The setting is Hillsboro, a small rural Tennessee town, during the summer of an unknown year. Bert Cates, a sophomore science teacher, has been arrested and jailed for violating the Butler Law, which prohibits the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools. Rachel Brown, a fellow teacher and his girlfriend, pleads with him to apologize and admit that he was wrong. Cates, however, refuses to give up.
The townspeople are excited because Matthew Harrison Brady, three-time presidential candidate, famous orator, and fundamentalist leader, is arriving in Hillsboro to join the district attorney, Tom Davenport, in prosecuting Cates. The atmosphere of the town is similar to that of a country fair. Banners are flying and people are selling lemonade, hot dogs, and Bibles. The Ladies' Aid has prepared a picnic for Brady and his wife, Sarah, and everyone is in a festive mood. During the celebration, Brady discovers that Rachel Brown, the daughter of the spiritual leader of Hillsboro, Reverend Jeremiah Brown, is a friend of Cates. He tricks her into revealing confidential, incriminating conversations she and Cates have had.
At the picnic, E.K. Hornbeck, a cynical columnist from the Baltimore Herald, reveals to Brady and the townspeople that famous defense attorney Henry Drummond will be Cates' attorney. This news shocks everyone, and Reverend Brown compares Drummond to the devil. Later that evening, Drummond arrives in Hillsboro alone.
In this scene, Lawrence and Lee supply the facts needed to understand the play. They use Hillsboro, a town that is " . . . about to be vigorously awakened," as a symbolic representation of people getting along in life without getting involved. Laws that encourage censorship are passed (specifically the Butler Law), and freedoms slip away. The people of Hillsboro live their lives in a vacuum, not thinking about the consequences of such a law until Cates' arrest. Cates' trial awakens the people of Hillsboro to the notion that there is no right or wrong way to think, that the important thing is having the freedom to think and being able to exercise that freedom.
In the first scene, Lawrence and Lee establish the central conflict of the play — the controversy between evolutionism and creationism — and introduce the characters involved in the conflict. Thus, the play begins with the interaction between Howard and Melinda, young people who live in Hillsboro. Melinda tells Howard he talks "sinful," and Howard calls Melinda's father a monkey. Their interaction foreshadows disharmony among community members regarding, specifically, the issues of evolutionism and creationism, but more globally, the issues of freedom of thought and censorship.
The stage directions emphasize the importance of the crowd as "active spectators." The crowd, made up of townspeople, provides dramatic tension throughout the play. In this scene, the townspeople are in high spirits because Matthew Harrison Brady is coming to Hillsboro to prosecute Cates, a minor character in the play who represents John Scopes. The townspeople have created a circus-like atmosphere. The town is decorated, food and other items are being sold, people sing and carry anti-evolution banners, and a band is ready to play.
The southern dialect spoken by the townspeople is realistic. They anticipate that, when Brady arrives, the "town's gonna fill up like a rain barrel in a flood," and they wonder, "where we gonna sleep all them people?" The Ladies Aid has even prepared a picnic that's, "Fitt'n fer a king." Clearly showing their support for Brady and his position against evolution, the townspeople sing, "Gimme that old-time religion," as Brady steps off the train. Lawrence and Lee's use of dialect and their portrayal of most of the citizens of Hillsboro reveal the townspeople as ignorant and unsophisticated — a typical stereotype of the rural South.
When Brady arrives in Hillsboro with his doting wife, Sarah, he assumes the role of leader of the common people. He is opposed to evolution and, during his arrival speech and later at the picnic, assures the townspeople that he is in Hillsboro to "defend . . . the Living Truth of the Scriptures," and "to test the steel of (his) Truth against the blasphemies of Science." According to Hornbeck, Brady is actually in Hillsboro "to find himself a stump to shout from. That's all." Brady's ambition is to boost his popularity in the eyes of his followers, and he is on a crusade against evolution, similar to McCarthy's crusade against Communism in the 1950s.
To emphasize Brady's determination, Lawrence and Lee use allusions (references to historical or famous people, objects, or events) to suggest more than what he is saying. Brady, for example, compares his battle to the battles of Goliath and St. George, which represent the defeat of an imposing, and presumably unconquerable, monster by an average man.
In their characterizations of Brady and Reverend Brown, Lawrence and Lee reveal their thoughts about people who promote censorship. Brady is a narrow-minded bigot who is opposed to evolutionary theory but knows nothing about it. Reverend Jeremiah Brown, the spiritual leader of Hillsboro and, like Brady, a strict fundamentalist, uses his position as a town leader to subjugate, or rule, the townspeople.
