Inherit the Wind
Inherit the Wind
JEROME LAWRENCE AND ROBERT E. LEE 1955
In the blistering hot summer of 1925, two nationally-known legal minds, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, battled in a tiny courtroom in Dayton, Tennessee, and, for a time, captured the attention of the world. The issue? A state law that forbid the teaching of evolution and a local teacher’s violation of that law. The official name of this encounter was Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes, but it became known the world over as the Scopes “Monkey Trial.”
Thirty years later, in 1955, playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee published their dramatized version of the events of the summer of 1925. In a brief note at the beginning of the play, the playwrights admit that the Scopes Monkey Trial was clearly the inspiration for their work. But, the authors emphasize “Inherit the Wind is not history” and that the “collision of Bryan and Darrow at Dayton was dramatic, but. . . not drama.”
Bringing history to life through drama involves a risk that the central issues will be seen as “of the past” and of no relevance to the present. Inherit the Wind, however, has thrived for over three decades, suggesting an attraction for theater-goers far greater than that of a quaint look at America’s past. As people search for meaning in an increasingly complex world, the different belief systems that attempt to provide some kind of understanding can, and do, come into conflict. Whether these systems wear such labels as religion, science, or politics, the struggles that exist within and between them is reflective of a cultural conflict that has yet to be, and may never be, resolved. Inherit the Wind then, is far more than the story of twelve exciting days in a Tennessee courtroom; it is a narrative of a nation and its people as they struggle to come to grips with the forces of change.
From the 1940s until Lee’s death in 1994, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee were a writing and publishing team. Together they wrote some 39 plays, including 14 Broadway productions. During World War II, Lawrence and Lee co-founded the Armed Forces Radio Services, which provided entertainment and news to thousands of troops.
Jerome Lawrence (original name, Jerome L. Schwartz) was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 14, 1915, the son of a printer and a poet. He earned a B.A. from Ohio State University in 1937. Although he spent the bulk of his career as both a writer and publisher teamed with Lee, Lawrence also wrote the biography Actor: The Life and Times of Paul Muni independent of Lee.
Robert E(dwin) Lee was born in Elyria, Ohio, on October 15, 1918. His father was an engineer and his mother a teacher. He studied at several different colleges and universities but never earned a formal degree. Lee died in 1994 after a long struggle with cancer.
Several of the pair’s plays were adapted for film, most notably Inherit the Wind, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, Mame, and another courtroom story, First Monday in October. With Inherit the Wind, the Lawrence and Lee team won best play honors at the New York Drama Critics Poll and the Tony Awards (formally known as the Antionette Perry Awards) in 1955. The play also won the British Drama Critics Award in 1960. The pair would win a Tony Award nomination in 1966 for Mame and the Emmy Award for best comedy/ drama special for a 1988 television presentation of Inherit the Wind.
In an interview with Nina Couch in Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present, Lawrence related: “Almost if not all of our plays show the theme of the dignity of every individual mind and that mind’s life-long battle against limitation and censorship.” The Lawrence and Lee collection is maintained at
the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts in New York City.
Act One, Scene I
Inherit The Wind opens just after dawn on a July day that “promises to be a scorcher.” The story centers around a schoolteacher who is on trial for teaching evolution—the theory that man evolved from lower primates such as monkeys—in his classroom, a violation of Tennessee’s Butler Law. The lines are already drawn in this sleepy Southern town of Hillsboro, Tennessee. Creationism or evolution? Religion or science? The local minister’s daughter, a young teacher named Rachel, visits her imprisoned colleague, Bert Cates, at the local jail. The Baltimore Herald newspaper has sent E. K. Hornbeck, the country’s most famous columnist, to cover the trial, along with the nation’s most famous trial lawyer, Henry Drummond to defend Bert. The town is abuzz with the impending arrival of the prosecution’s lawyer, three-time Presidential candidate and self-proclaimed Bible expert Matthew Harrison Brady. It is clear from the “READ YOUR BIBLE” banner strung across Main Street and the frequent singing of hymns that many of the townspeople are creationists—the religious belief that man was created, fully-evolved, by God—and are against Bert.
