Inherit the Wind, the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, was inspired by the “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925. That real historic event brought the attention of the nation to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, as two titans — William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow — battled in a courtroom over the place of Darwin’s theory of evolution in the classroom. This matter, sadly, is still debated today, which makes the play as timely as ever. Yet, Inherit the Wind is not just about science and religion. In interviews decades after the play and movie came out, Lawrence said that the play, written in 1955, was a response to McCarthyism. It is a brilliant piece of work that shows the power of ideas and the need for the freedom to express ideas that differ from and challenge those we hold. The very loud and threatening powers who dominate politics and cow the masses can themselves be put on the defensive if only someone has the bravery to stand up and publicly defend his/her ideas.
The stage direction states that the play takes place in the summer, “Not too long ago,” and that the place is “a small town.” By not being definite, the playwrights invite us to see ourselves in this play, which is quite easy to do in 2019 America. As Act 1 opens, the people of Hillsboro are getting ready for a big event — the trial of a young teacher named Bert Cates. Cates defied the state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in science classrooms, and he now sits in the county jail awaiting trial. Press from all over the world have descended upon Hillsboro and the people are thrilled because Matthew Harrison Brady, the great orator and conservative statesman, has agreed to lead the prosecution of Cates. He is a larger than life man who knows how to command crowds, a combination of preacher and politician. The people of Hillsboro, including the mayor and a minister named Brown, greet his train with banners exhorting the crowds to “Read Your Bible” and with effusive speeches and a picnic lunch. Brady is the hero of the hour, and he clearly revels in it. When word gets out that Cates is to be represented by Henry Drummond, Brady’s wife seems worried and the people of Hillsboro want to ban Drummond from the town. Drummond is also renowned but clearly not revered, as he has successfully defended murderers and other unsavory characters and is an agnostic. Moreover, Brady and Drummond were once allies. Brady, however, is not worried at all; Drummond’s involvement will only bring more attention to the trial and to Brady.
While it seems that the case and popular mood are stacked against Cates, he is not completely alone. In addition to Drummond, he has certain members of the press on his side, notably a man from the Baltimore Herald named E.K Hornbeck (a stand-in for H.L. Mencken, who wrote about the Scopes trial for the newspaper). Hornbeck is sarcastic and disdainful, not just of the law that put Cates in jail but of the people of Hillsboro and of Brady. For him, Cates is a hero, as is Drummond. In addition to Hornbeck, Cates has a girlfriend, Rachel Brown, the minister’s daughter. Rachel finds herself in a very tight spot. She loves Bert but wishes he would just recant; if the school board says not to teach evolution, then don’t do it! Moreover, Rachel is afraid of her overly zealous, fire-and-brimstone spouting father. When Brady tries to use her to get at Cates during the trial, she seems as if she will break into pieces.
Act 2 is the trial itself, and the reader sees that justice here is not blind. The judge is predisposed to support the prosecution. He allows the “read your bible” banners to be hung over the door to the court and announces a prayer meeting featuring Brady from the bench. Drummond’s sensible and reasonable requests to do away with these things fall on deaf ears and do nothing to endear him to the people fo Hillsboro. Worse, though, is when the judge refuses to allow any of Drummond’s witnesses, all scientists, to take the stand. Testimony regarding the theory of evolution is regarded as irrelevant to the trial, and so Drummond asks if he can bring an expert witness on the Bible to the stand. The judge allows this, and Drummond calls Matthew Harrison Brady to testify. This part of the play is absolutely stunning to read. Through Drummond’s questions to Brady regarding the Bible, Lawrence and Lee demonstrate not just the limits of a literal interpretation of scripture, but the compatibility of science and religion, as well as the hubris of any man to set himself up as the sole arbiter of God’s will. The court scene is a paean to humans’ ability to reason and think for themselves, as they have been created to do.
As Drummond questions Brady, Brady’s composure and confidence crumble. Brady’s appeal diminishes and Drummond’s rises, so that by the end, while Brady has won, it is a Pyrrhic victory. Brady is fading into the past and the masses have turned their attention elsewhere. Some have even found themselves cheering for Cates and Drummond. Yet, standing up to authority, as Drummond tells Cates and Rachel, is not easy and even if you have scored some kind of victory, there is a heavy price — joblessness, fines, families and communities divided. Perhaps, though, some other person out there, witnessing such courage, will find his/her own.
This is perhaps the perfect play for our times. You can turn on the news and see rallies full of people not unlike the crowds in this play, and blowhard conservative orators not unlike Brady (who refers to his wife as “Mother”!) and Reverend Brown. You hear people who deny science and try to legislate against it; people who just know that they are right and that they are doing God’s will even as they do hateful things to their own neighbors. Occasionally we get news of the Bert Cateses of the world who stand up bravely and speak truth only to be vilified on social media, or have their lives threatened, or even be jailed (for giving food to the hungry homeless, and water to people in the desert). With any luck, we will also find some Rachels in our midst, who may not understand the new ideas but know that the people who hold them are still people who should be treated with dignity and respect; and some Drummonds, who will fight the good fight for truth without forgetting the humanity of their adversaries.