October 20, 2014

Culture | November 15, 2012
The trial of free thought
Inherit the Wind sees grey in a black and white play
Written by | Visual by Victor Tangermann | The McGill Daily

Annabel Raby, the director of Inherit the Wind (and in the interest of full disclosure, a dear friend of mine) has a saying that goes: “It is impossible to agree with anyone more than yourself.” You may respect someone else’s views, or really think their taste in music is slamming, but only insofar as they agree with your own.  You are the final judge of what is right and wrong, even if you cede a little ground tailoring your perspective to that of someone else.

Science and religion are two paradigms that can demand full compliance, full alignment with their precepts and methods, acceptance of all their truth claims as a prerequisite to considering yourself a member of that community. In countless modern legends – such as the Scopes Monkey Trial allegorically represented in Inherit the Wind – we see the freethinkers of science daring to question the backwards dogmatists. That said, science breeds combative scientism, just as religion breeds some virulent fundamentalist movements.  You need only to look at the work of Christopher Hitchens or the Creation Museum to see how little each side cares to listen to the other. Thus, the science versus religion legend often takes the form of war reporting, with one or the other side loudly and proudly claiming a victory. Think of the legendary Galileo Galilei losing to the closed-minded, desperately afraid Catholic authorities.  It requires a dichotomy: us and them. Stephen Jay Gould, a noted evolutionary biologist, posits that the human brain’s tendency to dichotomize is a holdover from our earliest evolutionary choices – fight or flight; eat or don’t eat. Both in our ancient evolutionary past, and in rural America where the Scopes Monkey Trial took place, it’s certainly a lot easier to decide when there are only two choices.

The Scopes Monkey Trial, or the “Hillsboro Trial,” as it’s called in Inherit the Wind, was a small-town dispute in which some big league players took a serious interest. A young schoolteacher dares to read the work of Charles Darwin and teach evolution to his students, violating a state law against it. In the typical liberal narrative, William Jennings Bryan, a highly charismatic populist politician, gives his last hurrah to his real American Bible-thumping supporters, and prosecutes the teacher’s infraction as an attempt to overrule the truth of the Bible and the spirit of his American people.  Clarence Darrow, a brutally successful and controversial attorney, arrives with watertight arguments, scalding rhetoric, and the trumpets of truth and free thought heralding his closing statement, which I was forced to study in no fewer than three history classes as a child.

In my depictions, of course, I am caricaturizing. So too, however, does Inherit the Wind, when it is traditionally staged. Raby had to fight the confines of the play, and of our narrow conceptions of science and religion. She made the play about scientific and religious people. Not just the ideas themselves, but how they come to inhabit the bodies of those who hold them dearly. We see a constant battle between the paradigm and the person, between how much of their self they are willing to take agency over, and how much they sacrifice to the values of science or the precepts of religion. It is enormously easy, especially on a Northeastern college campus, to metaphorically burn the creationists in effigy as a refutation of backwardness and dogmatism everywhere. This production works hard to inject an element of humanity into the debate, and make that impossible.

Importantly, William Jennings Bryan is played by a woman.  Emily Doyle’s Mary Jefferson Brady is obviously used to stumping on the campaign trail, and one of the most stunning moments of the play is her hysterical confession to her husband that “I hate it when they laugh at me.” We see a broken woman, a collapse of confidence, but most significantly, we witness the human dimension of this discourse. Browsing Reddit, it’s hard to read some of the smug put-downs on r/atheism, a “subreddit” dedicated exclusively to discussing atheism, without wondering what it must be like to be these poor religious straw-men, to have your entire worldview put on trial and savagely destroyed by a complete outsider (or so goes the internet narrative). It would be easy to paint Brady in light of our modern legends as a hysterical zealot, or a Tea Party bigot, but there are clear directorial choices that make both this portrait and the audience’s haughty dismissal of the character impossible.

Henry Drummond, the Clarence Darrow of the play, is another role that could have been easily played as a slick, charismatic, hotshot lawyer, clean where the town is dusty, sharp where the town is dull and rough. Instead, Samuel Steinbrock-Pratt plays his character as combative, repulsive, and completely magnetic. Every joke hits; every argument is crisp, and yet he’s belligerent, almost mean, while his jerky movements and greasy hair were obviously chosen to muddy the waters. Further, his impassioned eleventh-hour defense of Ms. Brady’s character is extraordinarily poignant, and unsettling.

Other standouts are the heartless reporter Hornbeck, played by Matthieu Labaudiniere, whose caustic urban cynicism strikes unfair blow after unfair blow upon the likeable townspeople. And quietly, but with great dignity, Matt Smith’s Cates is the scared, romantic, courageous schoolteacher who sits perched with enough bewilderment that you see the power of true indecision, the cracked and bumpy path of free thought, and the “twilight on top of the mountains,” where here on earth, we just see night and day, to use a metaphor from the play.  With Cates, we see the director’s vision, the point that we should embrace the twilight of indecision and ambivalence instead of forcing ourselves into a day/night dichotomy of true and false.  Drummond speaks the words, but the gentle romance between Cates and his ingenue, young Rachel Brown, played beautifully by Katie Scharf, makes you feel their truth.

There’s a great nostalgia for easy choices among youth. The recent Americana fad, with the work of pop artists like Lana Del Rey, and distressed American flag t-shirts on sale in every H&M and Topshop around the world, reflects the longing for the simplicity of “real America” (as it is called in a thousand stump speeches around the country). With the rise of the scientific atheist community and religious fundamentalists of every stripe, we see this longing fulfilled in belonging to a group or a movement that will answer every question, that are implacable in their beliefs, and flexible in their application.  This play is an important shade of grey amidst a black and white battlefront; a rejoinder against easy characterizations and narratives, a reminder that nothing as complicated as humans can be depicted well in only two colors.  There is a beautiful collage-style sepia tree as the backdrop, a product of nature with the simplicity and charm of the town, with leaves of manifold colors and shapes. So how’s that for a metaphor, oh ye of little faith?

Inherit the Wind runs from November 14 to 17, 21 to 24 at 8 p.m. Go to ssmu.mcgill.ca/players/news/ for further information.

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