Hornbeck, cynical and condescending, supports the merits of Evolution while mocking the views of Creationism. When Brady arrives by special train, the townspeople fawn over him, name him an honorary Colonel in the state militia, and feed him a hearty dinner. Both Brady and the town express surprise and concern when they learn that Henry Drummond will represent the defense. And, when Drummond enters at the end of the scene, he is greeted by Hornbeck with the words,“Hello, Devil. Welcome to Hell.”
Act One, Scene II
At the jury selection phase of the trial a few days later, Brady and Tom Davenport, the local District Attorney, trade barbs with Drummond over several potential jurors. The air in the courtroom is more like a circus than a legal proceeding, with numerous spectators and reporters crowding the room. After court adjourns for the day, Rachel begs Bert to stop fighting. Bert wavers, and Drummond agrees to settle the case with Brady if Bert honestly believes he committed a crime “against the citizens of this state and the minds of their children.” Bert decides to see things through, leaving Rachel shaken and confused. Drummond is satisfied that he is on the right side.
Act Two, Scene I
That same evening, Rachel’s father Reverend Brown leads a bible meeting. With the nationally known orator, Brady, seated near him on the platform, Brown launches into a “hellfire and brimstone” speech denouncing Bert and the evil that he has taught. When Rachel attempts to defend Bert, Brown calls for divine retribution against his own daughter. Brady intervenes, advising the overzealous Reverend with the Biblical quotation from Proverbs that provides the play’s title: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.” After the meeting disperses, Brady and Drummond—once good friends and colleagues—speak briefly. Brady asks why their relationship has drifted apart. Drummond responds that maybe it is Brady who has moved away by standing still. This rebuke stuns Brady, literally knocking him off balance as he exits, leaving Drummond alone on stage.
Act Two, Scene II
The trial is in full swing. Howard, a student from Bert’s class, is on the witness stand. Brady skillfully manipulates Howard’s testimony to favor the prosecution, ending his examination with an impassioned and overtly biased speech against the “evil-lutionsts.” Drummond’s cross-examination shows the whole point of the defense—Howard, or anyone else, has the right to listen to new ideas and the right to think about what those new ideas mean. Later, Rachel is called to testify. Brady questions Rachel about Bert’s faith in God and then manipulates her into repeating Bert’s observation that God created Man in His own image, and Man returned the favor. Realizing that everything she says makes Bert appear even more guilty, Rachel breaks down in tears and leaves the witness stand before Drummond can cross-examine her. Brady rests the prosecution’s case. Drummond begins the defense by calling three prominent scientists to the stand, but the court rules that their possible testimony is irrelevant to this particular case.
Drummond appears to have no witnesses to testify for the defense. He seizes on the idea that if the court refuses to allow testimony on science or Charles Darwin (the scientist whose work supports the evolution theory), it should allow testimony on the Bible. He calls Brady to the stand as an expert on the Bible, over the objections of D.A. Davenport. At first, Brady fends off Drummond’s questions about Biblical events with pious platitudes. As Drummond continues, however, Brady is forced to admit that the first day of creation was “not necessarily a twenty-four hour day.” When Drummond gets Brady to admit that he believes God speaks to him, telling him what is right and wrong, the prosecutor’s credibility is destroyed. He is left on the stand, ignored, reciting scripture, as the court adjourns for the day.
Bert and Drummond discuss the possible outcome of the trial. Drummond tells Bert about a toy rocking horse he received as a childhood birthday present from his parents. The horse, which he named Golden Dancer, was beautiful, yet when he tried to actually ride the horse, it broke in two. This, Drummond asserts, illustrates that many things are not what they appear to be, that a beautiful, strong-looking toy horse may in fact be cheap and weak—just as an age-old belief may in fact be false. Back in court, the jury returns a verdict of guilty and the judge fines Bert $100. Brady objects, claiming that the penalty is too lenient. Drummond shocks the court by declaring that he will appeal to the state Supreme Court—and would do so even if the fine were a single dollar. Vexed at not winning a more decisive victory, Brady tries to have his views read into the record, but he is rebuffed by the judge, ignored by the people in the court, and cut-off by a radio broadcaster. Brady suddenly collapses and is rushed from the courtroom, leaving Bert, Drummond, and Rachel to discuss the case. When the judge returns to announce that Brady has died, Hornbeck cynically attacks Brady and his views. Drummond turns on him angrily, denouncing Hornbeck’s attitude as self-serving and without compassion. Hornbeck leaves, confused, and Bert and Rachel make plans to depart together on the afternoon train. Drummond picks up Rachel’s copy of Darwin’s The Origin of Species—a sort of bible to evolutionists—which she has forgotten, but Bert and Rachel are out of earshot. Drummond spots the court’s Bible on the judge’s bench, weighs them against each other in his hands, slaps the two volumes together, and jams them into his briefcase side by side. He walks out of the courtroom and across the town square.
