Inherit the Wind | Study Guide

Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee

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Inherit the Wind | Context


Darwin's Theory and the Butler Act

English naturalist Charles Darwin's theory of evolution as outlined in his text On the Origin of Species (1859) is at the heart of both the fictional trial presented in Inherit the Wind and the Scopes Trial of 1925 that provided inspiration for the play.

Darwin's theory presents the idea that all plants, animals, and organisms have their origins in simpler life forms that existed before them. New physical characteristics or instinctive behaviors appear over time as species continuously adapt in ways that better ensure their survival. These adaptations may be the result of genetic mutations or shifts in behavior. The process is called natural selection, since individuals best suited to their environments are more likely to survive and reproduce. The theory often puts its proponents into direct conflict with those who interpret the text of the Bible as the literal word of God, including the story of creation, which argues that life originates from divine creation. To the latter group, Darwin's theory is a direct attack on their beliefs.

In 1925 the Tennessee General Assembly passed a bill introduced by American farmer and member of the Tennessee House of Representatives John W. Butler of Macon County. The bill prohibited the teaching of evolution in schools. Butler was a devout Baptist, and he believed that teaching Darwinism destroyed people's belief in the Bible and compromised the moral system upon which democracy is based. When Butler discovered that the theory was included in some of the state's textbooks, he wrote what became known as the Butler Act. The bill made it illegal to teach "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." Governor Austin Peay promptly signed the bill, but he emphasized that he was doing so primarily as a protest against what he perceived as "irreligious tendencies in modern America." He doubted the law would ever be enforced.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), however, did not intend to let the law stand. They saw it as unconstitutional and as threat to both scientific inquiry and educational freedoms. The organization decided to initiate a test case to challenge the law. They put out a notice asking for a volunteer willing to be prosecuted on the matter. That volunteer was John Scopes, a high school teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, whose trial brought the issue to the attention of the nation. Despite its efforts, however, the ACLU lost the case, although Scopes's conviction was later overturned on a technicality. The Butler Act itself remained a law until 1967, when another teacher, Gary L. Scott, was dismissed for teaching evolution and successfully sued to be reinstated. He continued his fight with a class action lawsuit seeking a permanent injunction against enforcement of the law. A bill for repeal was passed three days after he filed the suit.

Inherit the Wind and the Scopes Trial

Inherit the Wind is often described as a play based on the infamous 1925 Scopes Trial, which was nicknamed the "Monkey Trial" by the press as a reference to the belief that the Butler Act's reference to "a lower order of animals" was meant to mean monkeys. In that trial Tennessee science teacher John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution. But Lawrence and Lee were playwrights. They say in an introductory note to Inherit the Wind that the play "is not history." They affirm that the Scopes trial provided the inspiration for the play, but the script contains only a handful of actual phrases from the transcript of the trial. And although the key characters were inspired by the real participants, the names were changed. The playwrights explained that the characters "have life and language of their own." The authors' intent was to use their play to examine the themes and issues that were present in the original confrontation but that had "acquired new dimension and meaning in the thirty years" between the trial and the play.

There are obvious similarities between the Scopes trial and the play, but the differences are significant. In Inherit the Wind teacher Bertram Cates is jailed for teaching Darwin's theory to his students, and the town quickly demonizes him. John Scopes, however, had a very different experience. In 1925 the Tennessee legislature passed the Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of "any theory that denies the story of Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) decided to challenge the law, which they believed was unconstitutional. The organization called for a volunteer to be prosecuted as part of a test case. The civic leaders of Dayton heard about the call and decided that a high-profile trial might help revitalize their town. They approached John Scopes, a high school football coach and science teacher. He told them that he thought he might have taught evolution since it was covered in a state-approved biology text that he used, and he volunteered to be indicted.

As in the play, the Scopes Trial featured a confrontation between two celebrity lawyers. The first was Clarence Darrow, a defense lawyer who became known for his work on many notorious criminal trials but who also championed freedom of expression and opposed capital punishment. He is reimagined in the play as Henry Drummond. The second is William Jennings Bryan, a mesmerizing orator, three-time presidential candidate, and popular national figure who prided himself on representing "the common man." Enemies saw him as a demagogue who gained support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than using rational argument. Supporters admired him as a champion of liberal causes, such as women's suffrage. In the play, though, it is primarily his less attractive attributes that are used to create the character of Matthew Harrison Brady. Neither Darrow nor Bryan, however, sought out the case for moral or ethical reasons. Instead, they were brought in as high-profile members of two different legal teams to create interest in the trial and make sure it received national attention.

Darrow and Bryan were also much more equally matched than they appear to be in the play. In Inherit the Wind Drummond destroys Brady during cross-examination. The use of Bryan as a witness did actually happen in the Scopes trial and lasted roughly 90 minutes. During the questioning, though, Bryan, unlike Brady, admitted that he did not take every passage in the Bible literally. And it was Bryan, not Darrow, who contributed to one of the most memorable statements in the trial. He commented that the God he and others believed in could make the world in six days "or in six years or in 6,000,000 years or in 600,000,000 years."

