The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Based on the real-life trial of John Thomas Scopes, convicted in 1925 of teaching the theory of evolution in his classroom in a Dayton, Tennessee, high school, Inherit the Wind owes much to the transcripts of the trial, although the authors fictionalize their material and do not intend their play to depict accurately the “Monkey Trial,” as this historical proceeding was called.

The play opens outside the Hillsboro courthouse, where the trial of Bertram Cates, the accused biology teacher, will be held. The prosecutor, Matthew Harrison Brady, is a renowned jurist who twice ran for the presidency of the United States. Henry Drummond is the firebrand defense attorney championing an unpopular cause.

The opening scene is circuslike. The ultraconservative townspeople, most Bible-thumping Christians, await Matthew Brady’s arrival. The eyes of the nation are on this small, Bible Belt town, which stands to rake in considerable revenue as the town fills for the ignominious trial. One localite hawks Bibles to the faithful, one sells lemonade, and another vends palm fans to the sweltering hordes. A hotdog vendor’s business is brisk, and an organ grinder with a chained monkey amuses the crowd. People bear signs vowing that they are not descended from monkeys, that Satan must be destroyed, that Charles Darwin must go, and that Bertram Cates must be punished. Strains of “Gimme That Old Time Religion” fill the humid air.

E. K. Hornbeck, the reporter from Baltimore’s Herald covering the trial, wanders among the crowd, sharp and cynical. In the midst of all the hoopla, Brady arrives to applause and cheering. Hillsboro’s mayor makes him an honorary colonel in the state militia. Ever the politician, Brady glad-hands everyone in sight.

The agnostic Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow in the actual case) is Cates’s defense attorney. The townsfolk are obviously...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The most salient dramatic device used in Inherit the Wind is the chorus. The townspeople, who attack both Cates and Drummond, serve as a chorus and convey more than any other device in the play. The chorus represents the sentiments and emotions of the citizenry of Hillsboro, as appalling as these sentiments and emotions may seem to many who see or read the play.

The singing of “Gimme That Old Time Religion” recurs as a leitmotif and serves as a rallying point for the townsfolk. The stifling atmosphere of the sweltering July courtroom hangs heavily over the entire production and is emphasized by the lazy ceiling fans that move the humid air only slightly, by the motion of the palm fans that people in the courtroom agitate, and by the loose collars and sweat-stained shirts of the participants. The oppressiveness of the psychological atmosphere is underscored by the heat that pervades almost every scene in the play.

The unities of time and place are well maintained throughout the production, adding vigor to the drama and intensifying the focus of the action. The dark colors of the woodwork in the courtroom serve to heighten the oppressive feeling the audience gleans from realizing that when the trial was conducted, courtroom temperatures neared one hundred degrees Fahrenheit.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

After the upheaval and tension caused by World War I, a mood of collective nostalgia took hold in America. The culture heard calls to rid...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

In their Playwrights' Note, Lawrence and Lee state that Inherit the Wind is not history and that the play has a life of its own. While...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1920s/1930s: After World War I, the country seemed to change. Idealism was replaced by cynicism. Some authors began to question both...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Investigate the current debate between creationists and evolutionists. The World Wide Web and the Index to a major newspaper, such as the...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Inherit the Wind became a film in 1960. Produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, this version is available from CBS/Fox Video. It...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee's 1960 novel about justice in a small southern town during the Depression. Of particular interest...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Bolton, Whitney, Review of Inherit the Wind in the Morning Telegraph, April, 1955.


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(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Corey, Michael Anthony. Back to Darwin: The Scientific Case for Deistic Evolution. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1994.

Darrow, Clarence. The Story of My Life. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965.

De Camp, L. Sprague. The Great Monkey Trial. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968.

Iannone, Carol. “The Truth About Inherit the Wind.” First Things 70 (February, 1997): 28-33.

Menton, David. “Inherit the Wind: An Historical Analysis.” Creation: Ex Nihilo 19 (December, 1996-February, 1997): 35-38.

Weales, Gerald. American Drama Since World War II. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962.