There’s a powerful moment towards the end of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird when the court audience rises in respect as Atticus Finch walks out of the courthouse after delivering his defence. “Stand up,” the main character is told. “Your father’s passin’.” The act is celebrated because Atticus dared to defend the accused in full knowledge that the town would likely find him guilty because of the colour of his skin.
Just as those in the courthouse stood out of respect for Atticus Finch, I find myself standing and applauding in admiration as Kevin Spacey delivers his final line as the American lawyer and civil libertarian Clarence Darrow (1857 – 1938). Performing David W. Rintels’s one-man show at London’s Old Vic theatre, Spacey delivers a masterful performance covering Darrow’s best-known cases.
It’s clear to see why Spacey has chosen to play Darrow several times. Throughout the performance, we see Darrow is full of zeal and anger at the injustice of the death penalty, frustrated with the effects of capitalism and bemused at the controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution in American schools.
Darrow’s most famous cases saw him defend a black man and his family who protected their home against a mob of the Ku Klux Klan, represent the great American socialist Eugene Debs after he was persecuted for leading the Pullman Strike and controversially fought against the death penalty for two young killers in the Leopold and Loeb case. But Darrow was also good-humoured and witty, allowing Spacey to deliver his lines with the well-known flirtatious twinkle in his eye that he gives to Frank Underwood in House of Cards.
The play begins with Spacey eyeing the audience and smiling smugly as the tension builds. Suddenly, he launches into his character’s monologue, reminiscing as Darrow about his youth – his father was an abolitionist and religious freethinker at a time when America was gripped by religious fervour; his mother advocated the radical notions of female suffrage and women’s rights – then reliving his most famous cases as he unboxes old photographs and documents from his past.
During his life, Darrow consistently opposed the death penalty, saying:
It’s not bad people I fear so much as good people. When a person is sure that he is good, he is nearly hopeless; he gets cruel – he believes in punishment.
He also stood against herd thinking and mob mentality, marching head-on against the common prejudices of his era – racism and enforced labour – while putting forward his own liberal and enlightened views. He recognised and argued that:
The cause of crime is poverty, ignorance, hard luck and, generally… youth. I speak for that long line of men and women who, in darkness and despair, have born the labours of the human race.
Perhaps his most well-known case was the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial, where he defended a biology teacher accused of teaching the theory of evolution, a “crime” in 1920s Tennessee. Despite losing the trial Darrow’s defence fanned the flames of the debate surrounding evolution in America.
The charisma and conviction Spacey brings to Darrow enraptures the audience, as the stories of his cases bring both gasps of outrage and delighted laughter. As Spacey paces the stage, the audience is made to feel as though we are jurors at a trial. It’s these moments where, as Darrow challenges the prejudices of 20th century Americans, Spacey also seems to challenge the current views of the audience.
Reaching the fever pitch of his impassioned plea against the death penalty, Spacey finishes the play with Darrow saying: “Mercy is the highest attribute of man”. It’s a line that lingers and reverberates around the audience, crystallising a thought we’ve all had at some point in our lives. As Spacey walks calmly off stage, the entire audience sits in momentary silence and then rises to erupt into cheers and applause. There’s the feeling that two great men are passing: the lawyer Clarence Darrow and the actor Kevin Spacey.