The Play

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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 in Brady’s corner in this contest. Drummond is considered the outsider who threatens Hillsboro’s value system and will use whatever legal tricks he can to derail the religious fervor of sanctimonious Hillsboro.

Scene 2 occurs in the sweltering courtroom, where a jury is being selected. Brady questions the faith of potential jurors. Drummond seeks to find out whether potential jurors have ever read Charles Darwin or understand anything about On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859).

In one amusing scene, Drummond objects to Brady’s being referred to as “Colonel Brady,” complaining that the title prejudices the case. In response, Drummond is made a “temporary honorary colonel” in the state militia. In this scene, the opposing lines are sharply drawn: Brady represents the conscience of a community that firmly believes in the literal truth of scripture, while Drummond supports the scientific stand.

Brady and Drummond are old friends. Drummond campaigned for Brady in his presidential runs. They are now at each other’s throats. The heated bickering in which they engage is lively and revealing, highlighting the roots from which each comes. Act 1 ends with an evening prayer meeting outside the courthouse. Brady accuses Drummond of moving away from him over the years, but Drummond reminds him that motion is relative.

The second act takes place wholly inside the courtroom, with scene 1 occurring in the midst of the trial and including the anguished testimony for the prosecution of Rachel Brown, the Reverend Jeremiah Brown’s daughter and Bertram Cates’s fiancé. In this scene, Drummond attempts to call six scientists whom he has brought to Hillsboro as defense witnesses to testify about the status of Darwin’s theories among scientists. The judge forbids such testimony, so, to everyone’s astonishment, the only witness the defense calls is Matthew Brady, labeled an expert on...

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the Bible.

In his withering examination of Brady, Drummond completely shatters Brady’s attempts to prove literal interpretations of the Bible. The dialogue is rollicking, especially when Brady cites seventeenth century Irish theologian Bishop Ussher’s “proof” that the Lord began to create the earth on October 23, 4004 b.c.e., at nine o’clock in the morning. Drummond asks whether this was eastern standard time or mountain standard time. Brady is undone by the questioning, but it does not matter because his self-righteousness is strongly supported by the townspeople. In the play’s final scene, Bertram Cates is convicted and fined one hundred dollars, which Drummond, who plans an appeal to the state Supreme Court, announces Cates will not pay.

As the courtroom is cleared, Matthew Brady seeks to make a final statement, which he wants entered into the record but which the judge rules as inadmissible. As he reads his impassioned statement, he collapses and dies. The play ends with Cates and Rachel leaving town with Drummond, who reflects on life without Matthew Brady.

Dramatic Devices

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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

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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 itself of "enemies" and to return to the simplicity and normalcy of the prewar society. In the mid-1920s, the enemy became embodied in Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution. The Fundamentalists sought to eradicate such thoughts from society, beginning with the schools. They were influential in several southern states, passing laws that prohibited the teaching of evolution in the classroom. Modernists, those who supported the study of Darwin and opposed a literal interpretation of the Bible, became increasingly wary of what they perceived as attacks on their constitutional rights. Their response was to look for ways to test these laws.

In the mid-1950s when Inherit the Wind was written and first produced, the country experienced a tension between the seemingly prosperous post-World War II society and a wave of anti-Communist hysteria that, led by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, swept the nation. McCarthy's fervor for rooting Communists out of American society took the form of a set of hearings on "Un-American Activities." These "hearings" identified numerous Americans—often incorrectly—as Communist. Many lives were ruined because their beliefs ran counter to the majority. Another American playwright, Arthur Miller, used the Salem witch trials as a setting for his play, The Crucible, to explore the societal conflicts raised by McCarthy's "witch hunt." Lawrence and Lee, in trying to make sense of this climate of anxiety and attacks on intellectual freedom, found their nearest parallel in the Scopes Monkey Trial of thirty years prior. Because the play is a dramatization and not a history lesson, the authors can focus on a conflict in the culture that is not bound by a particular time and place, a conflict that was as current in 1955 as it was in 1925.

Beginning in the 1950s and continuing through the 1960s, the modernists transformed into progressives who sought a variety of political and social reforms that were part of a process of finding "truth." The civil rights movement expanded to include not only blacks, but women, students, and other groups who considered themselves "oppressed." On the other side of the society, however, were those fundamentalists who believed that, in society's progress forward, much that was of value was being lost. The heightened debate over evolution and creationism intensified this apprehension as well as a longing for the perceived stability of the past.

Literary Style

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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 recognizing the historical Scopes Trial and the extensive newspaper coverage it received at the time, the authors raise the idea that the issues of the conflict between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan "have acquired new meaning in the ... years since they clashed at the Rhea County Courthouse." The ambiguity of the stage directions for the play's time period ("Not too long ago.") allows for the ideas generated by the characters, rather than the facts generated by scores of reporters, to assume center stage.

