Toward the end of Inherit the Wind, Henry Drummond says to Bertram Cates, the schoolteacher whose right to talk about evolution in the classroom Drummond has smashingly championed in an obscure courtroom that seems to have overnight become the eye of a nationwide hurricane: "You don't suppose this kind of thing is ever finished, do you? Tomorrow, sure as hell, somebody else'll have to stand up…."
Jerome Lawrence and/or Robert E. Lee, co-authors of this "wonderful warhorse," as Christopher Plummer calls it, planted those words of warning circa 1955. In 2007, as perpetual-motion Plummer was uncharacteristically relaxing and memoir-writing down in Florida preparatory to opening on Broadway at the Lyceum as Henry Drummond (read Clarence Darrow) opposite Brian Dennehy as Bible-thumping Matthew Harrison Brady (read William Jennings Bryan), he — Plummer — said over the phone: "I think it's more timely now, more universally timely." He didn't have to use the words creationism or intelligent design, but they hung in the air. "Nobody's learned anything at all," Plummer dryly remarked.
It seemed not inappropriate to ask the always spot-perfect 77-year-old, Toronto-born actor and great-grandson of a prime minister of Canada about his own religious allegiance, if any. (Among his recent accomplishments, be it noted, is a 2003 voice-over narration of the Gospel of John.)
"Well, I was brought up, of course, Church of England. My family was quite staunchly religious — church every Sunday and all that. But," said Plummer, "I loved going down to the great old Catholic church in Montreal. So much to look at: the panoply, the color, the stained-glass windows, the music, the romantic idea of what religion is. "The trouble was there were always bad readings by the preachers, who didn't have the right voice, or voices. That was what drove me out of the church. They were just not good enough to do the job.
"So I ran away and found my own profession — the theatre, and arts in general." A pause. "I mean, one of man's greatest achievements is the written word. That's my religion, and not necessarily a man on a cross or Jesus Christ or Mohammed or whoever." Or, as Henry Drummond puts it at the peak of his assault on the Biblical mumbo jumbo of Matthew Brady:
In a child's power to master the multiplication table there is more sanctity than all your shouted 'Amens!,' 'Holy Holies!,' and 'Hosannahs!' An idea is a greater monument than a cathedral….
Which, by an odd concatenation, brings us to king-sized Brian Dennehy as Brady, the bloviating, three-time populist candidate for U.S. president whom Drummond first destroys, then compassionately defends.
"We didn't actually have scenes together, Brian and I, but we were both in Showtime's "Our Fathers," about that notorious [youth-abusing] priest who was finally exposed in Boston." Dennehy played a crusading priest intent on exposing the truth and Plummer received an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Bernard Cardinal Law, "who," he added dryly, "went to Rome, to the Vatican, and was rewarded with a promotion."
He has never before worked with director Doug Hughes. You're going to be thrilled, said this writer. "That's what everybody tells me," said Plummer. "I knew his father, of course" — the late actor, Barnard Hughes. "Barney and I acted together in The Good Doctor," Neil Simon's 1973 tribute to Anton Chekhov.
Two-time Tony winner Plummer (one for his Barrymore, one for his Cyrano) and multi-everything-winner Doug Hughes are, Plummer said, "not going to do Inherit the Wind like a movie, we're going to do it like a play, but he [Hughes] is going to open it up, have one scene dissolve, through lighting, into another, flow into another — rather like a movie, in fact."
Plummer's own film credits run to an incredible 158 entries on the Internet Movie Database, and you could look hard before you would find a less than superb performance anywhere. Whenever they need somebody to play somebody famous — Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mike Wallace, F. Lee Bailey, Aristotle, Santa Claus, Alfred Stieglitz, Vladimir Nabokov, et al — they send for Plummer. Now he joins the ranks of famous actors who, on stage or screen, have played Inherit the Wind's fictional embodiment of Clarence Darrow, the brilliantly articulate lawyer who saved thrill-killers Leopold and Loeb from the chair in Chicago in 1924, then made a monkey of William Jennings Bryan in the "Monkey Trial" of John T. Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee, in the steaming July of 1925.
"The reason I wanted to do this play," Plummer said on the phone from Florida, "is I love trial lawyers. Yes, I've played some, but not enough of them."
He counted off the Henry Drummonds — well, the Clarence Darrows — he has seen. "First there was [Paul] Muni" in the original 1955 Broadway production of Inherit the Wind. "Muni, with all those wonderful pauses of his that you could drive a truck through. Saw Hank Fonda do it on television. Saw Spencer Tracy do it [opposite Fredric March in the 1960 movie]. Tracy was just wonderful, but he didn't attempt to play Clarence Darrow. Didn't see George C. Scott do it [on Broadway in 1996], I regret to say. I liked George a lot. And, of course, I saw Orson Welles do it" (as "Jonathan Wilk" in the 1959 film of Meyer Levin's "Compulsion," based on the Leopold and Loeb case).
Plummer sort of chuckled, down there in Florida. "Orson was… arresting," he said. "He dressed like Clarence, but the Clarence was more like Orson than Clarence."
You can be certain that the Clarence Darrow to be given us by Christopher Plummer on Broadway will be (a) none of the above and (b) something to remember.
Meantime, he's been working on his memoirs, which should be coming out from Knopf — "maybe next Christmas. Looks pretty nigh. It's mostly stories about people. I do it in longhand; find that quicker than the computer. But it has worked havoc on my hand."
That's okay. Christopher Plummer could play Clarence Darrow with one hand tied behind his back.