I recently reviewed the intriguing new play Disinherit the Wind, which explodes many of the stereotypes about the current debate over Darwin and design. As a follow-up, I thought it would be interesting to talk with actor and playwright Matt Chait (pictured above right) about what inspired him to write and produce the play, which now can be watched on Vimeo and purchased as a book. Below is my interview with him.
Matt is interested in mounting the play again, so if you are interested in bringing it to your city, consider contacting him at [email protected]
John West: What is your background in the theater?
Matt Chait: I fell in love with acting during college and attended a wonderful acting conservatory right after graduation, the Neighborhood Playhouse. After the Playhouse I did acting work in New York and on tours, repertory companies, and summer stock. As much as I loved acting, the lifestyle of an actor was very difficult for me. I struggled with the insecurity of it, never knowing before hand if I would be working or where that work would take me. In an attempt to get more stability in my life, I got a masters degree in counseling psychology.
To support myself during this time I began working as an acting teacher at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in their evening school. When I got my degree, the administrator of the evening school became the director of the entire Academy and offered me full time work teaching and directing. I did that for several years and then moved to Los Angeles where I taught acting at UCLA and began teaching private classes. My classes were successful and I bought the theater complex where I was renting space for my classes. I still own and operate that complex, called The Complex (catchy name), 25 years later. During all of this I have been acting, and producing and directing plays. Aside from a few sketches and adapting a British play for an American audience, however, I had never written a full-length play before Disinherit The Wind.
JW: What inspired you to write Disinherit the Wind? How did you get the idea?
MC: I was touring in a show in 1968 and was in the habit of calling my girlfriend back in New York about once a week (pay phones were much more expensive than cell phones, so daily calls were financially out of the question). During one of these calls she mentioned to me that she had begun doing exercises that “made you high.” I couldn’t imagine it. I was never fond of drugs — acting being my drug of choice at the time — but the notion that exercises could make you high really aroused my curiosity.
The exercises were called yoga (a word that I had never heard before) and I resolved to take some yoga classes as soon as I returned to New York. The classes that I found were taught by someone named Swami Satchidananda or by young people that had been studying with Swami, and they did make you high; at least for me they did. It was a kind of intoxication without toxins and I shortly found myself adapting a vegetarian diet, as Swami suggested, attending his lectures, and going on weekend yoga retreats that he ran from a place in upstate New York. This began a spiritual odyssey for me that lasted eight years and brought me in contact with a number of wonderful teachers.
At the end of this time I felt that I had a strong framework for understanding myself, my relationship to others, and to the universe and a strong sense of why we were here on this planet. I was very comfortable, within myself, with this framework, but not comfortable at all with sharing it with people that did not have a spiritual background.
When I met my wife and, especially, after we had children, we met a lot of people who had none of the spiritual background or experiences that I had had. Some of these people were scientists, as was my brother-in-law. They would say things casually in conversation regarding life and the body and the relationship between the two that made no sense to me at all. Sometimes when I interjected they would look at me as if I were delusional.
Evidently the things that I was saying were as nonsensical to them as their pronouncements were nonsensical to me. Not able to explain myself in a sound bite I held my peace, but as time went by it was not a very peaceful peace. I felt I was holding too much in and, although I was polite and friendly with these people, in a fairly shallow way, I wished that I could explain myself at a deeper level and have more open relationships with them.
I had a phone conversation once with a friend of mine who was a brain scientist. He was trying to explain to me the neo-Darwinian understanding of the beginning of life. It made no sense to me at all. I kept questioning him about it and he kept trying to put it to rest, since it was fairly late and well past his bedtime. I felt I just couldn’t let him off the phone, however. I wanted my questions answered and everything that he said was just increasing my bewilderment.
Finally, as a last ditch effort to get me off the phone, he told me to read Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, that Dawkins could explain it much better than he could, and before I had a chance to say anything else he said good night and quickly hung up the phone.
The Selfish Gene was the most infuriating piece of nonsense I had ever read. I could be silent no longer. I had heard about blogs and, although I had never read one, I thought that might be a good way to get my ideas out there in the open. One day I asked my assistant at work if he knew how I could go about starting a blog.
