The Play (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Based on the real-life trial of John Thomas Scopes, convicted in 1925 of teaching the theory of evolution in his classroom in a Dayton, Tennessee, high school, Inherit the Wind owes much to the transcripts of the trial, although the authors fictionalize their material and do not intend their play to depict accurately the “Monkey Trial,” as this historical proceeding was called.
The play opens outside the Hillsboro courthouse, where the trial of Bertram Cates, the accused biology teacher, will be held. The prosecutor, Matthew Harrison Brady, is a renowned jurist who twice ran for the presidency of the United States. Henry Drummond is the firebrand defense attorney championing an unpopular cause.
The opening scene is circuslike. The ultraconservative townspeople, most Bible-thumping Christians, await Matthew Brady’s arrival. The eyes of the nation are on this small, Bible Belt town, which stands to rake in considerable revenue as the town fills for the ignominious trial. One localite hawks Bibles to the faithful, one sells lemonade, and another vends palm fans to the sweltering hordes. A hotdog vendor’s business is brisk, and an organ grinder with a chained monkey amuses the crowd. People bear signs vowing that they are not descended from monkeys, that Satan must be destroyed, that Charles Darwin must go, and that Bertram Cates must be punished. Strains of “Gimme That Old Time Religion” fill the humid air.
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
The most salient dramatic device used in Inherit the Wind is the chorus. The townspeople, who attack both Cates and Drummond, serve as a chorus and convey more than any other device in the play. The chorus represents the sentiments and emotions of the citizenry of Hillsboro, as appalling as these sentiments and emotions may seem to many who see or read the play.
The singing of “Gimme That Old Time Religion” recurs as a leitmotif and serves as a rallying point for the townsfolk. The stifling atmosphere of the sweltering July courtroom hangs heavily over the entire production and is emphasized by the lazy ceiling fans that move the humid air only slightly, by the motion of the palm fans that people in the courtroom agitate, and by the loose collars and sweat-stained shirts of the participants. The oppressiveness of the psychological atmosphere is underscored by the heat that pervades almost every scene in the play.
The unities of time and place are well maintained throughout the production, adding vigor to the drama and intensifying the focus of the action. The dark colors of the woodwork in the courtroom serve to heighten the oppressive feeling the audience gleans from realizing that when the trial was conducted, courtroom temperatures neared one hundred degrees Fahrenheit.
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After the upheaval and tension caused by World War I, a mood of collective nostalgia took hold in America. The culture heard calls to rid itself of "enemies" and to return to the simplicity and normalcy of the prewar society. In the mid-1920s, the enemy became embodied in Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution. The Fundamentalists sought to eradicate such thoughts from society, beginning with the schools. They were influential in several southern states, passing laws that prohibited the teaching of evolution in the classroom. Modernists, those who supported the study of Darwin and opposed a literal interpretation of the Bible, became increasingly wary of what they perceived as attacks on their constitutional rights. Their response was to look for ways to test these laws.
In the mid-1950s when Inherit the Wind was written and first produced, the country experienced a tension between the seemingly prosperous post-World War II society and a wave of anti-Communist hysteria that, led by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, swept the nation. McCarthy's fervor for rooting Communists out of American society took the form of a set of hearings on "Un-American Activities." These "hearings" identified numerous Americans—often incorrectly—as Communist. Many lives were ruined because their beliefs ran counter to the majority. Another American playwright, Arthur Miller, used the Salem witch trials as a setting for his play, The Crucible, to explore...
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In their Playwrights' Note, Lawrence and Lee state that Inherit the Wind is not history and that the play has a life of its own. While recognizing the historical Scopes Trial and the extensive newspaper coverage it received at the time, the authors raise the idea that the issues of the conflict between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan "have acquired new meaning in the ... years since they clashed at the Rhea County Courthouse." The ambiguity of the stage directions for the play's time period ("Not too long ago.") allows for the ideas generated by the characters, rather than the facts generated by scores of reporters, to assume center stage.
Image and Irony
The stage directions call for the courtroom to be in the foreground. This is appropriate as the site of the drama's action. The directions also call for the town to be "visible always, looming there, as much on trial as the individual defendant." This "image" of the town on trial presents the central irony of the play: Bert Cates is on trial for his forward thinking, while the town of Hillsboro is on trial for its backward thinking.
At the beginning of Act III, before the jury returns with the verdict, Drummond muses aloud about Golden Dancer. As a child, Drummond had seen a brightly colored rocking horse in a store window, and his parents, through extra work and sacrifice, bought the toy for the young Drummond as a birthday...
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Compare and Contrast
1920s/1930s: After World War I, the country seemed to change. Idealism was replaced by cynicism. Some authors began to question both authority and tradition. Moral codes changed along with hemlines and language. The sense of connection to the past appeared to be deteriorating.
