In their 1955 play about the legendary courtroom battle between two giants of American legal and philosophical history, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, over the question of whether evolution should be taught in schools, playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee wasted no time establishing the setting and laying the groundwork for their depiction of what became known as “the Scopes monkey trial.” Staged in a small fictional southern town in rural Tennessee, Inherit the Wind presents the conflict between the theory of evolution and the Bible in its opening scene. Two children, one, a young boy searching the ground for worms in the aftermath of the previous night’s rainfall, the other a young girl who engages him in conversation. They know each other and probably classmates. The boy, having found and picked up a large worm, taunts the girl with it, causing her to get upset. The following exchange, which opens the play, sets the stage (so to speak) for the legal and moral arguments that follow:
HOWARD: What’re yuh skeered of? You was a worm once.
MELINDA (Shocked): I wasn’t neither!
HOWARD: You was so! When the whole world was covered with water, there was nuthin’ but worms and blogs of jelly. And you and your whole family was worms!
MELINDA: We was not!
HOWARD: Blobs of jelly, then.
MELINDA: Howard Blair, that’s sinful talk! I’m gonna tell my pa and he’ll make you wash your mouth out with soap!
HOWARD: Ahhh, your old man’s a monkey!
Clearly, the boy’s taunts reflect the information to which he was exposed in class by the defendant in the trial that begins that day: school teacher John Scopes. Scopes is on trial for violation of Tennessee State law against the teaching of evolution in the classroom. Just as clearly, the girl’s response serves to illuminate at the outset the volatile nature of the debate and the polarization it has caused in this community. The boy represents the teaching of evolution; the girl represents rejection of that theory and staunch adherence to the word of the Bible as the only true source of information on the creation of man. As such, Lawrence and Lee begin their fictionalized depiction of the trial with a demonstration of the debate’s divisiveness among the town’s people.