When Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee wrote Inherit the Wind more than a half-century ago, they didn’t have southern Evangelicals in their crosshairs so much as McCarthyites—the Scopes “monkey” trial, of which their play is a fictional rendering, simply seemed like the right vehicle to send a message about fearmongering, censorship, and the perils of anti-intellectualism. Had they known that creationism would remain a topic of serious debate in 2007, perhaps they’d have taken up the subject matter with more urgency (or hewed a bit more closely to the historical record), but never mind: Inherit the Wind, which opens this week, still makes terrible modern sense. Brian Dennehy, 68, and Christopher Plummer, 77, who have 88 years of stage and film experience between them, weigh in on their roles as Matthew Harrison Brady and Henry Drummond (William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, respectively), as well as the hedonism of the sixties, the changing role of the theater, and the vulgarity of ringing cell phones.
How did you two meet?
BD: We met a couple of times before. When we did this picture about the priests called Our Fathers—
CP: Well, that’s when we really met. But I first met you in our drinking days, which is why I can’t remember you at all.
BD: Is that right?
CP: You see? Exactly. Yes, we met.
BD: I’m in London two years ago and I bump into Ray Davies of the Kinks. And he says, “Hi!” and I say, “Ray! It’s a pleasure to meet you.” And he says, “What ya mean, fuckin’ meet me? We fuckin’ sat on a fuckin’ airplane from Los Angeles all the way to fuckin’ London and drank about three fuckin’ bot’les o’ Scotch.”
CP: Was that in the sixties or the seventies?
BD: Must have been in the seventies.
CP: I don’t remember most of the sixties. It was great. I was in London, which was the place to be, so they tell me.
BD: I was in the fucking Marines. And tending bar on the Upper East Side, fighting off deranged, drunken firemen.
If we could discuss this play for a moment—Christopher, were you on Broadway when it debuted in 1955?
CP: Yes. I went to see it, but I don’t remember that much about it, because I drank my way through the fifties as well.
BD: To me, what’s interesting is that the construct of the play is Darwinian. These guys [the playwrights] use the characters and the facts of the trial to essentially move their audience away from the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. They elevated the great individualist, Darrow … and Bryan, a nineteenth-century traditionalist, is sacrificed. Darrow survives. I mean, it’s a message play. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining. The second act—the debate, the confrontation—is beautifully written.
Do you think theater still has an impact? Considering that millions can see An Inconvenient Truth in just a few months …
BD: Depends on what you mean by impact. I think what happens in the theater, when it happens, can’t happen anyplace else. When I saw Chris’s Lear, there’s this one line where he says, “O, let me not be mad.” Now, you read that line and realize it’s a strong line. But when you see an actor at the top of his form saying it—and not in a hugely emotional way, but in this heartfelt way of an older man saying, Christ, I don’t want to be nuts—it goes right to your fucking heart. It resonates in my head in a way that no movie or documentary or television show can do. It’s like the first time I saw [Van Gogh’s] Sunflowers in Chicago. It stops you. You fucking stop. It’s this big room, small painting, and you stand there for a minute, if you’re like me, and say, Jesus Christ.
CP: Peter Brook said it once: There’s nothing more exciting or more barbaric or more basic than one person walking onto an empty stage. And I think he’s absolutely right. It’s lasted 2,500 years as we know it, anyway, the theater. So it must have worked.
BD: Theater has never been a consumer product. It can’t be. How many people saw Shakespearean plays? Although the old Globe did hold a lot of people, right? Like 1,500 or 2,000.
CP: There were a lot of people on the stage as well. The whole audience sitting there, giving you trouble.
Which is what you’re contending with now, right? I was surprised to see a few rows of the audience seated behind you, on the actual stage, acting as jury. How is that? Disconcerting?
CP: No. I thought it was going to be ghastly. I was afraid there was going to be some mad … idiot up there—
Heckler, you mean?
CP: Yes! And maybe one night we’ll still get one. But so far they’ve been terribly, terribly well behaved. Except the three kids the other night.
BD: I didn’t notice them.
CP: They were in the front, looking at the ceiling [leans back, pretends to drool].