"He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind," Proverbs: Chapter 11, verse 9.
How apt that the playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee would go to The Bible for the title of their 1955 play, Inherit the Wind, a fictional telling of the notorious "Scopes Monkey Trial" of 1925. For it is the Good Book itself that is the third pivotal character in the play, which pits two mighty legal minds engaged in a courtroom battle over "doing the right thing:" a near impossible argument, as each vehemently disagree on what constitutes right or wrong in the first place.
The 1955 Random House edition of Inherit the Wind.
When John T. Scopes, a twenty-five year-old school teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, was arrested on May 5, 1925 for teaching evolution, it violated a new law titled the Tennessee Butler Act. The Act made it a misdemeanor, punishable by fine, to “teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Scopes, having already been approached by a group of local citizens (with some outside help from the ACLU), knowingly broke the law in hopes a test case could be built against it with himself as defendant. In Lawrence and Lee's version, Scopes (renamed Kates) brings a copy of Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species into his classroom entirely on his own.
The media circus that follows in the play is no exaggeration of what happened in real life. In fact, it would be hard to make up a trial that could attract the participation of both William Jennings Bryan, the thrice-nominated Republican candidate for President of the United States, and Clarence Darrow, the most famous criminal lawyer in America. With Darrow for the defense, and Bryan aiding the prosecution, the entire nation listened on the radio and read every printed word.
Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial (1925).
Stage worthy? You bet, though it's a bit of a wonder it took thirty years to turn it into a play, it took off like a rocket, with a two-year run on Broadway that spun off productions worldwide in dozens of different languages. What still makes Inherit the Wind a favorite today, is that in spite of its larger-than-today's-budgets-can-withstand-cast-size, it is wildly entertaining. Sadly, it is also still relevant, as can be attested by a current, well-reviewed production running through the end of the month at Nashville Rep, in the state of Tennessee, where the actual Scopes trial took place.
The Nashville Rep's current production of Inherit the Wind (now through April 30th).
Inherit the Wind opened sixty-three years ago at the National (now the Nederlander) Theatre on April 21, 1955. It was the first notable hit (of more than a few to come) for Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, who wrote together for more than 50 years, during which 39 of their plays were produced, 12 of them making it to Broadway (among them both Auntie Mame and its musical version, Mame).
Leading Inherit the Wind's original Broadway company of forty-eight actors, was the larger-than-life Paul Muni. This marked a triumphant return to the stage for the actor after an absence of six years. A powerful talent, he began his career as a child, playing old men in the Yiddish Theatre on Second Avenue. It was said he was relentless in pursuit of getting a part right. Though famous for many film performances, he was a devout creature of the stage. "A Muni whisper could reach the last balcony of any theatre," wrote the New York Times in his 1967 obituary.
To play Henry Drummond (Darrow), Muni went all out in his research. He interviewed people who knew the great man, even going so far as to imitate body language and speech. Muni always built his characters from the outside in; his years of playing old men left him with a predilection for wigs and false noses. But he was relentless in pursuit of what made the men he portrayed click—on the inside. Many thought his Drummond was ideally matched on stage by the marvelous actor Ed Begley, who played Matthew Harrison Brady (the stand-in for Williams Jennings Bryan). Both won that season's Tony Awards for their performances. But it was Muni who audiences came to see. He had been one of the major movie stars in the 1930s (gathering five Best Actor Oscar nominations in that decade alone) and winning for 1936's The Story of Louis Pasteur.
Ed Begley as Brady and Paul Muni as Drummond (note Muni's body language)
in Inherit the Wind (1955).
Over the decades, the roles of Drummond and Brady have attracted a who's who of the American theatre and cinema. The 1960 film version featured Spencer Tracy and Fredric March (which is when I was first introduced to the property, as it aired often on local TV throughout my growing up in the '60s). When these two pros go at in the scenes where Brady's been put on the stand by Drummond (as an expert witness of the teachings of the Bible), the back-and-forth, super-smart dialogue nearly induces whiplash. There have been four versions of the play filmed for television; the first in 1965 with Ed Begley repeating his Brady opposite the Drummond of Melvyn Douglas (who had replaced Muni on Broadway). In 1998, Kirk Douglas was Brady to Jason Robards' Drummond, and in 1999, George C. Scott and Jack Lemmon paired off as Brady and Drummond, respectively.
Spencer Tracy as Drummond and Fredric March as Brady (1960).
Kirk Douglas as Brady and Jason Robards as Drummond (1988).
Jack Lemmon as Drummond (1999).
George C. Scott's Brady came not long after he had done the play's first Broadway revival since 1955, playing Drummond to Charles Durning's Brady. And although Scott was quite ill at the time, and missed a number of performances, those who saw him (on the right night) have said it was one of his finest hours. Perhaps his co-star put it best (as reported in the book It Happened on Broadway):
Charles Durning: "'I'll see you in reality,' George would say to me as we got ready to go onstage. He was full of tricks, and the simplicity of his acting was something to behold. Being with him onstage, it was sometimes difficult for me to stay in the play. I wanted to observe what he was doing as an actor. He threw the words out like he wrote them himself. That's not acting, I'd think. I'd wonder whether he was ad-libbing or speaking the lines that were written. After, I'd go and check, and sure enough, they were the lines."
George C. Scott as Drummond with Charles Durning as Brady (1996).
The last Broadway revival of Inherit the Wind was in 2007, and I had never seen it on stage till then. My familiarity with it, however, was near total, as I had the entire Drummond-Brady trial sequence memorized for years; not only from having watched Spencer Tracy and Fredric March go at it countless times, but from having played Drummond in a school assembly when I was thirteen—thank God a video of THAT doesn't exist! In this production, the perfectly cast Christopher Plummer as Drummond did not disappoint, but I found Brian Dennehy's Brady nowhere near enough of a challenge to spar on the same level with Plummer, an actor of rare oratorical skills.
Christopher Plummer as Drummond with Brian Dennehy as Brady (2007).
But if tomorrow a new production is announced, and the casting is right, I would be thrilled to pay and take my seat, cheap one or not. For Inherit the Wind is that rare play that tells a hell of a story with wit, insight and taut drama, even if you know the outcome as well as you know ... well, the Bible.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.