Ideas about creationism and evolution have divided some education officials, community leaders and lawmakers throughout the country. Last year’s opening of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, underscored disagreements on both sides. This week, a play in Shelbyville reveals continuing contentions over the issue. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.
Thirty miles east of Louisville, a man is on trial for teaching evolution in a high school and two lawyers are arguing his case. One is the teacher’s defense attorney. The other is a politician and deeply religious man who believes God created the heaven and earth, just as the Bible states. The defense presses him on his belief.
HENRY DRUMMUND: We must abandon faith in the pleasant poetry of Genesis.
MATTHEW HARRISON BRADY: We must not abandon faith. Faith is the only thing.
HENRY DRUMMUND: Then why did God plague us with the power to think?
At this playhouse in downtown Shelbyville, the audience is rapt during a performance of the Shelby County Community Theatre’s production of “Inherit the Wind.”
The play opened on Broadway in 1955. The script gives the setting as an anonymous town, but the action hints at events of the 1925 Scopes Monkey trial. In that case, a teacher had read his students a chapter about Charles Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species.” It led to arguments over a Tennessee statute outlawing the teaching of evolution or any other idea challenging the Biblical account of creation.
Recent clashes between conservative religious groups and scientists have brought “Inherit the Wind” back into vogue. Since 2004, more than 250 community theaters and schools have purchased the rights to stage the play. Last year, it was revived on Broadway.
The new-found popularity of “Inherit the Wind” is part of a rise in scientific topics in modern theater and a resurgence in dramas inspired by history.
“People are coming back to documentary drama. It’s being rejuvenated,” says Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, a theater historian and author of the book “Science to Stage.” “If you look at some of the things that people are doing with documentary drama some of them are very sensitive issues and that includes the kind of the subject matter at the heart of ‘Inherit the Wind.’ One way of approaching very delicate subject matter is borrowing the objectivity of documentary drama. You sort of remove any sense of the subjective playwright’s voice.”
This approach to a topical subject appealed to play director Michael Drury and to the theater’s board of directors. But the play didn’t appeal to everyone. Drury says a few people declined to perform in the play because of its subject matter.
At Shelby Christian Church, senior minister Dave Hamlin hasn’t seen the play but the matter of evolution troubles him. He says Darwin’s ideas contradict the Bible and undermine man’s accountability to God.
“It’s just a symptom to me of the moral failure of society to say there are no absolutes,” says Hamlin. “There is nothing that you can hold as truth. You create your own truth. I think that is by far the bigger issue.”
To Hamlin, the truth is in the Bible and not necessarily in the theater nor in the classroom. While he agrees with questioning ideas to help people think, he isn’t sure “Inherit the Wind” is going to inspire people to consider deeper issues in the debate.
Cast members and audience members tell me they think the play enriches the discussion about creationism and evolution. The play’s characters persistently speak about weighing ideas in the face so many thrown at people from the realms of the media, science, politics and religion.
Pat Wetherton is a cast member and a theater board member.
“I just really can’t imagine this show being controversial in this day and age. The script puts the emphasis on a person’s right to think,” she says.
Theater professionals say plays that enthrall and provoke people to think about complex ideas can distinguish theater in a today’s world where it is in fierce competition with other entertainment for the public’s attention.