Lawrence and Lee wrote Inherit the Wind nearly thirty years after the Scopes Monkey trial. Although the basis of the play is the Scopes trial, the play itself is not a historical retelling of the events. Instead, the play is fiction. Each of the two main characters, Matthew Harrison Brady and Henry Drummond, represents one side of the central conflict: Brady represents the fundamentalist viewpoint, and Drummond is the advocate for science and freedom of thought. The courtroom battle that ensues between these famous attorneys is the focus of the play.
The Butler Act
After World War I, American society changed dramatically. The economy was thriving, the stock market was booming, and consumerism was at an all-time high. In addition, people migrated from rural to urban areas, leaving the conservative farmers with dwindling power. These changes fostered an atmosphere in which time-honored mores were questioned. Modernists — those who adapt their faith to contemporary trends in the sciences, philosophy, and history — embraced the changes taking place in America. Fundamentalists, on the other hand — those who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible — clung to traditional beliefs.
Amidst the fast pace of the 1920s, people sought stability and fought to maintain a conservative lifestyle; as a result, the fundamentalist movement experienced a revival. Fundamentalists turned their attention to issues regarding the infallibility of the Bible in matters concerning science and history. Their focus became Darwin's theory of evolution, which espouses that species evolved over time through natural selection — a theory that is in direct opposition to the fundamentalist belief in the Biblical story of creation. Although teaching evolution in public schools was standard practice in the 1920s, fundamentalists initiated a movement to stop what they considered to be heretical teaching (that is, teaching that differed from their beliefs) and encouraged legislators to pass laws forbidding the teaching of evolution in public schools.
In 1921, John Washington Butler, a successful farmer in Tennessee, feared that the theory of evolution was influencing young people and crippling their religious beliefs. Firmly believing that the Bible was the foundation for American government and that anyone who disagreed was guilty of weakening the principles of the nation, Butler vowed to oppose the teaching of evolution in the public schools in Tennessee. He was elected to the Tennessee legislature in 1922 and was reelected in 1924. During his second term, he wrote his infamous anti-evolution act. The Butler Act, which sought to prohibit the teaching of evolutionary theory in all public schools in Tennessee, passed the Tennessee House of Representatives and the Tennessee Senate by solid majorities. On March 21, 1925, the governor of Tennessee, Austin Peay, signed the Butler Act into law.
The constitutionality of the Butler anti-evolution law was soon tested. John Scopes, a public school teacher, was arrested for teaching evolution. In Dayton, Tennessee, in July 1925, in the case Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (also known as "The Monkey Trial"), he was tried, convicted, and fined for violating the law.
The Scopes Trial
Upon hearing of the Butler Law, which prohibited the teaching of evolutionary theory in Tennessee's public schools, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in New York, a union that defends constitutional freedoms, sought to test the constitutionality of the law. It advertised in Tennessee newspapers for a teacher willing to challenge the law and offered to pay all trial expenses.
George Rappleyea, a Rhea County businessman and evolutionist, saw the ACLU's advertisement. He knew that such a test case would attract national attention, resulting in economic opportunities for the somewhat depressed Rhea County/Dayton area. Rappleyea spoke to other community leaders about the ACLU offer, and they agreed that a trial generating national attention would benefit the economy of Rhea County.
Rappleyea and the other town leaders summoned before them John Scopes, a 24 year-old science teacher and coach at the local high school who had substituted for the biology teacher during the last weeks of school. Scopes told the town leaders that, while substituting, he used a textbook entitled A Civic Biology, which contained evolutionary theory. The town leaders informed Scopes of the Butler Law and asked whether he would be willing to challenge the law. Scopes agreed, and within a short time, the town constable arrested him. Afterwards, Scopes, who was never jailed, returned to the tennis game from which he had been summoned.
Rappleyea sent a telegram to the ACLU informing them of Scopes' arrest; other town leaders notified Tennessee newspapers. Reporters arrived in Dayton from all over the United States and the world. The Baltimore Sun sent H.L. Mencken, a famous columnist known for his cynicism and wit, to cover the trial. The Sun also offered to pay Scopes' fine if he was found guilty.
