Scopes of Our Imagination 

Is the evolutionary drama Inherit the Wind still controversial?

Science, we are told, is tentative," leading Intelligent Design theorist William Dembski once wrote in an e-mailed essay titled "Disbelieving Darwin -- And Feeling No Shame!" "Given the history of science, there is every reason for science to be tentative," he continued. "No scientific theory withstands revision for long, and many are eventually superseded by theories that flat contradict their predecessors. Scientific revolutions are common, painful, and real. New theories regularly overturn old ones, and no scientific theory is ever the final word."

There is a deep irony in Dembski's statements which seek to force Darwin's well-supported theories onto unstable ground. He has positioned himself as the anti-Darwin, and his fame in religious and scientific circles is linked directly to his assertions that all life was designed and influenced by an intelligent creator. His mission: to prove that the "final word" on "the origins of species" is the first, unquestionable word of God Almighty. Dembski, who'll deliver a lecture on ID at the University of Memphis this week, is, as one might expect, a reasonably controversial figure, and according to Bob Hetherington, professor and chair for the University of Memphis' Department of Theater and Dance, some of the university's professors are wondering if a serious institution of higher learning should allow a fringe thinker like Dembski to speak at all.

"As far as I can tell, universities are the only places where offensive people -- or people with offensive ideas -- are given safe haven," Hetherington says, defending Dembski's appearance but showing little love for his ideas. It's a particularly evenhanded answer and appropriate for Hetherington, a prolific stage director who opens Inherit the Wind on Friday, April 28th, at Theatre Memphis. The 1955 courtroom drama by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee was loosely based on Dayton, Tennessee's celebrated Scopes Monkey trial where Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan -- two of the most celebrated legal minds of the 20th century -- debated the validity of creationism, the merits of Darwin's theories, and the right to teach the seemingly heretical in public schools.

"It's a little frustrating that this play has been hijacked by people who want to make it all about God vs. science," Hetherington says, providing some background and perspective for understanding an American classic that, like the Scopes trial itself, has had its meaning obscured by a half-century's worth of lofty pontification and narrow-minded squabbles. "Like so many authors of their time, Lawrence and Lee were responding to McCarthyism. They were writing about a person's right to think. That was their issue, and they used this play about a trial as a club to bash McCarthyism."

Regardless of the authors' original intentions, and in spite of obvious comparisons between the era of McCarthy's Communist witch-hunts and contemporary efforts on behalf of the American right to squelch criticism of hawkish U.S. foreign policies by equating dissent with treason, there is no Inherit the Wind without the God vs. science debate. Moreover, the right to teach evolution didn't end with Scopes. In the winter of 2005, Memphis school-board member Wyatt Bunker campaigned vociferously to have stickers placed on science books explaining that evolution is only a theory and should be treated with due skepticism.

"I accept this as a circumstance," Hetherington says. "[And] I really wish they'd made those stickers, because I would have liked to stick them on our programs. ... But we're not doing this play to provoke anybody. To tell you the truth, when I started working on this production, I didn't even know what Intelligent Design was.

"Nothing about this play is small," Hetherington says, insisting that Inherit the Wind can't be made into a single-issue play. None of the ideas is small, and even the cast is huge."

To stress the hugeness of it all, the director has taken his production out of its traditional courtroom setting and staged it on a giant set of stairs that reach from the floor of Theatre Memphis to the highest point where an actor can stand and still be seen by the back row.

"I've always wanted to do the show on a big staircase [evocative of] the Supreme Court or a stadium," Hetherington says. "I wanted something that would convey the sense of a big public debate: a forum where the public gets to hear and take part in the arguments."

Although Hetherington recognizes the epic nature of Inherit the Wind and accepts that many people in Memphis will probably disagree with the play's bias toward the evolutionists, he wonders if, in 2006, the celebrated play still has the power to provoke.

"[Playhouse on the Square] just did Corpus Christi, a play about a gay Jesus, and there was minimal protest," he says. "So I don't know if Inherit the Wind is still controversial. Is it?"

Clearly, as the scientific process dictates, if Inherit the Wind is about our right to think and hold ideas that may be neither popular nor correct and if William Dembski's visit to the University of Memphis is controversial because of his ideas, then Inherit the Wind is controversial. The play has aged well and become, if anything, more prescient with time.

"Even if design ends up being rejected as an unfruitful explanation in science," Dembski writes in an essay titled "Intelligent Design Coming Clean," "such a negative outcome for design needs to result from the evidence for and against design being fairly considered."

Fair enough; let the Monkey trial begin ... again.

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