Image and Irony The stage directions call for the courtroom to be in the foreground. This is appropriate as the site of the drama's action. The directions also call for the town to be "visible always, looming there, as much on trial as the individual defendant." This "image" of the town on trial presents the central irony of the play: Bert Cates is on trial for his forward thinking, while the town of Hillsboro is on trial for its backward thinking.

Extended Metaphor At the beginning of Act III, before the jury returns with the verdict, Drummond muses aloud about Golden Dancer. As a child, Drummond had seen a brightly colored rocking horse in a store window, and his parents, through extra work and sacrifice, bought the toy for the young Drummond as a birthday present. When he jumped on it to start to ride, the horse broke apart. "The wood was rotten, the whole thing was put together with spit and sealing wax! All shine and no substance." This brief monologue suggests why Drummond takes on "unpopular" cases. "If something is a lie," Drummond tells Cates, "show it up for what it really is!" By illustrating this point with a story rather than by simply having Drummond make a blanket statement, the playwrights direct the viewer/reader's attention to the idea behind the action.

Symbolism Throughout the play, Lawrence and Lee present a variety of symbols for consideration. Much of the verbal symbolism comes from Hornbeck's cynical perspective. He refers to Brady as "A man who wears a cathedral for a cloak/A church spire for a hat" and as a "Yesterday Messiah," referring to Brady's religious position on the issue of evolution. Hornbeck's snide comments on Hillsboro as the "buckle on the Bible Belt" and "Heavenly Hillsboro" paint the town in a backward, unfavorable light. His allusion to the Biblical creation story, where he tells Rachel he is not the serpent and the apple he has just bitten does not come from the Tree of Knowledge, again focuses attention on the central argument of the play.

Artistic License Here are some instances where Lee and Lawrence modified history so that Inherit the Wind would stand separate from the historical trial. (The names of the historical characters are used in this list for convenience.)

1. The trial originated, not in Dayton, Tennessee, but in the New York City offices of the American Civil Liberties Union. It was this organization that ran an announcement in Tennessee newspapers, offering to pay the expenses of any teacher willing to test the New Tennessee anti-evolution law.

2. When a group of Dayton leaders decided to take advantage of this offer, their main reason was not so much defense of religion as it was economics. They saw the trial as a great means of publicity that would attract business and industry to Dayton.

3. Others responsible for the trial were the media who worked hard to persuade Bryan and Darrow to participate in the trial.

4. John T. Scopes was not a martyr for academic freedom He volunteered to help test the law, even though he could not remember ever teaching evolution and had only briefly substituted in biology. He was never jailed, nor did he ever take the witness stand in the trial. The people of Dayton liked him, and he cooperated with them in making a test case of the trial.

5. William Jennings Bryan was not out to get Scopes. Bryan thought the Tennessee law a poor one because it involved fining an educator. He offered to pay Scopes's fine if he needed the money.

6. Bryan was familiar with Darwin's works, and he was not against teaching evolution—if it were presented as a theory, and if other major options, such as creationism, were taught as well.

7. The trial record discloses that Bryan handled himself well, and, when put on the stand unexpectedly by Darrow, defined terms carefully, stuck to the facts, made distinctions between literal and figurative language when interpreting the Bible, and questioned the reliability of scientific evidence when it contradicted the Bible. Some scientific experts at the trial referred to such "evidence" as the Piltdown man (now dismissed as a hoax).

8. Scopes dated some girls in Dayton, but did not have a steady girlfriend.

9. The defense's scientific experts did not testify at the trial because their testimony was irrelevant to the central question of whether a law had been broken, because Darrow refused to let Bryan cross-examine the experts, and because Darrow did not call on them to testify. But, twelve scientists and theologians were allowed to make statements as part of the record presented by the defense.

10. Instead of Bryan's being mothered by his wife, he took care of her because she was an invalid.

11. The people of Dayton in general, and fundamentalist Christians in particular, were not the ignorant, frenzied, uncouth persons the play portrays them as being.

12. Scopes was found guilty partly by the request of his defense lawyer, Darrow, in the hope that the case could be taken to a higher court.

13. Bryan did not have a fit while delivering his last speech and die in the courtroom. In the five days following the trial, Bryan wrote a 15,000-word speech he had hoped to give at the trial before the proceedings were cut short. He inspected sites for a school the people of Dayton were interested in building, traveled several hundred miles to deliver speeches in various cities and speak to crowds totaling 50,000, was hit by a car, consulted with doctors about his diabetic condition, and conferred with printers about his last message. On Sunday, July 26, Bryan drove from Chattanooga to Dayton, participated in a church service, and died quietly in his sleep that afternoon.

