Inherit the Wind: an historical analysis
The film and play of the most publicized creation/evolution trial of all time are seriously biased and inaccurate.
Rarely does a year go by that the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee play and film Inherit the Wind is not produced by a local school, or shown on television somewhere. Inherit the Wind is not a documentary, but it is perceived by many viewers to be a documentary–drama of the famous 1925 Scopes ‘monkey’ trial.
The trial pitted William Jennings Bryan against Clarence Darrow in a classic confrontation over the teaching of evolution and creation in public schools. Theatrical liberties were exercised in developing the plot, but occasional courtroom exchanges were taken word–for–word from the transcript of the Scopes trial. Unfortunately, the composite that resulted has become widely perceived as a historical account of the trial. But the play is not a fair and accurate representation of the great battle of ideas and beliefs that was waged at the Rhea County Court House in Dayton, Tennessee.
Curiously, Inherit the Wind (unlike other documentary–dramas such as Gandhi and Patton) does not use the actual names of the participants or the places it portrays. Some characters, like the Reverend Jeremiah Brown and his persecuted daughter, Rachel, are fictitious. The rest of the principal characters of the play represent well-known participants in the Scopes trial. The character Matthew Harrison Brady represents William Jennings Bryan; Henry Drummond represents Clarence Darrow; Bert Cates represents John Scopes; and E.K. Hornbeck represents H.L. Mencken.
The Main Participants
William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925)
Bryan was a famous politician and orator, who unsuccessfully stood three times as the Democratic candidate for the USA Presidency. He became Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson, where he tried his best to keep the USA out of the First World War. A great Populist leader, he was known as the Great Commoner. He was influential in the eventual adoption of such reforms as popular election of senators, income tax, creation of a Department of Labor, Prohibition and women’s suffrage.
At his funeral, Darrow told reporters that he had voted for Bryan twice and respected his ‘sincerity and devotion.’
Clarence (Seward) Darrow (1857–1938)
Darrow was a lawyer whose defence work in a number of dramatic trials made him nationally famous. He was also a prominent public speaker and debater, and an outspoken agnostic. His cases ranged from representing striking miners during the Pennsylvania anthracite coal strike of 1902–3, pointing out the arduous conditions and extent of child labour; to securing the acquittal in 1907 of the labour leader “Big Bill” Haywood for the assassination of the former governor of Idaho.
H(enry) L(ouis) Mencken (1880–1956)
Mencken was a controversial satirical journalist and pungent critic of American life. He was a reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald and later joined the staff of the Baltimore Sun. He also became a scholar of American idioms, publishing many editions of his volume American Language.
Mencken was highly antagonistic towards biblical Christianity, but was even more contemptuous of liberal ‘Christianity’, calling it ‘not only foolish but dishonest.’
I have chosen to use the proper names of the principals in the trial to avoid confusion, since there has never been doubt whom the chief characters in the play represent. In the observations that follow, segments from the play are preceded with the heading The Play. Analysis of the segments are preceded with the heading The Facts.
The Play: Great effort is made to solicit sympathy for John Scopes, the much persecuted school teacher cast into jail for teaching evolution, and who risks losing his job and his girlfriend. We are repeatedly reminded that ‘fine and imprisonment’ are possible consequences of his crime.
The Facts: Scopes was never jailed, nor was he in danger of imprisonment. The maximum penalty for violating the Butler Act, which forbade the teaching of evolution in Tennessee, was a $500 fine. Scopes didn’t have a college (university) degree in science (he had an undergraduate degree in law from the University of Kentucky). Scopes was not a biology teacher; he filled in as a substitute for two weeks near the end of the school year for the biology teacher, who was ill. Scope’s involvement in the trial was a wilful decision on his part. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was seeking a teacher willing to stand trial, with all expenses paid, to challenge the Butler Act. The ACLU placed a newspaper ad that read in part:
‘We are looking for Tennessee teacher who is willing to accept our services in testing this law in the courts.’
Local businessman George Rappleyea read this ad and lost no time in seeking John Scopes and pressuring him to accept the ACLU offer. In his autobiography, Scopes details this conversation with Rappleyea, Robinson, and other Dayton businessmen:
I said, ‘If you can prove that I’ve taught evolution, and that I can qualify as a defendant, then I’ll be willing to stand trial.’
‘You filled in as a biology teacher, didn’t you?’ Robinson said.
‘Yes.’ I nodded. ‘When Mr Ferguson was sick.’
‘Well, you taught biology then. Didn’t you cover evolution?’
‘We reviewed for the final exams, as best I remember.’ To tell the truth, I wasn’t sure I had taught evolution.
