Maybe, with the resurgence of cre-ationism, we actually need another Inherit the Wind (Saturday, May 29; 8 to 10 p.m.; Showtime). I’ve seen it so often on one or another school stage, with generation after generation of idealistic kids hamming it up in the service of scientific truth, that I’ve become an agnostic about theater itself.
To save space, let’s use the real names instead of those dreamed up for Broadway by co-playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Once again, in Tennessee in 1925, the biology teacher John Scopes goes on trial for teaching evolution instead of the Bible. Once again, he will be prosecuted by William Jennings Bryan, defended by Clarence Darrow, and scribbled about for a Baltimore newspaper by H. L. Mencken. Except this Bryan is played by George C. Scott, who improves on Fredric March in the 1960 Stanley Kramer movie version; Darrow by Jack Lemmon, who is as folksy as Spencer Tracy was; and Mencken by Beau Bridges, who is as unlikely as Gene Kelly was.
Inherit the Wind was thrilling 40 years ago if you were very young, reasonably well educated, and inclined, as I was, to hero-worship Clarence Darrow. It seems a trifle crude today, after such an excess of courtroom dramas that you’d think mankind evolved by litigation. And it still suffers from the odd ambiguity at its conclusion. So Bryan has collapsed after Darrow’s masterly cross-examination. And Mencken chooses to gloat, as we’d expect. And Darrow then turns on Mencken and roughs him up rhetorically. All of a sudden, instead of censorship and superstition, cynicism becomes the villain. This, as in the equally abrupt turning of the worm in Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, is a typical fifties Broadway cop-out.