Inherit the Wind: Summary: Act I, Scene 1

Summary: The curtain rises, revealing the area in and around the Hillsboro Courthouse, during a summer (according to the stage directions) “not too long ago.” Thirteen-year-old Howard Blair is enjoying the warm day, searching for worms with which to go fishing. He teases his friend, twelve-year-old Melinda, “You was a worm once!”-an oversimplification of a lesson Howard learned from his school teacher, Bertram Cates.
Cates is currently a prisoner in the local jail, awaiting trial for teaching Charles Darwins theory of evolution to his science class, thus breaking a law passed by the state legislature. His girlfriend, Rachel Brown-who also happens to be the daughter of the local minister-visits Cates, urging him to recant his teaching, to “tell em it was all a joke.” She is afraid of the impending trial, in which no less a luminary than Matthew Harrison Brady, “the biggest man in the country-next to the President, maybe”-will be prosecuting Cates. Cates asks Rachel if she believes he has done anything wrong. She doesnt directly answer his question, only stating that what Cates did was illegal and that “[e]verybody says what [he] did is bad.” Cates responds that morality is not that simple. Rachel insists that, in Hillsboro, it is. After Rachel leaves, Mr. Meeker, the courts bailiff, asks Cates who will be defending him. Cates does not know; he knows only that a “newspaper in Baltimore. [is] sending somebody.”
Excitement builds in the town square as Bradys train draws near. A festival atmosphere, perhaps reminiscent of an old-fashioned Fourth of July celebration, develops, complete with religiously fervent banners (“Read Your Bible,” “Down With Darwin,” “Save Our Schools From Sin,” and the like) hot dog hawkers, and lemonade vendors. Into the celebration wanders E. K. Hornbeck, a journalist with the Baltimore Herald who views the goings-on with amusement and mild derision. While Hornbeck makes jokes about an organ-grinders monkey who accepts coins-“How could you ask for better proof than that? / Theres the father of the human race!”-the Reverend Jeremiah Brown organizes his “Bible League” into a chorus to welcome Brady as he arrives, with his wife, Sarah. Brady warmly accepts the crowd of townspeoples cheers and their rendition of “Gimme That Old-Time Religion” before silencing them. The crowd falls under the spell of his great oratorical skill as Brady frames the trial in Hillsboro as nothing less than a defense “of that which is most precious in the hearts of all of us: the Living Truth of the Scriptures!” A photo opportunity with local dignitaries follows, during which the Mayor of Hillsboro, on the Governors authority, proclaims Brady an Honorary Colonel in the State Militia. Brady meets Tom Davenport, the circuit district attorney, with whom he will be prosecuting Cates. He eagerly joins in the great feast that the townsfolk have prepared, dismissing the concern voiced by his wife, Sarah: “Remember, the doctor told you not to overeat.”
When Brady refers to Cates as a “criminal” and a “heathen,” Rachel leaps to Cates defense. Brady takes Rachel aside to talk to her about Cates. As they discuss the case, Hornbeck introduces himself to Mrs. Brady and some of the townspeople. Hornbeck reveals that the Herald is supplying Cates defense attorney: Henry Drummond. Hornbeck takes great delight in watching the locals shock that Drummond, an agnostic, will be defending Cates. Drummond has a reputation for defending known criminals-and for winning. One resident tells of how, in a previous case, Drummond was “perverting the evidence to cast the guilt away from the accused and onto you and me and all of society.” When Brady learns of Drummonds impending arrival, however, he suggests that Hillsboro welcome, not shun, the celebrated attorney. After all, he says, “If the enemy sends its Goliath into battle, it magnifies our cause.”
Brady, at Sarahs prompting, retires for a nap after the meal. Hornbeck, snacking on an apple, approaches Rachel. In his own poetic and somewhat pretentious way, the reporter makes it clear to Rachel that he is on Berts side-“As much as a critic can be a friend to anyone,” at least. He explains that he has been chronicling Cates case as a “sweet, sad song about the Hillsboro heretic.” Rachel reads Hornbecks article, asking if it will be published in the local paper. She believes it would sway public support for Cates. Still, Rachel admits to Hornbeck that she is torn: while she would like to believe Bert is a hero, as Hornbeck is painting the teacher out to be, she, as a teacher herself, believes that all teachers, as servants of the state, should abide by the states positions. A teacher “should do what the law and the school-board want him to.” She views Brady as “the champion of ordinary people,” a view Hornbeck roundly and loudly rejects.
Night begins to fall. Despite the sunset, the heat continues-symbolic of the “heat,” or pressure of intense national scrutiny (as represented by Hornbeck), under which the previously quiet town of Hillsboro now finds itself struggling (but, to a large extent, at its own instigation). The organ-grinder and his monkey continue their performances; Melinda pays them a penny. Then, she sees what the stage directions describe as a “long, ominous shadow” approaching. A frightened Melinda, seeing the stooped figure who ambles onstage, screams, “Its the Devil!” It is, however, Henry Drummond, whom Hornbeck promptly greets: “Hello, Devil. Welcome to Hell.”
