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The Truth about Inherit the Wind

By Carol Innone

(This article first appeared in the February 1997 edition of First Things, a monthly journal on religion and public life, and was reprinted by Focus on the Family Citizen on October 20, 1997. It appears here by permission of Carol Innone who teaches at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study.)

Editor’s note
Cast of Characters (a summary of Inherit the Wind
Pure Fabrication (summary of distorted details)
The Primary Target (More about William Jennings Bryan)
Defender of the Faith (Demonstration of what the play attacks)
Bigotry In Reverse(Promoting tolerance through vilification and falsification)


(Editor’s Introduction: What will be remembered as this century’s most famous trial?

The O.J.Simpson trial appears to have the edge, judging by the success of tell-all books on the best-seller lists. But the legacy of a 1925 trial may prove to be more enduring. That trial—the so-called scopes "Monkey Trial"—pitted the Christian Worldview of creation against the Darwinian view of random, purposeless evolution.

The trial is discussed in a number of civics textbooks, but what most Americans know about the trial they learned from a 1955 play, Inherit the Wind, and its 1960-film adaptation. As the following article makes clear, the play and film grossly distort the actual trial, portraying Christians as hateful and willfully ignorant.

The play ran on Broadway for more than 800 performances in the late 1950s and was revived in March 1996 at New York’s Royale Theater in critically acclaimed production starring veteran Hollywood actors George C. Scott and Charles Durning, as well as a live monkey.

The play’s successful run ended after Scott bowed out for medical and legal reasons, yet it continues to live on in cyberspace. An Internet site dedicated to Inherit the Wind, developed by an American Studies professor at the University of Virginia, reverently chronicles the play’s history and its usefulness as a tool for advancing "intellectual freedom."

"Since Inherit the Wind first graced the Broadway stage, the play has been performed almost every night somewhere in the world," writes Prof. Lyndsey McCabe. "The immense popularity of the play—bordering on obsession—suggested that the issues dramatized [in the play] hit a nerve across social, regional and religious lines."

Just this year, drama teams from New York City to Sapulpa, Okla., have staged performances of Inherit the Wind. In nearly every case, the play reignites debate in the community—confirmation that, 72 years after the nationwide radio broadcast of the Scopes verdict, the creation-evolution fight is as contentious as ever.)


In the middle of the hot summer of 1925, the famous "Monkey Trial" took place in Dayton, Tenn., where a young teacher named John Scopes stood accused of violating the Butler Act, a measure passed earlier that year to restrict the teaching of evolution in public schools.

The defense featured the famous attorney Clarence Darrow, and the prosecution starred the celebrated orator, populist and three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Nearly 200 reporters descended upon the town, including H. L. Mencken of the Baltimore Evening Sun (which helped underwrite Scopes’ defense).

Newspapers and magazines carried innumerable articles and cartoons on the case, and telegraph operators wired stories to Europe and Australia. For the first time, news of an American trial was nationally broadcast by radio, while thousands of people came to Dayton itself to take in what became a virtual carnival, complete with sideshows.

Thirty years later, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee set what they saw as the essence of the whole extraordinary episode in their play Inherit the Wind, which supplies the view most Americans have of the Scopes trial.


Lawrence and Lee’s skillful and often riveting collaboration in Inherit the Wind opens with Bertram Cates—a courageous and idealistic young teacher—imprisoned for teaching evolution to his Hillsboro, Tenn., high-school biology class. When Matthew Harrison Brady—populist and three-time Democratic presidential candidate—arrives in Hillsboro to prosecute the case, he is greeted by the mayor and a large, enthusiastic crowd singing Give me that old-time religion.

The townspeople give a far different reception to Cates’ defender: The great henry Drummond, who sidles into town later that evening, is greeted by a little girl screaming "devil" in the play or by a scowling mountaineer in the film.

