Our Evolution From Tennessee in 1925

Posted February 13, 2009 at 3:00pm

Touring the country for 10 weeks to perform on stage can be exhausting. But seven-time Emmy winner Edward Asner, who turns 80 this year, does not mind.

Asner plays William Jennings Bryan in L.A. Theatre Works’ radio drama production of “The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial,” based on the July 1925 trial of John Scopes in Dayton, Tenn. The drama will be presented at George Mason University at 8 p.m. Friday.

“Doing the play is exhilarating,” Asner said in a telephone interview from his hotel in North Carolina. “And I have a great acting role.”

Bryan was a three-time Democratic candidate for president. He was a self-proclaimed man of deep religious faith, having studied the Bible for more than 50 years. He was also a leading figure in the fundamentalist crusade to ban Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution from American classrooms.

“He’s a man of conflict. He’s torn by great conflict because he espouses creationism but when pressed, he’s so smart not to recognize that there are factors that evolution advances and creationism denies,” Asner said of Bryan, who led the battery of lawyers prosecuting Scopes.

Scopes was a 24-year-old football coach and general science teacher who taught evolution. He accepted the American Civil Liberties Union’s offer to be the defendant in a case challenging the Butler Act, a state law banning the classroom teaching of the evolution of man from apes.

More than 80 years have passed since the Scopes trial, but the argument about whether humans evolved from apes or were created by God remains unsettled.

“The issue of creationism versus evolution is an ongoing controversy,” said Susan Albert Loewenberg, producing director of L.A. Theatre Works, whose radio drama productions have been broadcast over NPR, BBC, Voice of America and XM Satellite Radio.

Loewenberg said the company is taking “Monkey Trial” around the country not to convince people to believe in evolution. “We’re trying to give people information so they can make an intelligent decision based on information and not just emotion and not some sort of knee-jerk reaction,” she said.

Written by Peter Goodchild, the script of the “Monkey Trial” was adapted from the original transcripts of the Scopes trial.

The use of transcripts makes the production historically accurate, said Tom Reynolds, director for artistic programming at George Mason University.

“Our students can learn a lot from watching the docudrama. The debate over evolution versus creationism was something we want our students to witness,” Reynolds added.

The Scopes trial was touted to be the most amazing courtroom event in recent history. Thousands came to witness the trial, forcing the judge to transfer the proceedings to the lawn outside the courthouse. The crowd eventually grew to 5,000, considered an overwhelming number in the 1920s. After the trial, the jury convicted Scopes and fined him $100. The Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the decision on a technicality.

L.A. Theatre Works’ production of the “Monkey Trial” could not have come at a better time. 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his controversial book “On the Origin of Species.”

The Scopes trial was also the first courtroom event broadcast over national radio. It is therefore fitting that the “Monkey Trial” is performed in a format of live radio theater. The stage is set in the 1920s and all of the cast members are in costumes but will be carrying scripts, which serve more as props than guides.

Reynolds said another reason GMU decided to host the “Monkey Trial” was the participation of Asner in the docudrama.

“I have enjoyed watching Ed. I enjoyed his characters. He indicated a willingness to meet with students and share his knowledge of the theater,” Reynolds said.

Asner is most famous for his role as the gruff but soft-hearted journalist Lou Grant in the landmark television news room comedy “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” When the show went off the air, Asner continued in the drama “Lou Grant,” which earned him five Emmys and three Golden Globe Awards.

Loewenberg said having Asner in the cast has made “Monkey Trial” one of their most successful productions. Asner was part of the original cast to play Bryan in the L.A. Theatre-BBC radio production of the “Monkey Trial” in 1991.

“Ed owns the part of Bryan. He’s an incredible goodwill ambassador for this play. He has time for everybody, especially to fans who come to see the show,” Loewenberg said.

In the play, Scopes’ lawyer, the 70-year-old agnostic Clarence Darrow, interrogated Bryan on his knowledge of the Bible. This Darrow-Bryan confrontation was among the reasons the “Monkey Trial” was considered one of the most memorable and tension-filled courtroom events in history.

“The scenes have great emotional moments in them, the cross-examination has some amount of humor in it and it’s always good to get some laughs,” Asner said.

The staging of the “Monkey Trial” at GMU was the second-to-last radio production for the year. Loewenberg said her company was working on taking the production in a worldwide tour starting in England.