Matthew Harrison Brady
Matthew Harrison Brady has run for the Presidency of the United States three times—all unsuccessfully. But, that does not detract from his power as an orator and a politician. His experience with national politics has made him enjoy being in the spotlight, especially hearing the sound of his own voice and the adulation of an audience of devoted followers. Despite his losses in three national elections, Brady remains popular among the rural citizenry because of his staunchly conservative and fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. Although it is never expressly stated, there is a suggestion that Brady will use the publicity of this trial to launch a fourth run for the country’s highest office.
Although she is Brady’s wife, she seems more like his mother. She is constantly looking out for his welfare, reminding him not to overeat, to watch his activity level, to take a nap, and to be careful of the “treacherous” night breezes. She gathers him into her arms and comforts him after his humiliation at the hands of Drummond at the end of Act II.
Rachel Brown is, like her accused boyfriend, Bert, a schoolteacher. She is also the daughter of the fiery Reverend Brown, a staunch defender of creationism. Rachel is squarely in the middle of the central argument of the play. If she sides with Bert because she loves him, she abandons her father and her religious faith. If she sides with her father’s beliefs, she deserts the man she loves. A kind and gentle person who would rather give in than fight, Rachel must confront her own beliefs and doubts and discover what is most important in her life.
Reverend Jeremiah Brown
Reverend Brown is the voice of unyielding fundamentalism. If Bert is the representation of freedom of thought, Brown is his opposite. He believes that everything in the Bible is true “as written” and that anything that calls that truth into question is blasphemy. When Rachel protests his damnation of Bert during an impassioned sermon in Act II, Reverend Brown’s religious fervor provokes him to curse his own daughter.
Bert Cates is a quiet, reserved schoolteacher. Even though he disagrees with the Reverend Brown’s view of religion, Bert taught evolution because he thought that it was unjust to keep new ideas from people simply because they might be in conflict with someone’s religious views. He is not a rabble-rouser. In fact, he does not like all the hoopla his case has stirred up and nearly admits defeat so that he can return his life to normal.
The attorney for the defense, Henry Drummond, has defended some of the most notorious criminals in America. His courtroom demeanor—passionate, charming, and witty—seems at odds with the quiet and reserved behavior we see in private. He sees the law as a vehicle to search for the truth. He has the heart of an idealist but knows full well the reality of the law. His purpose in coming to Hillsboro is not to represent a schoolteacher who has broken a law but
- 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.
to defend the rights of an individual to think and reason without interference from the government.
E. K. Hornbeck
A cynical big-city reporter, Hornbeck enjoys lampooning the simple life of Hillsboro as well as their skeptical view of evolution. He takes particular pleasure in skewering Brady and his ideas. He views himself as the sole possesor of the “real” truth and scoffs at any and all who don’t see the world as he does. As an element in the play itself, Hornbeck represents the “intellectual elite,” while, at the same time, he serves as the comic relief.
Individual vs. Machine
Jerome Lawrence said in an interview with Nina Couch that “almost if not all of our plays share the theme of the dignity of every individual mind.” The machine in this case is a combination of government and traditional thought, which are allied in Inherit the Wind to serve as adversaries against the right to think freely and exchange—or teach—those thoughts. In the exchange with Brady on the witness stand, Drummond asks the witness if he believes a sponge thinks and if a man has the same privileges that a sponge does. When Brady responds in the affirmative, Drummond raises his voice for the first time and roars that his client “wishes to be accorded the same privileges as a sponge. He wishes to think.” Drummond explores this idea further when he offers the supposition that “an un-Brady thought might still be holy.” Drummond further illustrates his belief in the dignity of the individual mind after Brady’s death when he asserts to Hornbeck that Brady had just as much right to his strict religious views as that the reporter does to his liberal ideals.
