Tennessee Attempts to Inherit the Wind Again

The Tennessee state House voted Wednesday to adopt the Holy Bible as the official state book. The chamber approved the measure 55-38. It is sponsored by Republican Rep. Jerry Sexton, a former pastor, who argued that his proposal reflects the Bible's historical, cultural and economic impact in Tennessee. In addition to the measure ignoring serious constitutional issues, it brings to mind a legendary legal case which took place in Tennessee nearly a century ago.

The Scopes "Monkey Trial" was held in the small town of Dayton, TN. in 1925. A substitute high school teacher, John Scopes, was accused of violating Tennessee's Butler Act, which made it unlawful to teach human evolution in any state-funded school. The trial drew intense international publicity, as two of the nation's most high-profile attorneys, William Jennings Bryan (prosecution) and Clarence Darrow (defense), argued the case, one of the earliest examples of Fundamentalist vs. Modernist viewpoints that was ever taken to trial in the U.S. The case was written about by some of the country's most renowned journalists, most revealingly and famously by the Baltimore Sun's H.L. Mencken.

Outside the courthouse during the Scopes trial. Dayton, TN., 1925.

The case inspired the hit play Inherit the Wind, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, which made its debut in 1955, and was adapted into a now-classic film directed by Stanley Kramer in 1960, starring Spencer Tracy and Frederic March as fictionalized versions of Darrow and Bryan. Lawrence and Lee later revealed that their play was also written as a thinly-veiled critique of McCarthyism and the so-called Communist "witch hunts" that plagued the U.S. during the Cold War era of the 1950s. According to Lawrence, "We used the teaching of evolution as a parable, a metaphor for any kind of mind control... It's not about science versus religion. It's about the right to think."

Clarence Darrow, left, and William Jennings Bryan, right, confer during the Scopes trial, 1925.

Henry Drummond, the character based on Darrow, is clearly the protagonist of the piece, his arguments and point-of-view coming across as measured, reasonable and backed up by scientific fact, as opposed to those of the opposing counsel, Matthew Harrison Brady, who argues his case with religious dogma backing the argument. The success of both the play and the film indicated the move toward secularism that was beginning to sweep the United States in the post-war years, particularly the 1960s and '70s.

Inherit the Wind opened with actors Paul Muni, Ed Begley, and Tony Randall produced and directed by Herman Shumlin on January 10, 1955. It debuted at Broadway's National Theatre on April 21, 1955. It ran on Broadway until June 22, 1957, where it closed after 806 performances. It was revived on Broadway twice: April 4, 1996 - May 12, 1996 and April 12, 2007 - July 8, 2007. The 1996 production starred George C. Scott (who played Brady in the later 1998 film version) as Drummond and Charles Durning as Brady. Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehy starred in the 2007 revival. It has been adapted into a TV movie three times: in 1965, 1988 and 1999 and continues to be a popular play mounted in high schools and colleges.

John T. Scopes

Similar measures as those enacted in Tennessee on Wednesday have been attempted in Mississippi and Louisiana in recent years and were met with strong resistance from constitutional lawyers and scholars, causing the measures to be eventually dropped. While many of the measure's supporters in Tennessee acknowledge the likelihood of a lawsuit should the bill become law, they also feel a fight might be worth the final result. "There are some things that are worth standing up for," said Rep. Andy Holt, a Republican. "Markets, money and military are meaningless without morals. I think it's time for our body to make a stand."

At the conclusion of Inherit the Wind, Cates (the character based on John Scopes), is found guilty and fined $100 (as was Scopes, with the conviction later overturned on a technicality). Drummond says he will appeal the decision while Brady, still grandstanding, tries to get the crowd's attention for a final speech, but they've lost interest by this point. Brady collapses and later dies. As Cates leaves the courtroom with his fiancée, Drummond is left alone in the courtroom with a copy of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species and a copy of the Bible. He balances a book in each hand, like a scale, finally slapping the two together and shoving them in his briefcase.

A fitting metaphor for many things.