There is a saying that comes from the Bible which states: "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." Therein lies the problem of Inherit the Wind. Which version of the truth is it that one should know—the version of Genesis championed by Brady and his followers or the version of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species? Is the answer to that question an either/or proposition? Or, as Drummond suggests by clamping the two books together at the close of the play, is there a way for the two different views of humankind's roots to exist side-be-side?
The early years of the twentieth century brought many sweeping technological changes that those near the end of the same century take for granted. In Act II, Drummond outlines some of those changes in his examination of Brady as an expert on the Bible: "Gentlemen, progress has never been a bargain. You've got to pay for it. Sometimes I think there is a man behind a counter who says, All right, you can have a telephone; but you'll have to give up privacy, the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote; but at a price; you lost the right to retreat behind a powder puff or a petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air; but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline." It is in the middle of these changes that the case of Bert Cates is argued, not only before a small-town southern judge but before the entire world. It is the changes themselves, especially those improvements in communication, that make this trial such a spectacle. Enhancements in telegraph and telephone transmission allowed reporters to send their stories quickly and efficiently to their editors back home and onto the front pages of the next edition. Radio had evolved to permit live, on-site broadcasting of the story as it happened. To many people, these changes all seemed to be happening at once, and many of them felt overwhelmed. Add to that anxiety an element that shakes their belief system and a trial of the century erupts.
The central issue in the struggle between Drummond and Brady and the forces each represents is the meaning of "truth." Brady and his followers steadfastly believe there is "only one great Truth in the world"—the Bible as it is written in the King James version. Drummond, on the other hand, argues the position that, because humans have been given the power to think and question, there exists the possibility of another version of truth, a Bert Cates version or a Charles Darwin version, for example.
Truth in Inherit the Wind is often equated with right and everything else is equated with wrong. Throughout the play, Brady insists there is only ONE right way. But, under fierce questioning from Drummond, that way appears to be Brady's way. When Brady equates himself with God's personal messenger:
Drummond: Oh. God speaks to you.
Drummond: He tells you exactly what's right and what's wrong?
Drummond: And you act accordingly?
It can be seen that it is Brady's own vanity that translates into a "positive knowledge of Right and Wrong."
Drummond, on the other hand, constantly assails this attitude to make his point. In an early exchange with Brady, Drummond presents the notion that "Truth has meaning—as a direction. But one of the peculiar imbecilities of our time is the grid of morality we have placed on human behavior: so that every act of man must be measured against an arbitrary latitude of right...
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and longitude of wrong—in exact minutes, seconds, and degrees." He also argues that "the Bible is a book. A good book. But it's not the only book." Drummond continually asks the question "what if?" Can there be a way of looking at the world that is different from Brady's version? "What if ... an un-Brady thought might still be holy?" That is the key question of the entire play.
In addition to questions about truth and right, Inherit the Wind presents a struggle between urban and rural societies, as well as between the cities of the industrialized North and towns of the agrarian (farm-based economy) South. The E. K. Hornbeck character, modeled after Baltimore newspaperman and noted literary critic H. L. Mencken, speaks about the people and town of Hillsboro in condescending and pejorative tones. Referring to Hillsboro as "Heavenly" and the "buckle on the Bible Belt," Hornbeck reveals an attitude that the trial and its attending hoopla is a sign of the region's ignorance and stagnation. His cynical commentary indicates that he hates the suffocating society of Hillsboro and desperately wants to return to the "big city." (As he tells a woman who offers him a "nice clean place to stay": "I had a nice clean place to slay, madame / And I left it to come here.") It is not only the Northerners who harbor attitudes toward others. The Southerners, particularly represented by Tom Davenport, the attorney assisting Brady, regard Drummond and the North in general as "intruders." Davenport's constant references to Drummond as "the gentleman from Chicago" in a voice laced with utter scorn reveal an unwillingness to look beyond a label to the actual human being across the room. Drummond recognizes this antagonism between North and South, urban and rural, in the play's most comical moment. When Drummond removes his suit coat revealing wide, bright purple suspenders (often called "galluses"), Brady asks with "affable sarcasm" (as the stage directions indicate) if this is the latest fashion in "the great metropolitan city of Chicago?" Drummond responds that he bought these at a general store in Brady's own hometown—"Weeping Water, Nebraska." This blending of urban and rural symbols makes it difficult to cast Drummond as a complete enemy of the South and its rural inhabitants.
