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October 6, 2005

Of Monkeys and Men


"Throughout this century, religious opponents of evolution, concerned that evolution contradicts a literal reading of the Bible and promotes cultural decay, have employed varying tactics to denigrate or eliminate the theory of evolution in the minds of young students."

photo of Clarence Darrow and William Jennings BryanThe preceding is an excerpt from the opening arguments in a court trial regarding the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution. You might guess that it was uttered by Clarence Darrow, defender of schoolteacher John Scopes in Tennessee v. Scopes, the 1925 court case called "the trial of the century," and "The Great Monkey Trial." You would be wrong.

Left: Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan.

In fact, the quote comes from Kitzmiller v. Dover, a 21st century case that began proceedings last week in a courtroom in Dover, Penn. A group of parents are challenging a school board decision to use Of Pandas and People, a biology textbook in which evolution is examined alongside an alternate theory known as "Intelligent Design."

Long after Darrow and prosecuting attorney William Jennings Bryan debated the merits of teaching evolution and the use of the Bible in the classroom, history is repeating itself in another American courtroom which explains why L.A. Theatre Works figured the time was right for a revival of The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial. The play by British writer Peter Goodchild, based on transcripts from the Scopes trial and originally recorded in 1992 as a radio play, begins a national tour next week with performances at the Van Duzer Theatre on Oct. 11 and 12.

"Creationism has never gone away in the 80 years since the Scopes trial but it spent most of that time in a dormant state," said Goodchild in an e-mail from his home in Oxfordshire, G.B. "Now, with new approaches like Intelligent Design, it's found a way to become politically and socially more acceptable, and there's little doubt that the Discovery Institute, the prime developer of Intelligent Design, has very broad political aims nothing less, in fact, than bringing God back into culture, science and politics. The [revival of] the play sets the agenda for a discussion which involves scientists, churchmen and, of course, the audience. Its aim is to get people to discuss and think about just what lies behind the fierce culture clash around evolution at the moment."

Goodchild noted that he was originally inspired to write the play because of the 1960 Stanley Kramer film, Inherit the Wind, which he initially saw as a "brilliant" piece of work. As he did research and read the Scopes trial transcripts, he came to realize that the story told in the movie was, "a simplification and, really, a distortion" of a much more nuanced story.

"It was written at the time of [Sen. Joseph] McCarthy and it plays everything out very much as a clash between bigotry and enlightenment. The Darrow figure represents liberal enlightenment while the Bryan character is the bigot, but he is not nearly as much of a bigot as the inhabitants of the town in which the trial takes place. In the film they have the schoolmaster Scopes thrown into jail but he wasn't. They have thuggish locals threaten the defense lawyers, while in reality [the town] feted both defense and prosecution equally."

In fact, Scopes was asked by the town fathers of Dayton, Tenn., to admit to teaching evolution because of an offer by the American Civil Liberties Union to provide defense in what all concerned knew would be a headline-grabbing show trial. The Daytonians saw the court case as a way to bring a media circus to town, thus revitalizing their flagging economy. Scopes, who had only filled in in a science class as a substitute, later admitted that he was not sure he had ever taught evolution.

In Goodchild's view the dueling lawyers were multifaceted characters. "Darrow was really an old-fashioned agnostic who believed that Christianity was a controlling religion, while Bryan actually, though he couldn't admit it publicly, didn't believe in the literal truth of the Bible, but had to defend it because he needed support for much broader aims. He was really worried about the effects of science and the materialism it spawned on the whole nature of society. He was worried about society without a spiritual dimension. So in reality the battle between these two giants of their time is more interesting but more complex than the characters in Inherit the Wind."

In the current production, as in the original radio play, Ed Asner handles the fiery oration of William Jennings Bryan. Asner, who gained fame as the gruff newspaper editor Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and its spin-off, Lou Grant, has in recent years become known as a tireless campaigner for progressive causes. Clarence Darrow is portrayed by the actor John de Lancie, best known for his recurring role as the super-intelligent being, Q, in three versions of the Star Trek TV series. Academy Award-nominated actress Marsha Mason serves as the story's narrator.

CenterArts presents the L.A. Theatre Works production of The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial on Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 12 and 13, at HSU's Van Duzer Theatre. Showtime is 8 p.m. Admission is $55, $35 for HSU students. For reservations call 826-3928.


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