Spacey takes on teacher who dared to evolve

25th September 2009 at 01:00
Classic courtroom drama given timely revival at the Old Vic as Darwin vs creationism continues to divide schools

Teachers today may complain about having to teach a narrow curriculum - but none will face a criminal trial for daring to break free of its constraints.

That was what happened, however, to the American science teacher John Scopes, who was convicted in the 1920s for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution.

With the debate over evolution and creationism in the classroom still raging nearly 90 years later, a play inspired by the trial is now being staged at London's Old Vic theatre.

Starring Kevin Spacey, the theatre's artistic director, the production of Inherit the Wind is part of the celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of his book, On the Origin of Species.

The courtroom drama, written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, was first performed in 1955 at the height of the McCarthy trials, and was made into a successful film starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March five years later. Set in Tennessee, it follows the case of Bertram Cates, who is charged with violating state law by teaching his students about Darwin.

Sir Trevor Nunn, the play's director, says that although it was first staged in the 1950s, the questions the play raises about freedom for teachers are highly relevant today.

"I have no opposition to children being taught biblical creation stories and creation myths from other religions in RE," he told The TES. "But I think it would be heinous for a school to try to establish that Darwin is only a theory, and that we can teach theories like the world is 6,000 years old or the sun was created on the fourth day in science class."

The play follows a poll at the beginning of the year that said a third of science teachers are in favour of creationism being taught.

It also comes a year after Michael Reiss, a biologist and ordained vicar, resigned as the Royal Society's director of education after he was reported as saying that creationism had a place in science lessons. Mr Reiss said he had been misinterpreted, but his remarks prompted fierce criticism from the science community.

Sir Trevor said that "no self-respecting scientist in the world" would hold that creationism and Darwin could be taught as equal views. But the British education system is still trying to resolve two fundamental views in deciding what should be taught to pupils, he said.

"In this country there are two notions of liberality that clash," he said. "One says that we have a fundamental freedom of speech and there should be no boundary or censorship in teaching evolution.

"The other is that we are struggling to create a unified society that accommodates different faiths. Areas of Islamic education do not recognise Darwin and the thought that children should be exposed to it is upsetting to some people of that faith."

Sir Trevor said he supported parents' rights to remove children from lessons if the content clashed with their beliefs, but added there should be no censorship of science.

He also said that it is important that it was the actions of a teacher that inspired the play.

"He stood up, knowing he was breaking the law, and risked imprisonment," he said. "There might be teachers reading this who will have to fight a similar battle - as the play says, they do not go away."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today