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How does Inherit the Wind portray the individual's struggle against society and their power to enact change?

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The play seems to be less about a struggle between the individual and society than it is about an attack on mind-control of all kinds, but especially the mind-control of religion. As part of their defense of academic freedom, both playwrights were careful to emphasize that they had no intention of defaming or caricaturing religious believers. Rather, they focused on two extremes in order to demonstrate how they saw mindless dogma at work in both: the literal biblical interpretation espoused by the religious right, and the scientific materialism of Drummond. In his denunciation of Drummond's approach to science rather than scripture, Brady says: BRADY: I say this Darwin is your god! It's your bible!

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It would be difficult to make a case that this work is fundamentally speaking to the issue of the power of the individual versus the larger society. A dramatization of the Scopes Trial of 1925, which concerned a Tennessee high school science teacher who had been indicted for teaching the theory of evolution in violation of the state's Butler Act, the play's focus is less on any individual than on the abstract issues of academic freedom and freedom of speech.

The role of the teacher character, Bertram Cates, is basically symbolic, and the play is dominated by the characters of Henry Drummond and Matthew Harrison Brady, just as the actual trial was by their real-life counterparts, famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow and former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. The climax of the play comes with Drummond's cross-examination of Brady in act 2, as the lawyer questions him about the credibility of various events in the Book of Genesis according to scientific standards. Brady's rigid, scriptural responses eventually give way to a painful admission that the first day of Creation might have been longer than twenty-four hours. Pushed to the edge, Brady rants against his opponent:

BRADY: I'll tell you what he's trying to do! He wants to destroy everybody's belief in the Bible, and in God!

DRUMMOND: You know that's not true. I'm trying to stop you bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States! And you know it!

Since the Scopes Trial took place nearly a century ago, when the population of the United States was far less educated than at present, one might have expected that the interference of religion in education and the teaching of evolution would now be non-issues. Yet, as we know, this is far from being the case, and the teaching of evolution remains controversial in many areas of the country.

As the playwrights Lawrence and Lee explained, Inherit the Wind was intended not only as a defense of academic freedom but as an attack on the mind-control implicit in the McCarthyism of that era. A similar mind-control, they suggest, is also implicit in fundamentalist types of religion.

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In the play and its film versions, Bertram Cates is a man alone in a community where fundamentalist religious beliefs dominate the population at large. As an individual, he doesn't have the power by himself to change anything, but with a famous lawyer to represent him, he engages in a struggle against authority, and in some sense he wins, in spite of being found guilty of breaking the law against the teaching of evolution.

The play sends a mixed message about the ability of one person to counter the entrenched thinking of those around him. Cates is found guilty, but the trivial nature of his punishment makes it look as if the whole titanic courtroom struggle was just a tempest in a teapot. Did Cates and his attorney Henry Drummond really alter the status quo ? The answer will be different based on the reader's or audience member's beliefs, even before they are exposed to the drama. Those who believe in a literal interpretation of Scripture will say that an eternal truth remains unchanged, unassailable. Others will say the opposite—that the drama demonstrates the injustice of those who try to impose their beliefs on others. The important thing about Inherit the Wind, especially in the scene in which Drummond questions the prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady, is that it makes (or should make) people of whatever orientation think about the issues and actively consider the question of how much any of us can really know about our origins and our prehistory.

In this last point, we can see that the playwrights themselves are individuals who have made an impact—assuming any mere writer can do this—given that we are still talking about their play, over sixty years after its premiere. The Scopes "Monkey trial" on which the drama is based would otherwise probably have been long forgotten. And the different film versions—in 1960, 1965, 1988, and 1999—have shown how varied the interpretations of the play can be and how much controversy has been generated by the ideas upon which the drama is based.

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In the movie and play, Inherit the Wind, certainly, one individual is portrayed as taking on society's unsupported beliefs on evolution, and there is a certain "triumph" for the individual. However, it is important to understand that this story, while it is based upon actual events, is a fictionalized account of those events, and there is some important information not really emphasized enough. 

Scopes did stand trial for his teaching of evolution. But he did not stand alone.  There was an interest in attacking the law that prohibited the teaching of evolution, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) advertised for someone willing to stand trial in a test case.  The town fathers were also interested in a test case taking place in their town because they believed the trial would bring people and publicity to their town.  This background information about the real case is important to understand because quite often, the individual versus society loses without some help. 

There are probably better examples of the individual prevailing against society, for example, Christ, Ghandi, Semmelweis, or Martin Luther King, Jr. But even in those examples, the "victory" over society was not achieved without the support of others. This does not mean that an individual cannot ever prevail against society on his or her own, but in most cases, an individual begins a movement against society that is then taken up by others. 

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