Lawrence and Lee portray Brown as a stereotypical fire-and-brimstone preacher. He is cruel and controlling. At the welcome picnic, Brown is adamant that his daughter, Rachel, speak to Brady about Cates, and after she does, he tells Brady that, "Rachel has always been taught to do the righteous thing." When Brown hears that Drummond is going to be Cates' defense attorney, he comments that Cates is "a vicious Godless man" who could be the " . . . Devil himself." His immediate reaction is to keep Drummond out of Hillsboro. In this dialogue, Lawrence and Lee hint at the fear that exists when people are not willing to acknowledge different beliefs.
E. K. Hornbeck, a cynical newspaper columnist for the Baltimore Herald who was sent to Hillsboro to cover Cates' trial, is also a character who has trouble accepting differing beliefs. Hornbeck, however, is not fundamentalist; he is pro-evolution and a champion of Cates.
Lawrence and Lee have written Hornbeck's dialogue in the form of poetry, making use of figurative language, such as metaphors, to draw comparisons and allusions. As such, Hornbeck functions as a chorus character, enabling Lawrence and Lee to moralize and relay social commentary to the audience. Hornbeck's cynical comments also provide comic relief throughout the play, thereby relieving tension. He tells a community member that he'd rather die than use a complimentary fan from a funeral home, and he welcomes a monkey to Hillsboro by exclaiming, "Grandpa!"
Mocking Brady, Hornbeck refers to him as a monkey's competition and alludes sarcastically to "the legions of the Lion-Hearted," referring to Brady's huge following. After announcing to the picnickers that Drummond will be defending Cates, Hornbeck, happy with the stir he creates, bids the townspeople, "A Merry Christmas and a Jolly Fourth of July!" His flippant comment — holidays celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ and the independence of the United States from Great Britain — foreshadows the enlightenment that the fundamentalists will experience.
Hornbeck goes to the courtroom to " . . . inspect the battlefield" and meets Rachel, who is quite distraught. Using allusions, he sarcastically refers to Baltimore as a "wicked Sodom and Gomorrah." He compares Cates to the "boy-Socrates, latter-day Dreyfus, Romeo with a biology book" — allusions that liken Cates to an enlightened mind that is unjustly persecuted. When he says to Rachel, "Wake up, Sleeping Beauty," he identifies her as someone who lives in a dream world and foreshadows her growth through the play.
Lawrence and Lee also use Hornbeck to emphasize the differences between the North and South. A sophisticated city-dweller from the North, Hornbeck is haughty and contemptuous of the ignorance and bigotry he observes in the South. Providing commentary to the audience at every opportunity, he mocks Hillsboro by calling the town "Heavenly Hillsboro" and claims that it is "the buckle on the Bible Belt," a town where "ignorance bushes" grow, but no "Tree of Knowledge."
Henry Drummond, Cates' defense attorney is also from the North. When he arrives in Hillsboro at the conclusion of Scene 1, he is alone and shunned by the townspeople. In fact, when Melinda, the little girl, sees him, she calls him a devil and runs from him. The only information that Lawrence and Lee reveal about Drummond up to this point is that he is an agnostic — that is, he doesn't believe that knowing whether God exists is possible — and he is a famous and skilled defense attorney. Lawrence and Lee also use Drummond as a mouthpiece to voice their views and concerns about limitations placed on an individual's right to think.
Drummond is a foil for Brady. The features of both Brady and Drummond are intensified by the presence of the other. For example, Brady's pompousness becomes magnified when juxtaposed with Drummond's low-key style. As Brady remarks, Drummond "magnifies our cause." The playwrights also use a romance motif, a conventional subplot, to relate and intensify Rachel Brown's internal conflict. Rachel, who loves Cates and whose father is Reverend Brown, struggles because she has been taught to believe that fundamentalism is the right and only belief to have. She pleas with Cates to "be on the right side of things" and then later defends him, telling Brady that he really is "good." Lawrence and Lee use Rachel's internal conflict to create suspense and to represent the opening of closed minds.
scorcher [Colloquial] a very hot day.
composition-paper suitcase a cheap cardboard suitcase.
vagrant a person who wanders from place to place without a regular job, supporting himself by begging, etc.
extradite to turn over (a person accused or convicted of a crime) to the jurisdiction of another country, state, etc. where the crime was allegedly committed.
