Henry Drummond is considered one of the best legal minds in the country. Drummond's character is loosely based on Clarence Darrow, a brilliant lawyer in the first part of the 20th century. Drummond has successfully argued unpopular cases by urging the jury to consider the larger issues at their core, such as freedom of speech and the death penalty. His victories, however, have earned him the animosity of many who feel he defends those who represent evil and immorality. Drummond, though, is actually a deeply principled man who believes in progress and the rights of the individual. He comes to Hillsboro to fight not only for Bertram Cates, who has been arrested for teaching evolution in a state where such instruction is forbidden, but also for every person's freedom to think. The townspeople either despise him or ignore him completely, Throughout the trial Drummond chips away at the townspeople's beliefs with unassailable logic and passionate arguments. Eventually, he even gets Brady on the stand and maneuvers the man into testimony that undermines the prosecution's case. The minimal sentence that is imposed on Cates provides him with a victory that destroys Brady, who dies soon after. At that point Drummond reveals an unexpected aspect of his personality, showing great compassion for Brady and revealing his own quiet belief in God.
Matthew Harrison Brady
Like William Jennings Bryan, the three-time presidential candidate on whom his character was based, Matthew Harrison Brady achieved fame as a hero of "ordinary people." Over the years, however, his diminishing relevance on the political scene has changed him. Desperate to regain his place in the national spotlight, he takes on the role of prosecutor in the high-profile trial of Bertram Cates. When he arrives in Hillsboro, Brady displays enormous vanity, reveling in the adoration of the townspeople. He is also shown to be calculating and self-serving, using a fatherly demeanor to manipulate Rachel Brown into providing him with information he needs to win the case. Throughout the play, there are additional signs that Brady's dwindling fame has changed him from the great man he once was. Beneath the confident exterior is a mass of insecurities and a helpless child who depends on his wife, whom he calls "Mother." It is Brady's excessive pride, however, that proves to be his downfall. To remain in his recaptured spotlight, he allows Drummond to put him on the witness stand, where he is made to look ridiculous. Brady completely reverts to a child, whimpering, "They're laughing at me, Mother!" The final blow comes when the judge delivers a mockery of a sentence. The crowd rejects Brady in favor of Drummond. Brady makes a last, desperate attempt at a speech, collapses, and dies, destroyed by the vanity that consumed him.
E.K. Hornbeck is a reporter from the Baltimore Herald. His character is based on H.L. Mencken, an acerbic American journalist. Hornbeck considers himself more of a critic than a reporter. He is certainly anything but objective, and once he has formed an opinion, that opinion is not likely to change. He begins the play firmly on the side of Cates and Drummond, but he has absolutely no respect for Brady or for the people of Hillsboro. To him Brady is a ridiculous figure, a has-been who died thirty years before. He ignores the man's former stature and dismisses his accomplishments. As for the town, he comes to Hillsboro characterizing it as "the buckle on the Bible Belt." The one time Hornbeck does change his opinion is at the end of the play, when Drummond shows his respect for the great man Brady was and reveals that he himself believes in God. Hornbeck turns on Drummond, labeling him a hypocrite and a fraud. Drummond's main role, though, is to function as a one-man Greek chorus. This device—a group of people used to comment on the action of the play and interpret it for the audience—was a convention of Greek tragedies. Hornbeck's dialogue, presented almost completely in blank verse and heavy with metaphor and imagery, accomplishes a similar purpose.
Bertram Cates, who is also referred to as Bert, is the defendant at the center of the Hillsboro trial who was arrested for teaching Darwin's theory to his class. Representing progressive thought and a willingness to challenge established beliefs with which he disagrees, Cates is intelligent, idealistic, and honest. He left the church, for example, because he was horrified by the Reverend Brown's insistence that a young boy who drowned was writhing in torment in hell because his parents hadn't had him baptized. He wonders about the stars and "the back side of the moon" because he knows progress can only happen when someone asks questions. Cates also displays a great deal of courage. Even when the town turns against him and Rachel begs him to admit he made a mistake, he decides to stand up for his principles and make the path easier for other rebels who may follow him. Drummond tells Rachel that Cates may be a great man and becomes passionate about defending him.
Like Bertram Cates, Rachel Brown is a teacher at the local school. Unlike Cates, she is fearful and uncertain, emotionally beaten down over the years by her oppressive father, the Reverend Jeremiah Brown. Rachel's love for Cates, though, puts her in an impossible position. The progressive ideas he represents conflict with the fundamentalist beliefs drummed into her by her father. As a result, defending Cates places her in defiance of her father and in conflict with her religious faith. Her fear of her father proves to be legitimate when the Reverend turns on her during the prayer meeting, cursing her when she asks him to not "destroy" Bert. Rachel remains tortured throughout the play, especially when Brady begins to manipulate her and her testimony to endanger Cates. But after being almost broken by Brady's questioning, Rachel emerges a stronger woman. She realizes what her father and Brady have done to her is inexcusable. Every individual has a right to his or her own thoughts, and every idea is worth being heard.