Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 614

During the 1950s, America was in the process of settling in after the tumultuous years of World War II. But, beneath an air of prosperity and comfort, social tension existed. Lawrence and Lee sought to make some kind of sense of the climate of anxiety and fear fed by McCarthyism...

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During the 1950s, America was in the process of settling in after the tumultuous years of World War II. But, beneath an air of prosperity and comfort, social tension existed. Lawrence and Lee sought to make some kind of sense of the climate of anxiety and fear fed by McCarthyism and anti-Communist sentiment. They found a parallel in the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. The story of Inherit the Wind is a dramatization, not a history lesson, as the playwrights make clear in their foreword to the play. It is a story about conflict in American culture.

Despite the play's overwhelming popularity, Inherit the Wind's historical accuracy became an issue almost from the start. Those connected with the play itself (producers, directors, and other theater personnel) saw the Scopes Trial as a dramatic piece of history that could be made more dramatic by bringing it to the stage. Quoted on the University of Virginia's website, American Studies, Merle Debuskey, a promotional man behind the play, described the link between drama and factual events as "a vibrant, pulsating, slam-bang production, acclaimed by the critics as entertainment first and history by incidence." Another public relations firm, Daniel E. Lewitt Associates, called the play "living drama rather than a period piece" and said that Inherit the Wind has significance to students because it illuminates a fragment of America's scholastic past [and] espouses important ideas dramatically."

On the other side of the issue, some had problems with Inherit the Wind as a history lesson for two reasons. First, there are significant discrepancies between the courtroom events of the play and the actual trial records. Even though Lawrence and Lee opened the play with a disclaimer, many viewed the play as a learning tool.

The other problem with using Inherit the Wind as historical documentation is the bias against the South that permeates the drama. The character of E. K. Hornbeck consistently refers to the South in less than flattering terms. Hornbeck longs to return to the North and escape the stultifying society of Hillsboro. Additionally, the play seems to suggest that the Scopes Monkey Trial is a southern failure and a sign of stagnation and ignorance. Drummond responds to Brady when asked why the two have moved so far apart: "Perhaps it is you who have moved away—by standing still." The Southerners, on the other hand, see Drummond and Hornbeck as intruders from the North. Drummond is referred to as "the gentleman from Chicago," a term not of respect but of scorn and derision.

In spite of these problems, Lawrence and Lee position themselves firmly in support of freedom of thought and tolerance. Through Drummond, the playwrights try to establish a way for a culture or society to survive with its members holding differing beliefs. They support the importance of conflict and disagreement within a society, as well the idea that each position has its own merits and validity.

Whitney Bolton, in a Morning Telegraph review, said: "This is a play which, in the pleasant tasting icing of excellent theatre, gets across to its audience the core of value beneath the icing: there is no more holy concept that the right of a man to think ... What is of importance is that from that musty little town ... came a note of hope; that men could think of themselves without censure or impoundment and that ... the accused made it easier, even though by only a fractional amount, for the next accused thinker to take his stand for it."

In a review published in the Christian Science Monitor, John Beaufort wrote that "Drummond's [defense of Brady] is an indictment of all dogma—whether springing from blind ignorance or blind intellectualism."

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Essays and Criticism