‘Robinson and the others apparently weren’t concerned about this technicality. I had expressed willingness to stand trial. That was enough.1
So John Scopes was not being attacked at all; rather it was he who was on the attack. Scopes willingly joined ranks with the ACLU in an attempt to repeal or nullify the Butler Act. In Sprague de Camp’s book, The Great Monkey Trial, a remarkable conversation between Scopes and reporter William K. Hutchinson of the International News Service reveals that Scopes’ defence lawyers had to coach his students to perjure themselves by claiming that John Scopes had taught them evolution when in fact he hadn’t.2
The Play: Throughout the play, William Jennings Bryan is portrayed as closed-minded, pompous, stupid, intolerant, hypocritical, insincere and gluttonous. The following dialogue between Darrow and Bryan appears on page 51:
DARROW: ‘I don’t suppose you’ve memorized many passages from the Origin of Species?’
BRYAN: ‘I am not the least interested in the pagan hypotheses of that book.’
DARROW: ‘Never read it?‘
BRYAN: ‘And I never will.’
The Facts: Bryan is reported by one of his biographers, Lawrence W. Levine, to have read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species 20 years before the Scopes trial! Bryan’s reservations about the theory of evolution were certainly influenced by his religious beliefs, but he had written many well–argued articles critical of the evidence used to defend the theory of evolution.
Bryan also carried on a long correspondence on evolution with famous evolutionist Henry Fairfield Osborn. For a layman, Bryan’s knowledge of the scientific evidence for and against evolution was unusually sophisticated. By comparison, the trial transcript shows that Darrow gave the impression of having a poor grasp of evolution. Darrow appeared to rest his belief in evolution on scientific ‘authority’, which he accepted without question.
Bryan fights Darrow with his own weapons!
To support his case about the harmful effects of evolutionary philosophy, Bryan used some of Darrow’s own arguments against him. The year before the Scopes Trial, Darrow had saved two young murderers from the death sentence. He claimed ‘this terrible crime was inherent in his organism, and it came from some ancestor.’ He also claimed:
‘Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietsche’s [evolutionary] philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it? … it is hardly fair to hang a 19–year–old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university.’
Author Sprague de Camp repudiated Byran’s conservative Christianity, and missed no opportunity to criticize his scientific views. Yet honesty compelled him to give Bryan credit for at least some undeniable virtues:
‘As a speaker, Bryan radiated good-humored sincerity. Few who heard him could help liking him. … In personality he was forceful, energetic, and opinionated but genial, kindly, generous, likeable and charming. … He showed a praise-worthy tolerance towards those who disagreed with him. … Bryan was the greatest American orator of his time and perhaps any time.’3
This is obviously different from the play’s portrayal, but de Camp’s description of Bryan’s character is consistent with the major biographies of Bryan’s life (see Levine, 1965, and Coletta, 1969).
The Play: The conservative Christians of Dayton, Tennessee, are portrayed as ignorant, closed–minded, and discourteous. Here are just a few examples: When H.L. Mencken arrives in town, Elijah (a Bible salesman who can neither read nor write) asks Mencken, ‘What are you? An evolutionist? An Infidel? A sinner?’ The mayor of the town offers to look for a town ordinance that would prevent Clarence Darrow from entering the town. When Darrow finally arrives in town, a young Christian girl screams, ‘The Devil!’, and then runs off in fear.
The Facts: The following is an excerpt from H.L. Mencken’s first dispatch sent to his newspaper: ‘Nor is there any evidence of that poisonous spirit which usually shows itself when Christian men gather to defend the great doctrine of their faith. … On the contrary, the Evolutionists and the Anti–Evolutionists seem to be on the best of terms, and it is hard in a group to distinguish one from the other.’4
The following is a quotation from Clarence Darrow on the seventh day of the eight–day trial:
‘I don’t know as I was ever in a community in my life where my religious ideas differed as widely from the great mass as I have found them since I have been in Tennesee. Yet I came here a perfect stranger and I can say what I have said before that I have not found upon any body’s part—any citizen here in this town or outside the slightest discourtesy. I have been treated better, kindlier and more hospitably than I fancied would have been the case in the north’ (trial transcript, pp. 225–226).
The Play: At the prayer meeting, we read the following account from page 39 of The Play:
REV. BROWN: ‘Do we believe the truth of the Word?’
REV. BROWN: (Pointing a finger towards the jail.) ‘Do we curse the man who denies the Word?’
ALL: (Crescendo, each answer mightier than the one before) ‘Yes!’
REV. BROWN: ‘Do we cast this sinner out of our midst?’
ALL: ‘Yes!’ (Each crash of sound from the crowd seems to strike Rachel physically, and shake her. The prayer meeting has passed beyond the familiar bounds in an area of orgiastic anger.)
REV. BROWN: ‘Do we call down hell-fire on the man who has sinned against the Word?’
