In the blistering hot summer of 1925, two nationally-known legal minds, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, battled in a tiny courtroom in Dayton, Tennessee, and, for a time, captured the attention of the world. The issue? A state law that forbid the teaching of evolution and a local teacher's violation of that law. The official name of this encounter was Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes, but it became known the world over as the Scopes "Monkey Trial."
Thirty years later, in 1955, playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee published their dramatized version of the events of the summer of 1925. In a brief note at the beginning of the play, the playwrights admit that the Scopes Monkey Trial was clearly the inspiration for their work. But, the authors emphasize "Inherit the Wind is not history" and that the "collision of Bryan and Darrow at Dayton was dramatic, but ... not drama."
Bringing history to life through drama involves a risk that the central issues will be seen as "of the past" and of no relevance to the present. Inherit the Wind, however, has thrived for over three decades, suggesting an attraction for theater-goers far greater than that of a quaint look at America's past. As people search for meaning in an increasingly complex world, the different belief systems that attempt to provide some kind of understanding can, and do, come into conflict. Whether these systems wear such labels as religion, science, or politics, the struggles that exist within and between them is reflective of a cultural conflict that has yet to be, and may never be, resolved. Inherit the Wind then, is far more than the story of twelve exciting days in a Tennessee courtroom; it is a narrative of a nation and its people as they struggle to come to grips with the forces of change.
Act I Summary
Act One, Scene I
Inherit The Wind opens just after dawn on a July day that "promises to be a scorcher." The story centers around a schoolteacher who is on trial for leaching evolution—the theory that man evolved from lower primates such as monkeys—in his classroom, a violation of Tennessee's Butler Law. The lines are already drawn in this sleepy Southern town of Hillsboro, Tennessee. Creationism or evolution? Religion or science? The local minister's daughter, a young teacher named Rachel, visits her imprisoned colleague, Bert Cates, at the local jail. The Baltimore Herald newspaper has sent E. K. Hornbeck, the country's most famous columnist, to cover the trial, along with the nation's most famous trial lawyer, Henry Drummond to defend Bert. The town is abuzz with the impending arrival of the prosecution's lawyer, three-time Presidential candidate and self-proclaimed Bible expert Matthew Harrison Brady. It is clear from the "READ YOUR BIBLE" banner strung across Main Street and the frequent singing of hymns that many of the townspeople are creationists—the religious belief that man was created, fully-evolved, by God—and are against Bert.
Hornbeck, cynical and condescending, supports the merits of Evolution while mocking the views of Creationism. When Brady arrives by special train, the townspeople fawn over him, name him an honorary Colonel in the state militia, and feed him a hearty dinner. Both Brady and the town express...
(The entire section is 385 words.)
Act II Summary
Act Two, Scene I
That same evening, Rachel's father Reverend Brown leads a bible meeting. With the nationally known orator, Brady, seated near him on the platform, Brown launches into a "hellfire and brimstone" speech denouncing Bert and the evil that he has taught. When Rachel attempts to defend Bert, Brown calls for divine retribution against his own daughter. Brady intervenes, advising the overzealous Reverend with the Biblical quotation from Proverbs that provides the play's title: "He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind." After the meeting disperses, Brady and Drummond—once good friends and colleagues—speak briefly. Brady asks why their relationship has drifted apart. Drummond responds that maybe it is Brady who has moved away by standing still. This rebuke stuns Brady, literally knocking him off balance as he exits, leaving Drummond alone on stage.
Act Two, Scene II
The trial is in full swing. Howard, a student from Bert's class, is on the witness stand. Brady skillfully manipulates Howard's testimony to favor the prosecution, ending his examination with an impassioned and overtly biased speech against the "evil-lutionsts." Drummond's cross-examination shows the whole point of the defense—Howard, or anyone else, has the right to listen to new ideas and the right to think about what those new ideas mean. Later, Rachel is called to testify. Brady questions Rachel about Bert's faith in God and then...
(The entire section is 445 words.)
Act III Summary
Bert and Drummond discuss the possible outcome of the trial. Drummond tells Bert about a toy rocking horse he received as a childhood birthday present from his parents. The horse, which he named Golden Dancer, was beautiful, yet when he tried to actually ride the horse, it broke in two. This, Drummond asserts, illustrates that many things are not what they appear to be, that a beautiful, strong-looking toy horse may in fact be cheap and weak—just as an age-old belief may in fact be false. Back in court, the jury returns a verdict of guilty and the judge fines Bert $100. Brady objects, claiming that the penalty is too lenient. Drummond shocks the court by declaring that he will appeal to the state Supreme Court—and would do so even if the fine were a single dollar. Vexed at not winning a more decisive victory, Brady tries to have his views read into the record, but he is rebuffed by the judge, ignored by the people in the court, and cut-off by a radio broadcaster. Brady suddenly collapses and is rushed from the courtroom, leaving Bert, Drummond, and Rachel to discuss the case. When the judge returns to announce that Brady has died, Hornbeck cynically attacks Brady and his views. Drummond turns on him angrily, denouncing Hornbeck's attitude as self-serving and without compassion. Hornbeck leaves, confused, and Bert and Rachel make plans to depart together on the afternoon train. Drummond picks up Rachel's copy of Darwin's The Origin of...
(The entire section is 313 words.)