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In a Plea for Genuine Academic Freedom, New Play Turns Inherit the Wind Topsy Turvy

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You probably know the basic plot of the tired old film and play Inherit the Wind. For teaching Darwin's theory of evolution in a small Southern town, freethinking biology teacher Bertram Cates gets prosecuted by Christian fundamentalists. Loosely based on the infamous Scopes trial, Inherit the Wind is much more propaganda than history, yet it continues to shape popular culture's understanding of the debate over Darwinian evolution.

So congratulations to Los Angeles-based playwright and actor Matt Chait who has turned Inherit the Wind on its head. In his new play Disinherit the Wind, Chait takes the characters from the first play, reshapes them, and places them in a radically different environment. As he notes, "The names of the characters are the same as those in the original play, although their roles are quite different."

No longer set in a parochial Southern town, the story now takes place in modern multicultural Los Angeles. Bertram Cates is no longer a pro-Darwin high school teacher. Instead, he's a brilliant neurobiologist at UCLA who is sceptical of Darwinian materialism. And the zealots who are trying to burn him at the stake aren't Christian fundamentalists, but fanatical Darwinists. Moreover, the play makes clear that scepticism of Darwinism isn't limited to Christians. In fact, Professor Cates is inspired by New Age spirituality from the East, and he pushes back when a reporter tries to use traditional stereotypes to pigeonhole his views:

HORNBECK [a reporter]: How did God create the world in six days?

CATES: I don't know. Did she?

HORNBECK: Why are you asking me? Aren't you a Creationist?

CATES: No, why? Are you?

HORNBECK: But you don't believe in evolution!

CATES: I don't believe in Darwinian evolution.

HORNBECK: Well, what kind of evolution do you believe in?

CATES: The kind that I can't explain in a sound bite, which is why I rushed through that phalanx of reporters. But I will leave you with this: I believe that evolution is the result of a purposeful accumulation of ideas and not a random accumulation of materials.

Howard Blair, who in the original play was a 13-year-old student who testifies on the side of the prosecution, is transformed into a star graduate student who testifies in defence of Professor Cates. Howard also happens to be in love with Melinda Brown, the daughter of the Biology Department Chair who helped dismiss Cates. Melinda demands to know why Howard is testifying on behalf of Cates, and he tells her of his growing scepticism of Darwinian materialism. Far from being repelled, she is intrigued, but she wonders why Howard never had the courage to tell her his real views before. He explains:

Because I'm a biologist... and for a biologist to think like this, or to express these views, is heresy... Because I'll be burned at the stake. Well, maybe not burned at the stake, but definitely excommunicated...materialist neo-Darwinism has become the new religion of science. It's an anti-religion religion, but it's a religion nevertheless. Marty Dunlap [a fellow graduate student] was just here and when he found out I was testifying for Dr. Cates, he acted like a...like a fundamentalist and I had just burned his Bible.

There is one new main character in the play who isn't inspired by Inherit Wind: a dogmatic Darwinist named Robert Hawkins, described as a zoologist from Cambridge University. Hawkins is obviously a stand-in for former Oxford University biologist Richard Dawkins (who, interestingly enough, served as an assistant professor of zoology at UC Berkeley in the late 1960s). Some of the best scenes are the ones with the self-important Dr. Hawkins. You can watch the whole play on Vimeo:

Disinherit the Wind debuted last fall at the Ruby Theatre at the Complex in Hollywood, where it had a six-week run. Author Matt Chait played Bertram Cates, and Circus-Szalewski did a spot-on impersonation of Richard Dawkins for the character of Robert Hawkins. The play received some good reviews, and now you can also purchase the script at Amazon. It's well worth a look and a read -- especially as we approach Charles Darwin's birthday (February 12), aka Academic Freedom Day, later this week.

Photo credit: Ed Krieger.