Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Inherit the Wind examines stubborn adherence to a set of antiquated but long-held and cherished notions that have, in the course of time, been scientifically disproved. The townsfolk represent what real-life Baltimore reporter H. L. Mencken, of whom Hornbeck is reminiscent, aptly described as the “boobocracy”: Such people are in the majority so, in Hillsboro at least, they rule. Ultimately this majority also wins at the local level. The play concludes before an appeal to the Supreme Court is launched, and the audience is left with the impression that perhaps such an appeal will not be filed. Bertram Cates and his fiancé leave town once the trial is over, perhaps never to return and fight the conviction.
Henry Drummond is less impressed by faith than he is by Truth, with a capital T. He thinks that God, if indeed there is one, has given humans the ability to think, question, analyze, and reason. Religion, as manifested and practiced in Hillsboro, has little to do with a quest for Truth. The townspeople are sheeplike: They accept and venerate the status quo. Not only do they not think deeply but also they do all in their power to thwart those who do. The perfect example of this thwarting is the court’s refusal to permit the testimony of the expert scientific witnesses whom the defense has brought in to attest to the standing of Charles Darwin and his evolutionary theories among scientists. This decision reflects the tenor of the town. The attitude of most of the people in Hillsboro is “Do not rock the boat.”
The conflict in this play is not merely between Bertram Cates and the town in which he teaches. It is rather the conflict between ignorance and knowledge, between blind adherence to outmoded beliefs and the rationality that would explore the validity of such beliefs, changing them if change seems appropriate. Henry Drummond demonstrates that there is no means of defending a wholly literal interpretation of the Bible. His rational approach, however, falls on deaf ears. The emotionalism and supercharged rhetoric of Matthew Brady reinforce the untenable ideas of the townspeople, including members of the jury, who deliver a guilty verdict.