Media focus on Scopes' arrest attracted the attention of William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate, great orator, and fundamentalist who volunteered to prosecute the case. When Clarence Darrow, agnostic and famous criminal attorney, learned that Bryan was involved in Scopes case, he volunteered to defend Scopes. He realized that the case was no longer about Scopes' guilt or innocence; instead it was a battle between fundamentalism and freedom of thought. The trial began on July 10, 1925. The courtroom overflowed with spectators and reporters and radio microphones from WGN in Chicago. This event marked the first time a trial was covered by a radio broadcast.
Bryan and Darrow selected a jury that was composed of all white middle-aged men who were farmers, poorly educated, and church goers. After objections by Darrow to beginning each day's proceedings with a prayer, the prosecution began its case and quickly established that Scopes broke the law by teaching evolution in a public classroom. The defense had prepared its case around the testimony of expert witnesses on science and evolutionary theory. The judge, however, ruled the experts' testimony inadmissible. Most of the reporters, including H.L. Mencken, considered the trial to be over except for closing arguments, which would take place the following Monday. Assuming that the closing arguments would be uneventful, they left Dayton and missed the "battle of the century."
On Monday, when the trial resumed, Darrow switched his tactics. Instead of experts on evolutionary theory and science, he called an expert on the Bible to the stand — prosecuting attorney, William Jennings Bryan. Assuming that he would have an opportunity to cross-examine Darrow, Bryan cooperatively took the stand. In his questioning, Darrow sought to portray Bryan as an ignorant bigot and, in fact, got Bryan to admit that he did not interpret the Bible literally, a basic tenet of fundamentalism. At this admission, the spectators' support swayed to Darrow's side, and the judge halted the questioning.
The following day, the judge ordered that Bryan's testimony be stricken from the record as irrelevant to Scopes' guilt or innocence. To prevent Bryan from giving a closing speech, Darrow requested that the jury find Scopes guilty, which it did in fewer than ten minutes of deliberation. Bryan won the trial, but Darrow and Scopes won a moral victory. Five days after the conclusion of the trial, Bryan died in his sleep.
The judge fined Scopes $100; however, because the conviction was eventually overturned on a technicality, Scopes did not have to pay the fine. Despite the expectations of the combatants, the trial did not address the constitutionality of the Butler Act, which remained a state law in Tennessee until its repeal in 1967.
The Play and the Trial: How They Compare
Although Lawrence and Lee used the Scopes trial as the basis for their play, Inherit the Wind is a work of fiction. In their introduction, Lawrence and Lee make clear that the play is not history. "Some of the characters of the play are related to the colorful figures in the battle of giants; but they have life and language of their own — and, therefore, names of their own." The names Lawrence and Lee chose for their main characters are similar in sound and number of syllables to those who participated in the Scopes trial: William Jennings Bryan is now Matthew Harrison Brady. Clarence Darrow is Henry Drummond. John Scopes has become Bert Cates. And, H.L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun is E.K. Hornbeck of the Baltimore Herald. The characterizations of all but one character, that of E.K. Hornbeck, however, bear no resemblance to the participants of the Scopes trial. The following illustrates other differences between the play and the trial.
The Scopes trial took place in Dayton, Tennessee, in July 1925 The play takes place in the "summer, in a small town (Hillsboro, Tennessee) not too long ago."
The Scopes trial originated when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in New York placed an advertisement in Tennessee newspapers offering to pay the expenses of a teacher willing to test the new anti-evolution law. The goal of the ACLU was to repeal the Butler Law. Dayton community leaders responded to the ACLU's announcement for economic reasons. They assumed the publicity of the trial would attract business and industry and would "put Dayton on the map." In the play, there are no ulterior reasons for the trial in Hillsboro. A man is simply arrested for breaking the law.
John T. Scopes, who was well-liked by Dayton community members, volunteered to be arrested for teaching evolution to test the constitutionality of the Butler Law, and he was never jailed. After his arrest, he was freed on $1,000 bond. His counterpart in the play, Bert Cates, is arrested for teaching evolution to his sophomore science class and is imprisoned throughout the duration of the trial. Furthermore, he is treated unkindly by the people of Hillsboro, as though he "has horns growing out of his head" and is "a pariah in the community."
Scopes did not request an attorney. When Darrow heard that Bryan would be assisting with the prosecution, he volunteered to serve as Scopes' attorney. In the play, Cates writes to a Baltimore newspaper to request an attorney, and the Baltimore Herald sends Drummond to Hillsboro to defend Cates.
