God’s Substitute: Elizabeth and Shakespeare After the Essex Rebellion — a short play

Characters:

Queen Elizabeth I
William Shakespeare

The scene is the queen’s privy chamber in the Palace of Whitehall, February 1601. A table is scattered with books and papers. Queen Elizabeth I, less extravagantly dressed than in official portraits, sits at the table reading. Across the table from her is an empty chair. William Shakespeare enters.

640px-Darnley_stage_3ELIZABETH.  Master Shakespeare.

SHAKESPEARE (kneeling).  How may I please Your Majesty?

ELIZABETH.  Arise.

(SHAKESPEARE does so.)

ELIZABETH.  Who am I?

SHAKESPEARE.  Do you need a lowly scribbler to tell you?

ELIZABETH.  I am Richard II, know you not that?

SHAKESPEARE.  With due humility, Your Majesty, I know no such thing.

ELIZABETH.  No lies—not here alone with your queen.

(SHAKESPEARE looks around with surprise.)

640px-Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623ELIZABETH.  My councilors were against it—Sir Robert especially. “Alone!” he cried. “With a man who aided a rebellion against you!” “Do not fear for my person,” I told him. “There’s such divinity hedging a queen, treason may only peep at what it wishes to do. We’ll have Will’s head soon enough.”

SHAKESPEARE.  I did not aid a rebellion.

ELIZABETH  (perusing some papers).  The day before Essex tried to seize my court, did you not put on a show at his command?

SHAKESPEARE.  A trifling play, Your Majesty, so old and out of use, I don’t know why he wanted it. A solid mass of turgid verse; too many end-stops, rhymes, and lockstep iambs; not a scrap of prose for relief, no comedy at all, nothing to please the groundlings but gardeners spouting homilies from some old morality play. Indeed, that’s all it is, a musty and intolerable morality play that—

ELIZABETH  (interrupting him as she pores over the papers). Hush. (Pause) The Tragedy of Richard II. (Pause) The tragedy of me.

SHAKESPEARE.  I don’t understand you.

ELIZABETH.  No lies, I said—not when you’re about to meet your maker. I have a transcript here.
(Reading)
Landlord of England art thou now, not king:

Thy state of law is bondslave to the law.

SHAKESPEARE.  You read the lines exquisitely, ma’am. But what have they to do with you?

ELIZABETH.  The story of the righteous deposition of one vulgar landlord by another, of one usurper by another—the story of Essex deposing me, the bastard daughter of King Henry. Surely you knew what your employer wanted with it.

434px-Devereaux_essex4

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex

SHAKESPEARE.  Who were we humble players to refuse?

ELIZABETH.  Especially when he paid you 40 shillings for it. Ten more silver pieces than even Judas got for betraying our Good Lord!

SHAKESPEARE. The play is only a play.

ELIZABETH.  A monarch is God’s anointed substitute on earth, else he—or she—is nothing. If one monarch was ever a vulgar landlord, then so are all the rest, and so am I. Was Richard a vulgar landlord?

SHAKESPEARE.  I cannot say.

ELIZABETH  (pointing to the page).  You say right here—

SHAKESPEARE.  Not I, the dying John of Gaunt.

ELIZABETH.  You wrote his words.

SHAKESPEARE.  I merely held the pen for him.

ELIZABETH.  False.

SHAKESPEARE.  Mayn’t I put treason on the stage without standing accused of it?

ELIZABETH.  Only if you take care to call it treason.

SHAKESPEARE.  And hang signs around my actors’ necks? “Anointed King,” “Treacherous Usurper,” “Vulgar Landlord”?

ELIZABETH.  Instructive.

SHAKESPEARE.  It’s not my trade to judge—rather to hold a mirror up to nature.

ELIZABETH.  Do you suppose nature wishes to look upon her own twisted carcass, her countenance wrinkled and pockmarked, a mangy wig upon her scabby scalp? Paint a flattering portrait—fair, blooming, and buxom. Show it to her. Tell her it’s a perfect likeness.

