"We find today as brazen and bold an attempt to destroy learning as was ever made in the Middle Ages.”
Those words were spoken in July 1925 by renowned attorney Clarence Darrow in a courtroom in Dayton, TN, at the outset of what is now commonly referred to as the Scopes Monkey Trial. Darrow, representing the defendant, John Scopes, was arguing against the constitutionality of a state law passed two months earlier—the first of its kind in this country—that banned the teaching of evolution in public schools.
More than 80 years later, as challenges are again being made to the teaching of evolution, Darrow’s words are as relevant as ever. For the past four months, audiences around the country have had the opportunity to hear the opinions and strategies put forth in that legendary court case, in a play called The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial. Adapted from trial transcripts by Peter Goodchild and presented by LA Theatre Works, the play winds up a 23-city tour in Los Angeles from March 1–5, following performances in Maryland, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Minnesota in February.
Monkey Trial, which originated as a radio play, was recorded in 1994 with a cast that included Charles Durning as Darrow, Tyne Daly as The Narrator and Edward Asner as prosecutor William Jennings Bryan, the great orator and champion of progressive causes, who happened to be a steadfast fundamentalist. The current tour has also attracted the likes of James Cromwell, Alfred Molina, Marsha Mason, Sharon Gless, Richard Dreyfuss and Tom Bosley, among other luminaries. Asner first played Bryan in 1992 in an early version of the play, and finds much to admire about the three-time presidential candidate. “The great tragedy is that he’s remembered for the Scopes trial, where he was made to look like a fool,” says Asner. “He was a great man up until the time of the trial. He fought for peace; he fought for the working man and the farmer. He was a wonderful populist leader. I have a great appreciation for his power to spellbind and to fight for the right causes. The play shows him at his spellbinding best, I hope, early in the piece, and then shows his descent. So there is an arc to the character in the play that I enjoy portraying. Unfortunately, he stumbled badly.”
Asner, a noted liberal activist, believes that most of the people who come to see the play already oppose the attempts being made to excise evolution from curriculums and impose religious doctrine on school systems. “Most of the time we’re preaching to the converted,” he says. “But one of the shocking times we had was in Wisconsin, which is a fairly liberal state. We were in Green Bay and gave a matinee to high school students, most of whom were home-schooled. After the play, we had a conversation with the students, and one of the actors asked, ‘How many of you believe that the world was created in seven days?’ I would say close to 60 percent raised their hands. When they were asked, ‘How many of you believe in evolution,’ maybe 40 percent raised their hands. Again, that’s after seeing this play. I was fully depressed. I don’t know what you’ve got to do.
“I’m frightened to death for this country,” he continues. “In the past five or six years, the control exerted by a combination of fundamentalism, militarism and mega-corporations, which includes control of the media, has created such a right-wing lurch in our country that if we get back to ground center, I’ll be delighted.”