Chautauqua meeting one of various late 19th and early 20th century meetings that were often held outdoors in tents and featured lectures, concerts, and plays, in addition to popular education.
rig to put together, prepare for use, or arrange, esp. in a makeshift or hurried fashion.
halyards a rope or tackle for raising or lowering a flag, sail, etc.
caricatured rubes unsophisticated people whose characteristics have been exaggerated.
Coxey's Army In 1894, Jacob Sechler Coxey (1854-1951), an entrepreneur, joined with Carl Browne, a revivalist, to lead a group of 500 unemployed people, a "living petition," from Massillon, Ohio, to Washington, D.C., in support of his plan for national reconstruction. The marchers became known as "Coxey's Army," and the demonstration when Coxey was arrested for demonstrating on the Capitol lawn.
hawker one who advertises or peddles (goods) in the streets by shouting.
hoist to raise aloft; lift or pull up, esp. by means of a cable, pulley, crane, etc.
toots a ragged fanfare plays a song on a trumpet or horn.
frond the leaf of a palm or fern.
privy a toilet; esp. an outhouse.
Bible Belt [coined (c.1925) by Henry Louis Mencken] those regions of the U.S., particularly areas in the South, where fundamentalist beliefs prevail and Christian clergy are especially influential.
Elijah a Hebrew prophet mentioned in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.
monkeyshines [Colloquial] a mischievous or playful trick, joke, or prank.
Lion-Hearted Richard I (1157-1199), King of England. His courage in battle earned him the title of Coeur de Lion (Lion-Hearted).
county cooler a county jail.
pith helmet a light-weight hat made from the soft, spongy, tissue that is often worn in hot, humid climates.
suffrage the right to vote, esp. in political elections.
President Wilson (1856-1924), 28th president of the United States (1913-1921).
agape with the mouth wide open, in surprise, wonder, etc., gaping.
repast food and drink for a meal.
fit on the old armor prepare for battle.
heathen dogma a doctrine, tenet, or belief that does not relate to God or the Bible.
agnostic a person who believes that the human mind cannot know whether there is a God or an ultimate cause, or anything beyond material phenomena.
Goliath a gigantic Philistine warrior who taunted Israelis forces. Because of his large size, people were frightened of him. Finally, David fought Goliath with his sling and five smooth stones. He hit Goliath in the head causing him to fall and then took Goliath's sword and killed him.
St. George a figure in a legend similar to that of David and Goliath. In this legend, the only source of water for a great city was an oasis that was guarded by a dragon that would kill the youths who tried to get water. Finally, the king's daughter, the only youth left to try to get water, went to the oasis. St. George rode up on a white horse and killed the dragon with a lance. The king gave St. George half of his kingdom and his daughter's hand in marriage.
fray a noisy quarrel or fight; brawl.
Sodom and Gomorrah two cities mentioned in the Bible, well known for their wicked and inhospitable ways, that were destroyed by God. The cities are symbols of human sinfulness and God's punishment for such.
tear sheet a sheet torn, or taken in unbound form, from a publication for special distribution.
Happy Hooligan, Barney Google, and Abe Kabibble famous newspaper comic strips.
Socrates (469-399 b.c.) Greek philosopher and mentor of Plato. He developed the Socratic method of inquiry, based on reason and self-knowledge. He believed in doing what one thought was right, even if it meant facing the opposition of all others. Socrates was charged with impiety and corruption of youth and sentenced to death.
Dreyfus a scapegoat or one who is wrongly accused. Captain Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935), a Jewish officer in the French Army, was accused of sending secret military documents to the German military. He was convicted of treason, court-martialed, and exiled. Later, it was discovered that Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, a Hungarian with German connections, was the guilty party. Dreyfus had been a convenient scapegoat. In 1906, he was proclaimed innocent.
Romeo a character from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. A Montague, he was in love with the daughter of a Capulet, Juliet, enemy of his family.
Little Eva an angelic child in the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851-1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Of frail health, she dies. Also a possible reference to Eve, Adam's wife, in the Book of Genesis of the Bible
Tree of Knowledge the tree in the Garden of Eden from which Adam and Eve ate.
hinterland an area far from big cities and towns; back country.
plumbing in their heads brains.
Henry's Lizzie Henry Ford's first automobile model, the Model T, also known as the "Tin Lizzie."
flivver a small, cheap automobile, esp. an old one.
Marconi Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), an Italian electrical engineer who invented the first radio-signaling system.
Montgomery Ward the oldest mail-order business in the United States, launched by Aaron Montgomery Ward in 1872.