Inherit the Wind | Study Guide

Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee

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Inherit the Wind | Plot Summary

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Summary

Act 1, Scene 1

The play opens on a hot July day in the small southern town of Hillsboro. The mood is one of great excitement as the townspeople prepare for the arrival of Matthew Harrison Brady. Brady, a three-time presidential candidate, has a reputation as a champion of "ordinary people," though his fame has been receding in recent years. He is coming to town to prosecute the case of Bertram Cates, a high school teacher who has been arrested for breaking a state law that prohibits the teaching of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. The town's devout believers in the Bible are firmly aligned against Bertram. One of Cates's only supporters is another teacher, Rachel Brown, who is the daughter of the Reverend Jeremiah Brown. Reverend Brown is a grim, humorless man who believes Cates is attempting to corrupt the youth of Hillsboro. Rachel is therefore in an impossible position, torn between her father and the man she loves.

Brady and his wife arrive, accompanied by the cheers of the crowd. Brady basks in their adoration and the carnival-like atmosphere caused by his arrival. He vows to defend the people against the sinner in their midst even as he preens for the cameras. E.K. Hornbeck, a cynical reporter sent by the Baltimore Herald to cover the trial, observes the scene with amusement. Then he springs a surprise on Brady: the Herald is sending Henry Drummond to defend Cates. Drummond, one of the sharpest legal minds in the country, is known for winning unwinnable criminal cases. Brady is stunned by the news but quickly recovers and tells the townspeople that if the enemy is sending its Goliath into battle, it is simply highlighting the righteousness of their cause. The crowd heads home, leaving only Hornbeck to witness the solitary arrival of Drummond.

Act 1, Scene 2

The next scene takes place in the courtroom, as Henry Drummond and Matthew Harrison Brady spar with each other over jury selection. Drummond, in particular, is focused on finding some impartial jurors in a town that is clearly prejudiced against his client. The two men clash, especially when Brady proclaims the members of the jury must conform "to the laws and patterns of society." Drummond asks if Brady wants the jury to be run "through a meat-grinder, so they all come out the same." The argument continues as Brady accuses Drummond of being known for twisting the minds of jury members so they focus on issues not directly related to the case. Drummond counters that he only wants to make sure that the "clock-stoppers" don't corrupt the Constitution with archaic laws. Eventually, though, jury selection is completed and court is adjourned—although not before the judge announces a prayer meeting being held that night.

Rachel Brown enters the courtroom. She begs Bertram Cates to admit he was wrong and asks Drummond to call off the trial. Cates admits he hadn't expected to be the center of so much hatred, but Drummond asks him if he wants to find himself guilty before the jury does. Cates decides he won't quit. At that point Rachel reveals that she will be called to the stand by the prosecution. Cates panics, knowing he has shared thoughts with her that Brady will be able to twist to his advantage. The scene ends with Cates being taken back to his cell and Rachel distraught, wondering if Cates is wicked. Drummond reassures her that Cates is a great man, but it takes a strong woman to love such a man.

Act 2, Scene 1

That night, the town gathers for a prayer meeting in the courthouse square. E.K. Hornbeck is there, watching the event with a critic's eyes. Henry Drummond quietly appears at the edge of the crowd. Reverend Jeremiah Brown, with Matthew Harrison Brady sitting by his side, begins leading the town in a fervent, tent-revival-style prayer meeting, retelling the story of Creation and asking his congregation to condemn all sinners who reject His word. He then shifts his focus to Bertram Cates, calling down hellfire upon him for what he has done. Horrified, Rachel begs her father to relent, and Brown turns on her, saying he will curse her as well if she sides with Cates. Brady, disturbed by the Reverend's ferocity, tries to calm the man down, reminding him that the Bible also preaches forgiveness and that the book of Proverbs teaches that "he that troubleth his own house ... shall inherit the wind." Brown and the townspeople return home, leaving only Brady and Drummond in the square. Brady asks Drummond, with whom he had once been close, what happened to their relationship, and why Drummond has moved "so far away" from him. Drummond replies perhaps it is Brady who has "moved away—by standing still."