1950s/1960s: After World War II, the country did change. Women who worked in the factories during the war were reluctant to return to their traditional pre-war domestic roles. Men who had seen the horrors of battle wanted to return to the way things were before they left. The technology that was to be for the benefit and improvement of humankind destroyed cities and ushered in a sense of helplessness and disorientation.
Today: With the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, relative peace reigns. However, uncertainty about the future still holds people in its grasp. Authority and tradition are still under attack, and moral codes, or lack of them, occupy the interest of many.
1920s/1930s: The Scopes Monkey Trial raised issues about what should be taught in public school classrooms. Several states, including Tennessee, passed laws proscribing the presentation of certain topics, such as the origin of humans, and how they could or could not be presented to their schoolchildren.
1950s/1960s: The issue of what should be taught in public schools extended to individual books. The issue of human origins...
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Topics for Further Study
Investigate the current debate between creationists and evolutionists. The World Wide Web and the Index to a major newspaper, such as the New York Times, can provide a number of specific instances of this discussion.
Research instances of censorship in schools. What types of material have different groups tried to remove from public school classrooms over the past five years? Discuss why an attempt to ban materials might be successful in one community but unsuccessful in another. The events in Kanawha County, West Virginia, during the late 1960s can provide some interesting parallels to the climate surrounding the fictional Hillsboro.
Read further about the lives and careers of the historical people around whom Inherit the Wind revolves—Clarence Darrow, William Jennings Bryan, and H. L. Mencken. Compare and contrast the historical and dramatic personalities.
Investigate the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). What is the mission of this organization and how effective is it in carrying out that mission? List some famous trials in which the ACLU played a pivotal role.
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Inherit the Wind became a film in 1960. Produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, this version is available from CBS/Fox Video. It stars Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond, Frederic March as Matthew Harrison Brady, and Gene Kelly as the acerbic E. K. Hornbeck.
In 1965, the Hallmark Hall of Fame and George Schaefer produced a television movie version of Inherit the Wind. It starred Melvyn Douglas as Drummond and Ed Begley, Sr. as Brady. (Douglas had replaced Paul Muni during the play's original run on Broadway.)
A different television production of Inherit the Wind surfaced in March, 1988. This version starred Jason Robards in the role of Henry Drummond, Kirk Douglas as Matthew Harrison Brady, and Darren McGavin as Hornbeck.
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What Do I Read Next?
To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee's 1960 novel about justice in a small southern town during the Depression. Of particular interest for reader of Inherit the Wind are the courtroom scenes, as well as the attitudes of the townspeople.
The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, Lawrence and Lee's 1970 drama that focuses on the right of another individual to think.
John T. Scopes, the historical person behind the Inherit the Wind's Bert Cates, published an autobiography in 1967 (written with James Presley) titled, Center of the Storm.
L. Sprague de Camp wrote an account of the events of that hot July, 1925, in The Great Monkey Trial published by Doubleday in 1968.
Irving Stone's riveting biography, Clarence Darrow for the Defense, Doubleday, 1941, provides a compelling portrait of the best-known lawyer of the early part of the twentieth century.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bolton, Whitney, Review of Inherit the Wind in the Morning Telegraph, April, 1955.
Beaufort, John, Review of Inherit the Wind in the Christian Science Monitor, April, 1955.
Couch, Nina, Studies in American Drama: 1945-Present.
Cornelius, R. M. "William Jennings Bryan, The Scopes Trial, and Inherit the Wind," http://www.concentric.net/paulvon/wjbinfo.html, 1996. A World Wide Web site written by an English professor from William Jennings Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee. Provides a resource for the discrepancies between the actual Scopes Trial and the proceeding depicted in the play.
Hanlon, Kathy, Inherit the Wind Curriculum Unit, Center for Learning, Brown Publishers, 1990. A curriculum unit for the play with excerpts from Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould, 1981; Center of the Storm by John T. Scopes and James Presley, Holt Remhart and Winston, 1967; A Treasury of Great Reporting edited by Richard Morris and Louis L. Snyder, Simon and Schuster, 1949; and Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee by J. Vernon McGee, Volume III, Thomas Nelson, Inc.
McCabe, Lyndsey, "Inherit the Wind" on the University of Virginia's American Studies website, http://xroads.virgin-la edu/-UG97/inhent/mtro html, April, 1996. A World Wide Web Site that presents a chronological layout with links to...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Corey, Michael Anthony. Back to Darwin: The Scientific Case for Deistic Evolution. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1994.
Darrow, Clarence. The Story of My Life. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965.
De Camp, L. Sprague. The Great Monkey Trial. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968.
Iannone, Carol. “The Truth About Inherit the Wind.” First Things 70 (February, 1997): 28-33.
Menton, David. “Inherit the Wind: An Historical Analysis.” Creation: Ex Nihilo 19 (December, 1996-February, 1997): 35-38.
Weales, Gerald. American Drama Since World War II. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962.
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