The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial

While looking for something else via Google, I came across this review that I wrote way back when while I was a regular member of Stomp Tokyo's message board for a recording of a radio play that I had intended. The company performing the play was touring at the time, and is no longer, but the performance was recorded for broadcast, and does show up on the BBC's online service every now and again. Or, you can buy a copy if you are so inclined.

Anyway, here's the review:

The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial

Starring John DeLancie as Clarence Darrow, Ed Asner as William Jennings Bryan, Jerry Hardin as Judge John T. Raulston.

Just to get this out of the way first off, I want to say that it was surreal to see a play in which Q was a defense attorney, Deep Throat was a judge, and Lou Grant as a fundamentalist attorney, politician, and Bible scholar.

Most folks are probably familiar with the scopes trial as being one of two things, depending on their religious and scientific persuasions:

1. The trial in which creationism was soundly defeated and the truth of science trumped superstition.

2. The trial in which the atheists began to take over the government and destroy traditional values.

Of course, neither of these is really true. In the aftermath of the Scopes trial, religious beliefs continued to trump biological science in the classrooms and the legislatures in matters pertaining to the education of schoolchildren. Although the Scopes trial energized those with an interest in science education, those who wished to prevent discussion of evolution in public schools were also energized, and were far more numerous. It wasn’t until the Soviets launched Sputnik in the 1950’s that the federal and state governments realized it was time to get serious about science education and put the best scientific information available in the classroom regardless of who might be offended.

Moreover, those who opposed the teaching of Evolution are typically portrayed as bigots and ignorant, and this is, on the whole, unfair. William Jennings Bryan, who has so often been portrayed as the villain of the Scopes affair, was an intelligent man, a concerned citizen, and a historical figure who I feel a good deal of respect for (and keep in mind that I am an atheist and think that he was absolutely wrong in his views on science).

In order to really understand the Scopes trial, it must be put in its context. It was the 1920’s, a time that was very much like the 1960’s, and in many respects like today. People were beginning to question tradition, violent and disturbing events of the day and of the recent past were forcing people to re-evaluate their society and culture, and many people were beginning to see that many aspects of the “old morality” simply didn’t hold water, and needed to be re-examined.

While some people wanted to re-examine tradition, others wanted to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and still others found greater solace in the conspicuous and crass consumption that the economic boom of the 1920’s brought. Radio was making information of all sorts available and exposing many people to new and foreign ideas that would either intrigue or frighten them, depending on their inclinations. Many of the below-50 population had been in Europe and fought in the first world war, and come back broken and disillusioned. What’s more, prohibition sparked an increase in organized crime and made out-right criminals into wealthy celebrities.

The point I am trying to make is that the 1920’s were a time when people began to question society, and everything from sexual mores to familial roles to ethnicity was being re-negotiated and undergoing transformation. While in the end the changes that did occur would be far more minor than people both hoped and feared at the time, it must be remembered that in the midst of the popular discussion, or rather argument, they appeared overwhelming and either amazing or terrifying.

The Fundamentalist Christians of the day, and really, even today, were by and large worried about changes that they saw and worried over what it would mean for the future of the world. While I am in no way sympathetic to the intentional ignorance of the subject of evolution that creationists espouse, or to the belief that many religious activists hold that they should be able to push for laws that force those who do not conform to their religion to nonetheless live as if they did, I can understand why the changes and renegotiation occurring today as well as in the 1920’s are frightening, and why many good people would be concerned.

At the same time, While Darrow himself could be described as anti-religious, those who opposed the teaching of any theistic belief in the public schools, both then and now, are not atheists bent on creating more atheists, but rather people who realize from history that mixing religion with politics is always disastrous in the end for everyone involved, including the religious. We are interested in valid science being taught in science classes, because it is plain from looking at the world over the last century that valid science is necessary to solve crucial problems in medicine, agriculture, bio-engineering, etc. (indeed, if one examines much of the public debate about genetically engineered crops, one is quickly struck by how much the people shouting the loudest on either side, and unfortunately pushing the public policy, are often those who very clearly know absolutely nothing about what is actually going on).

So, the 1920’s were a time of change, the mythologization of the scopes trial turns it into a victory for science that it really wasn’t, and its real legacy was not one of clearing the way for the future, but rather of providing a symbolic event that could be used by later generations as the fight continued. Inherit the Wind was mythology, not history, as have been the other re-enactments and re-tellings of the story over the years, whether they cast Darrow or Bryan in the role of the hero.

This new production by the LA Theatre Works does a far better job of putting the event in its proper context than previous plays, films, and T.V. movies. By using the actual news reports and trial transcripts as the source for the script, we get a better idea of who these people were, what they were doing, and why they were doing it. Darrow comes across as a flippant and arrogant, but nonetheless intelligent man who is representing the cause as much because he likes a good fight as because he believes in the cause. Bryan comes across as an intelligent and concerned man who is generally of good character but who is unwilling to really examine the issue of evolution because he fears what he will find. Part of this comes from the actors, and both Asner and Delancie do superb jobs, but most of it comes from the script, which uses the real words of the actual men rather than trusting to the poetry of the playwright (though, certainly, chosing the sections of the transcripts to use leaves the story open to the interpretation of the writer).

It is a curious thing, in the end I walked away sympathetic to Bryan, but on the side of Darrow. Darrow was factually correct, science supports evolution and not creationism, and no amount of intellectual prestidigitation by creationists writers has ever been able to hide this fact from those who take a careful look. Moreover, despite the dire predictions of many people, evolution has not brought horrors of inhumanity any worse than the days of the Inquisition or the Spanish Entrada into the Americas, both of which were heavily religious, and knowledge of evolution has even led many people, myself included, to have a much more sympathetic view of our fellow man, and, perhaps most importantly, evolution has not destroyed religion. However, Bryan was fighting for something he believed in, and while I think he was absolutely wrong in his position, I find that I respect him for the fact that he was willing to fight nonetheless.

Much of the action takes place in narration, provided both by an omniscient narrator reading words written in the present day and from the actors reading portions of Darrow’s memoirs as well as H.L. Mencken’s reports from the trial.

In the end, I suspect that many of the anti-religious will be upset that this play does not demonize religion, and in fact shows that many of Darrow’s speeches about “religious bigots” (echoed by many of Richard Dawkins more contemporary statements) are nothing but empty insults. At the same time, because the play, like the trial, presents evolution honestly and from science, without any of the pseudo-science that is cranked out by groups such as the Discovery Institute, it is likely to be tagged as “pro-evolution propaganda” by those on the other extreme of the religious and political spectrum.

For everyone else, however it provides an illuminating and fascinating look at an event so often mytholgoized but rarely understood, and I can not recommend it highly enough.

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