Tonight the Old Vic resembles a courthouse. Arranged in the round, with seats climbing every which way, there remains only a little plinth in the centre. Called to the stand is one Kevin Spacey, 54. The theatre’s artistic director marks the end of his ten-year tenure with a one-man show about the turn-of-the-twentieth-century American lawyer and civil libertarian Clarence Darrow.
Spacey paces animatedly about an office as an old-aged Darrow, narrating his career case by case: holding up, talking about, and ultimately filing the souvenirs of his most famous legal defences. He makes the moves of one who is finishing stories, achieving closure - perhaps even making confessions?
‘I’ve committed one crime which cannot be forgiven’ he booms melodramatically - for in the romantic view, the best lawyers are also great thespians. ‘I have stood up for the weak and poor’. Darrow’s humble southern origins are the roots of both his compassion and of his cynical wisdom. ‘I’ve spent a lot of my life advising men what to do’, Spacey gesticulates. ‘Sometimes they’ve had the sense to listen, and sometimes to not listen.’
David W Rintels’ play upholds the myth of Darrow the quip-peddler as well as Darrow the underdog-champion. It makes a further case for Darrow the social visionary on the grounds of a 100% track record, and the claim none of his murder defendants were ever executed (in reality, one was). In short - it is theatre, Your Honour, and it does not, you might say, let fact or evidence get in the way of a good tale.
But as Darrow himself might have attested, there are two sides to any story. We discover that he was less a man of self-righteous conviction than of internal conflict. He was scientific - an atheist who tells of his triumph in the ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’ against a school which wouldn’t teach Darwin - yet he was also superstitious. He was optimistic yet fatalistic: each of us is born with a ‘divine spark’ needed to force through social progress, yet criminals are ‘unfortunate souls’ without free will.
But Darrow’s most notorious and perhaps most fruitful contradiction goes unexplored. His 90-minute monologue closes with an appeal for the abolition of the death penalty. It hinges on his conviction that ‘all life is worth saving’. Overlooked are the real-life Darrow’s infamous 1915 remarks: ‘chloroform unfit children. Show them the same mercy that is shown beasts that are no longer fit to live.’
Though a staunch believer in evolution, Darrow did seem to actually believe in applying eugenics or a ‘survival of the fittest’ policy to humans. He was fundamentally inconsistent like that, and Rintels’ script does occasionally allude to that fact. A man of strong principles and integrity? There’s a cracking line in which Darrow explains he moved to Chicago because he’d fibbed to a neighbour. ‘Now I had to go, or she’d have told the whole town I was a liar – which I was’.
The play’s at its strongest here: when it looks to cross-examine the old Darrow myth, to reveal a man who embodied all the moral contradictions of his era. ‘I didn’t let that thief pay me to defend him,’ Darrow recalls of one client. ‘I didn’t care for money that had been stolen that recently’. The real-life bribery accusations have never died down. Playing back some of the lines to yourself, you realise the play would feel much darker without Spacey’s winsome, über-droll delivery.
Darrow was no angel – but then, as he puts it in the play, ‘the world doesn’t change without trouble’. He was a mortal with only a 99% track record - a small-town southern boy encountering a big, bad world. And that makes for a very good tale indeed.
Clarence Darrow runs until 15 June at the Old Vic, The Cut, London, SE1 8NB. Londonist paid to see this show.