Drummond is in Hillboro courtesy of the Baltimore Herald, which has championed Cates. When the Herald’s celebrated columnist E.K. Hornbeck arrives in Hillsboro, he is greatly and haughtily amused at the spectacle of ignorance and bigotry before him. Speaking in a kind of ironic poetry-patter, he constantly mocks Brady and the pious provincialism that support him: "Ahhh, Hillsboro—heavenly Hillsboro. The buckle on the Bible Belt."

In the course of the trial, Brady starts out confidently, full of self-righteousness and ready rhetoric about "the Revealed Word." Not only are the courtroom spectators clearly with Brady, but the judge excludes Drummond’s scientific witnesses on the grounds that evolution itself is not on trial.

Desperate for some way to challenge the law, under which Cates stands accused, Drummond decides to put Brady on the stand as an expert on the Bible, and Brady accepts the challenge with gusto. The ensuing examination turns the case around: Drummond exposes Brady’s supposedly untenable literal acceptance of the Bible. The crowd begins to laugh at Brady, and, after the courtroom empties, he seeks comfort in the bosom of his mothering wife.

Though the jury brings in the inevitable guilty verdict, it is clear that Drummond has triumphed—and along with him, freedom of thought. The judge charges Cates a token fine of $100.

Protesting the light punishment, Brady tries to make what he considers an all-important closing speech, but the judge, embarrassed at the negative publicity the town has received, precipitately ends the trial. Sputtering and shouting, Brady collapses and is taken from the courtroom and shortly afterward dies.

Along the way, the play develops a conventional subplot concerning Cates’ fiancée, Rachel Brown, who at first wants Cates to recant his evolutionary teaching. Tricked by Brady into testifying about private discussions that tend to incriminate Cates as a non-believer, she eventually sees her mistake and finds the strength to stand beside him. Her father Jremiah is a fire-and-brimstone preacher who, in a vengeful prayer meeting the first night of the trial, nearly scares the wits out of his daughter until the more benign Brady intervenes.

The 1960 film version of Inherit the Wind shows the town’s populace burning Cates and Drummond in effigy and throwing rocks through the window of Cates’ cell. The play itself lacks these incidents, but indicates that the townspeople’s response to Cates is ugly and hateful. As Drummond puts it, "You murder a wife, it isn’t nearly as bad as murdering an old wives’ tale."

And yet, in discussing Brady’s death after the trial, Drummond repudiates the journalist Hornbeck’s scathing ridicule. As Drummond sees it, Brady was a once- great man who had ceased to move forward. When Drummond, in defense of Brady, shows that he too knows the Bible, Hornbeck charges him with being even more religious than Brady was.

In its closing scenes, the play and film emphasize again what is suggested throughout: Brady’s fundamentalism is wrong, but so is Hornbeck’s godless cynicism. The enlightened and humane Drummond’s intention was not to tear down legitimate belief but only to fight ignorance and bigotry. In the last scene he picks up Darwin’s On The Orign of Species and the Bible, weighs them thoughtfully in his hands, and exits confidently with both books in his briefcase.


While Inherit the Wind remains faithful to the broad outlines of the historical events it portrays, it flagrantly distorts the details, and neither the fictionalized names nor the cover of artistic license can excuse what amounts to an ideologically motivated hoax.

The film, for example, depicts Cates arrested in the act of teaching evolution by a grim posse of morally offended citizens, while in fact no effort was made to enforce the Butler act. What actually brought the issue to light—never mentioned in play or film—was that the American Civil Liberties Union advertised for someone to challenge the law. Several Dayton citizens, hoping the publicity would benefit their town, approached Scopes as a possible candidate.

Far from being imprisoned, let alone hung in effigy, Scopes was free after his indictment. After traveling to New York to meet the ACLU Executive Board, he lived in his Dayton boarding house, continuing to have friendly dealings with the townspeople and greeting the visitors streaming into town.

In fact, there was no prison sentence connected to violation of the Butler Act. Bryan actually argued against even a monetary fine, and far from demanding a harsher penalty for Scopes—offered to pay the defendant’s fine himself.

