Useful oversimplification: French plays are about sexual morality, British plays are about political morality, American plays are about lying. Our dramatic literature teems with the lies people tell each other, the lies they tell their families, the lies they tell the community, the lies they tell themselves. If mendacity isn’t, as one of the most lied-to characters in American
drama calls it, “the system we live in,” uncovering it certainly seems to be our
ongoing theatrical preoccupation.
The two classic American plays that are Broadway’s most recent arrivals, both from the post-World War II era that seems to be this year’s theatrical trend, are both studies in lying. Lawrence and Lee’s Inherit the Wind (1955) sets the lies that people substitute for religion in a head-to-head courtroom battle against scientific truth; O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (1947) deals with interlocking sets of lies on the domestic front, among a father and daughter, and the daughter’s ostensible wooer. Both plays are starting to become familiar presences: This is
Inherit the Wind‘s second Broadway production in recent years; A Moon for the Misbegotten is on its fourth New York revival since Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards Jr. gave their definitive account of it in the early ’70s.
There’s reason behind these recurrences. We live in a civilization that seems increasingly based on lies, fueled by an increasing impetus toward vulgar abuse, the last refuge of those with no truth left to tell, like Imus critiquing basketball players’ hairstyles or Bush accusing Congress of letting down the armed forces. Inherit the Wind, a dramatization of the 1925 trial at which John Scopes, a high school biology teacher in Tennessee, was prosecuted for explaining the theory of evolution to his students, opens with a slanging match between two children on opposite sides of the issue, and goes on to show its allegedly pious small-town adults slinging enough slime at the defendant and his lawyer to cover the world in primordial ooze and start evolution all over again. The lavishly cast production, directed by Doug Hughes, includes a gospel quartet that favors the audience with a Tin Pan Alley rarity written at the time to cash in on the trial’s vast publicity, Billy Rose’s anti-Darwinian anthem, “You Can’t Make a Monkey Out of Me.” Truly, as W.S. Gilbert had pointed out four decades earlier, “Darwinian Man, though well-behaved/At best is only a monkey shaved.”
Though the biblical literalists who try to enforce their blinkered beliefs on everybody else are still very much with us—at least whenever there’s a school board election in Kansas—Inherit the Wind is really less about its issues than about the personal rivalry between the two national eminences who led the opposing legal teams, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan (rebaptized “Henry Drummond” and “Matthew Harrison Brady” in the play). By 1925, Bryan, a Bible-thumping populist who’d begun as a grassroots radical and become increasingly conservative, was something of a back number. Movies, newspapers, and the new medium, radio, were producing an increasingly secularized and skeptical population, to whom Bryan’s hellfire preachments and biblical platitudes seemed increasingly quaint.
This makes it rough on the actor playing Brady, who has to fight every scene’s battle from a losing, and largely dishonorable, position. Brian Dennehy, to his credit, is much the best Brady I’ve seen, beamingly orotund, self-assured, and radiating far more magnetism than in his recent O’Neill and Miller excursions. Just as well for him, too, since he’s up against Christopher Plummer, whose wiliness, as Drummond, extends in all directions. Mixing his own beetle-browed gravitas, dramatic thunder, and whip-sharp comic timing with a grandfatherly twinkle that seems filched from Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain, Plummer has rarely come off seeming at once so genial and so resourceful.
Brady’s side believes Drummond is Satan, but next to these two big, lovable guys, the really satanic figures are the second leads: Denis O’Hare makes E.K. Hornbeck, a smart-aleck newspaper reporter based on H.L. Mencken, into a snaky, rat-a-tat-tat cynic spreading oily contempt on everyone he encounters, while Byron Jennings, rigid and drawn, gives a genuinely scary rendering of the local minister, in whose preaching hellfire blazes with astonishingly vindictive heat. If the issues aren’t engaged powerfully, Hughes’s staging keeps the personal combats lively and fluid.
A Moon for the Misbegotten tackles some of the same political issues from th
e underside, as it were. Here the main characters are unbelievers, a brutal, hardscrabble farmer (Colm Meaney) and his tough, supposedly sluttish daughter
(Eve Best). Their suspicion of both the conventional pieties and the existing socioeconomic order doesn’t stop them from having what amounts to a crisis of faith on both fronts, since their unbelief is their lie: Both are really unfulfilled romantics, whose endless mixture of brutal talk and blarney is a cover-up for a desperate vulnerability. Their cover’s blown when they lay a marital trap (similar to the one in O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet, written around the same time) for Jim Tyrone, a dashing Broadway gent who owns the rocky farmland they inhabit. Jim, whom we know better from Long Day’s Journey into Night as the playwright’s elder brother
Jamie, of course comes to them carrying a secret grief that neither their peasant blandish
ments nor their whiskey can assuage. In the course of a long, chaste, confessional night with the farmer’s daughter, Josie, he and she strip off a succession of masks and reach a
modicum of tragic peace together, accepting their fate as perpetually unfulfilled souls—”a virgin with a dead baby at her breast.”
This is big, grim stuff, which O’Neill tries to enliven with heavy helpings of folk comedy. (Mary McCarthy, reviewing the play’s first publication, compared O’Neill to a man trying to build “a homemade Trojan Horse” in his backyard.) Howard Davies’s production lets you feel the bigness, though none of his performers are really up to it. Kevin Spacey, showy and speedy-mouthed, gets nothing of Tyrone’s inner deadness; Best, busily signaling Josie’s vulnerability, is far too fine-boned and delicate-featured for this Amazonian role. Even Meaney barely comes off as a meanie. Robards and Dewhurst, sorely missed, are available on DVD.