deeply committed to what he's talking about, but I don't think that was really my impulse in writing the play. I wanted to show people my love of these animals and the experience I had, which was to be so overwhelmed by their individuality and their soulfulness and their fierceness and their dignity as animals and sort of be true to that...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ZELLNIK: ...and potentially make people fall in love with the animals, but on a deeper level to explore (unintelligible).

FLATOW: We're going to take a short break, come back, talk lots more about the play "Serendib." We'll talk about why the B's at the end a little bit with playwright David Zellnik, also with Don Melnick who was the science advisor on the play, and your calls. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking today, this hour, about "Serendib," a new play by David Zellnik, who is a playwright, and you'll have until, what, April 27th, David?

Mr. ZELLNIK: Twenty-second.

FLATOW: Twenty-second, to catch it at The Ensemble Studio Theatre here in New York. And just in full disclosure, the Sloan Foundation has funded these plays, right?

Mr. ZELLNIK: Yeah, they've been collaborating with Ensemble Studio Theatre for, I believe, nine years now, to help produce new plays about science and the intersection of science and technology and the wider world.

FLATOW: They also fund SCIENCE FRIDAY, so we're grateful to them. Don Melnick is also involved in the play. He and his wife, Mary Pearl, were science advisors for "Serendib." Let me take care of what I said before the break. Why you spell it "Serendib"...

Mr. ZELLNIK: It's interesting...

FLATOW: ...instead of Serendip.

Mr. ZELLNIK: I'm not sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZELLNIK: I saw both versions. It's a 12th century, 11th, 12th century Arabic word for Sri Lanka.

FLATOW: Oh, it is.

Mr. ZELLNIK: And I've seen it with both a B and a P, and it came to our language, really, through a story about these princes of Serendib who encountered so many happy accidents that the word became serendipity in our language.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm, Don, what about the portrayal of the scientists. They get into fights with each other, you know, they question each other.

Dr. MELNICK: Yeah, I think it...

FLATOW: More realistic than you see in the movies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MELNICK: Yeah, and I think that's one of the great services that David's play provides to science in that, you know, rather than the sort of crazy, wild-eyed, Christopher Lloyd-type wacky scientist that you see come in...

FLATOW: Central casting, the wacky guy.

Dr. MELNICK: ...and you see it repeatedly in movies coming out of Hollywood - what he does is he portrays scientists as people. They have likes, they have dislikes, some are sympathetic, some are less sympathetic. Some, you know, are extremely aggressive, others are much less so. Because scientists are, in essence, they are just people, and they have all the attributes that you find in people. And I think it's a tremendous disservice to science to somehow portray them as some sort of separate group, very nerdy. I think the cast and the people in there and the portrayal of scientists was anything but nerdy.

Mr. ZELLNIK: Yeah, it's a young, sexy cast.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: It is very sexy, very - and a lot of sexual tension running through the play.

Mr. ZELLNIK: Sure, and part of what fascinates me about - especially the scientists I met in Polonnaruwa is how much they love the animals and how much that...


Mr. ZELLNIK: ...that love shows through their work, so they're anything but crazy, nerdy science geeks.

FLATOW: But that is one of the themes of the play, the disbelieving scientist who doesn't believe you can tell when an animal's happy. There's no objective way to measure the happiness or a love of an animal.

Mr. ZELLNIK: Right, there's definitely a taboo in science, I think, of sort of projecting human emotions or thought - human thoughts - onto animals. But as I was observing the monkeys, and it seemed the other scientists, it becomes very narcissistic, I think, to pretend that monkeys and humans are not very closely related and don't have several overlapping sympathies.

FLATOW: Now this is not your first play, but...


FLATOW: it the first one about - with a science theme in it?...

Mr. ZELLNIK: It is.

FLATOW: ...And did you have to think about crafting it differently if you're dealing with science?

Mr. ZELLNIK: Well, I had to make sure that the science was true...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZELLNIK: ...and that it would be compelling for a scientist who watches it, so I definitely had to do a lot of research and learn a language of speaking that is not really intuitive for me. But this play is the oddest one for me in that I went to Sri Lanka knowing I wanted to write a play set there, without knowing remotely what the play would be like. And it's been a long journey in figuring out how to put monkeys on a stage.