Scopes attended a dinner given by Dayton progressive Club in honor of Bryan’s arrival and Bryan, famous for remembering people, recognized scopes as one of a gaggle of giggling graduates he had addressed at a high school commencement six years earlier. Bryan’s kindness and sincerity were acknowledged even by his enemies, and he spoke amiably to Scopes, insisting they could be friends despite their disagreement.

As for Darrow, he was greeted on his arrival in Dayton by a crowd about as large as friendly as the one that had greeted Bryan. Darrow was feted at a Progressive Club dinner just as Bryan was.

In Inherit the Wind, Cates loses his teaching job. As he makes his closing statement before being sentenced, mentioned that he is a schoolteacher as old crone shrills out, "Not any more you ain’t."

But Scopes reported in his memoir that his job was still open to him even after the verdict. People involved in his defense offered him a scholarship for graduate school, however, and he went to the University of Chicago to study geology. He believed that a later fellowship was denied him because of the trial controversy, but he did have an active career as a geologist.

The essential plot elements of Inherit the Wind—the lonely stand of the brave individualist against the small-minded bigotry of the townspeople, Cates’ fear and trembling as he waits in his prison cell, the threat of ruin hanging over his head (The Scopes character and his fiancée play each scene as if he were on the way to the electric chair," wrote one film reviewer)—are pure fabrication.

Far from living in fear, Scopes went swimming during one hot lunchtime recess with two of the young assistant prosecutors (including Bryan’s son). The reprimand Scopes received from defense attorney Arthur Garfield Hays when they were late getting back to the courtroom may have been the roughest treatment he received.


So, too, Inherit the Wind distorts its Bryan figure. A review of the trial transcript reveals that, contrary to the play; Bryan was often exuberant, funny, discerning, and focused during the trial. He was familiar with Darwin, and may even have understood the evolutionary doctrine better than his adversaries, or at least had a better idea of what was really at stake. He did have some embarrassing moments during the 90 minutes of Darrow’s relentless questioning, but he often gave as good as he got.

"These gentlemen," Bryan said on the stand, "came here to try revealed religion. I am here to defend it, and they can ask me any questions they please."

Bryan was not able to deliver the lengthy closing statement he considered his life’s "mountain peak," but not because the judge cut short the trial, as the play suggests. Rather, after the cross-examination of Bryan (which as stricken from the record the following day), Darrow stated his willingness to accept a guilty verdict in order to move to appeal. This obviated the need for a closing statement. Darrow later admitted that the defense had purposely wanted to deprive Bryan of his closing statement for fear of his legendary oratorical powers.

Moreover, Bryan did not have a mortal stroke in the courtroom, but dies five days after the trial. His death may have been due partly to exhaustion and stress, but he also suffered from a diabetic condition that he did not carefully watch. He passed away peacefully during an afternoon nap and after a heavy meal. (The irreverent line spoken by the cynical Hornbeck at Brady’s death—"He died of a busted belly"—was actually Darrow’s private remark on hearing that Bryan had died.)

But as a historian Lawrence W. Levine puts it, if Bryan was destroyed by the trial, "he did a masterly job of concealing it during the five days of life remaining to him." Bryan took heart in the legal victory and set himself to the fight with renewed vigor. He traveled, gave speeches, and arranged for publication of the address he had not been permitted to deliver. Scopes himself denied that the trial killed Bryan, though perhaps because he did not want his side to bear the onus.


These systemic alterations serve a single, obvious end: to ridicule Bryan and his followers for their backwardness and religious prejudice. The stage directions instruct, "It is important to the concept of the play that the town is visible always, looming there, as much on trial as the individual defendant." The thinker is in jail, while the "morons" (as Mencken called them) roam free—led by Brady, "the idol of all Morondom" (as Darrow later termed Bryan).

