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The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial.
L.A. TheatreWorks, University of California Santa Barbara. October 15, 2005.

Adapted from the original trial transcripts by Peter Goodchild. Directed by Gordon Hunt.

L.A. TheatreWorks's recent staged radio play The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial reconstructs the 1925 trial of science teacher John Scopes, who was convicted of violating that state's anti-evolution Butler Act. Adapted from the original trial transcripts by Peter Goodchild, the play has been touted as an "authentic" recreation of a landmark case. The company's selection of this radio play for its current tour is a direct response to the recent reemergence of creationist discourse. Ever since the current U.S. president championed "intelligent design", the new term for creationism, scientists and media pundits have continued to debate the issues of academic freedom associated with the attacks on teaching Darwin in the schools. This production features a narrator who guides the audience through a condensed version of the Scopes trial, with actors reading the roles of attorneys, journalists, and jurors, and "performing" the process of jury selection, witness testimony, and arguments with consistent clarity and occasional force.

The 1925 case State of Tennessee vs. John Scopes began when high school science teacher Scopes agreed to challenge the Butler Act, which forbade the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution in public schools of that state. Darwin's 1859 On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection offered a cogent view of the development of planetary life, and nineteenth- and early twentieth-century high school science textbooks soon featured his work. Darwin's silence regarding a "Maker", however, struck directly at the heart of the Book of Genesis account of the origin of life and aroused the ire of fundamentalist groups. Such critics pounced on the idea of natural selection as a template for cruelty: how could a species be deemed "unfit" by some godless force? Darwin's theories irked those who decried the invasion of secular principles into realms of the divine. By linking humans to lower-order species, his notions seemed to rupture the reigning notion of the human being as the product of an intelligent designer. By the 1920s, self-proclaimed "Common Man" (and former presidential candidate) William Jennings Bryan had condemned evolutionists as wretched agnostics. State legislatures soon passed a slew of bills forbidding teachers to impart the theory of evolution. Proponents of academic freedom responded by issuing constitutional challenges to such decrees. In Dayton, Tennessee, drugstore owner Fred Robinson arranged a meeting with ACLU attorneys to challenge the Butler Act and boost that town's flagging economy. Scopes, an affable biology teacher, agreed to launch the official test case by confessing to local authorities that he had indeed taught evolution. Famed advocate Clarence Darrow eagerly agreed to defend Scopes, and Bryan seized the chance to spearhead the prosecution.

The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial spotlights the dialectical battle from the beginning: as the curtain lifts, the opening lines from the Book of Genesis are trumpeted throughout the darkened theater. Such primitive precepts, the narrator later suggests, will be destabilized with grim irony and ultimate success. Theology and science form a stark binary that no one can evade, and rationalism will prevail through the vehicle of law. "Man came from dust!!" the voiceless deity proclaims; the stage lights then illuminate the bustling pretrial preparations in Dayton in June 1925. Ed Asner as William Jennings Bryan arrives amid cheers and is feted with a sumptuous Southern-style picnic. The narrator invokes levity by wryly noting that Scopes had to find the town sheriff to get himself arrested; courtroom procedure then quickly takes over. First, the indictment is read, and the performance soon devolves into a tiresome re-presentation, as jury selection is conducted with little fanfare. Prospective jurors are neither scholars nor rubes, merely simple farm folk with scant time to read. The narrator's announcement of a first-ever traffic jam in downtown Dayton inspires a smattering of guffaws before the trial continues.

Lead actors Ed Asner (William Jennings Bryan) and John de Lancie (Clarence Darrow) infuse the dry, staid transcript with some vibrancy. While Gordon Hunt's direction of this recent tour offers a fluid, mimetic re-presentation of the juridical ebb and flow of the trial, the result may provoke a mere, collective shrug: we may feel instructed, but not inspired. The play's unflagging accuracy proves its downfall; as in most court cases, compelling issues are often eclipsed by dull procedural details. The play does offer some impassioned exposition on this landmark case, but does the static staging, in which the actors emote into microphones, illuminate anything worthwhile? Those who hail the performativity of law, its potential for converting utterance into reality, may clamor for a more provocative spectacle. The flavorless finale of this piece may leave one sated yet starved, pleased with the history lesson yet hungry for more substantive, visionary fare. Here, legal exposition supplants any sizzling fusion of theatre and law.