FLATOW: And those - I was going to say those Muppets. They're not Muppets. They're not like any puppets I've seen before. They are truly unique.

Mr. ZELLNIK: Yeah, I love Muppets, but we wanted to give them more dignity and more fierceness, and Emily DeCola, who created the puppets and directed the scenes, did a wonderful job of capturing these small but incredibly vibrant animals.

FLATOW: And the actors were able to channel their emotions through to the puppets there.

Mr. ZELLNIK: Yeah, the director, Carlos Armesto, he added an extra week of rehearsal onto the production so that we could just have a puppet workshop, because none of the actors had been trained as puppeteers, and yet the characters they played were so...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ZELLNIK: ...the puppet work was so vital to the characters they played.

FLATOW: Hi, let's go to Leslie, in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Hi, Leslie.

LESLIE (Caller): Hi, how you doing?

FLATOW: Hi, there.

LESLIE: I guess I want to talk about one of the statements you made earlier. I have a - my brother-in-law is a scientist. He's a physicist. And quite honestly the last word I would use to describe him is hot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LESLIE: It seems - no.

FLATOW: I hope he's not listening.

LESLIE: I doubt it. He's very much a physics geek. But a lot of scientists I know are not hot, and it seems that we like our science today delivered with a dose of sex. A lot - I have a five-year-old daughter, and we watch the, you know, the children's nature programs, and sometimes I - you know, nature on TV and things like that. And it seems to me that they look for, like, you know, someone who's really sexy or has a lot of sex appeal, you know, the, oh, gosh, gee, me, sexy-type look? And it seems that scientists are presented as kind of sexy. And quite honestly, like I said, most of the ones I know aren't.

FLATOW: You're hanging around in the wrong places, I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LESLIE: Oh, I guess academia is not the place to find the scientists.

FLATOW: Let me go - well, let me get a reaction from the playwright. David, did - was that purposely written in that way to make them...

Mr. ZELLNIK: Well, I mean...

FLATOW: seems they are very sexy and hot in the play.

Mr. ZELLNIK: There's definitely sexy scientists, and I'll stand by that.

FLATOW: I mean, and you know...

LESLIE: Oh, I'm sure there are...

Mr. ZELLNIK: Yeah, I mean - but...

LESLIE: ...It's just that I don't know them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You know, there are contests, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LESLIE: (unintelligible)

Mr. ZELLNIK: Well, I mean, there's something about a small world like this that brings out the sexuality of, you know, any small - you know, any small group of people shut off from everyone else is going to - especially if they're observing monkeys during mating season, there's going to be a lot of sex on the brain.

FLATOW: Well, thanks for calling. Well, check out Neil deGrasse Tyson was voted, you know, in 2000, the sexiest scientist, I think, by...


FLATOW: Neil deGrasse Tyson of the Hayden Planetarium, the astronomer there.

LESLIE: Well, I always had a thing for the Crocodile Hunter, so, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)


LESLIE: OK, bye.

FLATOW: All right, have a good weekend. Thanks for calling 1-800-989-8255. What's the life of a play like this? It's playing to a limited audience in New York. Can it have a life outside of, you know, a really cultural town like New York City.

Mr. ZELLNIK: I think it can. Definitely one of the projects after it finishes its run here is to have the EST/Sloan Foundation help with incentive grants to finance regional productions around the country. And I think in any city or town there's - there are people who will be drawn to this play or be interested in this play. I think all humans - most humans are really interested in monkeys, and so there's just a natural sympathy you see, a recognition you see when you see a monkey.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm, so you think you'll be taking it on the road, or any plans to take it - or you're looking for funding for it.

Mr. ZELLNIK: There's no plans right now. We would be thrilled to transfer to New York, and we would be thrilled to have a nonprofit, regional house express interest in producing a new version of their own, of it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MELNICK: I even suggested to David that he might consider taking it to Sri Lanka and having it performed there.

Mr. ZELLNIK: I would certainly love that.

FLATOW: Well, why not take it across the pond, as they say, even to Europe or places like that?

Mr. ZELLNIK: Well, we should talk to the Sloan Foundation...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZELLNIK: ...the EST and see if we can make that happen.

