When considering the themes of Inherit the Wind, the student should keep in mind that the play was first published in 1955, not 1925 when the Scopes trial took place. During the early 1950s, known as the McCarthy era, actors and writers were blacklisted — that is, refused work because they had been accused of having some connection to Communism.
During this period, people stopped expressing their thoughts, beliefs, or ideas, afraid they would lose their livelihood or worse. Being writers, Lawrence and Lee became aware of the dangerous situation created when laws are passed limiting the freedom to think and speak. When writing Inherit the Wind, the playwrights were not concerned with the controversy between evolution and creation, the focus of the Scopes trial. Instead, they were concerned with the censoring or limiting of an individual's freedom to think. The authors used the issue of evolution as a metaphor for control over an individual's thoughts or beliefs. Inherit the Wind, then, is Lawrence and Lee's response to the McCarthy era.
Freedom of Thought
The predominant theme in Inherit the Wind is freedom of thought. Cates, like Scopes, is arrested for violating the Butler Law, which prohibits teaching evolutionary theory in public schools in Tennessee, effectively censoring what could be taught in public school classrooms. Drummond, Lawrence and Lee's voice throughout the play, fights passionately against censoring knowledge. When knowledge is censored, the right to think is limited. Drummond is adamant about everyone having the right to think. When Brady accuses Drummond of " . . . destroying everybody's belief in the Bible, and in God," Drummond responds, "You know that's not true. I'm trying to stop you bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States."
Another issue important to Lawrence and Lee is tolerance for different or conflicting beliefs. At the conclusion of the play, Hornbeck continues to denounce Brady after his death. Drummond vehemently tells him that, ". . . You have no more right to spit on his religion than you have a right to spit on my religion! Or my lack of it! . . . Brady had the same right as Cates: the right to be wrong!"
In a society that honors freedom of thought, it is necessary to value beliefs that differ from one's own. Even though Drummond is referring to the evolutionist/fundamentalist conflict in Inherit the Wind, the issue of intolerance and lack of respect for differing beliefs and thoughts is evident during the McCarthy era as well. People's lives were ruined for even the slightest connection to Communism. Drummond's comment, "the right to be wrong," is a plea that was common to the McCarthy era.
Another major theme in Inherit the Wind is the value of every person's ability to think and have ideas. The message that Lawrence and Lee convey through Drummond is that when people think and have ideas, they are not standing still. An idea to Drummond " . . . is a greater monument than a cathedral." The authors believe people need to be shaken up, confronted with new information, knowledge, and ideas so they can think independently and not merely conform with the majority or most popular opinion. Drummond tells the court that he is trying " . . . to prevent the clock-stoppers [the fundamentalists] from dumping a load of medieval nonsense [the Butler Law] into the United States Constitution." Lawrence and Lee convey the message that people must stand up and continue to fight against laws that promote censorship and unthinking conformity. Drummond tells Cates that the fight for freedom is never finished.
Search for Truth
Truth is another theme important to Lawrence and Lee. When Drummond defends Cates in the courtroom, he is seeking the truth. He tells the courtroom that "right" and "wrong" have no meaning to him; only " . . . Truth has meaning." Lawrence and Lee convey their respect for differing perspectives: Neither evolutionism nor fundamentalism is right or wrong. At the conclusion of the play, Drummond walks off with both a Bible and a copy of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in his brief case.
Lawrence and Lee's belief in a continuing search for truth is represented in Drummond's Golden Dancer speech to Cates. He tells Cates to " . . . look behind the paint . . . if it's a lie — show it up for what it really is." The authors are referring to the Butler Law, as well as the McCarthy era blacklisting.
Lawrence and Lee urge their audiences to pay attention to what is going on around them; to protect their freedoms by thinking, having ideas, and searching for truth. Only by being open-minded and respecting differing beliefs and viewpoints can freedoms be guaranteed.