God and Religion
The idea of separation of church and state is as old as the American Republic itself, and it continues to be a source of controversy to this day. The central question of the play asks if the government, as represented by the city of Hillsboro and the laws of the state of Tennessee, should make decisions regarding what people can believe. Should one particular way of looking at the world be preferred over another? The question about the authority of the Bible also raises concerns: which translation or edition should be adopted as the “official” version of events? Drummond comments that the Bible is a good book—but not the only resource with which to view the world. God and religion are not the antagonists in Inherit the Wind, however, but merely provide the raw materials that people like Brady and Reverend Brown will use to combat Bert’s
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Investigate the current debate between creationists and evolutionists. The World Wide Web and the Index to a major newspaper, such as the New York Times, can provide a number of specific instances of this discussion.
- Research instances of censorship in schools. What types of material have different groups tried to remove from public school classrooms over the past five years? Discuss why an attempt to ban materials might be successful in one community but unsuccessful in another. The events in Kanawha County, West Virginia, during the late 1960s can provide some interesting parallels to the climate surrounding the fictional Hillsboro.
- Read further about the lives and careers of the historical people around whom Inherit the Wind revolves—Clarence Darrow, William Jennings Bryan, and H. L. Mencken. Compare and contrast the historical and dramatic personalities.
- Investigate the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). What is the mission of this organization and how effective is it in carrying out that mission? List some famous trials in which the ACLU played a pivotal role.
teaching of evolution. Like many lessons in blind faith, the play illustrates how unyielding devotion to a set of beliefs can lead a person to refute even the most obvious of truths. The play’s optimism lies with Rachel and Bert, who, it is suggested, will find a balance between religion and science in their life together.
Custom and Tradition
In 1925, the world was changing. Radio was beginning to replace the newspaper as a source of information. This, along with the widespread implementation of the telephone, provided a means for quickly relaying facts from one point to another. Technologies such as these brought new thought processes to once-isolated rural towns, new ways of seeing and interpreting the world. There were enormous social changes taking place as well. Women had recently earned the right to vote, and many blacks were planting the seeds that would flower into the civil rights movement of the 1960s. To many people accustomed to a set way of life, these new developments presented a threat. One approach to dealing with this rapid change was to ignore it and retreat into their old, comfortable ways. When new modes of thinking threatened to change these traditions, people became uncomfortable, rejecting the “new” simply because it was not familiar. Not only did Bert’s teaching of evolution represent a new way of thinking, to many it attacked the most sacred of all traditions, religion and thus their very way of life. Whereas many of the townfolk are fearful of this change, people like Brady and the Reverend resent it because it threatens their prosperity and power—the more people blindly believe, the easier they are to manipulate. Drummond’s comment that maybe Brady had moved away by standing still illustrates how the prosecutor has profited from encouraging a stagnation of thought.
Appearances and Reality
When Drummond tells the story of Golden Dancer, he outlines the characteristics of appearances and reality. A toy-store rocking horse, Golden Dancer’s bright red mane, blue eyes, and golden color with purple spots dazzled the young Drummond. His parents worked extra and surprised him with the horse as a birthday present, and, when the excited boy jumped on the horse to ride, it broke in two. There was no substance to the object of Drummond’s desire, only “spit and sealing wax.” Drummond wants Cates, and by extension the audience of the play, to look closely at the arguments of people like Brady and Reverend Brown. They may have no more substance than Golden Dancer.
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 man 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.
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.
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.
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 though 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.
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.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 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.
During the 1950s, America was in the process of settling in after the tumultuous years of World War II. But, beneath an air of prosperity and comfort, social tension existed. Lawrence and Lee sought to make some kind of sense of the climate of anxiety and fear fed by McCarthyism and anti-Communist sentiment. They found a parallel in the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. The story of Inherit the Wind is a dramatization, not a history lesson, as the playwrights make clear in their foreword to the play. It is a story about conflict in American culture.