FLATOW: Well, we have heard of plays that are very successful in Europe, science-related plays, having a little bit, you know, trouble over here, but getting treated royally over in Europe, so good luck to you.

Mr. ZELLNIK: Thank you.

FLATOW: It's - I highly recommend it as long as you can see it. It's still in New York here.

Mr. ZELLNIK: Ah, yeah, it's running through the 22nd, and if you want tickets, you can log into

FLATOW: Good luck to you.

Mr. ZELLNIK: Thank you.

FLATOW: Thank you both for joining us.

Dr. MELNICK: Thank you.

FLATOW: David Zellnik, who is a playwright, "Serendibity," and Dr. Don Melnick, who is a Thomas Hunt Morgan professor of conservation biology at Columbia University. Thanks, have a good weekend.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: Up now we're going to switch gears and talk about another play. "Inherit the Wind" - it's not the play we're going to talk about. We're just going to mention it in passing, that it is playing on Broadway once again. It was last here in 1955. I should say it started in 1955, first seen, a drama about the Scopes trial, which of course was the science of evolution was on trial. It wasn't so controversial back then as it is now in the year 2000-plus, where we've seen all kinds of trials about trials going on, but it is certainly relevant now here and interesting that it's playing in New York.

Well, the L.A. Theatre Works, which is a radio and theater nonprofit organization in Los Angeles, has found that one of their plays, "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial," a new play that's making the rounds in the Northeast here, can actually help start the discussion again. Playwright Peter Goodchild used the actual transcripts of the Scopes trial to fashion the play, and I'm going to give you a little bit of taste of the play here in a couple of cuts we have. Here's what William Jennings Bryan, the prosecutor, who's played by Ed Asner, had to - what he really said in the trial as opposed to what you might have seen in "Inherit the Wind."

(Soundbite of play, "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial")

Mr. ED ASNER (Actor): (As William Jennings Bryan): They think of life as a mystery that nobody can explain, not one word about God at the back of it. They want you to let them commence there and ask no questions. They do not explain the great riddle of the universe. They do not deal with the problems of life. They do not teach the great science of how to live.

FLATOW: And that was Ed Asner playing - or saying the words of William Jennings Bryan in this new play. And here is his opponent, Clarence Darrow, played by Mike Farrell. This is what he really answered.

Mr. MIKE FARRELL (Actor): (As Clarence Darrow) If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in a public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach in the private schools. And the next day in the hustings or in the church.

The next session you may ban books and newspapers. You can do the one. You can do the other. And after a while your honor it as the setting a man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the 16th century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and learning to the human mind.

FLATOW: And that is all from, "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial." It's touring the Northeast right now. And you can catch it at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia from April 18 to 22.

And three people who are bringing "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial" to you and to the classroom are here with us to talk about it. You know actor Ed Asner from the "Mary Tyler Moore Show," his own programs and his many other appearances on TVs and film.

He's a founding member of the Los Angeles - the LA Theatre Works. He joins us today from Williams College where he is playing William Jennings Bryan, the anti-evolutionist and the voice you heard in that cut.

Ed, thank you for being with us today.

Mr. ASNER: One monkey to another.


Peter Goodchild is a playwright who adapted the Scopes Trial transcripts for the stage in "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial." And he's also an award-winning television producer who is former head of both the science division and the features and drama division at the BBC.

And he joins us from the studios of the BBC in Exeter, England. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. PETER GOODCHILD (Playwright, "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial"): My pleasure.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Susan Albert Loewenstein - Loewenberg is a founder and producing director of the L.A. Theatre Works - sorry, Susan - and "The Great Tennessee…

Ms. SUSAN ALBERT LOEWENBERG (Producing Director, "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial"): It's all right, Ira.

FLATOW: …Monkey Trial." Susan Loewenberg joins us today from our studios at NPR West in Culver City. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. LOEWENBERG: Thank you.

FLATOW: Tell us, Susan, how this play got legs, so to speak.

Ms. LOEWENBERG: How it got legs. Yes. Well we actually originally produced it with the BBC in 1991. And we were approached around 2003 by someone who said you ought to tour your radio show around the country.

We do have a radio show called, "The Plays the Thing," which is on public radio. And you should take one of your plays around. And I think people will like to see that.

