Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Disinheriting the Wind: How Broadway and Hollywood Distorted History


No trial in American history has aroused as much controversy as the 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee. And no trial has been the subject of so many misconceptions, distortions and lies. For example:

All four of the above "facts" are false.

What Really Happened
In 1925, the governor and legislators of Tennessee had no intention of enforcing the anti-evolution Butler Act, a symbolic statement. Its passage had been a concession to its sponsor, a rural legislator who had not succeeded in getting any legislation passed. The trial would not have occurred had the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) not advertised in Tennessee newspapers for a teacher willing to participate in a test case. And it would not have taken place in Dayton if local boosters hadn't seen such a trial as a way to help the town's faltering economy.

Technically, the only point at issue in the trial was whether or not John Scopes actually taught the evolution of man from lower animals. The defense wanted a speedy conviction to be able to move the case to a higher court. The trial itself was boring, with only two moments of high drama. The first moment came with the jury not in the courtroom during a procedural argument about the admissibility of expert testimony. Bryan, who had uncharacteristically said nothing during the first days of the trial, chose this moment to verbally flay the theory of evolution. Addressing the spectators and not the judge, Bryan practically denied that humans were mammals and argued that the Leopold and Loeb murder case recently concluded successfully by Darrow showed that too much learning could be dangerous.

Bryan's first humiliation came from the defense's spirited rebuttal by New York attorney Dudley Field Malone, who had served briefly under Bryan when he was secretary of state in the Wilson administration. Four decades later, Scopes would write in The Center of the Storm, his 1967 memoir, that "Malone's reply to Bryan was the most dramatic event I have attended in my life." Despite Malone's moving speech, at the end of the trial's first week Judge Raulston ruled the defense's expert witnesses could not testify. Convinced the trial was over for all practical purposes, reporters fled from Dayton's insufferable heat. As a result, they missed the dramatic duel between Darrow and Bryan the next Monday.

When the defense surprised Bryan and called him to the stand as an expert witness on the Bible, he foolishly insisted on submitting to Darrow's questioning over the objections of his fellow prosecutors. Because the immense crowd in the courtroom was creating structural problems in the building, the judge moved the proceedings outside. On the courthouse lawn before a thousand spectators, Darrow gave Bryan a verbal drubbing, making him look both pompous and foolish. In some exchanges, however, Bryan gave as good as he got.

The climax of the clash came when Bryan volunteered that the first days of creation described in the Book of Genesis each could have lasted longer than 24 hours--thus abandoning strict fundamentalist dogma and riling fundamentalists everywhere.
Bryan's testimony turned out to be moot. Having refused to hear the defense's expert witnesses, the judge ruled Bryan's testimony inadmissible.

Scopes' swift conviction was overturnwd eighteen months later by the Tennessee Supreme Court on a legal technicality: the judge had erred in not allowing the jury to set the fine, and so the ACLU had nothing to appeal. Yet the law that prompted the Scopes trial was to remain on Tennessee's books for 42 years. The anti-evolution movement could hardly be said to have run out of steam--other states passed similar legislation. In fact, the battle between evolution and creationism continues to this day.

The Lawrence and Lee Play
Fast forward now to 1950, 25 years after the trial. Two young playwrights, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, concerned about McCarthy-era blacklisting of writers and actors, decided to write a drama based on the Scopes trial. Until then their one Broadway success had been the 1948 comedy Look Ma, I'm Dancin'.

Copyrighted as an unpublished work in 1951, their script was rejected by a succession of producers. Finally, Inherit the Wind opened on Broadway on April 21, 1955. Veteran Hollywood actor Paul Muni came out of retirement to take the Darrow role. After a brief hiatus for an eye operation, he returned in December to resume the role and won a Tony in 1956 as best actor in a drama. Character actor Ed Begley played Bryan, and Tony Randall played Mencken. The show ran for twenty-six months, racking up more than 806 performances to make it the longest-running drama on Broadway up until that time. The play's authors never intended it to be an account of the conflict between evolution and creationism. Instead, as Lawrence later admitted, "We used the teaching of evolution as a parable for any kind of thought control. It's not about science versus religion. It's about the right to think."

"Inherit the Wind does not pretend to be journalism," the writers pointed out in their introduction to the published play. "It is theatre. It is not 1925. The stage directions set the time as 'Not too long ago.' It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow." Despite this disclaimer, the playwrights clearly identified the time frame by inserting references to Milton Sills and Douglas Fairbanks, two silent film stars of the twenties, in the stage directions.

