Inherit the Wind | Study Guide

Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee

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Inherit the Wind | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary



It is just after dawn on a hot July day in Hillsboro, "a sleepy, obscure country town about to be vigorously awakened." The setting is the area both in and around the Hillsboro Courthouse, the building that will be the focal point of the play. Onto the courthouse lawn wander two children, 13-year-old Howard, who is holding a fishing pole and hunting worms, and 12-year-old Melinda. Melinda recoils as Howard holds up a worm for her inspection, and Howard responds she shouldn't be scared because "You was a worm once!" Melinda, appalled, condemns his statement as "sinful talk" and runs away.

Rachel Brown, a timid young woman in her early 20s, arrives at the courthouse and calls for Mr. Meeker, the courthouse bailiff. She asks to be allowed to see Bertram Cates, a schoolteacher being held in the Hillsboro jail, but begs Meeker not to tell her father, the Reverend Jeremiah Brown. Meeker, a decent man, agrees and brings Cates up from his cell. At that point Cates's crime is revealed: he has taught a passage from Charles Darwin's Origin of Species to his sophomore students, an act that is against a state law that prohibits the teaching of evolution. Rachel begs him to admit he was wrong, but Cates doesn't believe he was. They embrace and Rachel leaves.

The rest of the townspeople begin appearing, excited by the imminent arrival of Matthew Harrison Brady, a three-time presidential candidate and "champion of ordinary people." Brady is coming to town to prosecute Cates alongside the district attorney, Tom Davenport. Led by the deeply pious and rigid Reverend Brown, the town is determined to show Brady the kind of community it is: God-fearing, devout, and passionately pro-Brady. Main Street quickly takes on the aspects of a county fair. Hot dog and lemonade stands pop up, a banner saying "READ YOUR BIBLE" is raised, and a self-proclaimed profit named Elijah wanders the streets selling the Good Book. Other banners and signs carry messages such as "SAVE OUR SCHOOLS FROM SIN" and "ARE YOU A MAN OR A MONKEY?"

Into the festivities strolls E.K. Hornbeck, a newspaperman in his mid-30s who has been sent to cover the trial by the Baltimore Herald. He is a man who "sneers politely at everything, including himself," and he immediately characterizes the town as "Heavenly Hillsboro. The buckle on the Bible Belt." Suddenly the arrival of Brady is announced, and the townspeople react as though electrified, rushing to meet the great man at the train station.

Brady arrives, led by a crowd singing "Gimme That Old-Time Religion." He is an affable giant of a man, basking in the adulation of the crowd. In his mid-60s, he is also gray, balding, and somewhat overweight. But he is also mesmerizing, and quickly he has the town in his thrall. He tells them that he has not come simply to prosecute a lawbreaker. He has come to defend "the Living Truth of the Scriptures." Within minutes, he also creates a holy war between the godless big cities of the North and the devout citizens of Hillsboro.

The town embraces him, making him an Honorary Colonel in the state militia and providing him with a home-cooked feast. Worriedly watching over him is his wife, Sarah, whom he calls "Mother," and who tries to protect her husband from the heat, from overeating, and from exhausting himself. Brady soon notices Rachel Brown and realizes she is a friend of Bertram Cates. Gently and with apparent sympathy, he takes her aside to speak privately.

While they are talking, the mayor, Davenport, and other townspeople begin wondering about the defense. With some relish, Hornbeck reveals that the Baltimore Herald is sending Henry Drummond. The news stuns Hornbeck's listeners, including Mrs. Brady. Drummond is a famous attorney, considered to have one of the most brilliant legal minds of the century. But Reverend Brown characterizes him as a "creature of the Devil," or perhaps even the devil himself.

Brady returns. Upon hearing about Drummond, he goes pale but quickly rallies. He reassures the townspeople the arrival of Drummond is a good thing, because when "the enemy sends its Goliath into battle," it brings attention to their cause. He also mentions, approvingly, that he has received helpful information from Rachel, who reacts nervously. Brady then tries to return to the feast, but Mrs. Brady stops him because it's "time now for Mr. Brady's nap."

