JAN BROGAN: Please welcome MARGARET MCLEAN today. An attorney, former prosecutor, and adjunct law professor at Boston College's Carroll School Management, she is the author of the legal thrillers Under Fire and Under Oath (Forge/MacMillan). She has co-written a dramatic courtroom play, based on Under Oath, which is in development with the Playwrights and Directors Unit at the Actor's Studio in New York City.
McLean is the host of the popular radio show, "It's A Crime" on NBC News Radio KCAA in the Los Angeles area where she dishes on law and crime. Check it out on itsacrimeradio.com. She also co-hosts another radio show," The Business of Life" with Coach Ron Tunick in the Los Angeles area - and as if that doesn't keep her busy enough, she is also the president of the New England Chapter of Mystery Writers of America.
MARGARET MCLEAN: Last weekend I watched the 1960 movie, Inherit the Wind, starring Dick York, Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, and Gene Kelly. Why did I hush my friend when he asked if I wanted a piece of chocolate cake? That’s not normal for me, but I didn’t care about the cake. I cared about the characters and what was at stake. After the movie I read the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, and wished I could simply stuff all that drama into a genie’s bottle and uncork it as needed for my books. Writing is never that easy. In the alternative, I’m going to read classic plays this summer and stuff all that good writing into a journal. I can do this. It only takes a day or two to read a play, and I’ve kicked off the summer with a good one.
Inherit the Wind is based on the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial in Tennessee where the defendant is tried for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution in a public school. It was a courtroom battle between the creationists and the evolutionists; Clarence Darrow verses Williams Jennings Byran. The play is a reflection of the times for it was first performed in 1955 during the anti-intellectual red scare of the McCarthy era. I enjoyed the history, but a good play should withstand the test of time.
Inherit the Wind opens with a crisis or turning point for the town and the characters involved. The trial is about to begin. There is something big at stake and the audience knows it from the beginning. It drew me in. Throughout the play, the trial consumes everyone. The set includes large windows where the town square can be seen from inside the courtroom, so the town is a character too. The lawyers create high drama as they battle each other in the sweltering, packed courtroom. The townspeople know each other, and so do the lawyers—all are connected. The playwrights create rising conflict between characters who share a long history and care about each other. They don’t make characters argue for the sake of creating conflict. When characters care for each other and fight, it increases the stakes. This rising conflict reveals how each character grows and changes through all three acts.
Crisp dialogue is used to drive the plot and define the characters and setting. A playwright doesn’t have the luxury of explaining in prose what a character is thinking at any given time. There are neither wasted words nor filler in this play. The stage forces the author to show and not tell. In describing the lawyer who is coming to prosecute the big case, Meeker says: “I seen him once. At a Chautauqua meeting in Chattanooga. The tent-poles shook! Who’s gonna be your lawyer, son?” I loved those lines. The audience knows this guy is going to be a loud, boisterous orator, a force to contend with.
As I embark on this summer of plays, I’ll be entertained by the masters and will hopefully come away with some tips on how to write dialogue, conflict, and create characters that an audience will care about. My daughter Sarah just gave me the complete works of William Shakespeare for my birthday. I’m thrilled. Join me and we’ll pick the next play.