Guest Blog 2017

Season 52 Guest Director Diane DiCroce shares her notes about Inherit the Wind

“With all due respect to the bench. I hold that the right to think is very much on trial!”
 
These words, spoken by the character Henry Drummond (played in the current Weathervane production by Artistic Director, Jacques Stewart) make up one of the defining peaks of the Defense attorney’s argument that the teaching of Evolutionary Theory in classroom should not be against the law as they are in both the town of Hillsboro (in this play) and in Dayton,TN, in the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial. When the play was first performed in 1955 on Broadway it was commonly thought that it was written in response to McCarthyism and the fear and persecution of ideas. Challenges to the right to think, the freedom of ideas and, specifically, academic freedom are very much alive today and at the center of current political discourse.
 
“Inherit the Wind”, according to the authors Lawrence and Lee, is loosely based on the events surrounding the actual 1925 trial that became the first Broadcast media sensation of the 20th century. With star Orators William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow forwarding the case for the Prosecution and the Defense, respectively, it was the first trial verdict to be announced live on the radio. The trial became a media circus with reporters converging on Dayton from all over the world. The courtroom was so hot and so packed with people that Darrow’s actual cross examination of Bryan was moved outdoors to the Courthouse lawn and steps which had been described as a Fairground complete with Vendors, representatives of the Anti-evolutionist League and people dressed as Primates for photo-ops. The trial even inspired a popular song or two.
 
One of the primary differences between the actual trial and the play is that the trial itself was “awarded” to the town of Dayton, TN, when local business owners in the town (that was then economically struggling) saw an ad taken out by the ACLU in many newspapers in the South offering to defend any teacher willing to challenge their State’s law forbidding the teaching of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in the classroom vs. Creationism as described in the Book of Genesis in the Bible.  In the play, the teacher and the John T. Scopes character, Bertram Cates, is portrayed as a man who firmly believes in the validity of Evolutionary theory and who passionately shares those teachings in the classroom.  The real Scopes was actually a substitute teacher who may or may not have taught Evolutionary theory to his class but who nonetheless admitted doing so in order for the trial and all the attention and business it would attract would come to Dayton. Like Hillsboro in the play, Dayton was like many other small towns in the “Bible Belt” at the time, firmly held together by familiarity and common principles and religious practices whose religious leaders had as much (or more) influence as their elected officials. Those with the power to make speeches inside or outside of the courtroom held equal weight as they do in this play. “Main street” is always visible and always listening.
 
The excitement in the town of Hillsboro is generated by the arrival of Matthew Brady, based on the arrival of William Jennings Bryan, 3-time Presidential Candidate and Secretary of State to Dayton.  Bryan, like Brady, was a Populist candidate who put forth the agenda of the “average man” at a time when Christian Fundamentalism had taken a stronghold in the Southern States in response to growing “interpretation” of the literal passages in the Bible. Radio broadcasts were quickly and easily disseminating new ideas to places once thought unreachable. The laws of morality, as they were called, were being challenged as a direct result of advances in technology and the rapid sharing and exchange of ideas, some that were rooted in Science.
 
With the trial’s final verdict (which I won’t give away here…) the focus of the town returns to the “show” but the arguments presented in the actual trial and in the play were played out in the media, both in the newspapers (highlighted by the ever-present character of newspaper reporter and critic,  E.K. Hornbeck, in the play, H.L. Mencken in real-life) and over the radio. 
In the authors’ notes from 1955, Lawrence and Lee state that the play’s stage directions set the time as ” ‘Not too long ago.’ It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow.”  Currently, we find ourselves again at a time when advances in technology and the speed and ease with which we communicate with one another can lead to the spread of ideas that challenge or change the status quo. How we respond to these challenges as a society will determine the success of our collective preservation of the right to think.
dianeDiCroceheadDiane DiCroce, (WV Alum., ’92, ’97)
Guest Director, 2016, The King And I
NH Theatre Award Finalist for Best Professional Director