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...

(The entire section is 783 words.)