The crowd wanders off, leaving only a distressed Rachel and Hornbeck behind. Hornbeck shows the girl an article he has written about Cates, and she realizes with surprise that Hornbeck supports him. Hornbeck explains that although he is a cynic, he is on the side of truth. He also tries to reassure her, telling her Brady is a has-been, left behind by the modern world and looking for a "stump to shout from. That's all." Rachel leaves, but there is one late arrival to the town. A man slouches from the shadows with the red setting sun behind him, frightening young Melinda who is still in the square. She runs off shrieking, "It's the Devil!" The newcomer is, of course, Henry Drummond. Hornbeck offers his hand, saying, "Hello, Devil. Welcome to Hell."


Scene 1 deftly presents the main conflicts, introduces key characters, and establishes the unusual role of the setting in this particular drama. These three elements create a powerful foundation on which the rest of the play is built.

The Setting

The setting of Inherit the Wind is critically important to understanding the play, as the initial stage directions make clear. Those directions explain that the courtroom, the courthouse square, and Main Street all appear on stage at the same time. This arrangement is necessary because "the town is visible always ... as much on trial as the individual defendant." The townspeople also function as scenery, helping to create the impression that the courtroom is an arena—a place where gladiators will battle—with spectators riveted by the proceedings.

Another line in the stage directions describes Hillsboro as "a sleepy, obscure country town about to be vigorously awakened." The "sleepiness" is used as a metaphor for the absence of thought or any interest in change. The people believe what they have been raised to believe, especially concerning religion and the Bible. They implicitly trust men like Brady because he is a "great man," not because they have analyzed his ideas or what he stands for. The stage directions do make it clear, however, that the townspeople are not to be portrayed as "caricatured rubes." This means that the trial should and will have an impact on them—the "awakening" referred to earlier.

Key Conflicts

Inherit the Wind contains several noteworthy conflicts, each at a different level of complexity. The first is subtly introduced in the opening scene, when young Howard inaccurately describes evolution by saying people were once worms, and Melinda retorts that his words are "sinful talk." Their youthful disagreement, however, reflects a conflict that will soon consume the whole town—the tension between those who believe that anything but a strict, literal interpretation of the Bible is sinful, and those who think that the words of the Bible are, at the very least, open to interpretation.

The second conflict is more direct, but it is the one that sets events in Hillsboro in motion. Bertram Cates has been jailed for introducing his students to Darwin's theory of evolution, which appears to contradict a literal reading of the Bible and is against state law to teach. It is clear that few in the town disagree with the law or Bertram's arrest. This conflict, therefore, is that of the individual against society—in this case, between a science teacher and those who believe he broke a law and is attempting to undermine the Bible itself. Ironically, Cates himself points out that he is not challenging anyone's belief in the Bible. As he tells Rachel, he is simply suggesting that life "comes from a long miracle" that "didn't just happen in seven days."

These first two conflicts, however, feed into a much more critical one, the conflict that interests E.K. Hornbeck and the Baltimore Herald. They see the Hillsboro trial as a test case to challenge a state law that, in the view of many people, takes away the right of people to think for themselves or to champion unpopular ideas. For that reason, the Baltimore Herald is sending one of the most brilliant lawyers in the country to fight for the defense. That decision will set up the play's most dramatic conflict: the clash between the powerful minds and personalities of Matthew Harrison Brady and Henry Drummond.

Key Characters

Lawrence and Lee use every method of characterization in the writer's toolkit to develop the characters of Inherit the Wind. Some of these characters, like the Reverend Jeremiah Brown, Bertram Cates, and several of the other townspeople, are purposely two-dimensional. They are described directly and with little nuance. They function primarily as symbols that represent progressive thinking versus a provincial mindset, and the two sides of the religion versus science debate that is gripping the town. Other characters, like Rachel Brown, are described simply but are struggling with internal conflicts that suggest there will be some growth or change during the course of the play. In this case, the naïve Rachel is torn between the beliefs she was raised with, the more progressive ideas represented by Bertram Cates, and the realities provided by E.K. Hornbeck.