These differences between the actual events of the Scopes Trial and those depicted in Inherit the Wind illustrate the ways in which facts can be manipulated in a drama to serve the intent of the writer(s). Lawrence and Lee wished to deliver a strong message that the real facts of the case presented but did not clearly define. The playwrights took liberties with many characters, creating broader personalities that distinctly represented each side of the issue. Likewise, many portions of the real trial were mediocre and uneventful. Through careful pacing and well-constructed conflict situations, Lawrence and Lee took the real events and created an often gripping courtroom drama that provokes thought. Often referred to as "artistic license," this is a common technique in dramatic representations of actual events.

Compare and Contrast

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1920s/1930s: After World War I, the country seemed to change. Idealism was replaced by cynicism. Some authors began to question both authority and tradition. Moral codes changed along with hemlines and language. The sense of connection to the past appeared to be deteriorating.

1950s/1960s: After World War II, the country did change. Women who worked in the factories during the war were reluctant to return to their traditional pre-war domestic roles. Men who had seen the horrors of battle wanted to return to the way things were before they left. The technology that was to be for the benefit and improvement of humankind destroyed cities and ushered in a sense of helplessness and disorientation.

Today: With the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, relative peace reigns. However, uncertainty about the future still holds people in its grasp. Authority and tradition are still under attack, and moral codes, or lack of them, occupy the interest of many.

1920s/1930s: The Scopes Monkey Trial raised issues about what should be taught in public school classrooms. Several states, including Tennessee, passed laws proscribing the presentation of certain topics, such as the origin of humans, and how they could or could not be presented to their schoolchildren.

1950s/1960s: The issue of what should be taught in public schools extended to individual books. The issue of human origins remained a hot topic but was gradually replaced by issues concerning sexuality (specifically sex education in the classroom) as a topic of debate and discussion.

Today: Special interest groups, each with its own agenda, regularly attack school textbooks and curricula. The issue of sexuality has been broadened to include homosexuality, and the debate between those who favor creation theory and those who favor evolutionary theory rages on. Several states have introduced legislation that requires creation theory to be taught alongside evolution. The Tennessee Senate considered a bill that would allow school boards to fire teachers who taught evolution as fact. The billed failed to become law by only seven votes.

1920s/1930s: The newspaper was the primary source of information about the world at large. Radio began to make inroads, but more people turned to radio for entertainment than for news. Extensive newspaper coverage of not only the Scopes Trial but other courtroom dramas such as the Fatty Arbuckle trial, Sacco and Vanzetti, Leopold and Loeb, and, later, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial, captured the imagination of the nation.

1950s/1960s: The Cold War brought fear and anxiety to new heights. The advent of television as the medium to bring news into America's homes began with the broadcasts of hearings chaired by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy that purported to seek out Communists in the government of the United States.

Today: The nation watches the murder trial of sports star O. J. Simpson from opening arguments to the verdict either as it happens or through nightly updates on the local and national news. Cable channels devoted exclusively to live broadcasts of trials can be received by many American households.

Media Adaptations

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Inherit the Wind became a film in 1960. Produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, this version is available from CBS/Fox Video. It stars Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond, Frederic March as Matthew Harrison Brady, and Gene Kelly as the acerbic E. K. Hornbeck.

In 1965, the Hallmark Hall of Fame and George Schaefer produced a television movie version of Inherit the Wind. It starred Melvyn Douglas as Drummond and Ed Begley, Sr. as Brady. (Douglas had replaced Paul Muni during the play's original run on Broadway.)

A different television production of Inherit the Wind surfaced in March, 1988. This version starred Jason Robards in the role of Henry Drummond, Kirk Douglas as Matthew Harrison Brady, and Darren McGavin as Hornbeck.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Beaufort, John, Review of Inherit the Wind in the Christian Science Monitor, April, 1955.

Couch, Nina, Studies in American Drama: 1945-Present.

Further Reading Cornelius, R. M. "William Jennings Bryan, The Scopes Trial, and Inherit the Wind,", 1996. A World Wide Web site written by an English professor from William Jennings Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee. Provides a resource for the discrepancies between the actual Scopes Trial and the proceeding depicted in the play.

Hanlon, Kathy, Inherit the Wind Curriculum Unit, Center for Learning, Brown Publishers, 1990. A curriculum unit for the play with excerpts from Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould, 1981; Center of the Storm by John T. Scopes and James Presley, Holt Remhart and Winston, 1967; A Treasury of Great Reporting edited by Richard Morris and Louis L. Snyder, Simon and Schuster, 1949; and Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee by J. Vernon McGee, Volume III, Thomas Nelson, Inc.

McCabe, Lyndsey, "Inherit the Wind" on the University of Virginia's American Studies website, edu/-UG97/inhent/mtro html, April, 1996. A World Wide Web Site that presents a chronological layout with links to relevant reviews, contemporary news events, and other background information. Some photos from the 1960 and 1965 film versions.


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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.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide