The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial by Peter Goodchild

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BBC Radio 4, 21 November 2009
The events surrounding the trial of a schoolteacher Scopes (Neal Patrick Harris) who was indicted by the state legislature for daring to teach evolution in his classroom, provided the basis for Stanley Kramer's 1960 film Inherit the Wind, which was itself based on a 1955 play of the same name by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee. The film contained two titanic performances by Spencer Tracy and Fredric March as Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, the lawyers defending and prosecuting the teacher,
Peter Goodchild's retelling of the same events was performed by another star-studded cast of American character actors, including Edward Asner (Bryan), John de Lancie (Darrow) Stacy Keach and David Selby. However the focus of Kate McAll's production was not so much on the two lawyers but on the issues involved: The whole case arose as a result of the Butler Act of 1925, a Tennessee law forbidding public school teachers from denying the Biblical account of men's origin. Scopes himself was not a science teacher but a high school sports coach, who agreed to be arrested on a charge of having taught evolution. It did not really matter whether he had done so or not; his trial provided the excuse for a debate between opponents and supporters of the law.
Goodchild deliberately highlighted the contemporary parallels of the case by recasting the story as a debate between fundamentalism and democracy. The prosecutors deemed that there was only one way to teach, just as there was only one way to worship God; the defenders argued with some justification that such pronouncements were profundly undemocratic in focus. The parallels with President George W. Bush's recent administration were clear - like the Tennessee lawmakers, his political thinking both at home and abroad was profoundly influenced by Christian beliefs. Some of his critics accused him of fighting the War on Terror on religious grounds (even though he made strenuous efforts to deny this): if this were not the case, why did he appoint General William Boykin to lead the hunt for Osama bin Laden - a man who once stated that the conflict represented a fight against Satan? Darrow's speech at the end of Goodchild's play assumed a chilling significance, as he called for an end to bigotry and a return to the values of toleration which he believed were at the heart of American values. Would that such please could be heeded: the Butler Act was not repealed until 1967, when a dismissed teacher complained that it violated the First Amendment. One fervently hopes that it will not take another four decades for America to de-Christianize its government in the wake of the Bush administration.