So we had to choose a play that we had already done. And we have a program where we give 1,500 high school teachers in 600 cities all over America plays that we've recorded that are relevant to the high school curriculum.

And we had just done a survey about usage. And believe it or not "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial" was the most utilized recording, beating out "The Crucible" and "Julius Caesar" and "The Grapes of Wrath."


Ms. LOEWENBERG: So we thought, a ha, there's something here. And when we were setting the tour for 2005 and '06. And the man who was booking us around the country at colleges and universities said, it'll be about three weeks.

Well the response was so overwhelming that we ended up going out for almost 11 weeks in '05/'06. And now we are remounting because there are more requests for it. So we're doing three more weeks.

And Ed has played Bryan for virtually all of it. So he gets…

FLATOW: Hm-hmm.

Ms. LOEWENBERG: …he gets a medal.

FLATOW: Well let me ask you what - let me just remind everybody that I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Do you have trouble being compared - or your performance stacking up - people stack up your performance with what they've seen in the movie, "Inherit the Wind?"

Mr. ASNER: No. I think it's a - I love our version far more. It's a much level playing field. And you get to see a far greater circumference - if you'll forgive the expression - of Bryan than you do in "Inherit the Wind."

Other than silence, he's too often played as the goat, the fool. The eloquence of the man, the phenomenal history of the man, is nowhere near apparent, other than the awe given to him in "Inherit the Wind."

But here we - I think we very well cover the breadth of the man. And he was a titan in American history.

FLATOW: Hm-hmm. So it's actually the - this is a case where truth is stranger and meatier, as an actor, than fiction.

Mr. ASNER: I think so. More intriguing certainly.

FLATOW: Yeah. Peter Goodchild?


FLATOW: What - what motivates you to continue to work on this play?

Mr. GOODCHILD: Well it's a fascinating subject. And I think what Ed has said is absolutely right. I mean I came to the original play when I was a student. And I came to it as the film. And I thought it was wonderful.

And then when I - sort of 10, 15 years later when I was within the BBC, I wondered whether there was anything one could do with it that wasn't eclipsed by that play.

And of course once you start actually researching it you do realize, as Ed was saying, that there are all these other dimensions. And it was interesting you actually picked at the beginning the quote from Bryan which is that wonderful one - oh wait, which is really about what is missing because of - or he thought was missing because of materialistic, scientific thinking which is that the scientists think of life as a mystery that nobody can explain.

That kind of thinking got missed out completely from the - and Bryan, the figure in "Inherit the Wind," is just an old dogmatist. And yet there was this whole other dimension. The problems that society was having after the first world war where people were - students were - they did a survey which actually showed that students were going into universities believing, and coming out not believing. And particularly biology students.

And this kind of thing and the general social disturbances after that were really worrying people. And the fundamentalist reaction was, of course, to shut down as best they could the kind of material thinking that science generated.

And this is what we get into. What happened with "Inherit the Wind" was it was a response to McCarthyism. It dealt with freedom of speech more or less entirely.

And it was an iconographic play. I mean it actually has colored the way that everybody actually thinks of that trial. But I think what we've done is to go right back to the origins and find they're much more interesting and intriguing arguments that went on at the time and I think have given it another color.

FLATOW: Hm-hmm. We're going to have to take a short break. We're talking with Ed Asner, veteran actor and activist and founding member of the L.A. Theatre Works in Los Angeles, Peter Goodchild, author of "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial," - sorry, not the author because there was - he's the adapter, let's call him - and Susan Albert Loewenberg who is producer and director. And she's the producing director of the L.A. Theatre Works.

We'll take a break, come back and take your calls about the Scopes Trial, evolution, and the issues that are relevant now. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial" with Ed Asner, veteran actor and performer who is a founding member of the L.A. Theatre Works in Los Angeles who's playing William Jennings Bryan in "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial," Peter Goodchild, who adapted the text and turned it into a play, and Susan Loewenberg, producing director of the L.A. Theatre Works.

Our number 1-800-989-8255. Ed, I'm struck by what we talked about earlier about greater depth in this play about William Jennings Bryan. And does he come across as a sympathetic figure to you?