From all these conflicts, which sides do Lawrence and Lee—and their play—support? None. The play does not take sides. Instead, amid the polarization and heightened tension, Lawrence and Lee use the drama to argue in favor of tolerance and freedom of thought and belief, for some form of mutual respect. Society must search for ways to survive despite different beliefs of its individual members. The importance of conflict and the value of each argument must be recognized. When he slaps Bert's copy of Darwin and the judge's Bible together and jams them into his briefcase side by side, Drummond shows that there is no single right or wrong way of looking at the world, only different perspectives.
Source: William P. Wiles, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997. Wiles is an educator with more than twenty years of experience.
Although Stanley Kramer, who produced as well as directed this film version of a Broadway play about the 1925 trial of John Thomas Scopes in Dayton, Tenn., for teaching Darwin's theory of human evolution, doesn't use the names of the real-life characters, his publicity for the picture stresses the fact that the film is about the so-called "Monkey Trial."
Therefore, and for the benefit of all who are too young to remember that bizarre occurrence, I would like to point out that Kramer's film departs from truth on two fundamentally important points. First, Scopes was not arrested in the course of persecution by bigots but as the result of volunteering to make a test case of a newly enacted Tennessee statute forbidding the teaching of evolution in Tennessee-supported institutions. Second, Clarence Darrow, Arthur Garfield Hayes and Dudley Field Malone volunteered to defend Scopes for the same publicity-chasing reasons that inspired William Jennings Bryan to volunteer to aid the prosecution ...
Some of the most interesting occurrences at the trial have not been used, and one of them is badly muffed (Bryan, knowing the press of the entire country would make a fool of him for saying it, nevertheless declared, with a bravado that was not without nobility, that he believed Jonah could have swallowed the whale if God had wanted him to). A sub-plot involving a minister, anachronistically wearing a clerical collar, and his daughter, is clumsy and unnecessary. The Scopes character is almost as much of a forgotten man in Inherit the Wind as the real-life Scopes was at the actual trial ...
Source: "Hors D'Oeuvre" in Films in Review, Vol. 11, no. 7, August/September, 1970, p. 427.
It was clearly only a matter of time before some enterprising producer turned his attention to Tennessee's famous "Monkey Trial" of 1925, when Clarence Darrow defended a schoolteacher accused of teaching Darwinism against the hell-fire attack of the noted attorney and presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan. Its theatrical potentialities were clearly demonstrated in the play written around the trial by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. And, apart from historical interest, it was easy to draw a contemporary parallel, with the latent forces of McCarthyism standing in for the bigoted fundamentalists of thirty-five years ago.
Stanley Kramer's Inherit the Wind takes full advantage of all these conflicts and adds some of its own. Its best scenes conjure up an atmosphere of passionate polemics, of stubborn convictions and old-fashioned loyalties. At its worst, it reveals Kramer's main limitations as a director: a weakness for caricature and a certain banality in the handling of emotional relationships. But this is not a stylist's film. Rather, it provides a field-day for two of Hollywood's great veterans—Spencer Tracy (as the film's Darrow) and Fredric March (Bryan). Dominating the central court-room scenes, they provide the film with its real excitements—a battle between two elderly giants who, at their most intense, look strangely like their Mr. Hydes of many years ago.
If Tracy can be said to win on points, this may be due to the fact that March has been slightly over-directed. This kind of flamboyancy can be made to work on the stage, but a close-up view inevitably emphasises the essential theatricality of the writing; and Kramer's own handling has its inflationary aspects. Yet the fascination remains. Both actors have marvellous timing, they weave and attack like experienced boxers, and even their mannerisms (which are all on display here) are made to play their full part. Curiously, perhaps, the power of these two performances contributes a little to the feeling that the exploitable nature of the material attracted Kramer at least as much as its undertones of contemporary meaning. Sympathies are more or less equitably distributed; and although there is plenty of excitement and passion in it, the film's very enclosure somehow makes it difficult to reach out into life itself.
Source: John Gillett, in a review of Inherit the Wind, in Sight and Sound, Vol. 29, no. 3, Summer, 1960, p. 147.