Tuesday, March 2, 2004

Goodbye, Jerry.

The theatre has lost a great playwright.

Jerome Lawrence, a playwright and theater director whose plays include the classic courtroom drama “Inherit the Wind,” died on Sunday at his home in Malibu, Calif., his niece Deborah Robison said. He was 88.

With Robert E. Lee, his writing partner of more than 50 years, Mr. Lawrence wrote 39 plays, including “Auntie Mame,” “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” and “First Monday in October.” Twelve of their collaborations reached Broadway.

“Inherit the Wind,” a fictionalized telling of the “monkey trial” of John T. Scopes, the Tennessee schoolteacher who was arrested for teaching Darwin, ran for three years on Broadway and has been translated into more than 30 languages. The play opened in 1955, 30 years after the trial took place, but its theme of defending independent thought in an oppressive environment struck a chord.

Indeed it has. The confrontation between religion and science is still with us – George W. Bush says “the jury is still out” on evolution. So let’s take a look at how Lawrence and Lee handled it. Here is a section from Act II, scene 1 of Inherit the Wind; the prosecutor, Matthew Harrison Brady (filling in for the real William Jennings Bryan) asks defense counsel Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow) asks if it is possible that something is holy to the “celebrated agnostic:

DRUMMOND. Yes! (His voice drops, intensely.) The individual human mind. In a child’s power to master the multiplication table there is more sanctity than in all your shouted “Amens!” “Holy, Holies!” and “Hosannahs!” An idea is a greater monument than a cathedral. And the advance of man’s knowledge is more of a miracle than any sticks turned into snakes, or the parting of the waters! But are we now to halt the march of progress because Mr. Brady frightens us with a fable? (Crossing to the jury, reasonably.) Gentlemen, progress has never been a bargain. You’ve got to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man behind a counter who says, “All right, you can have a telephone; but you’ll have to give up privacy, the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote; but at a price; you lose the right to retreat behind a powder-puff or a petticoat. (Pointing to the sky.) Mister, you may conquer the air; but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline!” (Thoughtfully, seeming to look beyond the courtroom.) Darwin moved us forward to a hilltop, where we could look back and see the way from which we came. But for this view, this insight, this knowledge, we must abandon our faith in the pleasant poetry of Genesis.

BRADY. We must not abandon faith! Faith is the most important thing!

DRUMMOND. Then why did God plague us with the power to think? Mr. Brady, why do you deny the one faculty which lifts man above all other creatures on the earth: the power of his brain to reason? What other merit have we? The elephant is larger, the horse is stronger and swifter, the butterfly more beautiful, the mosquito more prolific, even the simple sponge is more durable! (Wheeling on Brady.) Or does a sponge think?

BRADY. I don’t know. I’m a man, not a sponge.

DRUMMOND. Do you think a sponge thinks?

BRADY. (Uncomfortably.) If the Lord wishes a sponge to think, it thinks.

DRUMMOND. Does a man have the same privilege that a sponge does?

BRADY. Of course.

DRUMMOND. (Roaring…[pointing to the defendant]) This man wishes to be accorded the same privilege as a sponge! He wishes to think!

It was true in 1925, 1955, and even more so today.

On a personal note, I met Jerry Lawrence in 1991 at the William Inge Theatre Festival, and over the years at the annual festival we became friends. We exchanged letters and manuscripts over the years, and I will always remember his gentle encouragement for my work. Thanks, Jerry.

[Update: Inherit the Wind has been filmed several times; the most memorable being the 1960 production with Fredric March as Brady and Spencer Tracy as Drummond. In 1999 Showtime remade it with George C. Scott and Jack Lemmon. Both versions are available on VHS and both are brilliant.]