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A young schoolteacher runs afoul the law when he introduces his science class to a concept called evolution. At his trial, two of the most brilliant orators of a day square off to debate evolution versus creationism. That true story from the 1920s is the basic plot of "Inherit the Wind," which is being revived in a new Broadway production that opens Thursday. It comes at a time when we're debating evolution again.
But as NPR's Lynn Neary reports, "Inherit the Wind" is about more than that.
LYNN NEARY: Written in the 1950s, the play is based on the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, which pitted three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Brian against famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow in a heated debate about teaching evolution.
As Henry Drummond, the character based on Darrow, actor Christopher Plummer hides his innate elegance in pants hiked up over his waist by a pair of suspenders. His hair unkempt, his jacket over his arm, he successfully conveys the image of a city dweller sweltering under the hot sun of stiflingly small town.
Plummer may be playing a character named Drummond but he makes it clear that his performance is based on the real Clarence Darrow, a proud agnostic and fierce civil libertarian. And Plummer has no doubt that the play still holds up more than 50 years after it first opened.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER (Actor): It's a good old warhorse. We know that. But it works. There's no fear any longer that it's an old-fashioned piece.
NEARY: As Drummond, Plummer has some of the most memorable lines in the play, including these which come after the trial has ended. The young schoolteacher at the center of the case has been wondering what will become of him, and Drummond tells him he'll be a source of inspiration for others.
Mr. PLUMMER: (As Drummond) You help the next fellow.
Unidentified Man: What do you mean?
Mr. PLUMMER: (As Drummond) Well, you don't suppose this kind of thing is ever finished, do you? Tomorrow, as sure as hell, somebody else will have to stand up and you'll help give him the guts to do it.
NEARY: It was those lines, says Plummer, that convinced him the play was worth doing, because the fight over teaching evolution is being fought all over again.
Mr. PLUMMER: That's exactly why we all did it, because it resonates in a modern way. I think it's more timely now than it was when it was first written, because more damage has been done since.
NEARY: The irony is the men who wrote "Inherit the Wind," Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee were using the Scope's trial as a metaphor for their era, the 1950s. The town's frenzy around the trial and the teaching of evolution served as a stand-in for the atmosphere of fear brought on by McCarthyism.
Edward Larson, author of "Summer for the Gods," has written extensively about the Scope's trial and the play.
Mr. EDWARD LARSON (Author, "Summer for the Gods"): I don't think they ever thought that there would be a revival of fundamentalism and a revival in particular of creationism.
NEARY: Larson believes the playwrights would be surprised to learn that modern audiences would focus on the arguments for and against the teaching of evolution.
Mr. LARSON: In a way, you could almost say that what Bob Lee and Jerry Lawrence had done was to set up the fundamentalist as straw men to really attack McCarthyism, but the straw men outlived the red scare.
Mr. BRIAN DENNEHY (Actor): It's a lot more complicated than people think. It's a lot more complicated than just creationism, which is an oppositional theory.
NEARY: Brian Dennehy plays the part of Matthew Harrison Brady, who is based on William Jennings Bryan. It's a tough part, Dennehy says, because the playwrights created a character who views the world through a narrow prism.
Mr. PLUMMER: (As Drummond) What do you think of sex, Colonel Brady?
Mr. DENNEHY: (As Matthew Harrison Brady) In what spirit is this question asked?
Mr. PLUMMER: (As Drummond) Well, I'm not asking you what do you think of sex as a husband or a father or a presidential candidate. I mean, you're up here as an expert on the bible. What is the biblical evaluation of sex?
Mr. DENNEHY: (As Matthew Harrison Brady) It is considered original sin.
NEARY: Dennehy says the real William Jennings Brian was more liberal in his thinking than Brady. He was religious but he was also a populist who believed in the goodness of the common man. Dennehy says the real Bryan's opposition to evolution grew in part out of his religious beliefs, but also out of concern about the implications of social Darwinism and its potential for misuse.
Mr. DENNEHY: This argument was never simple. It was complicated by sterilization in Mississippi and Alabama. It was complicated by Nazism. It was complicated by the death camps, which could be regarded as a form of Darwinism. It's complicated now by social planning and creationism and all kinds of other things. So even though the audience sees it as an easily won tennis match, it's more than that.
Doug Hughes, director of this new production, says in his approach of the play he has tried to avoid sneering at the religious beliefs that underlie the argument against evolution.
Mr. DOUG HUGHES (Director, "Inherit the Wind"): This play is about the paradox that deep religious belief coexists with our commitment to freedom of thought.
NEARY: The playwright says Hughes may not have anticipated that Americans would still be debating creationism versus evolution at the beginning of the 21st century but, he says, they understood that this is a country where competing values are always being worked out in the public arena.
Mr. HUGHES: America is a constant hard-scrabble debate about what's right, what's wrong, what's good for children, what's not good for children, and a kind of a constant, unpredictable struggle for the prevalence of one view over another.
NEARY: And as if to press home the point that the debate is as fresh as ever, Hughes has directed the play so that some members of the audience sit on stage, mixing in with characters from the 1920s, watching from the vantage point of the courtroom the drama that is inherent in clashing values.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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