SHAKESPEARE.  I’d be a shoddy playwright then.

ELIZABETH.  You’d be a live one.

SHAKESPEARE.  I implore you—

ELIZABETH.  No.

SHAKESPEARE.  If I’ve offended Your Majesty—

ELIZABETH.  Betrayed.

SHAKESPEARE.  I sincerely repent that I—

ELIZABETH.  Fear, not love, begets your penitence.

SHAKESPEARE.  May I not save myself?

ELIZABETH.  Not if you must be yourself.

SHAKESPEARE.  I may be no one else.

ELIZABETH.  Then we’re done.

(Pause)

SHAKESPEARE.  Well. I owe my God a death. If it be not to come, it will be now. I don’t feel especially well. (Indicating a chair by the table) May I?

(SHAKESPEARE sits.)

ELIZABETH.  Impudence!

SHAKESPEARE.  Ma’am, if your executioner is half as good at his trade as I’m at mine, I’ll see my cut-out heart bloody and beating before my still-living eyes. Forgive that I’m no longer daunted by your sovereign rage. And now—won’t you indulge a dead man’s whimsy? Let’s chat away these precious moments.

(ELIZABETH glares at him.)

Niccolò Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli

SHAKESPEARE.  What are you reading? (Picking up a book) Ah—Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince.

(ELIZABETH snatches the book away from him.)

SHAKESPEARE. “Hatred is acquired as much by good works as by bad ones,” he says. And, “A prince wishing to keep his state is very often forced to do evil.” And, “A prince ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty.” How shocking to find you reading such stuff.

ELIZABETH.  You seem to know it by heart.

SHAKESPEARE.  It’s my trade. What do you think of our Italian friend?

ELIZABETH.  The wickedest of men.

SHAKESPEARE.  No lies—not to a man about to meet his maker. We both know what we’re supposed to say. I’ve done my own dutiful best to make his name the same as Satan’s, to render him a man of plots, drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams, murdering men and then wooing their widows, his hands dripping with the blood of babes. I even gave him a frightful shape:
His mother felt more than a mother’s pain,
And yet brought forth less than a mother’s hope,
To wit, an indigested and deformèd lump;
Teeth had he in his head when he was born,
To signify he cam’st to bite the world.
But all that’s stale and false. So just between the two of us—the truth. What do you think of him?

(Silence)

Richard III

Richard III

SHAKESPEARE.  When I was apprenticed into the players’ art and mystery, I learned to sing, fight, fence, tumble, dance, and—oh, yes, to conjure: make flowers bloom from the palm of my hand, send sleeping maids floating upon the air, snatch a man’s head off his shoulders and put it back again. How I feared that some rival conjuror would go among the crowd, telling the secrets of all my illusions! And that’s what Machiavelli did to you, isn’t it? Exposed your trade, the art and mystery of princehood, revealed your trapdoors, wires, and mirrors.

ELIZABETH.  Revealed that God had nothing to do with what we are.

SHAKESPEARE.  Your words, Ma’am.

ELIZABETH.  Clever fellow.

SHAKESPEARE.  Me or him?

ELIZABETH.  When I was apprenticed, my father read him to me, made me learn much by memory. Tell me—is it better to be loved or feared?

SHAKESPEARE.  To be feared, of course.

ELIZABETH.  Ay, “for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage—”

SHAKESPEARE.  “—but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”

ELIZABETH.  And yet—whether he is feared or loved, a prince must always avoid being hated. “Learn this lesson well,” my father said, “for it shall be your doing or undoing.”

SHAKESPEARE.  He would be well-pleased.

ELIZABETH.  Oh, no—for as I near my grave, hatred grows against me, and also justly-earned contempt. This late rebellion proves it. I failed to follow Machiavelli’s advice. I made myself loved rather than feared.

Richard II taken into custody by the Earl of Northumberland

Richard II taken into custody by the Earl of Northumberland

SHAKESPEARE.  All your subjects fear you.

