Sunday, June 10, 2007

Theatre Review: Inherit the Wind

Welcome to "The Gods Are Bored," deep thinking and steep drinking since 2005! If you're a newcomer, help yourself to one of our plush seats. They all recline. Someone will take your order shortly.

Mr. Johnson had to be in New York on business Friday evening. That meant his plant paid for mileage, hotel room, and his meals. I never want to go to Manhattan. It's a bloody overcrowded island. However, I recalled that the play Inherit the Wind was in a limited Broadway run with Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehey in the leads.

Free advice from Anne: It's hardly ever impossible to get a seat to a show or a concert if you only want one seat. This does not hold true, of course, if the venue has been filled to standing room only. But if there's no one craning their necks in the aisles, trust me, there's a seat to be had.

Off I toddle to New York City, holding in my paw an online-purchased ticket to Inherit the Wind.

We at "The Gods Are Bored" don't just wander into Inherit the Wind because we liked Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music. (Gag.) Happens that we wrote a book called Defining Moments: The Scopes Monkey Trial in 2006. Inherit the Wind is about the Scopes Monkey Trial.

Of course, a two-hour play and a six-day trial can be two entirely different species of monkey. This is certainly the case with Scopes and Inherit.

The Scopes trial was dominated by two equally vehement ego-maniacs: Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. Yes, Darrow put Bryan on the stand and humiliated him by asking him questions about the Bible. (At one point Bryan became so flustered that he said, "I don't think about the things I don't think about." To which Darrow replied, "Well, do you think about the things you do think about?")

That particular exchange remains in Inherit the Wind, but the Clarence Darrow character, played with distinction by Plummer, has been ennobled by a set of playwrights with Cold War-era concerns. In other words, the fictitious "Henry Drummond" is a better Clarence Darrow than the real one was. The ficitious "Henry Drummond" never balls up his fist and shouts: "I am examining you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes!"

Even the intelligent Christians thought Darrow overstepped himself by pelting Bryan with questions about where Cain got his wife and how the snake walked in the Garden of Eden before God set the creature on its belly. Bryan kept taking the sucker punches because he thought he'd get a chance to turn the tables and question Darrow. It didn't happen because after wiping the floor with Bryan, Darrow instructed the jury to find his client guilty.

In the play Inherit the Wind, the Bryant character is left, stricken and humiliated, as his former supporters desert him, laughing at his foolishness. In reality, Darrow's relentless questioning, and the subsequent letdown of not being able to reply in kind, outright killed Bryan and added considerable grease to the wheels of the anti-evolution movement. If anything, Bryan left the Scopes trial like Joe Frazier left Manila -- damaged, perhaps, but still with more than enough fans.

"Drummond," in Inherit the Wind, is unmasked in the end as a religious man with noble convictions. Everything I read by and about Clarence Darrow in preparation for writing a book about the Scopes trial leads me to believe that he was indeed an atheist, terrified of death. He was also aghast at the nation's drift back toward the Middle Ages, as represented by laws against teaching evolution in public school classrooms. These two components of his character did not make him an ideal attorney for the defense of John T. Scopes.

Scopes did have an ideal attorney at his table, but Dudley Field Malone is not a character in Inherit the Wind.

So, the play Inherit the Wind simplifies and magnifies the Scopes trial to make a point about irrational mob rule, more related to the McCarthy era than to the 1920s. But the play does pose a philosophical question, also posed at the trial.

The question is this: Is thinking a good thing?

On the surface, this is a simple concept. Of course thinking is a good thing! Look at that moron in the White House! If he actually thought about what he was doing, maybe he wouldn't do it!

Soft, o reader. Ponder this a moment. Does your religious faith hold up to scientific scrutiny?

It was my dad's opinion -- and Clarence Darrow's -- that no religion in which the soul survived the body could stand up to critical thinking, because science has never been able to prove that the soul survives death.

You know what? I think I'm going to go outside, have a beer, and watch the grass grow. I'm through with thinking for today.

Beannachd leat,


Ali said...

" Ponder this a moment. Does your religious faith hold up to scientific scrutiny?"

A good point, but then, scientific scrutiny/analysis is only one kind of "thinking." Science has certain fundamental axioms which limit its range from the very beginning--it deals strictly with measurable data, repeatable (and, by extension, often controlled) experiments and observations about material reality, etc. Nowhere does science make the claim that it can inform us about a nonmaterial aspect to reality, and so while it can't prove that there is a soul that survives the physical body, it certainly can't disprove it, either.

Philosophical thought is another form of "thinking" that has fallen somewhat out of the limelight in modern society. I think we tend to forget that there are plenty of philosophical systems which are thoughtful, rational and thorough, and which still postulate the existence of a "soul" or other "level" of existence which extends beyond the material world. I remember back in high school when I was thinking about the nature of the soul/self, I looked to biology, chemistry and physics to provide examples of comparison. I explored the "illusion" of isolated individualism through such examples--we are what we eat, we are mostly space between atoms, we have no definite boarders and are constantly exchanging substances and chemicals with our surrounding environment--and yet there is some perception of individuality which exists "beyond" this material existence... and so even scientific scrutiny itself helped to fuel my "thinking" through various religious beliefs about the nature of the soul.

Also, I think that art/aesthetics/poetry is another form of "thinking," although it is not necessarily linear or rational and may incorporate and integrate emotional responses as well as purely abstract or conceptual mental responses. In this sense, many religions incorporate "thinking" through art forms, music and sacred texts, which may stimulate thoughtfulness of a kind unfamiliar in the practical, mundane world of ordinary living.

So, yes, as you've probably guessed by now, I think "thinking is good." Even if you don't like what it gets you, even when it forces you to abandon certain beliefs without any new beliefs to take their place... still, thinking is good, if only because persistent thoughtfulness can almost always give way to flexibility, tolerance, a sense of irony, and even humility. I'm blushingly Socratic like that. ;)

Hecate said...

Enjoy the grass. It's lovely. ;)

Thomas said...

I'm hugely distressed that, nearly a century later, with mountains of evidence supporting it, there is still a large contingent in America that opposes the teaching of evolutionary theory.

Pure foolishness.

buddydon said...

i thank thankin is a good thang, but i have been rong a time or two. i still wish folks wood try it befor a'doon innythang else.

i agree with thomas that tiz a shame we are still a'fitin this silly battle when we could move on to more importunt thangs.

finely, ali has sum verr good thangs to say. one thang bout science as a form of thought is how it kin only thank bout whut it kin measure. taint prooved that thay aint no sole, jes that it caint be measured, lease frum my perspecktiv. but whut it has over faith by far is humility, knowin that whutever is 'prooved' today kin be overturnt tomorrow when thays new evidents or better tools to measure thangs.