The stage directions indicated the time of the play as "not too long ago," and the playwrights’ note—always included in any production’s program—declares ominously, "It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow." The trial, as Arthur Garfield Hays put it, "was a battle between two types of minds—the rigid, orthodox, accepting, unyielding, narrow, conventional mind, and the broad, liberal, critical, cynical, skeptical and tolerant mind."

But was it really so simple?

The playwrights split the ‘Bryan figure in two—the "enlightened" progressive champion of the common man versus the "bigoted" religious fundamentalist. Drummond, who had supported Brady in two of his presidential bids (as Darrow had supported Bryan in real life), says at Brady’s death, "A giant once lived in that body. But Matt Brady got lost. Because he was looking for God too high up and too far away."

In fact, the two sides of Bryan, the democratic and the religious, were complementary.

According to historian LeRoy Ashby, Bryan was sustained by "the combined heritages of evangelical faith and the republicanism of the nation’s revolutionary era." The democracy he worked for was built upon "the virtuous citizen," and he worried that Darwinism ‘would cause people to lose a sense of God’s presence."

Bryan was troubled by numerous reports he had received of young people who had lost their faith under the tutelage of skeptical, even atheistic, professors. According to Ashby, Bryan felt such stories of lost faith indicated "that the state was in fact teaching against religion, and that atheists and evolutionists were enjoying something against which democratic reformers had long battled—special privileges."

Furthermore, "The evolutionists have not been honest with the public," declared Bryan (who was, for what it’s worth, a member of the American Academy for the Advancement of science). He cautioned that "Christians who have allowed themselves to be deceived into believing that evolution is a beneficent, or even a rational, process have been associating with those who either do not understand its implications or dare not avow their knowledge of these implications."

In both the real trial and Inherit the Wind, the certainty of evolution was considerable oversimplified. For example, the fictional Drummond argues, "What Bertram Cates spoke quietly one spring afternoon in the Hillsboro High School is…incontrovertible as geometry in every enlightened community of minds."

But is it? Bryan shrewdly described evolution as a hypothesis—"millions of guesses strung together"—rather than proven theory. And he knew what was the mission: "There is not a scientist in all the world who can race on single species to any other."

Nearly a century and a half after the publication of On The Orign of Species, the proof for Darwin’s theory remains spotty. Bryan sounded at leas reasonable when he argued, "If the results of evolution were unimportant, one might require less proof in support of the hypothesis, but before accepting a new philosophy of life, built upon a materialistic foundation, we have reason to demand something more than guesses."


Ultimately, however, the truth of evolution is not the theme of Inherit the Wind. What the play seeks ultimately to defend are the larger prerogatives of "the broad, liberal, critical, cynical, skeptical and tolerant mind."

After the trial, Cates’ fiancée Rachel, who has left her father’s joylessly pious household, recites the lesson she has learned as she joins the forces of the enlightened.

"You see, I haven’t really thought very much. I was always afraid of what I might think—so it seemed safer not to think at all. But now I know. A thought is like a child inside our body. It has to be born…. bad or good, it doesn’t make any difference. The ideas have to come out--like children."

O course, such a simple choice between bigotry and enlightenment is central to the contemporary liberal vision of which Inherit the Wind is a typical expression. But while it stands nominally for tolerance, latitude and freedom of thought, the play is full of self-righteous certainty that it deplores in the fundamentalist camp.

Some critics have detected the play’s sanctimonious tone—"bigotry in reverse," as Andrew Sarris called it—even while appreciating its dramatic quality and well-written leading roles. The play reveals a great deal about a mentality that demands open-mindedness and excoriates dogmatism, only to advance it own certainties more insistently—a mentality that promotes tolerance and intellectual integrity but stoops to vilifying the opposition, falsifying reality and distorting history in the service of its agenda.

Editor’s note
Cast of Characters (a summary of Inherit the Wind)
Pure Fabrication (summary of distorted details)
The Primary Target (More about William Jennings Bryan)
Defender of the Faith (Demonstration of what the play attacks)
Bigotry In Reverse(Promoting tolerance through vilification and falsification)

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