ELIZABETH.  Why so? My tyranny touches but a handful of them. I am a lone woman, and old. How many commands are mine to give? But put Machiavelli’s book into the hands of every Englishman who can read, and each of them becomes a tyrant. Then blossom too many commands for all the generations of Adam to obey, and bloody oppression waxes infinite. The tyranny of the one is not worth fearing; the tyranny of the many, of the all—now that’s a tyranny to terrify any sane soul. (Pause) I summoned you to take off your head. Instead, I’ll put something on it. Approach.

(SHAKESPEARE rises and steps toward her. As she speaks, ELIZABETH lifts an imaginary crown from her head and holds an imaginary scepter.)

ELIZABETH.
Now mark me, how I will undo myself:
I give this heavy weight from off my head
And this unwieldy scepter from my hand,
The pride of queenly sway from out my heart;
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duteous oaths:
All pomp and majesty I do forswear.
Make me, that nothing have, with nothing griev’d,
And thou with all pleas’d, that hast all achiev’d!

(She places the imaginary crown on SHAKESPEARE’s head, the imaginary scepter in his hand.)

ELIZABETH.  Hail, William Rex—Stratford Glover’s Son, Student of Machiavelli, Tyrant Among Untold Multitudes of Tyrants. I, humble Elizabeth, the sole remaining subject in all the realm, do kneel before you.

(ELIZABETH kneels.)

END OF PLAY

Back to Lamarck?

“Did you know that acquired characteristics can be inherited?”

220px-Jean-Baptiste_de_Lamarck

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck

My daughter dropped that little bombshell on me one day after she came home from school.

“What kind of crap are they teaching you in that biology class of yours?” I grumbled.

“It’s called epigenetics,” she replied. “Look it up.”

I did. It blew my mind.

In previous posts, I wrote about Bernard Shaw’s attempt to found an evolution-based religion called Life Force Worship. Shaw’s ideas were based on the pre-Darwinian theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Here’s an admittedly crude and cartoonish rendition of the Lamarckian Story:

Once upon an extremely long-ago time, a certain hoofed animal ate all the leaves within easy reach. It then got into the habit of stretching its neck in order to eat leaves higher up. It passed along both the habit and an ever-so-slightly more elongated neck to its offspring. And lo, after untold generations of habit and inheritance, we now have giraffes in our midst.

Lamarckism eventually gave way to Charles Giraffe23Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. Alas, according to this new idea, giraffes did not develop long necks solely through exercise and effort—by willing it, so to speak. Instead, giraffes lucky enough to be longer-necked managed to survive and procreate in the life-or-death struggle to reach higher leaves.

The process seemed (at least to thinkers like Shaw) to be intolerably random, even mindless. Nevertheless, Lamarckism was relegated to the dustbin of defunct ideas—or so it was long thought.

Epigenetic_mechanismsI won’t try to explain how epigenetics works. I doubt that I’ll ever be able to wrap my own brain around it. The gist of it seems to be that, while our genes are pretty much inalterable, the expression of those genes is not. Moreover, acquired characteristics sometimes can be inherited. As Kara Rogers writes in Scientific American,

the implications so far suggest that our lifestyles and what we eat, drink, and breathe may directly affect the genetic health of our progeny.

What’s more, epigenetics may well offer possibilities for treating obesity, cancer, diabetes, addiction, aging, mental disorders, and all sorts of other bugbears of the human condition.

So has this new science given Lamarckism a new lease on life? There’s a lot of healthy skepticism out there. And I doubt that any serious epigeneticist is ready to claim that giraffes willed themselves into having longer necks. But epigenetics certainly looks like an inspiring plot point in the ever-evolving Story of life.

Stitches, Stones, Spaces & Paper

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I’m drawn to the creative experience—that act of discovery that can change everything …

For some years, Pat lived on an old farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley—an “art farm” where she raised horses, chickens, and other animals, grew a garden, cooked on a wood-burning stove, and held art workshops, all with the help of other artists and several energetic teenagers.