Act 2, Scene 2

The trial begins, and it appears to be headed toward its expected conclusion. Matthew Harrison Brady continues to appeal to both the jury and the entire courtroom, playing all of the notes of their faith and beliefs. He calls Howard, one of Bertram Cates's students, to the stand and paints a picture of a young boy whose faith has been destroyed by Cates. Henry Drummond defuses the impression, and compliments the boy on his willingness to think for himself. Then Brady calls Rachel Brown to the stand, forcing her to testify against Cates and then twisting her answers to make them sound much more damning than they are. Brady drives her so hard she breaks down on the stand, and Cates refuses to allow Henry Drummond to cross-examine her.

It is now Drummond's turn to call witnesses. Every individual he has brought to Hillsboro, however, is an expert on scientific principles tied to evolution. Brady manages to persuade the judge that this information is the very content that state law forbids from being taught. The judge rules all testimony inadmissible, rendering the witnesses useless. Drummond is temporarily stymied, but then calls Brady to the stand as an expert on the Bible since that is the only text he is able to use and no one will challenge Brady. Both the judge and the district attorney hesitate, but Brady is eager to stay in the spotlight and agrees to testify.

Drummond quickly begins pointing out logical inconsistencies in a literal interpretation of the Bible, and Brady's confidence begins to erode when he is unable to respond except by saying he has faith in God's word. Drummond also begins to hammer at the idea of an individual's right to think, eliciting applause from the spectators. Brady senses the townspeople are beginning to turn away from him and begins to panic. Then Drummond springs his trap. He tricks Brady into admitting that the first day of Creation could have lasted an indeterminate amount of time: 25 hours, a month, a year, or 10 million years. With that admission, the biblical story of creation becomes compatible with the theory of evolution, and Brady's case is undermined. Desperately, Brady tries to regain the support of the crowd, eventually proclaiming he knows the Bible is true because God has spoken to him and told him so. Drummond pounces on the outrageous statement, turning Brady into a laughingstock. Court is adjourned for the day, and the crowd clusters around Drummond, ignoring Brady, who all but collapses on the stand. His wife attempts to comfort him, but all he can say is, "They're laughing at me, Mother!"

Act 3

The next day, everyone waits for the jury to return with the verdict. A radio team is ready to broadcast the verdict to the entire country. Still certain that Bertram Cates will be found guilty, Matthew Harrison Brady has recovered somewhat from the previous day's humiliation and has prepared a speech to deliver afterward. Cates is nervous, on the other hand, and even Henry Drummond admits winning the case would have been a long shot. But he tells Cates it was still important for them to fight the case and expose lies and empty ideas for what they are. The jury returns with a guilty verdict, and Brady has a brief moment of triumph. But the judge, who has been warned by the mayor that the "boys over at the state capitol" are worried about looking foolish in the eyes of the rest of the country, gives Cates the minimum sentence of a $100 fine, effectively negating Brady's victory. Once again the crowd is drawn to Drummond and ignores Brady, who still attempts to give his speech to the radio, shouting over the crowd. But the strain proves to be too much for him, and Brady collapses. He is rushed to the doctor.

The courtroom empties, leaving only Cates, E.K. Hornbeck, and Drummond behind. Then Rachel arrives with a suitcase and announces she is leaving her father's house. She says she may not agree with Darwin's theories, but she knows people must be free to express them. The court bailiff appears, telling them Brady has died. Hornbeck refuses to mourn the death of the man, a sorry "also-ran" whom he despised. Drummond retorts that Brady had been a great man but had been looking for God "too high up and too far away." Hornbeck leaves, disgusted by what he sees as Drummond's hypocrisy. Cates and Rachel leave together as well, ready to begin their new lives. Drummond, left alone, picks up the Bible and a copy of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, appears to weigh them, and puts them side by side in his briefcase.

Inherit the Wind Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 Bertram Cates is arrested for teaching evolution.

Rising Action

2 Brady and Drummond arrive to argue the case.

3 All of Drummond's expert witnesses are dismissed.

4 Drummond puts Brady on the stand.

Climax

5 Drummond humiliates Brady, exposing his flawed arguments.

Falling Action

6 The judge imposes the minimum fine, vindicating Cates.

Resolution

7 Brady, humiliated, collapses and dies.

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