When the play "Inherit the Wind," based on the famed Scopes "Monkey" trial of 1925, made its debut more than half a century ago, it was a controversial title. It still can be today, considering the subject is evolution vs. creationism.
We caught up via email with local attorney Hal H. Bolen, who plays a key role in the Woodward Shakespeare Festival production, to talk about the show.
Question: Why did the company select "Inherit the Wind"?
Answer: One of the important things to consider when choosing this play for our season was that it kept to the spirit of Shakespeare's plays, with a timeless theme and powerful characterizations. The notions of tolerance and freedom of thought that are so prevalent within this script remain relevant after 60 years just as, in Shakespearean pieces, the themes of love and revenge, for example, are still wonderfully applicable even after 400. Themes and stories that are rooted in humanity resonate with audiences across time and place and support WSF's mission of giving the San Joaquin Valley the finest theatre that we can.
When you talk to people today about the play, have very many heard about the Scopes trial and its significance?
Most people that I've spoken to about it are familiar with it. Most refer to it as the "Monkey Trials," but seem to have some understanding of it.
For people not familiar with the plot, can you briefly summarize?
Bert Cates, a young high school biology teacher in a small, rural town in the not too distant past, has a keen interest in science and scientific knowledge. He elects to give his class a lecture on Darwin's Theory of Evolution, notwithstanding that the state legislature has recently enacted a law forbidding the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Cates is arrested and awaits his trial in jail. The case is to be prosecuted by Mathew Harrison Brady, a well-known lawyer and former three-time presidential candidate who is a fundamental Bible supporter. Cates' defense is provided by a Baltimore newspaper who engages Henry Drummond, an equally well-known defense attorney who has devoted his career to unpopular cases in search of the truth. Much of the play consists of courtroom battles between Brady and Drummond, building to a very dramatic and confrontational outcome. The drama is heightened by a romantic relationship between Cates and Rachel Brown, another high school teacher who happens to be the daughter of the town's very conservative spiritual leader and minister of the local church. The townspeople are essential to the play; they start out as devoted Brady followers, but by the end of the trial, many have been forced to reconsider some of their preconceived notions.
Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee called "Inherit the Wind" a fictionalized account of the Scopes trial, but it's certainly close enough to be recognizable. Why do you think they wanted to change certain details of the story?
Because "Inherit the Wind" was written 25 years after the trial and several years after the death of both attorneys involved, any reasons for the actions of the people involved in the trial can truly only be speculated about or assumed, so that dialogue within the context of the play that suggests motivation must be tempered with the preface that it has been fictionalized. However, and I think more importantly, Lawrence and Lee use the Scopes trial as a platform for a story, not about creationism vs. evolution, but about basic human rights, free will, and freedom to think, so I believe they avoided using the actual transcripts of the trial to make it more sensational for dramatic purposes and to better serve their own needs for telling the story that they wanted to tell.
You're an attorney, and you play one in the show. Is Hal Bolen a lot different in a courtroom (or office) than Henry Drummond?
Not as much as one might think. Drummond has a dry sense of humor and general lack of respect for authority for authority's sake. He believes strongly in the power and majesty of the human mind and the irresistible need to advance human knowledge. At the same time, he has great respect for the Bible and people's belief in it. In his mind, he can reconcile some of the incongruities between the Biblical stories and natural law. Deep down, he is actually a very spiritual fellow.
There's a great line in the show "Spamalot" — admittedly a much more light-hearted show than this one — in which one character, addressing the issue of gay marriage, quips, "In a thousand years' time this will still be controversial." Do you find it surprising that the issues raised in the Scopes trial are still hotly debated among some segments of the population today?
Not really. As Drummond tells the jury, "Progress has never been a bargain. You've got to pay for it." Change is always difficult. It's hard for people to relinquish long-standing beliefs, even if the truth requires that they do. I believe society will confront that dilemma for as long as we continue to grow and progress as a people. I don't expect it will ever get any easier.
What is the biggest challenge of performing an intimate courtroom drama such as this one in an outdoor space?
The greatest challenge is definitely finding all the nuance and intimacy of the quieter moments, which are just as powerful as the larger ones in this play, in a way that will be able to read to audiences sitting even as far back as the hill, which slopes up the back of our house. One way that we have attempted to overcome this is to pull the audience in closer, including 10 on-stage seats, and to treat the audience as members of the Hillsboro community, where our play takes place. But also, it is necessary that our actors find the balance between keeping their voices lifted and enunciated — as our stage demands — along with maintaining the honesty and tone of those scenes. It is a unique challenge and one that I feel our cast has risen to nicely.
What do you hope people walk away from this show with?
This script really is provocative with the power to move people, so it would be really great if the conversations on the drives home move beyond the prescribed discussions of the set or sound or even acting, and focus rather on progress, tolerance and inclusion. The point is not to try and invoke people to re-evaluate their own beliefs, but how they treat the beliefs of others. It is the nature of a controversial theme that there will, no doubt, be people who feel uncomfortable with the story, but if it gets them talking, if it gets them thinking, then the play has done its job.
Anything else you'd like to say?
It is an honor to play this character in a production that I believe is important, vital and thought-provoking. It is an honor to perform for WSF and bring this kind of experience to the residents of Central California in beautiful Woodward Park for free. It is a profound honor to work with Ms. Lawson and the cast and crew. I hope people will appreciate all of the work that goes into a show like this.
Woodward Shakespeare Festival production of "Inherit the Wind", through Aug. 10 at WSF Stage in Woodward Park. Free, but $10 reserved seats available. Park's vehicle fee applies. Details: woodwardshakespeare.org, (559) 927-3485.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, email@example.com and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.