It was a creatively transforming environment, she recalls …

My eyes simply filled up, and my brain overflowed with the world around me. I used photography, painting, stained glass, metals, fibers, handmade paper, and natural objects to try to comprehend what I was seeing. Those works were my way of looking at things, looking between things, and finally looking into the energy and connectedness within things.

Although Pat has worked in many visual media, in recent years she has turned to the warm, organic qualities of natural fibers, paper, and stones. She often uses a technique called needlelace, which incorporates some stitches from traditional lace making.

Pat has had one-woman shows in Virginia and Mexico, and her awards include a prize from MacWorld magazine for computer art. This little video is about a show she presented in San Miguel de Allende in 2010 …

The Life Force Speaks to G.B.S. Out of the Evolutionary Whirlwind

bernard-shaw-on-self-effacement
In our last post, we touched on Bernard Shaw’s all but single-handed creation of a “religion of the future”: Life Force Worship. Not surprisingly, a faith in which God does not exist (yet) was not widely welcomed by the conventionally religious. Perhaps more surprising is the animus Shaw got from the scientifically literate—an animus that still persists today.

Shaw’s friend H. G. Wells, himself a former pupil of T. H. (“Darwin’s Bulldog”) Huxley, told Shaw that his religion embodied “an almost encyclopedic philosophical and biological ignorance.” And Richard Dawkins remembers with shame that “my own appreciation of Darwinism as a teenager was held back for at least a year by Shaw’s bewitching rhetoric in Back to Methuselah.”

Why such hostility? In the spirit of Story, let’s play with this question in a free-verse fable — with an accompanying video …

He was sitting there minding his own business and trying his best to write a potboiler replete with adulterous affairs and a couple of good sword fights when it had him round the throat again demanding:

“How dare you disobey me thus:
I who made the fish to thirst for the air and create nostrils for itself and feet so it could walk upon the earth:
I who made the giraffe to stretch its neck to attain the green beauty of the leaves:
and the mouse to insist on wings and arrange them out of its own flaccid flesh so it might fly in the dark like a bird:
and apes like you to seek more mind out of muddled mute sludge over eons of hit-and-miss attempts:
a mind to be my pilot and my guide and you use it to feed your own greedy face.”

“There you go spewing Lamarckian nonsense again,” said he.
“And if that isn’t bad enough you make me talk it too:
mystical gobbledygoop that flummoxes science and slurs divinity and goads all sentient clusters of cells subscribing to fact or faith to shout ‘Blasphemy!’ from the bowels of billion-year-old lungs:
and who can blame them?
And to make matters worse you make me believe it myself:
you make me a cursed genetic freak and a puncture on the face of life and a damned mutation with no like organism to breed more of my kind with:
you make me to speak with such infernal roundabout wit that my fellow creatures are too delighted by how I say things to pay the first shred of attention to what I have to say:
just as you did with Jesus Christ damn you:
and now I demand to know if I’m to be crucified like he was.”

“Certainly not,” it replied. “You’ll live to be ninety-four.”

“Too old to be martyred and too young to learn,” he moaned.

“Remember the giraffe,” said the Life Force out of the Chaos.

The Evangelist and the Evolutionist

From William Jennings Bryan to George Bernard Shaw

GBShaw1900It might seem like a rather big leap from our previous two blog posts to this one — from the Bible-thumping Bryan to the vitalist Shaw. But consider what Shaw had to say about the theory of Natural Selection:

[W]hen its whole significance dawns on you, your heart sinks into a heap of sand within you. There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration…. To call this Natural Selection is a blasphemy, possible to many for whom Nature is nothing but a casual aggregation of inert and dead matter, but eternally impossible to the spirits and souls of the righteous.

jpegThis is from the preface to Shaw’s monumental five-play cycle Back to Methuselah, written some six years before Bryan took the witness stand in Dayton, Ohio. Of course, he and Bryan had both fallen for a gross caricature of what Daniel Dennett calls “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.” But that’s hardly a surprise. Theirs was the heyday of “Social Darwinism,” the idea that “might makes right” in human society as well as in nature.