The people of Dayton were portrayed as charming, friendly, polite, and open-minded, and the atmosphere throughout the trial is festive and circus-like. The citizens of Hillsboro, however, are portrayed as rude, narrow-minded religious fanatics. Although the atmosphere in Hillsboro is circus-like, it is sinister.
Bryan has been described as a great orator and politician, as well as a deeply religious man opposed to Darwin's theories, of which he was familiar. He was a charming, sincere, courteous man, despite his arrogance. Bryan handled himself well during the trial and was not out to persecute Scopes. In fact, Bryan offered to pay Scopes' fine if Scopes was found guilty. Bryan was also courteous and kind to witnesses. Brady, on the other hand, is a gifted orator and politician who enjoys hearing himself speak and thrives on being the center of attention. He is manipulative and condescending toward witnesses who don't believe as he does. As a fundamentalist and a self-proclaimed expert on the Bible, his mission is to defend the common man from "Evil-ution" and to make an example of Cates. He is also arrogantly foolish, pompous, and a glutton, and the great regard that the people of Hillsboro have for him identifies him as a man opposed to freedom of thought.
Clarence Darrow, a brilliant trial attorney who defended the underdog, had a hostile demeanor and was sarcastic and condescending. He volunteered to defend Scopes in order to expose the ignorance of fundamentalists. His counterpart in the play, Henry Drummond, is sophisticated, intelligent, idealistic, and charming.
When Darrow arrived in Dayton, a large, friendly crowd welcomed him. The welcome he received was similar to that which Bryan received. When Drummond arrives in Hillsboro, however, he does not receive a welcome. Instead, a young girl sees him and screams, "It's the Devil!"
Darrow objected to the Judge opening each session of the trial with a prayer and to a banner outside the courthouse that read, "Read Your Bible." He requested that the banner be taken down or another banner, one that read "Read Your Evolution," be erected. The judge had the banner removed. In the play, Drummond objects to the judge announcing a prayer meeting and to the banner outside the courthouse that says, "Read Your Bible." He, like Darrow, requests that the banner be taken down or that another banner — this one reading "Read Your Darwin" — be erected. Nothing is done about the banner.
In the Scopes trial, no women participated. In Inherit the Wind, Brady (the prosecutor) calls Rachel Brown to testify against Cates. (Note: John Scopes had no girlfriend. The playwrights included the character of Rachel to establish a romance motif.)
In the Scopes trial, Bryan agreed to take the witness stand because he thought he would have the opportunity to interrogate the defense afterward. In the play, Brady takes the witness stand to defend his fundamentalist position.
Darrow requested that Scopes be found guilty so that he could then appeal to a higher court to test the constitutionality of the Butler Law. By requesting the guilty verdict, he also avoided being cross-examined by Bryan and closing arguments. In the play, Drummond does not request a guilty verdict.
Bryan died in his sleep five days after the trial. Upon hearing of his death, Darrow commented that he "died of a busted belly." In Inherit the Wind, Brady collapses and dies as he tries to give his closing argument, and Darrow's famous words go to Hornbeck, who says that Brady "died of a busted belly."
The ACLU paid for all Scopes' expenses relating to the trial, and his teaching position was still open to him (he opted to attend graduate school instead, however). Cates, on the other hand, loses his job.
A Response to McCarthyism
Lawrence and Lee use Inherit the Wind as a metaphor for censorship or thought control; the play is their response to McCarthyism. Although the basis of the play is a historical event. the playwrights are not referring only to the Scopes trial (1925), the Butler Law, and the creationism-evolutionism conflict. They are also referring to the McCarthy era (the late 1940s and 1950s). Inherit the Wind was first published and produced in 1955, when blacklisting and, sometimes, imprisonment of Americans suspected of being members of the Communist party were at their height.
Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy led an effort to identify Communists, who, he claimed, had infiltrated the federal government by the hundreds. During this period, the U.S. House of Representatives formed the Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), in front of which American citizens were subpoenaed and forced to testify against or identify Communists. Because of their influence over American values, many people from the entertainment industry were called to testify, and several who were suspected of having connections to communism were blacklisted (denied employment because of their "unacceptable" opinions).