“Sure,” he said, “you could start one right now.”
“How long would it take?”
“About five minutes.”
“You’re kidding! How much would it cost?”
“It doesn’t cost anything.”
So, sure enough, within five minutes — this was 2006, I believe — I was the author of a blog. The title of the blog was, and still is, Beyond Evolution; Is There God After Dawkins? This is the origin of the following exchange in Disinherit the Wind, as Dr. Cates, acting as his own lawyer, questions the expert witness, Dr. Robert Hawkins:
CATES: It’s a pleasure to meet you Robert. May I call you Robert?
HAWKINS: Not really.
CATES: Okay, Dr. Hawkins, then. It’s still a pleasure. I’m familiar with many of your books, your lectures and interviews.
HAWKINS: And how did you find them?
HAWKINS: Really? In what way?
CATES: Oh, much in the way that your King George inspired our Declaration of Independence or that Adolf Hitler inspired the United Nations Charter.
The more I wrote the blog, the more I discovered about the specific workings of science.
It really is remarkable how much you can learn, starting with almost no scientific background at all, just by using Google and Wikipedia. The first few years of writing this blog were a very fertile time for me. It wasn’t just the excitement of learning all this new biological information but of finding ways to reframe it in a spiritual context.
It was a very natural step from this to Disinherit the Wind, which combined this new passion for writing about the relationship between spirituality and science with my old passion for theater.
JW: In the published script for your play, you thank “scientists Michael Denton, Michael Behe, Stephen C. Meyer, Jonathan Wells, and William Dembski both for their brilliance and for their indomitable courage to speak truth to power.” I wondered if you could share with us how these scientists influenced you.
MC: As I said, in the beginning of writing my blog I was getting most of my scientific information from the Internet. I first heard of Discovery Institute when one reader commented that he was sure I was a member of it, with the same emotional intensity that one would accuse someone of being a member of the Nazi Party. I assured him, at that time, that not only was I not a member of DI, but that I had never heard of it until that moment. I don’t think he believed me.
My readership was increasing and I was having a ball, fielding comments and expanding my knowledge of new areas of biology and physics. One reader introduced me to another blog with a wider readership called Michael Prescott’s Blog: Occasional Thoughts on Matters of Life and Death. Michael became very enthused about my blog and published whole articles from it on his blog. I became an avid reader of Prescott’s blog where I always found a lively discussion of important spiritual and scientific issues. Each week Michael had a feature article that first he discussed and then his readers continued to discuss. One week it was an excerpt from Michael Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box.
I read Behe, then Denton, Stephen C. Meyer, etc. Each of these books was a revelation. Here was science explained in a way that made perfect sense to me. While Dawkins’s writings undermined my spirituality, the writings of the scientists of Discovery Institute enhanced it. So I am greatly indebted to them for all the knowledge and insights that their wonderful, and wonderfully detailed and researched books have provided. They also exposed me to the role that politics plays in the world of science, particularly in the public face of science, and who gets to present that public face, especially in the area of evolution and the origin of life.
When I say that I honor the indomitable courage of the scientists of DI, I am not speaking hyperbolically. I have read enough to understand what happens. I can write whatever I want. I own theaters. No one is going to avoid any theater of mine because the owner does not believe in Darwinian evolution. Peer-reviewed journals will not publish my articles, but they wouldn’t publish them anyway. Prestigious universities will not allow me to teach science or lecture there, but that was not part of the future that I envisioned for myself anyway. The scientists of Discovery Institute have put their careers, their financial futures, and their credibility at risk. I have no doubt that in twenty years’ time their views will be the predominant ones and neo-Darwinian evolutionary biologists will be as rare as pay phones, but for the moment I believe that it is an act of enormous personal courage for a professional scientist to espouse any idea that challenges Darwinian orthodoxy.
JW: One of the intriguing things about your play is how it breaks stereotypes. For example, in our culture, people often think that there are no scientists who are skeptical of modern Darwinism. They also think that the only religious people are fundamentalist Christians. How does your play subvert those stereotypes?