Also, as William Jennings Bryan says in the play I recently posted, “There was a war, remember?” Bryan believed that neo-Darwinism had done nothing less than bring civilization to the brink of suicide during the years 1914 – 18. Shaw said precisely the same thing in Back to Methuselah

Neo-Darwinism in politics had produced a European catastrophe of a magnitude so appalling, and a scope so unpredictable, that as I write these lines in 1920, it is still far from certain whether our civilization will survive it.

140px-William-Jennings-Bryan-speaking-c1896Bryan and Shaw were of sharply opposing mentalities, to put it mildly. Even so, they were both men of faith for whom the idea of a universe devoid of meaning was intolerable. But Shaw’s faith, unlike Bryan’s, was by no means conventional. As he wrote to Leo Tolstoy,

To me God does not yet exist; but there is a creative force constantly struggling to evolve an executive organ of godlike knowledge and power; that is, to achieve omnipotence and omniscience; and every man and woman born is a fresh attempt to achieve this object.

Shaw was seeking a new religion that would harmonize with scientific thought. At the same time, he yearned like Bryan for a creed that the materialistic science of his age seemed actively to deny. But did “faith” mean the same thing for Shaw as it did for Bryan? I think they would at least have understood each other’s meaning.

Both Shaw and Bryan studied and admired the Christian anarchist writings of Leo Tolstoy, who rejected St. Paul’s definition of faith as “the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen.” His was a definition of faith that Bryan and Shaw could have agreed upon:

Faith is the force of life. If a man lives, then he must believe in something. If he did not believe that there was something he must live for he would not live. If he does not see and comprehend the illusion of the finite he will believe in the finite. If he does understand the illusion of the finite, he is bound to believe in the infinite. Without faith it is impossible to live.

In the Belly of the Fish: Bryan and Darrow After the Scopes Trial — a short play

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, 1925Characters:

Clarence Darrow
William Jennings Bryan

The scene is the railway station in Dayton, Tennessee, July 22, 1925—the day after the end of the Scopes trial. Darrow is alone on a platform, waiting for a train. Bryan quietly enters, walks toward Darrow, and speaks.

BRYAN.  “Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Oh, my! The fuss you made about that fish! The questions you asked me! “Do you really think God made that fish especially to swallow Jonah?” “Just how big was that fish?” Well, it’s a real fish, sure enough. And here we are, the two of us, smack dab in its belly, compelled by the Almighty to face our failures until we repent our hearts out.

DARROW.  I’m not repenting. And I’m not in a fish’s belly. I’m waiting for a train on a murderous hot day. I’m standing beside a man I thought I knew, and thought I liked, but I was wrong on both counts. I’ve spent a lousy week in a godforsaken Podunk which got stuffed to the gills with a thousand more stinking, sweating bodies than it was meant to hold, and all their skulls together don’t hold a fraction of our brains. And we set a fine example, didn’t we? Yelling insults at each other like a pair of banshees. I’m anxious as hell to get out of here. That’s the reality, my friend. Skip the poetry and metaphors.

BRYAN.  “Stuffed to the gills”—that’s not a metaphor?

DARROW.  Why not admit your precious Bible’s a just a sampler of metaphors? Why the hell does Jonah’s fish have to be a real fish?

BRYAN.  It’s real, all right. Stinks bad down here in its guts. (Pause) I had a dandy closing speech all ready for the jury. Too bad I never got to give it. “Science is a magnificent force,” I was going to say, “but it is not a teacher of morals.”

DARROW.  That is too bad. I agree with you.

BRYAN.  Do you, now? I thought evolution was your moral crusade.

DARROW.  Free speech is my moral crusade. Science is about knowledge, not morality.

BRYAN.  So much the worse for science. Where does Darwin teach brotherly love? Where does he say, as our Savior did, Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them”?

DARROW.  Shallow stuff. Notice the ulterior motive. Treat people right, and maybe they’ll treat you right. No altruism there. Same with “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” Jesus and Machiavelli aren’t so far apart. Kant got to the heart of morality a whole lot better.