Analysis: As Lawrence and Lee point out in their brief prefatory remarks, Inherit the Wind is not, strictly speaking, a dramatization of the 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial.” That incident was more complex and complicated than the trial depicted in Inherit the Wind. In 1925, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the “Butler Act,” which legislated:
“. it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the. public schools of the State. to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”[1]
In an effort to bring greater attention to their town, as well as out of genuine dislike of the Butler Act, leading figures of Dayton, Tennessee, including a progressive Methodist preacher, agreed to have the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defend any teacher who intentionally violated the Butler Act. Thus, the “monkey trial” was a test case-that is, “a legal action whose outcome is likely to set a precedent or test the constitutionality of a statute” (American Heritage Dictionary). John Scopes, a young teacher and football coach who was actually substituting for the regular biology teacher at the time, agreed to serve as that test. Originally, the instigators of the test case wanted noted intellectual, historian and science fiction writer H. G. Wells to defend Scopes. Wells declined, however, clearing the way for Clarence Darrow to take on one of the most famous trials of his career. The task of prosecuting Cates was undertaken by William Jennings Bryan, a celebrated, populist political figure of the day; and famously cynical journalist H. L. Mencken covered the trial. A comprehensive resource for learning more about the actual Scopes Monkey Trial (the intricacies of which, for the most part, lie outside the scope of this study guide), may be consulted at, a project of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School (and from which much information in this paragraph has been drawn).
This background having been established, however, few audiences and readers of the play can deny that the three principal characters-Henry Drummond, the defense counsel; Matthew Harrison Brady, the prosecuting attorney and two-time presidential candidate; and E. K. Hornbeck, the cynical newspaper columnist-correspond rather closely to the three historical figures mentioned above-respectively, Clarence Darrow, the famous trial lawyer and agnostic, known for his defense of progressive causes; William Jennings Bryan, the so-called “Great Commoner” and fundamentalist preacher who campaigned unsuccessfully to win the White House three times; and H. L. Mencken, the Baltimore journalist who wrote columns about the Scopes trial. “Menckens pungent, iconoclastic criticism and scathing invective, although aimed at all smugly complacent attitudes, was chiefly directed at what he saw as the ignorant, self-righteous, and overly credulous American middle class, members of which he dubbed Boobus americanus” (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia). Even so, while the characters, dialogue, and setting all have a 1920s air about them, and even closely resemble actual people and places of the past, they serve, in this play, to bring into stark relief a conflict of philosophies and commitments, rather than to re-enact a historical episode.
Brady states that he is committed to the truth of the Bible, but in fact he is committed to a worldview, a way of making sense out of life, that is increasingly coming under fire in the rational, progressive early decades of the twentieth century in which the play is set. Note that, in this scenes stage directions, he is called “Second Man.” The name points to one of the plays themes. Not only is Brady a twice-failed presidential candidate, but also he is “second,” or falling behind, in this new century. Ironically, Bradys own reference to Drummond as “Goliath” reveals that Brady, to some degree, appears great because he exaggerates his sense of himself by exaggerating his opponents importance. Drummond, for his part, does not view the trial in Hillsboro an epic, even apocalyptic, struggle between Right and Wrong, but-as he will make clear in Act II-a struggle to defend, simply, humanitys right to think for itself, and let questions of morality fall as they may as a result of knowing the truth. The truth at all costs is Drummonds commitment, and is a commitment the playwrights unfailingly paint in the most heroic of terms.
Browns outrage over Drummonds legal tactic-what Brown views as “perverting the evidence”-raises questions of how much society is to blame as a contributing factor to crime in general, and of who really is on trial for this “crime” in particular. Browns speech serves to show the audience that the people of Hillsboro may be looking for a sacrifice, a “scapegoat,” on whom to transfer the complexities of the modern, scientific world. If Cates can be driven from their midst, the people may be thinking, perhaps the larger issues he represents, namely the perceived conflict between science and faith, can be driven away as well. Of course, removing Cates from their society will not accomplish this goal; nevertheless, Browns speech reveals to the audience that the trial is motivated as much by a desire to avoid the complicated nature of the 20th century as it is to defend “that old time religion.” In the playwrights mind, this motivation seems to be a crime of which, indeed, “you and me and all of society” can prove to be found guilty.
Note that when Brown demonizes Drummond, he does so by portraying the lawyer in (appropriately enough, given the dramas subject matter) primitive, even ape-like language: “I can still see him. A slouching hulk of a man, whose head juts out like an animals.” The moment passes quickly, but Browns lines allow the playwrights to illustrate another way in which religion can be used as a weapon: to attack not only other peoples beliefs (in this case, Darwinian theories of evolution) but also the people themselves who hold those beliefs (as Brown says, “You look into his face and you wonder why God made such a man. [H]e is a creature of the Devil, perhaps even the Devil himself!”).
Interestingly, however, the character whom the playwrights choose to characterize in a vaguely satanic manner is not Drummond, but Hornbeck. The reporter himself acknowledges a certain resemblance in this scene: when Rachel refuses a bite of his apple, he laughingly says, “Im not the serpent, Little Eva. / This isnt from the Tree of Knowledge. / You wont find one in the orchards of Heavenly Hillsboro. / A few ignorance bushes. / No Tree of Knowledge.” Hornbecks words may undermine his assertion, however. As the serpent was (according to later, Christian interpretations of Genesis 3) Satan intruding into the primal innocence of Eden, so is cynical Hornbeck, a worldly reporter, entering Hillsboro from the outside-with the intention, as the people of Hillsboro see it, to lead them astray, just as the serpent tempted Eve. Certainly, Hornbecks skill with words-note that he is the only character in the play who speaks in blank verse- bring to mind the smooth (albeit surely forked!) tongue of the serpent, who “was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.” (Gen. 3:1, KJV). And Hornbecks own description of his modus operandi may make audiences wonder whether the reporter is, if not precisely demonic, then shrewdly pragmatic at best, amoral at worst: “I do hateful things, for which people love me, / And lovable things for which they hate me.”