The incident took place in a midwestern rural community about an hour away from a state university in the late 1960s. The make-up of the student body was a blend of children from the nearby Air Force base as well as the children of farmers, and the people of the main town.
I was the high school speech and drama teacher. In addition to being responsible for a full load of teaching public speaking classes, I was in charge of directing two major plays a year. After my first effort when there were only eight members in the cast and an audience made up of their relatives, I decided that every play I would choose from that point on would have casts of thousands.
My next selection after that rather disappointing first play was the 1955 iconic play Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee that had become a very popular movie starring Spencer Tracy, Frederic March and Gene Kelly in 1960. As you may recall, it’s a fictionalized version of the Scopes Trial that took place in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee and tested whether evolution should be allowed to be taught in the schools. In reality two famous lawyers came to Dayton to try the case, William Jennings Bryan who had been a three-time candidate for U.S. president and the famous trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow.
I was very young and naïve and never really thought about the political ramifications that might surface from producing this play in a small midwestern town. It wasn’t a matter of race because the Air Force students were a diverse bunch that included African Americans, Asians and even a Jewish child in the mix. No, the problem was Ms. Claire, a teacher who, for religious reasons, objected to the theme of the play, a test case with a little romance and family problems added to the drama. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court where it was determined that evolution could be taught in the schools.
Concerned with Ms. Claire’s objections, I wrote an article for the local newspaper. “The plot more clearly brings out the conflict between progress and tradition,” I wrote. “It merely tells us that both views should be allowed to be presented. It does not speak out against religion, but criticizes those who are not allowed to think or those who don’t want to.”
The upshot of this was surprisingly a very mellow one. Everyone liked the play, even the school superintendent, and life went on without a wrinkle. Even Ms. Claire laid her case to rest.
Thinking back on my brash decision, I wonder how I would feel if this situation occurred today. When I made my play selections, I did not have to account to anybody. The school trusted that I would make prudent and conscientious decisions. In our current atmosphere, I’m wondering how such choices should be made. Censorship certainly is scary, and we live in different times. Heavens, the plays in which my grandson acts are much more edgy than a story of Southern churchgoers in the 1920s.
My past experience made me realize how important it is to have guardrails, not rigid ones but ones that allow a robust discussion without making conclusions. The Inherit the Wind playwright Jerome Lawrence described his oevre as a parable, a metaphor for any kind of mind control ... It's not about science versus religion,” he said. “It's about the right to think."
I have very fond memories of the time during which the production occurred. I still get letters today from some of the students that took part. Together we were able to talk and think and try to work things out. It is my hope that what I learned can somehow be applied to today’s educational philosophy. I’ll let the boards, the parents and the teachers figure out how to do this.
Mimi Pockross is a freelance writer who lives in Vail, Colorado. Her most recent book is Pulling Harvey Out of Her Hat: The Amazing Story of Mary Coyle Chase.