Hornbeck himself is the first of the three main characters introduced in Scene 1. Stage directions immediately paint him as a cynic who "sneers politely at everything, including himself." Based on H.L. Mencken, a famous reporter and "social critic" who covered the Scopes trial, Hornbeck looks sophisticated and out of place in Hillsboro. He views the town and people "with wonderful contempt." From that point on, almost every statement he makes is snide, condescending, sarcastic, or amused. But he also sees himself and the newspaper he represents as warriors against ignorance and provincialism, both of which he believes are represented by the people of Hillsboro.

Throughout the play, Hornbeck will function as a one-man Greek chorus, commenting on and interpreting events. And like the lines of the choruses in ancient Greek tragedies, his dialogue is presented in blank verse and is rich in imagery and metaphor. The audience and readers may, at least initially, view Hornbeck as their surrogate on stage, the worldly outsider who has come to observe and comment on the trial and upon Hillsboro itself. But Hornbeck is both less and more than this. He is an untrustworthy commentator because he has trained himself to expect the worst in people and to be suspicious of everything he sees. He does try to extract deeper meaning from what he observes, but it is up to the readers and the audience to decide whether to accept what he says.

It is Matthew Harrison Brady, though, who is most fully showcased and fleshed out in this first scene. He is based on William Jennings Bryan, a prominent national figure, three-time presidential candidate, and champion of ordinary people. Even before Brady appears, the excitement of the townspeople creates the impression of an almost mythic personality. They believe that Brady almost single-handedly gave women the right to vote, ensured that Woodrow Wilson was elected president, and was responsible for the United States winning the Great War. When Brady first appears, though, he is a walking paradox. The stage directions describe him as a "benign giant of a man," but he is also in his mid-60s, overweight, and balding. He cannot seem to stop himself from eating or exhausting himself, and occasionally he acts like a child needing the care of his protective "Mother."

Brady is not, however, harmless, nor are his motives what they appear to be. He is ostensibly in Hillsboro to defend the Bible and the word of God. But as Hornbeck tells Rachel near the end of the scene, Brady is more concerned with Brady. Once a "hero of the hinterland," he has been trampled by progress and is now ignored by most of the people who once adored him. He has come to Hillsboro to "find a stump to shout from," bask in the adoration of the townspeople, and recapture his former glory. Brady's speech and actions confirm Hornbeck's assessment. He is a demagogue, immediately seducing the townspeople by flattering them, echoing their religious fervor, and reinforcing their prejudices. And although initially stunned by the news that Drummond is coming, he quickly realizes that when Drummond fights, "headlines follow." Brady only cares that he will soon be center stage in the nation's consciousness.

Henry Drummond, based on the brilliant liberal lawyer Clarence Darrow, makes only a brief appearance at the end of Scene 1. The audience learns of him much earlier, however, through the conflicting and biased descriptions of both Reverend Jeremiah Brown and E.K. Hornbeck. According to Hornbeck, Drummond is the "most agile legal mind of the Twentieth Century." Even Circuit District Attorney Davenport is impressed, and the mayor knows enough of him to think they should try to find ways to keep him from entering the town. The very mention of Drummond's name stuns Mrs. Brady and makes her husband go pale. To Reverend Brown, however, Drummond is a "vicious, godless man" who may be the Devil himself—"a slouching hulk of a man, whose head juts out like an animal's." He talks about how he personally witnessed Drummond pervert evidence to put society, rather than the defendant, on trial. By the time Drummond appears, the townspeople have been primed to see him as a monster to be vanquished by their hero, Matthew Harrison Brady.

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