"Only a handful of phrases have been taken from the transcript of the famous Scopes trial," they insisted. Some characters in the play are related to the colorful figures of that battle of giants; but they have a life and language of their own--and, therefore, names of their own." Nevertheless, their identities were only thinly disguised. The rhythm of each name and the number of syllables matched those of the real persons they represent. William Jennings Bryan became Matthew Harrison Brady; Clarence Darrow was renamed Henry Drummond; John Scopes, the defendant, has become is Bert Cates; journalist H.L. Mencken is now E.K. Hornbeck.

How Reliable is Inherit the Wind as History?
Unfortunately for the Muse of History, in their zeal to support the First Amendment, Lawrence and Lee did violence to crucial facts. Major participants in the trial--notably Dudley Field Malone as well as his powerful courtroom statements--disappeared from both play and movie versions of Inherit the Wind. Moreover, the drama paints a distorted picture of Bryan, the "Great Commoner," a principled politician who had represented the agrarian wing of the progressive movement. The Democratic candidate for the presidency three times, he advocated a surprising number of reforms controversial at the time that are now included in today's laws. Bryan opposed U.S. entry into the First World War, high protective tariffs,concentrations of wealth in the hands of the few, and trusts and monopolies. He supported women's suffrage, direct election of senators by the people (senators were then elected by the House of Representatives), independence for the Philippines, the income tax, the election of federal judges and the rights of minorities. He opposed evolution not only because it was at odds with his religious beliefs; Bryan feared that it would lead to social Darwinism and Nietzschean "survival of the fittest" programs. These fears were realized in Nazi Germany's programs in the 1930's for the extermination of so-called "undesirables"--Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and the mentally and physically disabled.

Despite its inconsistencies, few modern American plays have proved as durable as this work by Lawrence and Lee. As a staple for school and community theatrical groups, the play continues to spread its fictions about the Scopes trial. With their wider audiences, a 1960 movie and TV versions in 1965, 1988 and 1999, have proved even more influential in spreading misinformation about the trial. A revival of the drama in New York City in 1996 received rave reviews. Dubious history it may be, but to this day, Inherit the Wind remains brilliant theater.

Fact vs. Fiction in Inherit the Wind
A comparison of the widely available 1960 film version of Inherit the Wind, starring Spencer Tracy as Darrow and Fredric March as Bryan, with the actual events of the Scopes trial is revealing. To avoid confusion here with two sets of names, the proper names of the principals are used consistently since there can be no doubt about whom the characters in the play or films were intended to represent.

Film: The movie begins with a deputation of citizens, a minister and a photographer descending on the high school, where Scopes, the young biology teacher, is "caught in the act" of teaching evolution and placed under arrest. An accompanying newspaper photographer captures the arrest on film.
Fact: Scopes was not a biology teacher and no one intruded on his class. He had briefly substituted for the regular biology teacher who was ill. Although Scopes volunteered to serve as the defendant, he could not remember whether he had covered the subject of evolution in class. A prelaw graduate of the University of Kentucky, he had been hired to teach math and to coach the football team.

Film: H.L. Mencken has his Baltimore newspaper arrange for Scopes to be defended by Clarence Darrow, the nation's most famous criminal lawyer.
Fact: Darrow offered his services to the Scopes defense at the urging of Dudley Field Malone. The ACLU in New York paid his expenses.

Film: William Jennings Bryan is depicted as narrow-minded, mean, foolish, hypocritical, self-important and gluttonous. He is played as a buffoon and comic strip caricature.
Fact: L. Sprague De Camp, who wrote The Great Monkey Trial, an account of the trial friendly to the defense, described Bryan this way: "As a speaker, Bryan radiated good-humored sincerity. Few who heard him could help liking him. In personality he was forceful, energetic and opinionated but genial, kindly, generous, likable and charming. He showed a praiseworthy tolerance towards those who disagreed with him."

Film: Upon his arrival in Dayton, Bryan is honored with a huge parade in which people march and sing "Give Me That Old Time Religion." Paraders carry signs reading "Down with Darrow," "Don't Pin a Tail on Me" and "Deliver Us from Evil." A similar celebration is held at the courthouse as Bryan arrives for the first day of the trial. By contrast, Darrow arrives on a bus virtually unnoticed and is greeted by hostile citizens. He is booed when he arrives at the courthouse.
Fact: Bryant and Darrow were both greeted warmly by Dayton residents, but no parades were held. Each was given a welcoming dinner at Dayton's Progressive Club.

Film: The people of Dayton are portrayed as fanatical, bigoted, ignorant, uncouth and threatening. Darrow speaks disparagingly of local citizens.
Fact: Local residents were friendly to both the prosecution and the defense. Darrow later praised them: "I came here as a perfect stranger, and I can say what I have said before, that I have not found upon anybody's part--any citizen here in this town or outside, the slightest discourtesy. I have been better treated, kindlier and more hospitably than I fancied I would have been in the North."