The culmination of the real and fictional trials was similar, with the defendant found guilty and given a small fine. But the play ends with a sense that a heroic Drummond will fight the antievolution law until it ceases to exist. After the real trial, though, the defense asked the jury to find Scopes guilty so they could continue to prosecute the Butler Act through appeals. Darrow did appeal the case up to the US Supreme Court, but the Tennessee Supreme Court eventually reversed its decision, citing a technicality and bringing an end to the case. The Butler Act itself was not repealed until 1967.

A Response to McCarthyism

Inherit the Wind is usually viewed as a drama about the conflict between religion and science that uses a case resembling the Scopes "Monkey Trial" as a metaphor for that conflict. But as Lawrence and Lee state in their note at the beginning of the play, the issues that were the focus of the trial of John Scopes in 1925 took on a different meaning and relevance over the years. By the 1950s when the two men wrote Inherit the Wind, they were actually responding to another issue that had consumed the attention of the nation for several years. That issue violated one of Lawrence and Lee's deepest held beliefs: the right of an individual to think.

The events that led to the playwrights' outrage began in 1950. It was then that Senator Joseph R. McCarthy spearheaded an effort to identify 205 communists who, he said, had infiltrated the government's State Department. In opposition to democracy, communism is a form of government in which one authoritarian party controls economic production and advocates against private property. McCarthy's accusations were unsubstantiated, and he could not provide the name of a single "card-carrying Communist." Nonetheless his fearmongering struck a chord with a significant portion of the American people. To many citizens, frustrated by the Korean War (1950–53) and fearful of communist activities in Eastern Europe and China, McCarthy was a dedicated patriot and protector of American ideals.

Over the next months and years, McCarthy's influence grew. Eventually he became chairman of the Committee on Government Operations of the Senate, which oversaw the investigations regarding alleged communist sympathizers. Accusations were often based on nonexistent or fabricated evidence. The committee targeted anyone who had any ties to organizations that could be considered communist or socialist in nature. Similar to communism, socialism is a transition between capitalism and communism. In a socialist government, businesses are owned and controlled by the government. Many of the victims of the investigation were the liberal Hollywood writers or directors who had joined socialist organizations, or whose work could be viewed as subversive. Dozens of these people saw their reputations ruined and their careers destroyed before McCarthy was discredited in 1954.

It was this attack on people whose ideas differed from the status quo that provided the motivation for the play. As Lawrence explained in a 1966 interview, Inherit the Wind is about intellectual freedom. In the play he and Lee "used the teaching of evolution as a parable ... for any kind of mind control ... It's about the right to think."

The Playwrights' Craft

Inherit the Wind creates a powerful viewing experience for an audience, but it also provides hidden rewards for readers of the script itself. Lawrence and Lee go beyond traditional conventions in presenting stage directions and dialogue. Both devices are used not only to provide guidance to the director and actors but also to add layers of meaning that only readers of the play will have the opportunity to appreciate.

Most stage directions are designed to provide clear guidance to the director and performers regarding movement, gestures, and the delivery of lines. These stage directions, though, have a literary quality to them. This difference immediately becomes clear in the description of the set. Hillsboro is described as "a sleepy, obscure country town about to be vigorously awakened." The directions go on to say that "the town is visible always, looming there, as much on trial as the individual defendant." By personifying Hillsboro, Lawrence and Lee have added significance to the setting that the traditional audience would not be aware of.

Characters and their actions are also given more depth through stage directions that are rich with unexpected detail, meticulous word choice, and imagery. When Matthew Harrison Brady first appears, for example, he is described as "a patriarch surrounded by his children" and as a man who "seems to carry with him a built-in spotlight." Later in the play, when he loses his credibility in the courtroom, the imagery transforms him from this heroic figure to an inanimate object. He is pushed around by the radio announcer "like a huge ornate vase which must be precisely centered on a mantle" rather than treated as a man who "brandishes his speech as if it were Excalibur."

The dialogue, too, is embellished in ways that would be apparent only to a reader. The flamboyance of both Reverend Jeremiah Brown's and Brady's oratory, for example, is emphasized through the use of capital letters. Brady promises the crowd that he is with them "to test the steel of our Truth against the blasphemies of Science!" Likewise, Brown proclaims "the Lord's Word is howling in the Wind, and flashing in the belly of the Cloud!" E.K. Hornbeck's dialogue also gets special treatment. He functions as a one-man Greek chorus, a device used in ancient tragedies to comment on the action of the play and whose lines were sung or spoken in unison. As a nod to this, nearly all of Hornbeck's dialogue is presented in blank verse, broken into lines like a poem and heavily dependent on sound devices and imagery:

My typewriter's been singing
A sweet, sad song about the Hillsboro heretic.

The combination of rich stage directions and departures from traditional dialogue enable readers who don't see the play to have a very different, but distinctly gratifying, experience.

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