"Inherit the Wind" Character and Theme Analysis

Statue of Charles Darwin

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Playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee created this philosophical drama in 1955. A courtroom battle between the proponents of creationism and Darwin’s theory of evolution, Inherit the Wind still generates controversial debate.

The Story

A science teacher in a small Tennessee town defies the law when he teaches the theory of evolution to his students. His case prompts a renowned fundamentalist politician/lawyer, Matthew Harrison Brady, to offer his services as the prosecuting attorney. To combat this, Brady’s idealistic rival, Henry Drummond, arrives in town to defend the teacher and to inadvertently ignite a media frenzy.

The events of the play are heavily inspired by the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925. However, the story and characters have been fictionalized.

Henry Drummond

The lawyer characters on both sides of the courtroom are compelling. Each attorney is a master of rhetoric, but Drummond is the noblest of the two.

Henry Drummond, patterned after famed lawyer and ACLU member Clarence Darrow, is not motivated by publicity (unlike his real-life counterpart). Instead, he seeks to defend the teacher’s freedom to think and express scientific ideas. Drummond admits that he doesn’t care about what is “right.” Instead, he cares about the “truth.”

He also cares about logic and rational thought; in the climactic courtroom exchange, he uses the Bible itself to expose a “loophole” in the prosecution's case, opening up a way for everyday church-goers to accept the concept of evolution. Referring to the book of Genesis, Drummond explains that no one–not even Brady–knows how long the first day lasted. It may have been 24 hours. It may have been billions of years. This stumps Brady, and even though the prosecution wins the case, Brady’s followers have become disillusioned and doubtful.

Yet, Drummond isn’t elated by Brady’s downfall. He battles for the truth, not to humiliate his long-time adversary.

E. K. Hornbeck

If Drummond represents intellectual integrity, then E. K. Hornbeck represents the desire to destroy traditions simply out of spite and cynicism. A highly biased reporter on the side of the defendant, Hornbeck is based upon esteemed and elitist journalist H. L. Mencken.

Hornbeck and his newspaper are dedicated to defending the school teacher for ulterior reasons: A) It’s a sensational news story. B) Hornbeck delights in seeing righteous demagogues fall from their pedestals.

Although Hornbeck is witty and charming at first, Drummond realizes that the reporter believes in nothing. Essentially, Hornbeck represents the lonely path of the nihilist. In contrast, Drummond is reverent about the human race. He states that “an idea is a greater monument than a cathedral!” Hornbeck’s view of mankind is less optimistic:

“Aw, Henry! Why don't you wake up? Darwin was wrong. Man's still an ape.”

“Don't you know the future's already obsolete? You think man still has a noble destiny. Well, I tell you he's already started on his backward march to the salt-filled and stupid sea from which he came.”

Rev. Jeremiah Brown

The community’s religious leader stirs up the town with his fiery sermons, and he disturbs the audience in the process. The overbearing Rev. Brown asks the Lord to smite the wicked proponents of evolution. He even calls upon the damnation of the school teacher, Bertram Cates. He asks God to send Cates’ soul into hellfire, despite the fact that the reverend’s daughter is engaged to the teacher.

In the film adaptation of the play, Rev. Brown’s uncompromising interpretation of the Bible prompted him to say highly unsettling statements during a child’s funeral service when he claimed that the little boy had died without being “saved” and that his soul dwells in Hell.

Some have argued that Inherit the Wind is rooted in anti-Christian sentiments, and the character of Rev. Brown is the main source of that complaint.

Matthew Harrison Brady

The extremist views of the reverend allow Matthew Harrison Brady, the fundamentalist prosecuting attorney, to be viewed as more moderate in his beliefs, and therefore more sympathetic to the audience. When Rev. Brown summons the wrath of God, Brady calms the pastor and soothes the angry mob. Brady reminds them to love one’s enemy. He asks them to reflect upon God’s merciful ways.

In spite of his peace-keeping speech to the townsfolk, Brady is a warrior in the courtroom. Modeled after Southern Democrat William Jennings Bryan, Brady uses some rather devious tactics to serve his purposes. In one scene, he is so consumed with his desire for victory that he betrays the trust of the teacher’s young fiancé and uses the information she offered to him in confidence.

This and other boisterous courtroom antics make Drummond disgusted with Brady. The defense attorney claims that Brady was a man of greatness, but now he has become consumed with his self-inflated public image. This becomes all too evident during the play’s final act. Brady, after a humiliating day in court, cries in the arms of his wife, weeping the words, “Mother, they laughed at me.”

The wonderful aspect of Inherit the Wind is that the characters are not mere symbols representing opposing viewpoints. They are very complex, deeply human characters, each with their own strengths and flaws.

Fact vs Fiction

Inherit the Wind is a blend of history and fiction. Austin Cline, ThoughtCo’s Guide to Atheism/Agnosticism, expressed his admiration for the play but also added:

“Unfortunately, a lot of people treat it as far more historical than it really is. So, on the one hand, I'd like more people to see it both for the drama and for the bit of history that it does reveal, but on the other hand I wish that people would be able to be more skeptical about how that history is presented.”

Here are the key differences between fact and fabrication. Here are some highlights worth noting:

  • In the play, Brady says he has no interest in "the pagan hypotheses of that book". Bryan was actually very familiar with Darwin's writings and quoted them often during the trial.​
  • Brady protests the verdict on the grounds that the fine is too lenient. In the real trial, Scopes was fined the minimum required by the law and Bryan offered to pay it for him.
  • Drummond becomes involved in the trial to prevent Cates from being jailed, but Scopes was never in danger of jail time—in a letter to H.L Mencken and his own autobiography, Darrow acknowledged that he participated in the trial to attack fundamentalist thought.
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Bradford, Wade. ""Inherit the Wind" Character and Theme Analysis." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/inherit-the-wind-overview-2713498. Bradford, Wade. (2020, August 27). "Inherit the Wind" Character and Theme Analysis. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/inherit-the-wind-overview-2713498 Bradford, Wade. ""Inherit the Wind" Character and Theme Analysis." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/inherit-the-wind-overview-2713498 (accessed March 27, 2023).