Mr. ASNER: Well I - with the material I have that Peter has provided - that the transcript has provided - I certainly want to strike those chords that will elicit as much sympathy as you can.

But you also have to realize that in this country I think the majority of people of our population - as opposed to I think the rest of the western world - believe in creationism.

And so you can't - you can't present enough of the Scopes Trial, "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial, or "Inherit the Wind" as a means of education because we are - in terms of our populous - I think way behind the rest of the world in acknowledging Darwinism and acknowledging evolution.

And before I finish I just want to tell you it's an honor to be on your program. I think you're smashing.

FLATOW: You listen to SCIENCE FRIDAY? Well thank you. It's an honor to be honored by you.

Thank you. Do you feel like - do you find, Ed, people coming out rooting for you, the character, you know, because you're playing - because as you say most people do believe as your character believes.

Mr. ASNER: I would say they root for me but they understand and they ache as I could possibly ache.

I'm just finishing this phenomenal book called "David and Solomon" about the manufacturing of the Davidic myth throughout the centuries. And it's a phenomenal and wonderful lineage and history to believe in, as is all faith and religion.

But we've got to compartmentalize. We've got to - we've got to see what truth is so it doesn't come up and hit us in the face. And then we can lean back and rely on our faith.

FLATOW: Hm-hmm. It - Susan, you were mentioning before how popular this play is in schools…


FLATOW: …with teachers. Is it a way to help science teachers teach evolution?

Ms. LOEWENBERG: Absolutely. In fact I think one of the things that we have discovered - not we but on the basis of polls has been discovered - is that teachers are not teaching evolution because they are afraid of the controversy.

I was just reading an article from The New York Times where a young teacher is quoted - a teacher from Alabama - she says, "she confided that she simply ignored evolution because she knew she'd get in trouble with the principal. If word got out that she was teaching it she told me" - this is - "other teachers were doing the same thing."

And you hear report upon report about the shocking number of teachers who will not teach evolution because they're afraid of it.

FLATOW: Hm-hmm.

Ms. LOEWENBERG: And so I think that's one of the reasons our CD has been so popular. It's been a way for teachers to teach it.

FLATOW: Hm-hmm.

Ms. LOEWENBERG: And also we have a study guide. You can, you know, download a study guide without charge from the Web site that goes along with that recording. And I think it's really helpful.

FLATOW: Hm-hmm. Peter, you wrote the play first back in 1991, if I'm correct, as a radio play series for BBC, right?


FLATOW: Is it basically the same as your first draft of it back then?

Mr. GOODCHILD: It is - it is essentially the same. I mean there's a lot of the - particularly the big cross examination that Bryan/Darrow cross examination which I think is very much the same as it was.

But it's interesting that working on it again and going back to the roots of research and so on and so forth, I think it's fair to say that this version is much more sympathetic to Bryan and the attitudes that he takes.

And the way - we took very much a line back in 1991 that, you know, he was really a bit of a buffer. I mean there is a difference in the way that we actually did it then and did it - and do it now.

FLATOW: Hm-hmm.

Ms. LOEWENBERG: We've tried to be more even handed. I think we realize…

Mr. GOODCHILD: I think that's it. Yes.

Ms. LOEWENBERG: …yeah. I think when we looked at it - there's a wonderful line from Mencken, when he's commenting on the trial in 1925 in talking about the people of Dayton. He says they were unanimously hot for Genesis.

Well I think that in 1991, in our version, we were unanimously hot for evolution. And we realized when we were taking this show around the country, if we really wanted to engage people of all persuasions, we had to be more even-handed.

So we took out a lot of what we thought was pretty didactic or preachy and just let the facts speak for themselves. And I think that we really improved the script in that way and opened it up so that people would actually talk about it and have a conversation about it.

FLATOW: I have - sorry.

Mr. ASNER: (unintelligible) we played in Green Bay, Wisconsin, a matinee for kids, mostly private schooled and home-schooled. So there were a lot of religious within the crowd. At the end of it, we had a Q and A. And finally, out of frustration, one of the actors at the Q and A finally said, well - this is after seeing our opus - he said, how many of you believe the world was created in six days? And at least two-thirds of those kids raised their hands.

