The Right to Wrong: “Inherit the Wind”

May 13, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

ROGER ROSENBLATT: The first Broadway production of “Inherit the Wind” in 1955 starred Paul Muni in the Clarence Darrow role, Ed Bailey in the William Jennings Bryan role, and a young newcomer, Tony Randall, in the role of E.K. Hornbeck, the character who represented H.L. Mencken and journalism and wit and unfettered sharp-tongued modern right thinking.

The subject is the trial of John T. Scopes, a high school biology teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, in the 1920s, who was charged as violating a state statute prohibiting the teaching of Darwin’s evolutionary theories.

This was the famous “Monkey Trial” of 1925, with Darrow for the defense, Bryan for the prosecution, and Mencken, in a sense, for intellectual victory. This year, the play was revived on Broadway by Tony Randall, himself, now in his seventies and the head of his own production company, the National Actors Theater.

CLARENCE DARROW: (Played by George C. Scott) How in perdition can you have the gall to whoop up this holy war against something you don’t know anything about? How can you be so cock sure that the body of scientific knowledge, systematized in the writings of Charles Darwin is in any way irreconcilable with the spirit of the Book of Genesis?

SECOND ACTOR: Would you state that question again, please.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Forty-one years after the original, it still has great actors in the leads–George C. Scott and Charles Durning–and the very good actor, Anthony Heald, as Hornbeck. The producers have posted a recent quotation from Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan in the Royale Theater Lobby, stating Buchanan’s support of creationism.

But that strawman, while amusing, is misleading. “Inherit the Wind” was never about the superiority of Darwin to the Bible. It is about greatness versus smallness, which is made plain in the scene in which the humiliated Bryan dies and Hornbeck calls him a Bible-beating bastard. Darrow, who lost the case but won the argument, replies, “There was greatness in the man.”

DIFFERENT ACTOR: I charge you with contempt of conscious, self-perjury, kindness of forethought, sentimentality in the first degree.

CLARENCE DARROW: (Played by George C. Scott) Why? Because I refuse to erase a man’s entire life?

DIFFERENT ACTOR: Be kind to bigots week, since Brady’s dead, we must be kind. God, how the world is rotten with kindness.

CLARENCE DARROW: (Played by George C. Scott) I’m telling you, there was a giant there!

ROGER ROSENBLATT: The point of the two playwrights, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, is that the world is even close to being right with kindness or bigness of spirit. Intellectual correctness and human generosity are illogically opposed. So one looks around in the 1990s and sees the abortion wars and the cultural wars and the multicultural wars, each side assuring itself that being right is the most important thing in the world.

We still have the creationists versus the evolutionists. A recently defeated bill in, yes, the state of Tennessee would have called for the dismissal of teachers of evolution today. Who would say in Tennessee in 1996 with the bill’s defeat, as Darrow said to Hornbeck–

CLARENCE DARROW: (Played by George C. Scott) You smart aleck! You have no more right to spit on his religion than you had to spit on my religion, or lack of it!

ROGER ROSENBLATT: America is a highly educated country, but one of the penalties of our higher education is that it teaches a narrow definition of argument. Thanks to the rise of the social sciences, the country has grown adamantly divided among causes, lobbies, theories. People walk the streets with pickets in their minds. Because they believe this, they denigrate those who believe that. Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.

But “Inherit the Wind” knows better. The likely theory of how we came to be is not morally superior to the unlikely theory. It is simply more intellectually persuasive. The play was never about right and wrong theories. The play was and is about the right to be wrong, as Darrow tells Hornbeck, the right to think. And having established that, it is about something more important still and more fundamental to the question of not how but why we came to be.

It is about the wisdom and necessity of being kind. This may be why the author’s original production notes specify that every performance should feel like opening night, happening now. (applause) I’m Roger Rosenblatt.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: A final note about “Inherit the Wind.” Last week, George C. Scott left the cast because of poor health. As a consequence, the play closed over this past weekend.