MC: Before I ever started writing the play, my life experience itself had subverted all these stereotypes. The people that I have met whose words make the most sense to me and whose demeanor and bearing seem to reveal a deep understanding of life; all these wonderful people have deep concerns about neo-Darwinism and all reject materialist philosophy out of hand. I made sure to establish in my play that Dr. Cates and Howard Blair, both of whom present a scientific view in a spiritual context, were unquestionably brilliant scientists. Many religions are mentioned, but not Christian fundamentalism or any kind of fundamentalism.
There is one scene where Dr. Cates talks about some of his spiritual insights and experiences. In that scene I tried to turn the stereotype on its head. Here was the spiritual proponent making perfect sense and the “Darwinian” proponent incapable of hearing a word that the other one was saying. This inability to listen, to even consider another point of view is what we usually thing of as characteristic of fundamentalists. My point is that neo-Darwinism has become just as fundamentalist, just as resistant to change, just as fearful of new information, as the biblical orthodoxy that it replaced.
Discovery Institute is described on Wikipedia as ” a non-profit public policy think tank … best known for its advocacy of the pseudoscience intelligent design.” Pseudoscience, indeed! People wonder how I can sustain an intensity of passion throughout the performance of this full-length and wordy play. It is precisely because of this kind of nonsense and all the acts of repression of anti-Darwinian information that I know of, and the demonizing of any one who questions Darwin, and the fraud committed by scientists in their attempts to prove Darwin’s theories, and even the suppression before the public of the magnificent complexity of molecular biological life, for fear that it might engender wonder and awe, leading to a belief in design by a transcendent intelligence. All of this nonsense makes my blood boil. Just thinking about it before I perform keeps me razor-focused on unmasking the shallowness and inconsistencies of Hawkins (aka Dawkins) and the defense lawyer’s neo-Darwinian thinking.
JW: You premiered the play in a six-week run in Los Angeles last year. What was the general reaction to the play?
MC: Amazing! There were a few fundamentalists, both religious and scientific, who literally could not hear the play. They were there to judge, not to listen. Even before the play began, someone refused to do technical work on it because it went against his neo-Darwinian views. On the other hand, an actor who auditioned for the play, and was effusive about the two pages that he had auditioned with, came back the next day to tell me that, now that he had read the whole thing, he realized that he couldn’t do it because it went against his fundamentalist religious beliefs.
The argument of the play, however, is, I think, more compelling when you watch it than when you read it. So many people responded effusively, from atheists, who told me that the play had gotten them thinking and questioning in new ways, to religious people who told me that the play deepened their commitment and understanding of their own religious beliefs.
The biggest surprise was the number of people who told me that I was articulating and making more specific thoughts and feelings that they had entertained for years, but had never expressed. I think in our Darwinian/Freudian/Marxian environment, discussion of the deepest issues about the nature of ourselves and the universe rarely take place. We are under the false impression that omniscient “experts” have already answered these questions and our speculations might seem foolish or childish in a world in which we have been given the impression that these questions have already been answered and that we just don’t know enough “scientific” or “psychological” or “economic” information to understand these answers. The “experts” are intentionally culpable, I believe, in giving this impression of omniscience. That is to the detriment of awe and wonder and the free discussion of these most profound issues, which, I think, are really part of our human birthright.
In the newest version of the play, Amanda, who is both the daughter of the chairman of the biology department and the love interest of Howard, the brilliant graduate student, is struck by the familiarity of Howard’s ideas. She remembers that when she was a child she often thought about the connectivity of herself with others and the universe and about a sense of herself that was very distinct from her body. Rather than trusting in Howard’s intelligence and background as an “expert,” she accepts his ideas because they feel so right. They articulate thoughts and intimations that she had already had when she was a young girl, but never expressed in her “scientific” household, for fear that she would sound foolish.
JW: In watching the video of the play, I thought you were outstanding as Professor Bertram Cates. But I also loved the actor you had who played arch-Darwinist Robert Hawkins (above left), who was clearly a stand-in for Richard Dawkins. It’s eerie just how much like Dawkins your actor was! Where did you find him?
