Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee

 

Programme Note

The play is based on a real life event. In 1925 a school teacher, John Scopes (Cates in the play), broke the laws of Tennessee by teaching Darwin`s theory of evolution. He was arrested, and subjected to what became known as the `Scopes Monkey Trial`. He was defended by the USA`s most famous lawyer, Clarence Darrow (Drummond), and prosecuted by three-times presidential candidate and fundamentalist preacher William Jennings Bryan (Brady). The nation`s press, including the reporter later to become the doyen of American journalism, H L Mencken (Hornbeck), covered the trial, which was also the first (as the play indicates) to be broadcast on radio.

But the struggle between creationists and evolutionists is not the play`s only theme - nor even its main one. Like Arthur Miller in The Crucible, Lawrence and Lee wrote Inherit the Wind in the 1950s as a response to the McCarthyite witch-hunts of suspected communists, which lost many actors and writers their jobs. In their hands, the well-known Scopes story becomes an opportunity to debate many issues relevant to the 1950s and 60s - as well as to us in the new century.

The play is about political cynicism, about power exercised by demagogues for their own ends, about mass hysteria against individuals who dare to hold contentious views, about the misguidedness of those who cling to their own traditions and try to force them on others. The authors ask us to open our minds, to tolerate views other than our own.

They see the dangers of organised religion, whenever it becomes too formulaic and dogmatic. It can stifle honest doubt, kill creative thought and alienate people from each other. The play provokes us to ask, with Drummond, where true spirituality lies. In a child`s power to master the multiplication table, he says, there is more sanctity than all your shouted `Amens`, `Holy, Holies` and `Hosannahs`. We must recognise what is true and honest and, if need be, must fight for it. We may not always win, but our efforts give inspiration to those who come after us.

This is a play of ideas, but it is also a very good, well-made play, full of incident and colour, and peopled with rounded characters. Lawrence and Lee wanted it to be recognised as universal rather than local, and it has, in fact, been performed in over thirty languages. The English version, however, resists being played as a British play. Its themes may be universal, and as relevant to Britain as to anywhere, but its situations, its characters and its speech rhythms are quintessentially American. We have done our best to rise to this challenge. But maybe our biggest challenge will be to convince our audience, huddled in Hampstead Parish Church in November, that we are in a sweltering courtroom in the Deep South, with the temperature at 97 in the shade.

 

Bill Risebero / November 2000

 

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Review from the Magazine of the Parish Church St. John-at-Hampstead

With a tramp of feet and a flow of the Stars and Stripes, Pat Gardner and Bill Risebero's fine production of Inherit the Wind took life on the stage of Hampstead Parish Church. I was at once struck by the vigour and powerful control which they showed in the interpretation of this strong and inspiring play, with its crowded cast and bitter conflict between fundamentalism and freedom of speech. Based on a real and world-shaking event (Tennessee in the mid-twenties) it shows a young schoolmaster on trial for allowing the cool wind of Darwin's Origin of Species to play upon the heat of small-town fundamentalism.

I must begin - as indeed the play does - with 'Elijah' (Gaynor Bassey) who enlivened (and sometimes puzzled) the incoming audience by proclaiming loudly her faith and her Bibles. Her presence throughout the turbulent action of the play formed a focal and arresting point. And at the centre of the action, at the heart of the turbulence, how beautifully Ian Macdonald-Hay interpreted the humane stance of the Defender, Henry Drummond; and how forcefully and convincingly John Hester gave us the flawed and passionate (and ultimately mortal) Prosecutor, Matthew Harrison Brady. The conflict between these two men was made all the more effective by the way they entered into the skin of their characters, and gave us them in depth.

A fine moment - preceded by the train's arrival - was the first entrance of Drummond, when he silently enters on the stage of events to take up the case of the young schoolmaster. (This young man was given us with his usual skill by David Gardner). I found his girl-friend, Rachel, played by Mary Ruth Smith, especially moving, torn as she was by her love for the young man and loyalty to her fundamentalist father (The Reverend Jeremiah Brown) - splendidly played with a kind of doomed authority by Bill Risebero. His Revivalist Meeting was particularly effective. Outstanding too was Nicholas White as the detached journalist, who proved in the end that cynicism is not enough.

But the play did not only belong to the major characters, excellent though these were. One of its many strengths was that all the actors contributed with equal power to the effect of the whole. I cannot name them all, but I remember Estelle Spottiswoode's tender concern, both for her husband Brady, and the anguished Rachel Brown; Harry Emeric as the schoolboy, a puzzled innocent on the witness stand. And John Willmer, who spoke with his accustomed authority, albeit in a new accent. All these combined to give us the feeling of this small and heat-drenched town, centre of a passionate controversy which is matched by the heat of the day.

Those many, like myself, who have had the pleasure of seeing the Hampstead Players over the years - interpretations from Shakespeare to Chekov, Terence Rattigan to Lewis Carroll - will not be surprised at the outstanding quality of the dress, lighting and music, and be familiar with the names of Joan Barton, John and Matthew Risebero, amongst others. Their skills played full part in bringing to life a strong and challenging play. All, both on and back-stage, should feel proud of rising to a particularly demanding occasion and leaving us with the sensation of having taken part in a moment of powerful human conflict. Like all successful dramas of ideas this one ends with questions rather than answers. The play's quiet end, with Drummond silently weighing the two books, the Bible and the Origin in either hand stays in the mind. The controversy belongs not only to the time of the trial, but to all time, maintaining, as has been said, that 'Certainties divide people, and doubts bring them together.

The debate goes on.

 

Diana Raymond / December 2000

 

 

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