Judicial scholars, however, can note with some satisfaction how faithfully this piece recreates 1920s American law; at that time, the Fourteenth Amendment's doctrinal guarantee of church-state separation had not yet emerged to convert the Bill of Rights from mere abstraction to state statute, so Tennessee lawmakers were able to mold curriculum to fit their own reactionary whims. Director Hunt deftly clarifies key tenets of the evolutionary debate, eschewing silly subplots and cloying dialogue. A narrator (played with somber skill by Alley Mills) guides the audience through the procedural terrain, finally ushering in the showdown of legal titans, prosecutor William Jennings Bryan (a self-proclaimed biblical scholar) and Clarence Darrow (fresh from his defense of Leopold and Loeb, whom he saved from the electric chair). Narrator Alley ends the performance by imploring open minds to reject intelligent design; this laudatory plea perhaps triggers more meaty discourse than the preceding three hours. The specter of intelligent design in science class poses a moral hegemony that aches for bipartisan resistance, and the final speech (added for the current tour) perhaps raises this possibility.

L.A. TheatreWorks has offered many "radio versions" of plays (ranging from canonical to contemporary), often performing live and then recording the performance for distribution to schools. While the ACLU's decision to launch a test case to challenge Tennessee's Butler Act stemmed from Jazz Age fervor and teacher autonomy, this play ignores the giddy transgression and outdoor carnival that reigned in Dayton that fateful summer. Actors Asner and de Lancie do lead the cast in sober mimicry of juridical truth, allowing an occasional smattering of strategic chuckles to relieve a weary crowd. The narrative finally gains momentum in the last half hour; here, Goodchild's championing of free speech ideals leaves spectators beaming with approval as Darrow's climactic examination of Bryan shatters procedural restraint, leaving Asner's fallen fundamentalist in a deep daze.

The production raises engaging queries about the sheer performativity and staged aesthetics of the Scopes trial, which reinforced law as the site of performed democracy and problematized the entrenched notion of trials as the ultimate truth-seeking venues. When law is performed, is justice reified or subverted? While performed law is potentially 'restorative' and calls for structured opportunities for expressions of dissent,[1] the play belies the notion of juridical procedure as quest for truth. Political context and verbal swordplay win the day—both then and now. After lending his name to the cause, Scopes himself becomes a minor player. The self-effacing teacher (played with wry panache by Matthew Patrick Davis) bookends the courtroom theatrics with random observations of the dueling attorneys. Early in the play, co-defense counsel Dudley Malone strides into the spotlight to deliver an impassioned plea for free speech, and earns the grudging respect of Bryan. Soon, however, Jerry Hardin's Judge John Raulston (a proud churchgoer) panders to the prosecution, restricting the trial to a narrow construction of the statute. During this exchange, Scopes remains silent. He may have been the quixotic catalyst for the trial, but he knows he is not the star. The remaining members of the cast provide a predictable pastiche: scornful Northern intelligentsia (journalist H.L. Mencken, who remains mostly silent throughout the trial) and able advocates.

