by James Perloff, Jamesperloff.com:
It has been said that fiction persuades people more effectively than nonfiction, because it does a better job of touching emotions. Perhaps nothing has advanced evolution’s cause so effectively as a play and movie–Inherit the Wind.
Inherit depicts what was perhaps the most famous court case of the twentieth century–the “monkey trial” of 1925. The defendant was John Scopes, a schoolteacher from Dayton, Tennessee. He was charged with violating the Butler Act, a state law that forbade teaching that man descended from lower life forms (it did not prohibit teaching other aspects of evolution).
The Butler Act had been uncontroversial in the Tennessee legislature, passing 71-5 in the house, and 24-6 in the senate.
Leading Scopes’s defense was Clarence Darrow, the most famous criminal lawyer of his day; assisting the prosecution was William Jennings Bryan, former Secretary of State and three times the Democratic Party’s Presidential candidate. The most common impression about this trial is probably that Darrow humiliated Bryan in cross-examination, scoring a powerful blow for evolution against religious fundamentalism.
Above: Scopes, Darrow and Bryan
Public beliefs regarding the trial are based mostly on Inherit the Wind. The play enjoyed a record three-year run on Broadway. It then became a film starring Spencer Tracy and Frederic March and was nominated for several Academy Awards. The movie, as well as a 1988 televised remake, have been shown countless times to students as “educational” material. The play has been frequently revived. Few people, however, have ever read the actual trial transcript. For most, Inherit the WindIS the trial, and for many, even defines their perception of the creation-evolution debate.
It might be said, “Ah, come on, lighten up, nobody expects literal interpretations from Hollywood. Everyone knows that screenwriters sometimes change facts to make a story more interesting.” That’s right. I have signed away options on an unproduced screenplay of my own, and I know that when a writer fictionalizes a true event, he may have to create conflict where none existed, to put zip into the story, or invent new characters to generate dialogue.
That’s not what I’m talking about. Inherit the Wind did not alter facts merely to stimulate the audience. It grossly perverted the Scopes trial to advance a specific agenda. It is true that the original playwrights, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, acknowledged that their work “is not history,”1 and changed the principals’ names. John Scopes became Bert Cates; Clarence Darrow became Henry Drummond; William Jennings Bryan became Matthew Harrison Brady; Dayton, Tennessee became Hillsboro, Tennessee. Of course, everyone knew who they were talking about, but by making this disclaimer and changing the names, Lawrence and Lee padded their license to slander.
This chapter will contrast Inherit the Wind with the actual Scopes trial, by comparing the Spencer Tracy movie (the most familiar and accessible version) to the original courtroom transcript and other records.
IN THE MOVIE, the film opens as the grim town minister and other prudish-looking residents of Hillsboro gather. Ominous music plays against the hymn “Give me that old time religion, it’s good enough for me.” The citizens march to the local high school, where young Bert Cates (John Scopes) is forthrightly teaching biology, using Darwin’s Descent of Man. Cates is portrayed as a man who grew up in Hillsboro; neighborhood children, we learn, would come to his house to peer through his microscope.
The town prudes arrest Cates on the spot. The arresting officer reads in a droning fashion from a warrant. Cates says to him: “Come off it, Sam, you’ve known me all my life.”
IN REAL LIFE, John Scopes was not a biology teacher, nor did he grow up in Dayton, Tennessee. Scopes taught math and coached football, but had briefly substituted for the regular biology teacher during an illness. He was recruited by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to challenge Tennessee’s Butler Act. Evidently, he never even taught evolution or Darwin.L. Sprague de Camp’s The Great Monkey Trial relates the following conversation between Scopes and reporter William K. Hutchinson of the International News Service:
“There is something I must tell you. It’s worried me. I didn’t violate the law.”
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