Film: The Scopes defense team consists of Darrow, aided by the reporter H.L. Mencken. The prosecution consists of Bryan and a local prosecutor.
Fact: Mencken was at the trial as a reporter and played no part in Scopes' defense. Both sides were represented by teams of attorneys. Darrow was aided by five attorneys, including Dudley Field Malone and Arthur Garfield Hays, his partner, from New York, and by a Bible expert. In addition to Bryan, the prosecution team included Bryan's lawyer son, William Jennings Bryan, Jr., and five Tennessee attorneys.

Film: John Scopes' fiancee, Rachel Brown, daughter of the fire-and-brimstone preacher, Rev. Jeremiah Brown, wants him to recant. Scopes refuses.
Fact: No one resembling the Rev. Jeremiah Brown or Rachel Brown existed. He was a creation of the playwrights as a threat to Scopes; she was included to add love interest.

Film: Scopes is a central figure in the trial.
Fact: Scopes actually played a minor role in his trial.

Film: Local citizens burn Scopes and Darrow in effigy, denounce Scopes, throw rocks at the jail and threaten a lynching. Bryan's followers march through the streets chanting, "We'll hang Clarence Darrow from a sour apple tree."
Fact: None of these events happened. Local citizens liked Scopes and treated Darrow respectfully. This misrepresentation is especially ironic. In February of 1917, as Bryan tried to stop the country's slide into war with Germany, a mob in Baltimore marched through the streets chanting, "We'll hang Bill Bryan from a sour apple tree."

Film: Bryan is made an honorary colonel in the Tennessee militia upon his arrival in town. In the courtroom, Bryan is called "Colonel" by the judge. Darrow protests the use of this title, saying that he is not familiar with Bryan's military rank. Darrow is made a "temporary honorary Colonel" by the mayor of Dayton to accommodate him.
Fact: Following local custom, the title of "Colonel" was used by the judge to address or refer to legal counsel on both sides. Bryan would have been entitled to the title anyway; he held the rank of Colonel in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War, although he did not see combat.

Film: At the end of the trial's first day, Darrow objects to an announcement by the judge of a prayer meeting that evening.
Fact: No such announcement was made by Judge Raulston. However, Darrow did object to each session of the trial being opened with a prayer. [To this day, a prayer opens each session of the Congress and the Supreme Court.]

Film: At the ensuing prayer meeting, the Rev. Jeremiah Brown calls upon God to strike down Scopes and his sympathizers (including his own daughter), urging eternal damnation for Scopes.
Fact: No such prayer meeting was held; the townspeople liked Scopes.

Film: Bryan betrays Scopes' fiancee by forcing her to testify against Scopes and to repeat conversations and confidences she had shared with Bryan. His unfriendly questioning leaves her in tears.
Fact: Scopes had no fiancee. No women testified at the trial.

Film: Darrow asks the judge to be permitted to withdraw from the case.
Fact: Darrow never made such a request.

Film: Bryan objects to each of the expert witnesses Darrow tries to put on the stand to testify.
Fact: The defense's dozen scientists and theologians were not permitted to testify by Judge Raulston, who ruled such testimony was not pertinent to the guilt or innocence of Scopes. When the defense asked that the experts be permitted to testify to create a record for appellate review, the judge agreed but warned that the prosecution would be allowed to cross-examine them. To avoid such grilling, Darrow decided to have eight of the expert witnesses submit written statements for the record.

Film: Darrow gets Bryan to admit that he has never read Darwin's book "The Origin of Species" and does not intend to read it.
Fact: Bryan had read Darwin's book as early as twenty years before. It was Bryan--not Darrow--who introduced Darwin's books into evidence in the trial and quoted from them. But no Darwin book was used in teaching biology in Dayton's high school. The state-approved textbook was Civic Biology, written by George W. Hunter, a teacher in New York City's DeWitt Clinton High School.

Film: Darrow gets Bryan to admit that he takes every word in the Bible literally.
Fact: From the transcript of the trial:
Darrow: "Do you claim that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?"
Bryan: "I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there; some of the Bible is given illustratively. For instance: 'Ye are the salt of the earth.' I would not insist that Man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God's people."

Film: Darrow asks Bryan about sex in the Bible:
"You're up here as an expert on the Bible. What's the Biblical evaluation of sex?"
Bryan: "It is considered 'Original Sin.'"
Fact: No mention of sex was made by Darrow in his questioning of Bryan.

