In 1925 America was changing. A brutal world war had ended, social traditions were under strain, jazz played, the Harlem Renaissance flourished. In response to this “decadence,” a wellspring of Christian revivalism bubbled up across the nation, and in Tennessee anti-evolutionists managed to pass the Butler Act, which banned the teaching of Darwinian principles in high schools.
Alarmed, the newly-formed American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) put a call out through Tennessee for a teacher willing to be convicted of teaching evolution.
At the time, Dayton, Tennessee was a sleepy town looking for a way to put itself on the map. Some local businessmen decided that the publicity generated from a trial would be just the thing. After a short search, these businessmen found John Thomas Scopes, a young science teacher and part-time football coach willing to be sacrificed on the altar of evolution.
The case drew high profile lawyers and speakers, including three-time presidential candidate turned religious speaker William Jennings Bryan, and famed criminal attorney Clarence Darrow. The ensuing media circus and the 5,000 curious spectators that descended upon the town watched legal history being made—and boosted the economy of Dayton.
This weekend at the Sunset Center, a bravura cast led by television icon Ed Asner presents The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial, a drama directly based on the transcripts of the infamous Scopes trial. This staged reading is presented by members of the LA Theatre Works Radio Theatre Company, which Asner co-founded. Unlike Inherit the Wind, the play which popularized the trial while distorting events and simplifying the issues, Peter Goodchild’s drama sticks to the facts while retaining the emotional power of the controversial trial.
“It’s completely different, because it’s what really happened,” says producing director Susan Loewenberg. “Inherit the Wind was a romanticized version of the events. During the real trial there was no expectation that Scopes would not be convicted of teaching evolution. The ACLU only wanted to use it as a test case so they could test the constitutionality of the law and bring it to a higher court of law.”
Star Ed Asner agrees that Goodchild’s drama doesn’t lose any of the story’s dramatic intensity from sticking to the facts.
“This is a very dramatic play,” he says. “I don’t think a playwright could write any better than that. It’s as inflammatory, if not more so, than Inherit the Wind was.”
Asner, best known for his role as Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and with more than 100 television and film credits, is also a longtime activist. As a dedicated advocate of human rights, world peace, environmental preservation and political freedom, Asner’s tireless work has earned him numerous honors during his career, including the Anne Frank Human Rights Award, the Eugene Debs Award and the ACLU’s Worker’s Right’s Committee Award.
On the subject of the play and what he sees as a neo-Revivalism movement which is gaining momentum in many parts of the country, Asner gets increasingly passionate in his gruff and instantly recognizable voice.
“This is a very enjoyable project to be involved in,” Asner says. “It’s a beautiful role, I can’t deny my lust as an actor. But it’s also a very important socio-political play.”
Today, 80 years later, many of these same arguments persist. In fact, Asner says, there’s a great deal of evidence that we’re seeing so-called Creationists gaining influence.
“We’ve got a problem in this country,” Asner says. “A majority of Americans don’t believe in evolution and even a greater percentage say they believe Creationism is valid in their perceptions. The strength of the right has empowered this movement and leaders like Bush encourage it.
“It creates these inroads and this new revivalism creates a dumbing down of America, especially as it pertains to science. It’s only a matter of time before heretics start surfacing and cripple science just as they did in the 1920s.”
Recent developments support Asner’s claims. Numerous states including Florida, New Mexico and Pennsylvania are embroiled in fights to re-introduce Creationism into public school curricula. As a result, Loewenberg, Asner and LA Theatre Works are touring the Great Tennessee Monkey Trial around the nation in order to stimulate discussion and raise awareness about this incendiary topic which continues to reside close to the heart of American identity.
“Man is the only animal that’s broken out of the cave,” Asner continues. “We no longer have the natural instincts that other species on this planet have retained. To compensate, we created religion in an effort to enoble, empower, and give ourselves hope.
“Unfortunately, some religious leaders allow it to crash through that barrier of church and state. As a result, evolution is being stomped on and cramped.”
THE GREAT TENNESSEE MONKEY TRIAL SHOWS 8PM SATURDAY AND 7PM SUNDAY AT THE SUNSET CENTER, SAN CARLOS BETWEEN 8TH AND 10TH, CARMEL. $67. 620-2048 OR WWW.SUNSETCENTER.COM.