"I'M DOING IT, DARLING!"
Dallas, Margo Jones, and Inherit the Wind
By Kay Cattarulla
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2004 issue of LEGACIES, A History Journal for Dallas and North Central Texas. Reprinted with permission.
In the summer of 1954, Margo Jones, the Dallas theater director, received a letter from her friend and play scout Jean Baptiste "Tad" Adoue, III. He had discovered a script, he told her - a courtroom drama that had been submitted to eight Broadway producers. All eight had turned it down, and the authors, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, had given up hope for a production. Adoue thought the play would appeal to, and challenge, Margo.
It "will take GUTS to do in the bible belt," he wrote.
"It's called Inherit the Wind." 1
Inherit the Wind did, in fact, receive its world premiere six months later in Dallas (many would add "of all places"), the conservative, fundamentalist stronghold that might have seemed like the last place where it could get a fair hearing. Nonetheless, the play landed in a city ideally suited to giving it a chance - thanks to four features that Dallas, perhaps alone among American cities of the mid-1950's, could put together: a professional theater, a director able to mold Inherit the Wind's many scenes and characters into a powerhouse whole, a critic whose voice was heard and respected nationally, and an audience with an instinctive understanding of the material.
The production, which opened on January 10, 1955, launched a play that has since become world-famous. It was also Margo's last hurrah.
The theater and director
Margo Jones had founded her theater-in-the-round in Dalla's Fair Park in 1947. She was committed to producing new work and classics only - no re-staging of formulaic Broadway hits. Her success, especially in the early years, had drawn national attention. The theater had begun with a burst of talent. The first season featured world premieres of Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams and Farther Off from Heaven (subsequently retitled Dark at the Top of the Stairs), the first play by William Inge, who later went on to write Bus Stop, Picnic, and Splendor in the Grass. 2
It was the first non-profit, professional, resident theater in the country, and Margo saw it as a first step in creating "a dramatic map for America." 3 She envisioned an eventual national network of professional playhouses that would free theater artists from the commercial pressures of Broadway and democratize the American stage. This would eventually happen in the 1960s and '70s, when the American regional theater movement got underway. Margo's book, Theatre-in-the-Round, would be called the movement's Bible because of its nuts and bolts explanation of production strategies she had devised in Dallas - among them her practice of hiring New York actors to perform as a resident company and marketing each season's plays as a subscription series.
By 1954 Margo Jones had blazed a trail through the theater world with her energy, idealism, charm, and drive, and was well known as "The Texas Tornado." But some of the creative spark had gone out of her life and career. Her creative partnership with Tennessee Williams had ended painfully, as had a love affair with her business manager, the New Yorker Manning Gurian. She'd failed several times as a Broadway director after starting out virtually at the top in 1945, as co-director of Williams' breakthrough play, The Glass Menagerie. Her theater in Dallas was chronically short of money. Some critics were faulting her choice of plays, and some local theater-lovers were beginning to speak of a new, larger facility, to be created on a verdant plot near Turtle Creek (it would open in 1959 as the Dallas Theater Center.) Margo gamely endorsed the new venture, although inevitably it would draw support away from her own small venue. Margo's theater held a maximum of 198 people in less than total comfort. "Not as bad as the Cotton Bowl, but almost" is theater patron Nancy Hamon's remembrance of the seats. 4
Lawrence and Lee had had one Broadway success in 1948, called Look Ma, I'm Dancin'! Inherit the Wind seemed unlikely to be their second.
The play was based on the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tennessee that tested the right of a high school teacher to introduce Darwin's Theory of Evolution into his classroom. The two leads were based on the two real-life contending lawyers - the defense attorney Clarence Darrow and the God-invoking political orator William Jennings Bryan. Broadway producers had sensed box office poison in their long courtroom speeches. In addition, the content was controversial.
1 J.B. "Tad" Adoue III, undated letter to Margo Jones, Dallas Public Library, Margo Jones Collection, Box 1, folder 3.
2 Margo Jones staged eighty-five plays during her Dallas career, fifty-seven of which were new scripts. About one-third of the new plays had a continued life on stage, radio, or television. Don Wilmeth, "A History of the Margo Jones Theatre" (Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois, 1964), 187.
3 Margo Jones, letter to David L. Stevens, The Rockefeller Foundation, May 20, 1944, Dallas Public Library.
4 Interview with Nancy Hamon, November 7, 2000.