Film: Bryan claims to know the exact age of the earth. As calculated by Archbishop Ussher of Armagh, it was created at 9 a.m. on October 23, 4004 B.C.
Fact: From the transcript of the trial:
Darrow: "Mr. Bryan, could you tell me how old the earth is?"
Bryan: "No, sir. I couldn't."
Darrow: "Could you come anywhere near it."
Bryan: "I wouldn't attempt to."
Actually, it was Darrow who introduced the Ussher date in his questioning.

Film: As the trial winds down, Darrow fights hard to establish his client's innocence.
Fact: After grilling Bryan about his belief in the Bible, to avert having to take the stand himself and be questioned by Bryan, Darrow abruptly brought the trial to an end by asking the judge to instruct the jury to find his client guilty.

Film: A radio station microphone is brought into the courtroom at the end of the trial to broadcast the verdict.
Fact: Technicians from radio station WGN in Chicago had broadcast the proceedings of the week before, but dismantled their equipment before the verdict was returned.

Film: After an agonizing wait, the jury returns, having found Scopes guilty. The judge states that the sentence can be a fine of $100 to $500, or imprisonment. He fines Scopes $100. Darrow is visibly disappointed with the verdict. Bryan is vindictive and becomes angry at the small size of the $100 fine levied against the defendant. "Where the issues are so titanic," Bryan argues, "the court must mete out more drastic punishment."
Fact: The jury deliberated for only eight minutes. Violation of the law was only a misdemeanor and did not call for incarceration. Darrow got what he wanted--a verdict that could be appealed. Bryan, in campaigning for anti-evolution legislation such as the Tennessee law, had argued against monetary fines levied against educators. Instead of being unhappy over the sentence, Bryan even offered to pay Scopes's fine.

Film: After the verdict is read, Darrow reminds the judge that defendants have a right to make a statement before sentencing. Scopes then apologizes for his lack of public speaking skills, saying, "I am just a schoolteacher." A woman spectator hoots, "Not any more you ain't!"
Fact: Scopes did not lose his teaching job. He could have remained a teacher in the local high school. He chose to attend graduate school at the University of Chicago, where he studied geology.

Film: After the judge adjourns the trial, Bryan seeks to present the lengthy closing statement he had prepared. The jury and spectators drift away from the courtroom, and he becomes visibly agitated. He abandons the reading of his statement and begins to chant the names of the books of the Bible in a loud voice. A distraught William Jennings Bryan collapses on the floor of the courtroom and dies.
Fact: Neither side presented closing arguments to the jury. In Dayton five days after the trial ended, Bryan ate a large noonday meal and died quietly in his sleep during an afternoon nap.

Inherit the Wind Today
Despite its glaring discrepancies, the play, available in a paperback edition, is popular with high school drama clubs and is widely used in community dramatic productions. The National Center for History in Schools, headquartered at the Department of History at UCLA, publishes instructional standards. As a way of educating high school students about changing values during that distant decade, its 86-page standard Cultural Clashes of the Twenties, available for $13.00, recommends that teachers "use sections from the Scopes trial or excerpts from Inherit the Wind to explain how the views of William Jennings Bryan differed from those of Clarence Darrow."

CliffsNotes, a series of widely used supplements for high school and college students, has added "Inherit the Wind" to its list of available titles--an indication that the printed version of the play is still being used as a responsible teaching tool. The only other modern plays in the CliffsNotes series are Death of a Salesman, Raisin in the Sun, The Crucible and Waiting for Godot.

The Internet web site Teach with Movies, located in Santa Monica, Cal., is aimed specifically at parents who teach their children at home. Its "learning guide" to the film "Inherit theWind", the longest and most detailed analysis of any of the movies it reviews, describes the 1960 film as "a drama loosely based on the 'Scopes Monkey Trial'." A linked site, the Social Studies School Service in Culver City, Cal., sells video cassettes of the film for $14.95, incorrectly describing it as "a lightly fictionalized re-creation of the Scopes 'Monkey Trial' of 1925."

Ask anyone whether they are familiar with the Scopes trial, and they may answer, "Oh, yes, I read the play." Or, even more likely, "Of course, I saw the film." Shouldn't we be concerned that factual errors in this gripping drama have generated widely held misconceptions about the issues and the trial? In social science and history classrooms across the nation, the film version of Inherit the Wind has become a popular instructional tool for teaching students about America in the twenties. Unfortunately, young people today glean much of their information about history from films. One shudders to think that children and adults today are being encouraged to see the Broadway and Hollywood distortions of the Scopes trial as portrayals of actual events.

Labels: , , , ,

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Comments: Post a Comment | Postscripts Homepage

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?