Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee

Inherit the Wind

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Inherit the Wind Summary

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Inherit the Wind is a play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. First performed in 1955, the play is a fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial during which teacher John T. Scopes was convicted for teaching evolution in his high school science classroom in Dayton, Tennessee. Originally rejected by Broadway, the play premiered in Dallas to rave reviews. Broadway picked up the rights soon after and the play has enjoyed enormous success and multiple revivals since. Hollywood released an Academy Award-nominated film version in 1960 starring Spencer Tracy, Frederic March, and Gene Kelly.

High school teacher Bertram Cates has been arrested for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution in his science class. His friend and potential lover, Rachel, goes to the jail to visit him, warning him that Matthew Harrison Brady, a famous Presidential candidate, is coming to Hillsboro to speak against him in court. The town is excited by Brady’s arrival, and Brady promises to not only keep Brady in jail but to defend Christian values, keeping the atheistic views of northerners at bay. Reporter Hornbeck writes articles in support of Cates, belittling the religious views of the town. He announces that progressive lawyer Henry Drummond from Chicago will travel to Hillsboro to defend Cates in court. Drummond is an old friend of Brady’s.

During the first day of the trial, Brady and Drummond, along with district attorney Davenport, select a jury. It is clear that many of the jurors are highly in favor of Brady. That evening, Reverend Brown leads a prayer meeting for the town, attended both by Brady and Drummond. Brown delivers an impassioned and vindictive sermon condemning Cates and his supporters. Uneasy with the bad theology, Brady interrupts, compelling the town to remember Jesus’s message of forgiveness.

Two days later, the trial is underway. Davenport calls Rachel to the stand to testify against Cates. Brady’s questioning paints Cates as a fervent atheist despite Cates shouting responses in his own defense. Drummond objects to the line of questioning as she begins to weep and allows her to step down without cross-examination.

Drummond attempts to bring scientists to the stand but the judge doesn’t allow it. Instead, he calls Brady to testify on behalf of the Bible. Drummond questions him on the validity of the Bible and all its stories, to which Brady confesses he believes all are true. Drummond asks him to consider that man was designed to think, which is what separates him from a “sponge.” Drummond continues with questions about the Bible’s interpretation of creation, to which Brady responds that he believes what the Bible says despite contradicting scientific evidence. The crowd in the courtroom begins to see Brady as inflexible and that science and faith can overlap after all.

Unnerved by the balance of the argument, Brady claims that he knows God’s intentions better than anyone. He asserts that every man should be able to exercise free will. Drummond jumps on this and asks why Cates can’t do the same. Further upset, Brady starts to quote the Bible as Drummond hammers him with questions, mocking him. The courtroom laughs and, embarrassed and befuddled, Brady returns to his seat in the court with the help of his wife.

The next day, the courtroom is jam-packed with townspeople and reporters from afar who have been making the town look bad. The jury presents its verdict, which is that Cates is guilty. He is fined $100, which angers some in the crowd and pleases others. Brady believes it to be too lenient. Drummond announces that the fine will be appealed and that Cates won’t pay.

Unconvinced that Christian values were adequately defended, Brady asks the judge if he can speak again, but the proceedings are finished, and he declines. Undeterred, Brady begins a speech once the judge leaves, but the reporters are packing up and everyone is exiting the room. He talks louder to be heard, but collapses and is taken out of the courtroom in hysteria. Hornbeck tells Drummond that his newspaper will pay the bail for Cates to keep him out of jail.

Soon after, the judge reappears and announces that Brady has passed away. Drummond is saddened for his friend, but Hornbeck continues to be harsh. Drummond admonishes him for being so critical of religious belief. Cates and Rachel leave town on a train to get married somewhere else.

Several of the characters in Inherit the Wind are meant to represent people in the actual Scopes trial. Matthew Harrison Brady reflects the beliefs and career of William Jennings Bryan, a then famous orator and politician who participated in the Scopes trial. Henry Drummond matches Clarence Darrow, the nationally prominent lawyer who defended Scopes. Bertram Cates stands in for Scopes. However, the play is not an accurate account of the proceedings. The town was not hostile toward the outside reporters, characters like Rachel and Reverend Brown are fictional, and Bryan himself offered to pay Scope’s fine if he was convicted. Rather than tell a parable of science versus religion, playwright Lawrence is quoted saying that the play is more a criticism of McCarthyism, popular at the time of the play, and a treatise on the importance of intellectual freedom.