The play shifts to a more engaging rhythm when Judge Raulston rules Darrow's proposed parade of expert witnesses inadmissible. A shocked Darrow hastily concocts his own theatrical response by summoning biblical scholar Bryan as a witness for the defense. This bold unorthodox move in jurisprudence inverting pre-assigned roles spurs Asner's Bryan to rise from his chair in a move that leaves spectators rapt with attention. Drafted into the evolutionary brigade, Bryan puffs his chest out and bellows shallow precepts that mock rational thought. Having brashly toppled the fourth wall of juridical performance, de Lancie's Darrow preens, delighted that he has at last flouted the reigning decorum of the trial. He then leads Bryan through a tortuous deconstruction of the Book of Genesis, exposing Bryan's literalist notion of creation as a mockery. Bryan's colossal pride soon disintegrates beneath the crushing weight of query, and, in a mimetic construction of Jacobean tragedy, he is felled by his own flaw, refusing Judge Raulston's gentle requests to take a rest. Ed Asner as Bryan rouses himself from his hubristic, gluttonous haze to defend a literal view of Genesis; his scenes reconstruct Darrow's rather dazzling inversion of agent and object, in which he calls his adversary as his witness. Darrow's searing examination topples Bryan, who stumbles through a vague litany of fundamentalist maxims: yes, he believes in a big fish that could have swallowed a man. John de Lancie (considerably more sprightly than the actual Darrow in 1925) infuses the self-proclaimed agnostic with fiery ire.

The play reinforces the Scopes trial as the ultimate conceptual fusion of reality, representation, and tragicomedy. Program notes remind us that the Scopes trial was the first American trial to be broadcast nationwide; indeed, the everpresent microphones onstage inscribe the panoptic gaze of the media, forming an Orwellian eye that foreshadows the iconic status of criminal defendants in the era of Court TV. The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial does, in the end, spotlight a moment in which science, theology, and the carnivalesque collide with historiographical force.

The program notes also feature producing director Susan Lowenberg, who considers, "why are we, eighty years after that famous trial, still echoing the arguments of its great orators, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan? By going backward…perhaps we can go forward in our thinking with new ways to approach this highly charged debate." The performance ultimately serves as an instructive piece that may trigger reflection on whether staged trials can reconstruct history with authenticity and discursive power. While impassioned advocate Dudley Malone offers a palliative route to reconciling personal piety and free speech, the other performers restrict their movements in a woodenly accurate fashion that reflects the confining realm of American law. Even Darrow is constrained by legal dicta, apologizing to the judge for briefly transgressing courtroom ritual.

While the Scopes trial was indeed a juridical performance of democracy, The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial demythologizes judge and jury as purveyor of truth. Cathartic moments lie buried beneath the dense text; throughout the performance, Asner's Bryan and de Lancie's Darrow follow judicial custom with calm obeisance, reciting "Your Honor" with dutiful regularity. The judge allows the eruption of ritual only when adversaries Bryan and Darrow agree to a testimonial face-off. In the end, Darrow's scathing examination of Bryan affirms that postmodern determinations of truth are elusive, prey to the cunning strategies and spicy rhetoric of lawyers at the helm. Law, indeed, obfuscates constitutional freedoms more often than not.

The play ends with the same pallid pace as the 1925 trial. Darrow, mindful to preserve his right to appeal in a higher court, asks the judge to convict his client. Darrow's decision to waive closing arguments proves both law-abiding and transgressive; mimicking (and perhaps mocking) procedural patterns, he forfeits a "performance" for which the crowd was clamoring in order to stage a more compelling spectacle later on appeal. The jury returns with a conviction and modest fine, and Darrow's star status in Dayton is affirmed as a coterie of local fans surrounds him. Asner's Bryan, meanwhile, remains immobile and dazed, bloated by hubris and heaping portions of corned beef.

The narrator ends the play by reframing the evolutionary debate in the contemporary context of intelligent design. While instructive, such unnerving didacticism risks alienating an already responsive crowd, and may not lure antievolutionists into the postmodern fold of Darwinian ideologues. The play wants to position itself as a performative dissection of the evolutionary debate and, finally, does suggest that this historiographical odyssey can be led with inquisitive force and linguistic grace.

End Notes

 [1] Lucy Winner (quoting Bernard Hibbits), "Democratic Acts: Theatre of Public Trials," Theatre Topics 15:2 (September 2005): 149-169.



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