Oklahoma Children’s Theatre and TheatreOCU join forces to stage “Inherit the Wind,” an American classic dealing with the battle between religion and science over evolution.
The play was inspired by the events of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in science teacher John T. Scopes was convicted of breaking Tennessee law for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution in his classroom.
“Inherit” follows the trial of Bert Cates, the dramatic surrogate for Scopes, and shows how his entire community becomes destructively polarized as two strong-minded outsiders descend upon the town to fight in the courtroom.
On one side, you have Brady, a former presidential candidate and staunch defender of the church, modeled on William Jennings Bryan. On the other side is Drummond, a well-known lawyer and atheist, based on Clarence Darrow.
The play, which debuted on Broadway in 1955, was doing more than just dramatizing a historical event. It was a metaphor on the assault on free thought and expression that was rampant under the anti-Communist hysteria propagated by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. In 1960, a film version followed.
Director Elin Bhaird said she’s always loved the movie and how the story pleads so passionately for the individual freedom of thought so under siege today. She said it might be surprising, given the play’s framework, but it doesn’t take the side of science or religion.
“For the playwrights, it’s more about the right to have an idea. It’s about a wide array of thought and ideas and how it’s perfectly healthy to look at them and discuss them without being threatened by them,” she said. “The playwrights are talking about the freedom to express your thoughts without fear of reprisals and being attacked.”
The set, which includes the courtroom, is designed so that the town is always visible.
“It isn’t just the teacher Bert Cates who’s on trial — it’s the whole town. This informs everything that takes place. The town has caused this trial to happen and simultaneously brought a national spotlight to itself in having expressed its prejudices through the court,” Bhaird said.
She said that despite its age, “Inherit the Wind” is still relevant.
“It’s a perfect story for our age with all the ranting and finger-pointing going on in our culture,” she said. “Everyone’s always saying, ‘The Republicans are wrong’ or ‘The Democrats are wrong.’ We can never just disagree with people or their ideas or even allow them to have their own ideas. Today, we must demonize people whose beliefs are different than ours.”
For her, “Inherit the Wind” is a cautionary tale that preceded the culture wars of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, but all too accurately predicted the poison and vitriol that comes with such uncivil partisan debate.