Time and time again, the theme of science versus faith resurfaces in American history — a debate without end if ever there was one.
Take the Scopes Monkey Trial, for instance.
In the summer of 1925, a high school biology teacher in rural Tennessee got swept up in a fight between faith and science that would eventually captivate the country. The man in question, John T. Scopes, had been accused of teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in a public school, then a crime in the state.
More than 30 years later, a play inspired by the events of the trial premiered in Dallas. “Inherit the Wind,” written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee, served as a thinly-veiled vehicle for confronting McCarthyism in the ’50s.
Now, the Dallas Theater Center’s Kevin Moriarty is at the helm of the current revival of the play as director, bringing the work into 2017 — seeming as relevant as ever before.
Moriarty offers some insight into the history of the play and his interpretation of the work.
On how personal the topic was for his actors and how that surprised him
“We didn’t have any issues growing up in my town where science was in conflict with religion. The question of evolution was always understood as science, and in our faith lives and in our various churches, that wasn’t a problem. So, when I started rehearsals for “Inherit the Wind” on the first day, I said to the actors — many of whom have roots in the South and, in many, many cases, in Texas — I said, ‘we’re going to have to find a way to approach this play that personalizes it for us, so we can act it with passion and honesty and truth. But, we’re going to have to find analogies to make sense of this because obviously none of us can relate to a conflict like believing a literal interpretation of the Bible that denies scientific fact.’ The cast just stared at me like I was crazy, and I said, ‘why are you all staring at me?’ One by one, they started telling stories of their own lives. In a couple cases, folks who graduated from college, went on to graduate school in their early- to mid-twenties, still refusing to even allow themselves to ask questions about the literal nature of the Bible…That was striking to me and so compelling to me that ultimately, as part of the pre-show curtain speech, we actually share some of those stories before we jump into Lawrence and Lee’s words…”
On Dayton, Tennessee’s motives for inciting the trial
“One of the great, humorous aspects of the real-life story is that the leaders of Dayton, Tennessee were looking to bring positive attention to their town, and so, to make that happen they said, ‘Let’s get this trial here. If we can get the trial of the century to happen in our town, then that would bring commerce here and economic development and opportunity.’
So, the only reason that John Scopes was ever arrested for teaching evolution was because the town leaders were looking for an opportunity to bolster the town’s economic fortunes, and John Scopes knew that. The town leaders called him in. They said, ‘Would you be willing to be arrested?’ He was, at the time, the high school biology teacher, but he was a substitute teacher. He hadn’t even started that year as the biology teacher. He had come to Dayton, Tennessee as the football coach. When the biology teacher in the middle of the year got sick, Scopes stepped in to teach the remainder of the year, so it was truly just chance that this individual happened to be the biology teacher at a time when the town leaders said, ‘If we could punish our biology teacher, we could make a fortune for the town.’”
On how nostalgia influences theatergoers
“When you paint something with nostalgia, it causes you to sit back. It causes you to relax and a kind of warm, drug-like feeling swirls over you and disconnects you from the present moment…There’s something about the sepia-toned and the old-feeling edges of a black and white photo that do that, and that was my memory of “Inherit the Wind.” That it would be a play about the olden days, a soporific drug. So, my staff member said to just go back and read the play before you have your opinion on it.
I picked up the script, and on the first page of the script, there’s a note from Lawrence and Lee that they wrote in 1955…The note started by saying ‘Inherit the Wind’ is not history. It went on to say that the play is inspired by these real-life events and at times, even quotes from the real-life events. It ends by saying the events of the play are not meant to be about a distant past. They could be yesterday, and then it says, it could be tomorrow. As soon as I read that I thought, ‘I’m going to turn the page and read this script. I’m going to read every line of dialogue. I’m going to engage with the ideas and the conflicts and the characters, but I’m not going to read it with an imagination of the old-timey days painted on top of it. I’m going to read it with a kind of immediacy of today.’ That caused the play to leap off the page. Since then, those questions about science, about which facts are too dangerous to be spoken, about an honest civic discourse, those things have only become more powerful and present each day.”
On stripping the play of historical cues
“In a play, because you’re seeing it, the choices about what does the character look like and how do they act and is this funny or sad, is it shocking or comforting. Those are all being made interpreted right in front of you, so it seemed important to me to strip that nostalgia away. One of the tools to do that would be to remove realism from the play, as much as possible. So, we’ve removed realistic scenery. We’ve removed period costume. We’ve stripped the play away of all of those naturalistic devices…
The thing that I was interested in was creating a physical space, and casting to go with that, where the literal words that you’re hearing (and the play is word for word, every word from the 1955 play with no changes, additions or subtractions), and it is butting up against or contradicted at times by what you’re physically seeing…There’s 15 chairs on stage, an all-white set, and that’s meant to have a disjuncture between what you’re seeing and what you’re hearing. That disjuncture, whether that’s a pronoun with gender or whether that’s ‘hand me a glass of lemonade’ and there’s no actual lemonade on stage. That’s meant to draw you in. That’s meant to spark your brain to lean in, to say, ‘wait, what’s happening here?’ Once you’ve leaned in and are asking that question, hopefully, you’re in it so now there’s space to think and hopefully, even to feel.”
On the play’s unique Dallas history
“Margo Jones created one of the very first regional theaters in the United States in 1949. Both parts of that sentence are almost unimaginably surprising in that time period. That Margo Jones was a woman running a theater — women did not run very many things in the 1950s and certainly not theaters — and the fact that there was a theater anywhere other than in New York…She was committed to doing world premieres of new work and work that was more controversial, that was more surprising, that was more edgy than work that the somewhat conservative, mid-1950s Broadway producers were willing to produce. So, she created a theater in Dallas, Texas…the bones of that theater still exist out at Fair Park. That theater produced world premieres of works by folks like Tennessee Williams and Lawrence and Lee.
In 1954, Tad Adoue, who was a business partner and literary scout for Margo, was in New York and ran across Lawrence and Lee and asked what they had been working on and they said, ‘We’ve written this play, but it’s been rejected by eight Broadway producers, all of them say it’s too controversial to produce on Broadway.’ He asked for a copy of it, sent it off to Margo immediately with a note that said, ‘It will take guts to produce this in the Bible Belt.’ She opened the envelope, read that note, read the script, and instantly announced that she was producing the world premiere in Dallas, Texas…In a glorious bit of theater history, the play was a huge hit in Dallas. It premiered on Broadway four months later. It has never been off stages since then across the country, but by the end of 1955, in a sad bit of history, Margo passed away in a really tragic accident. Not only did she launch this play into national prominence, she also through her actions creating her theater in Dallas, launched what has become the national American theater movement where every city in America has a major professional theater.”