BRYAN.  Oh, yes. The categorical imperative. Something to do with following a certain kind of maxim. A real mouthful, as I remember.

DARROW. “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

BRYAN.  Sheer poetry. Give me King James.

DARROW.  Poetry crawled into Whitman’s coffin and died.

BRYAN.  Well, the Good Lord’s presence has been scarce these last few days. Wonder what he’s up to? (Pause) Darwin may turn out to be right, after all. Read a bit of him once. Didn’t win me over, mind you, not by a long shot. But he seemed a decent sort of fellow with some worthwhile notions. Nice writing style too. Clearer than Kant’s by a mile. I didn’t let him bother me much for a while. Then something happened.

DARROW.  What?

BRYAN.  There was a war, remember? The whole world went mad. Millions of good boys died. And all because the Germans read their Darwin, studied up about the survival of the fittest. Oh, the “fittest”—the Germans figured that just had to mean them and their Kultur. So they replaced the Christian doctrine of love and renunciation with the Darwinian doctrine of hatred and force. Allmacht, they called it—the idea that war was a positive virtue, since the world was full of unfit folks who needed clearing out. Pretty soon, all civilization caught the Darwin bug and came pretty near committing suicide. When Wilson got ready to drag America into the mayhem, I skedaddled straight out of his cabinet.

DARROW.  A Secretary of State quitting in protest. I remember. I was impressed.

BRYAN.  There’s nothing Christian about a war.

DARROW. I didn’t like it either. (Pause) What was it you said? “Science is a magnificent force …”?

BRYAN.  “… but it is not a teacher of morals.”

DARROW.  So you’ve got no intellectual objections to Darwinism?

BRYAN.  Well, according to you, I’ve got no intellect at all. But I’ve got moral objections as a compassionate man. For the life of me, I can’t see why you don’t too. When have we ever been at odds until these last few days? I was right with you on that Eugene Debs case; I always support the working man against the captains of industry. And I thought you were right as rain defending those Loeb and Leopold boys; I can’t abide executions even for bona fide monsters. And you’ve been on my side pushing for women’s suffrage and equality. It all makes good Christian sense to me. Jesus put no stock in big money, or legalized lynching, or keeping women in their place, or any other such thing. But my land, you’ve called me all kinds of names since this whole business got started! A bigot, a fanatic, and—what was it? Oh, yeah—“the idol of all morondom.” Odd things to say about a man who agrees with you straight down the line.

DARROW.  You want to snatch independent reason away from the common man, leave him with nothing but blind belief in some poor dumb slob nailed to a Roman gibbet. Now that’ll make the millionaire fat cats happy, won’t it? Lording it over a herd of meek, brainless cattle?

BRYAN.  You’ve got it backwards. The fat cats caught the Darwin disease. They think they’ve won their booty fair and square in the struggle for existence.  They think might makes right, it’s virtuous to poison our food, work our children to death, hoard our wealth.

DARROW.  You don’t have the first idea what you’re talking about. Why, you probably think evolution and Darwinian theory are one and the same thing.

BRYAN.  Aren’t they?

DARROW.  No.

BRYAN.  That’s way too subtle for me.

DARROW.  Yeah, I’m sure it is.

BRYAN.  Well, here’s your train. Oh, and here’s a little gift. A copy of that textbook Scopes taught from, Hunter’s Civic BiologyBut I reckon you’ve already read it.

DARROW.  Only the parts about evolution. Have you?

BRYAN.  Bits of it. As the Lord would have it, it fell open for me on an interesting page. I marked it for you, think you’d find it interesting. This Hunter fellow seems to think we humans can be improved with some good old-fashioned selective breeding, like livestock. Says society’s “parasites”—criminals, the mentally slow, infirm, weak—ought to be locked in asylums, men and women kept apart so they can’t breed, can’t contaminate the race of the fit and able. I get the impression he thinks a better solution would be out-and-out extermination, but people are too bigoted for that, they lack the proper enlightenment.