MC: Two years earlier my friend and I were auditioning actors for a piece that he wrote based on hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The two main roles were Whittaker Chambers, a staunch anti-Communist, who I was playing, and Alger Hiss, a statesman who worked with Roosevelt on the Yalta Agreements at the end of World War II and on the organization of the United Nations. Hiss was suspected of secretly being a Communist and of working to promote the interests of Joseph Stalin over our American interests. Like Dawkins, he was a real person and footage of him in interviews and hearings was available on the Internet. Although the project never got off the ground, there was one actor who made an indelible impression at his audition. He walked in as Alger Hiss; looked like him, talked like him, dressed like him, carried himself like him. It was really remarkable.
Two years later, when I was casting Disinherit the Wind, I contacted Circus-Szalewski, the actor who had impressed me two years earlier, and told him that I would like him to audition for Robert Hawkins who was modeled after Richard Dawkins and that footage existed on the Internet of Dawkins giving lectures and interviews. When he came in for his audition he arrived as Richard Dawkins. Just like he did with Hiss, he walked like him, dressed like him, talked like him. I confessed to him later that I had already cast him in the part before he started the actual audition.
Circus is a great guy and a total pleasure to work with and he is also wonderfully eccentric. He changed his name to Circus because he felt that he embodied a whole circus full of characters within him. He even refers to himself as a circus. For instance, if you ask him how things are going, he will say something like, “The circus has been very busy lately.”
He also spoke with an English accent through the entire rehearsal and performance of the play. We kept asking him if he really was from England but he refused to tell us. I did find out his true origins from a friend of his who attended the play and said he had known Circus from childhood. I hope he will forgive me if I let you know that Circus is from Indiana. He is also about one hundred pounds lighter than Dawkins and looks nothing like him. His resemblance to Dawkins is not really eerie as much as it is a product of Circus’s skill and hard work.
JW: Did you have any scientists who responded to the play? If so, how did they react?
MC: I can only tell you about the scientists that I spoke with after the play. That may not be a fair sampling, because if there were scientists who did not like the play they probably wouldn’t have hung around afterward to talk. But the ones that I do know loved it! It seemed to me like the more they knew about science, the more they appreciated the play. We had several people from Caltech and from the Jet Propulsion Lab who gave us standing ovations. I just had dinner at Caltech two weeks ago with someone who had seen the play and who wants to have it performed there, where it would most likely be viewed by the head of the Jet Propulsion Lab and NASA. Now wouldn’t that be exciting!
I find it quite remarkable that the world of theoretical physics is so rich and imaginative and exciting, while the world of theoretical biology does not even exist, because we have been given the impression that Darwin has moved us past the theoretical stage. It seems that physicists are having none of that nonsense.
I should mention two different women who told me, both in tears, almost the identical story after seeing the play. In both cases, their fathers were prominent scientists who, in later life, began to put their scientific understanding in a spiritual framework. Both of them were condemned by the scientific community that had embraced them. The pain inflicted on both these gentlemen was evident in the emotion that their daughters experienced as they told their stories. What they discovered from watching the play and what I discovered from doing the play, is that these ideas are not so “weird” or “isolating” as we once thought. I no longer have any hesitancy in letting people know, if asked, that neo-Darwinian materialist philosophy is myopic nonsense in my opinion and I am happy to explain why.
JW: What are your hopes for the play for the future?
MC: Well, I do hope that it has a future. As I said, I have already rewritten it. We received a couple of sensational reviews that I think will help promote it. I, personally, cannot afford to mount another production, so hopefully I can find another person or some institution that would be interested in producing it. You had suggested, John, that I might rework it into the format of a radio or television debate. That way we would have a cast of three or four as opposed to ten and it would be a much easier play to tour with. It would also open up the possibility of an audio version. If there is anyone reading this who might be interested in mounting a production, please contact me. You can reach me at [email protected]
Thank you, John, for giving me this opportunity and thank you, readers, for hearing me out.