Despite the play’s overwhelming popularity, Inherit the Wind’s historical accuracy became an issue almost from the start. Those connected with the play itself (producers, directors, and other theater personnel) saw the Scopes Trial as a dramatic piece of history that could be made more dramatic by bringing it to the stage. Quoted on the University of Virginia’s website, American Studies, Merle Debuskey, a promotional man behind the play, described the link between drama and factual events as “a vibrant, pulsating, slam-bang production, acclaimed by the critics as entertainment first and history by incidence.” Another public relations firm, Daniel E. Lewitt Associates, called the play “living drama rather than a period piece” and said that Inherit the Wind has significance to students because it illuminates a fragment of America’s scholastic past [and] espouses important ideas dramatically.”
On the other side of the issue, some had problems with Inherit the Wind as a history lesson for two reasons. First, there are significant discrepancies between the courtroom events of the play and the actual trial records. Even though Lawrence and Lee opened the play with a disclaimer, many viewed the play as a learning tool.
The other problem with using Inherit the Wind as historical documentation is the bias against the South that permeates the drama. The character of E. K. Hornbeck consistently refers to the South in less than flattering terms. Hornbeck longs to return to the North and escape the stultifying society of Hillsboro. Additionally, the play seems to suggest that the Scopes Monkey Trial is a southern failure and a sign of stagnation and ignorance. Drummond responds to Brady when asked why the two have moved so far apart: “Perhaps it is you who have moved away—by standing still.” The Southerners, on the other hand, see Drummond and Hornbeck as intruders from the North. Drummond is referred to as “the gentleman from Chicago,” a term not of respect but of scorn and derision.
In spite of these problems, Lawrence and Lee position themselves firmly in support of freedom of thought and tolerance. Through Drummond, the playwrights try to establish a way for a culture or society to survive with its members holding differing beliefs. They support the importance of conflict and disagreement within a society, as well the idea that each position has its own merits and validity.
Whitney Bolton, in a Morning Telegraph review, said: “This is a play which, in the pleasant tasting icing of excellent theatre, gets across to its audience the core of value beneath the icing: there is no more holy concept that the right of a man to think. . . . What is of importance is that from that musty little town . . . came a note of hope; that men could think of themselves without censure or impoundment and that. . . the accused made it easier, even though by only a fractional amount, for the next accused thinker to take his stand for it.”
In a review published in the Christian Science Monitor, John Beaufort wrote that “Drummond’s [defense of Brady] is an indictment of all dogma—whether springing from blind ignorance or blind intellectualism.”
William P. Wiles
Wiles is an educator with more than twenty years of experience. In this essay he examines Lawrence and Lee’s play as a historical work as well as a piece of thought-provoking theater.
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
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s 1960 novel about justice in a small southern town during the Depression. Of particular interest for reader of Inherit the Wind are the courtroom scenes, as well as the attitudes of the townspeople.
- The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, Lawrence and Lee’s 1970 drama that focuses on the right of another individual to think.
- John T. Scopes, the historical person behind the Inherit the Wind’s Bert Cates, published an autobiography in 1967 (written with James Presley) titled, Center of the Storm.
- L. Sprague deCamp wrote an account of the events of that hot July, 1925, in The Great Monkey Trial published by Doubleday in 1968.
- Irving Stone’s riveting biography, Clarence Darrow for the Defense, Doubleday, 1941, provides a compelling portrait of the best-known lawyer of the early part of the twentieth century.
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 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 stay, 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.
Films in Review
The following excerpt from a brief review of the 1960 film adaptation of Inherit the Wind emphasizes
“APART FROM HISTORICAL INTEREST, IT WAS EASY TO DRAW A CONTEMPORARY PARALLEL WITH THE LATENT FORCES OF MCCARTHYISM STANDING IN FOR THE BIGOTED FUNDAMENTALISTS”
the real-life events upon which the drama is based.
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.
In the following review, Gillett offers a mixed assessment of the film version of Inherit the Wind.
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.
Cornelius, R. M. “William Jennings Bryan, The Scopes Trial, and Inherit the Wind,” http://www.concentric.net/~paulvon/wjbinfo.html], 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 Currcilum 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 Reinhart 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, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~UG97/inherit/intro.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.
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.