            (Pause as DARROW peruses the page)

BRYAN.  Sounds like something you and I might want to tackle together one of these days.

DARROW.  Possibly.

BRYAN.  I’ll make you a deal. I’ll let you have your Darwin—in the classroom or anywhere else—if you can give me some kind of moral compass to save our nation and our world. But I don’t think you can do it. You soul’s all hollowed out.

DARROW.  The sooner humanity accepts the tragedy of God’s death, the sooner people’ll be decent to each other.

BRYAN.  That makes no sense.

DARROW.  How would you know? You’re not a sensible man.

BRYAN.  True.

            (Pause)

DARROW.  I don’t have any hope, William.

BRYAN.  Search in your heart for faith, my friend.

DARROW. There’s no faith there.

BRYAN.  Well. We shall see what comes of all this.

DARROW.  No, we won’t. We’ll be dead.

BRYAN.  Have a good trip.

DARROW.  You’re not going?

BRYAN.  I just stopped by to see you off. I’m staying in Tennessee a few more days.

DARROW.  This place will kill you.

 END OF PLAY

A Play and an Idea

“… and did you know that William Jennings Bryan died on the last day of the trial, right there in the courtroom?”

I was sitting in a café listening to two customers at another table holding forth about the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925. They seemed to be valiantly trying to outdo each other for ignorance. For absolutely nothing they said was historically true.

WilliamJBryan1902

William Jennings Bryan

No, William Jennings Bryan didn’t die that day in the courtroom. He died in his sleep five days after the trial ended. And no, John Scopes was not a biology teacher but a high school football coach. And no, the text Scopes got into trouble for teaching was not Darwin, but a chapter in George William Hunter’s textbook A Civic Biology. And so on, and so on, and so on …

None of this misinformation surprised me. All of it comes from Inherit the Wind, that perennially popular 1955 drama by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Neither Lawrence nor Lee ever claimed that their play had much to do with history. In a 1996 interview, Lawrence explained that it was really intended as a parable attacking the McCarthyism of its era …

It’s not about science versus religion. It’s about the right to think.

Nevertheless, Inherit the Wind is all-too-widely accepted as a factual account of the trial.

Now why should this bother me? It’s not that I object to the play’s status as a rousing polemic against Creationism. Pat and I are passionately devoted to evolutionary thought, and we’re constantly exchanging and discussing the latest news stories about discoveries in natural history. To us, the simple fact of evolution is wonderfully and endlessly pertinent to our ongoing fascination with Story.

But as a storyteller, I think that a cultural milestone as momentous as the Scopes Trial merits a more reliable account than you’ll find in Inherit the Wind. And the left-leaning liberal William Jennings Bryan deserves fairer treatment than the character assassination he has suffered from being equated with his fictional proxy, the laughable but dangerous buffoon Matthew Harrison Brady.

Clarence Darrow

Clarence Darrow

The actual Scopes Trial and the media circus surrounding it were quite melodramatic enough without recourse to Lawrence and Lee’s extravagant distortions. And the trial did not bring out the best in either Bryan or his nemesis Clarence Darrow, especially during Darrow’s climactic cross-examination of Bryan. Bryan managed to fit perfectly the image that Darrow had drawn of him as a Bible-thumping bigot. And by embarking upon an obsessive (if also eloquent and effective) defense of science against religion, Darrow succeeded in botching what ought to have been a fairly straightforward legal defense of free speech. Despite all this, a deeper historical and intellectual subtext lies beneath all the melodrama.

The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould offered a remarkably nuanced view of both Bryan and the trial itself in his essay “William Jennings Bryan’s Last Campaign,” which appeared in his 1991 collection Bully for Brontosaurus. And now I’d like to do likewise.

In our next post, I’ll offer a sort of 10-minute thumbnail revision of Inherit the Wind. In it I hope portray both Bryan and Darrow somewhat more favorably than they did themselves in 1925.

Spencer Tracy and Frederick March in the 1960 movie "Inherit the Wind"

Spencer Tracy and Frederick March in the 1960 movie “Inherit the Wind”