Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

More than anything else, Inherit the Wind was an attack on the anti-intellectualism of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, when hysteria about the communist threat was reaching hysterical proportions. It was upon this hysteria that Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy grounded his notorious hearings after concluding, quite without proof, that the United States Department of State was peppered with communists and that the communist influence in the media was threatening the very fabric of American society.

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Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, liberals appalled at what was happening as the McCarthy hearings chipped away at the constitutional rights of many notable Americans, particularly playwrights and others in the arts, wrote the play. They distanced its issues by a whole generation from that which was going on in the country as McCarthyism spread insidiously into all walks of American life. They specifically refused to assign a date to the play’s action, saying that it might be today, yesterday, or sometime in the future.

A version of Inherit the Wind existed as early as 1951, well before the McCarthy hearings began, but Lawrence and Lee sensed an erosion of individual liberties and wrote their play in part to illustrate how mass hysteria among those who do not understand the intellectual underpinnings of society can lead to disastrous outcomes. By the time the play was first presented in 1955, the McCarthy hearings were well under way, and the United States was divided by them. Many naïve Americans were misled just as the townsfolk in Inherit the Wind had been.

The play, translated into more than one dozen foreign languages, has been performed worldwide. In 1957, when it ended its Broadway run, it was the longest-running drama based on a historical event. The much-heralded 1960 film version, written by Nathan E. Douglas and Harold Jacob Smith and directed by Stanley Kramer, is reasonably faithful to the original script.

Inherit the Wind was consistent with other notable plays produced during this period. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (pr., pb. 1949) explored the futility of existence for a thwarted man nearing the end of his career as a shoe salesman. In The Crucible (pr., pb. 1953), which focused on the Salem witch trials and was spawned by the same sort of hysteria that caused Bertram Cates to be arrested and tried in Inherit the Wind, Miller again addressed the question of irrationality. Both plays are aimed at demonstrating that history indeed repeats itself, usually to the detriment of society. William Inge’s Picnic (pr., pb. 1953) examined the prejudices and crippling fears of common people living in small-town America, building on the kind of social criticism that Tennessee Williams presented in The Glass Menagerie (pr. 1944, pb. 1945). The climate for such social criticism was ripe for a play like Inherit the Wind when it was finally produced in 1955.

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