Critical Context

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 468 words.)