FLATOW: Do you believe you've changed anybody's mind, Ed, when you do this play?

Mr. ASNER: If we do anything but make them less sure, that will be a victory for me.


FLATOW: Interesting. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Richard in Dayton, Tennessee. Hi, Richard.

RICHARD (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi there.

RICHARD: I actually live in Dayton, Tennessee, where the trial, of course, took place in 1925, and I've been listening with great interest to the discussion today. We have every summer, corresponding to the dates of the trial, a Scopes Festival in town, and they perform a play in the very courtroom that was written also from the actual court transcripts.

So I just thought I would mention that and listening with interest to the discussion.

FLATOW: Well thank you. Don't go away - don't go anywhere, Richard. I want to ask you a couple of questions. And the townsfolk show great interest in the play?

RICHARD: Oh people come from lots of places, all around to see it. It runs for several days during the summer months and July.

Ms. LOEWENBERG: Richard, your librarian, who is the great-grandniece of Ben McKenzie, one of the trial's lawyer. We contacted her and she was great. She actually gave us some of her personal family photos…

RICHARD: Oh, great.

Ms. LOEWENBERG: Of the trial.

RICHARD: I know her well.


RICHARD: And I also know a lady in town, she now lives in the nursing home. But she actually attended the trial.


Mr. GOODCHILD: And I think I actually - we give Dayton a much better press than "Inherit the Wind." It was a very sort of looming town in "Inherit The Wind." We show that you were extremely hospitable to both sides.

FLATOW: Ed Asner, would you like to bring this play to a larger audience?

Mr. ASNER: Oh, yeah. I think the worthwhileness of it, the sparks that strikes the quest for more information, the quest for truth that it strikes is very important for our citizenry, people as a whole. And I think this country needs it badly.

FLATOW: Do you feel like you've - I hear from you, you have invested your own emotional capital into this play.

Mr. ASNER: Well it is a problem. It is a problem to assuage the people of faith into accepting evolution and Darwinism. And we must deal with it gently. We must take them gently. We must coerce them gently. So it can't be baldly done, as it has been done by scientists, I guess, in most of the world. This has to be a different approach in this country.

FLATOW: Let me ask you, Susan, are there any plans to take this, you know, into a larger, you know, set than, you know, the small towns you're playing in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, New England?

Ms. LOEWENBERG: We would love to do probably a week of performances in New York, and we probably will do that. But when you say in small towns, I mean, one of the interesting things when you travel this country - and we have traveled everywhere in this country - is there are spectacular performing arts centers, some of the most beautiful performing arts centers I've ever seen to rival Lincoln Center all over this country in various small towns.

And incredibly interesting audiences, so, you know, we've gone everywhere from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to Lincoln, Nebraska, which is the home of Bryan and we're treated to dinner in his home, which they maintain as a museum. We've been to, you know, Green Bay, Wisconsin. We've been to Florida. We've been to Missouri. We've been to every corner of this country. And I think that's really the best thing we can do with this play. I think what I'd like to do is keep touring it.

FLATOW: Yeah. Do you face any opposition in any of the towns?

Ms. LOEWENBERG: Well, you know, we were asked to go in the middle of the Dover trial, the famous trial that took place last year, where the school board actually was challenged by a group of citizens for introducing intelligent design into the classroom. We were called in the middle of our tour by Dover, saying, do you have one day? Could do the play? And we had one day.

We were on our way from New York to the University of Maryland. And we stopped in Dover and did the play. And that was the one place where there were some minor protests. I think there were people dressed in monkey suits in the parking lot. But it wasn't a very serious protest.

FLATOW: Ed, do you look for people to come out, who you would like to -confront is a bad word - but get up close and personal with?

Mr. ASNER: Well, I'm not a scientist, so I can't show them the rings in the rock or a tree to demonstrate to demonstrate to them what carbon testing really means. They've got their faith, and it's burned into their heart and souls so there's no way I'm going to convince them that my way is the way of light. But I would be glad to get the books and read it to them.

FLATOW: Let's go to Angus in Fridley, Minnesota. Hi, Angus.

ANGUS (Caller): Yes, good afternoon.

FLATOW: Hi there.

ANGUS: Thanks for taking the call. I've worked most of my adult life in theater - just to let you know I'm not exactly talking through my hat - and I love it. Storytelling is one of the best means of creating consensus, if you will. And I think we do it a disservice by creating to castes by saying we the enlightened and oh so patronizing are trying to bring you foolish religious type people along on this road of light and truth.

Well, excuse me, I think there may be one or two more truths in this universe than we are aware of at this moment. I believe that, you know, in evolution, I believe it - and that's kind of a silly statement, isn't it? It has been proved to my satisfaction that evolution is a logical means by which we came to be. There may be others, it may be a more complex mix. I think a new myth would be helped along, in terms of storytelling myth, if they took out some of the - if they rewrote this play so it wasn't quite so divisive making it an us and a they camp.

FLATOW: Okay, let me get a reaction while we remind everybody that this TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow with Ed Asner, Peter Goodchild, and Susan Loewenberg. Any reaction? Peter?

Ms. LOEWENBERG: I don't - I didn't quite understand the question because - what do you mean by rewrite the play? This is just the trial transcripts.

ANGUS: Oh, I'm sorry. I thought we were talking about the play.

Ms. LOEWENBERG: You were talking about "Inherit the Wind," right?


Ms. LOEWENBERG: Yeah, okay.

FLATOW: Okay, thanks for calling. But he did make a point about the…

Mr. ASNER: Go back to sleep.

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Mr. GOODCHILD: Well, actually, I think…

FLATOW: Peter.

Mr. GOODCHILD: …it's what I would say is that there are wonderful speeches in the thing with - particularly by Dudley Malone, who was a supporter of Darrow's. He's one of the defense. In which he said, you know, just treat the bible as one thing, treat science as another. Keep from compartmentalized. Though in other words, in the text there isn't this divisiveness, there is an argument which - very, very well made in which they're talking about, saying look, don't think that you can introduce it into a science schoolroom, but you go with the books that give you comfort and so on. You do what you will in terms of your religious belief. The two do not have to every overlap. And he, Malone, was actually a practicing Catholic. I think he felt very strongly that the two could coexist.

Mr. ASNER: Even the pope has recently - yesterday or the day before - came out in terms of belief in evolution, et cetera.

Ms. LOEWENBERG: I think an interesting fact of this trial, by the way, is this is the first trial that was ever broadcast on the radio, and the whole country was glued to their radios sets. And so when Bryan and Darrow and Malone were making their speeches, they were not just talking to the thousand people crowded into that incredibly beautiful courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee, but they were speaking to the whole country. And when you look at the speeches, they were incredible feats of oratory. I mean the eloquence of those men as they argued the case, it was stunning. And everybody in the country was listening.

FLATOW: And did they play to that audience?

Ms. LOEWENBERG: And they played to that audience, and there were 200 journalists descended on this tiny town. And they were people from all over the world. So the trial really set the stage for the fate of evolution over the next 80 years. And after the trial, as you probably know, I mean, Bryan died five days after the trail ended. He had a stroke and died. So that even though in the cross-examination, I don't know if people - it actually - what actually happened is, you know, he did take the stand. I mean Darrow very cleverly lured him onto the stand, knowing what an egotist he was, and began questioning him about the bible. And of course everyone in America heard him being ridiculed.

But when he died five days later, everybody kind of forgot about it, they were so consumed with the death of this American hero.

FLATOW: Well, Susan, we've run out of time, but can you give us a quick rundown of where the play will be seen and where you can see it.

Ms. LOEWENBERG: Yes. Ed and company are in Williamstown right now. They will then be going on to Connecticut College in New London and the performing art centers in Great Barrington and in Concord, Massachusetts. They'll be at Penn, University of Pennsylvania, for six performances, April 18th to 22nd. And you can go on our Web site,, and find out everything you want to know about the tour.

FLATOW: Thank you very much, Susan Loewenberg, producer and director of L.A. Theater Works; Peter Goodchild, author of the "Great Tennessee Monkey Trial." Ed, thank you for the kind words about SCIENCE FRIDAY, and good luck to in the play.

Mr. ASNER: Thank you very much, Ira.

Ms. LOEWENBERG: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Take care. And we've run out of time. You can surf over to our Web site at, and if you missed anything that we talked about there, you could find it over there.

Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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