ALL: (Roaring.) ‘Yes!’
REV. BROWN: (Deliberately shattering the rhythm, to go into a frenzied prayer, hands clasped together and lifted heavenward) ‘… Let him feel the terror of Thy sword! For all eternity, let his soul write in anguish and damnation.’
RACHEL: ‘No!’ (she rushes to the platform.) ‘No Father. Don’t pray to destroy Bert! [Scopes] (As she falls on her knees in front of the platform.) No, no, no … !’
REV. BROWN: ‘Lord, we call down the same curse on those who ask grace for this sinner—though they be of my blood, and flesh of my flesh!’
The Facts: Reverend Jeremiah Brown and the prayer meeting are fictitious. Earlier in the play, the mayor of the city identified Rev. Brown as the spiritual leader of the community. Since this is a fictitious character, the authors depict him as they please. One might expect the city’s spiritual leader to be a humble man of God who treats others with compassion and love. Instead, the authors introduce Rev. Jeremiah Brown as a mean–spirited man who calls down Hell-fire on his own daughter.
The Play: Scope’s fiancée ‘Rachel Brown’ is called as a witness and is badly mistreated by Bryan, who forces her to testify against her boyfriend by insisting she repeat deeply personal conversations between her and Scopes (which Bryan had pried out of her in ‘confidence’ before the trial). Bryan, always the fanatic, loses his self–control and becomes cruel and merciless in his questioning of the frightened young lady. Darrow, on the other hand, magnanimously agrees not to cross–examine Rachel lest she be further discomforted after Bryan’s abuse.
The Facts: No women participated in the trial. Scopes did not have a special girlfriend or fiancée at this time. Bryan was courteous at all times in his handling of witnesses, as the trial transcript reveals. Darrow, on the other hand, was at times condescending and contemptuous in his treatment of witnesses, jurists, opposing lawyers and even the judge. Darrow was, in fact, cited for contempt of court for repeatedly interrupting and insulting Judge Raulston.
The Play: Darrow questions Bryan on the topic of sex:
DARROW: ‘… You’re up here as an expert on the Bible. What’s the Biblical evaluation of sex?’
BRYAN: ‘It is considered Original Sin.’
The Facts: Nothing was discussed about sex in the trial. Nor does the Bible teach that the original sin was sexual in nature.
The Play: When the Judge excuses Bryan from the stand, Bryan slips into a frenzy:
BRYAN: ‘I believe in the truth of the Book of Genesis!’ (With both clenched fists he pounds the air, rhythmic hammer blows of conviction as he fervently recites the books of the Old Testament.)
After court is adjourned, the spectators begin to leave while Bryan continues to beat the air with clenched fists.
The Facts: Bryan never went into a frenzy, nor did he recite the books of the Bible. This was just another attempt to depict Bryan as a raving religious lunatic.
The Play: The ‘prisoner’, John Scopes, is found guilty and Darrow is visibly shaken by this great injustice against his client. Bryan, on the other hand, is vindictive and complains about the paltry $100 fine levelled against John Scopes for a crime of such magnitude: ‘Your Honor, the prosecution takes exception! Where the issues are so titanic, the court must mete out more drastic punishment.’
The Facts: Violation of the Butler Act was punishable by a fine of no less that $100 and no greater than $500; imprisonment was not a provision of the law. Bryan was not the least concerned about the fine, nor was anyone else. Indeed, Bryan had offered to pay Scopes’ fine. All of Scopes’ expenses relating to the trial were covered by vested interests, as was the tuition for his graduate education after the trial.
The Play: They play builds to a noisy and chaotic climax as Bryan loses all sense of dignity and reason and goes into an incoherent tirade to read his concluding statement. The crowd is bored and walks out, while Bryan’s wife looks on in horror at what he become of her once sane and caring husband. Finally, overcome by religious zeal, Bryan mindlessly continues with his closing remarks, and collapses on the courtroom floor. As he is carried out, in a strange, unreal voice, he begins what appears to be an inaugural speech as the new President of the United States. Minutes later, his death is announced.
The Facts: Neither Bryan nor Darrow attempted to give the customary closing argument to the jury. Once Darrow accomplished his purpose of ridiculing Bryan’s beliefs in Biblical miracles, he asked the judge to instruct the jury to find Scopes guilty, and in so doing, eliminated the need for closing arguments. Bryan had put great effort into preparing his closing statement. This manoeuvre by Darrow prevented Bryan from giving his well-supported scientific and religious argument against the theory of evolution. Bryan was anxious that the text of his speech be made available to the public, and made provision for its publication only one hour before his death. The speech was cogently argued—hardly the ravings of a mad man unless, of course, all Bible-believing Christians are to be dismissed as ‘mad men’.
Finally, Bryan did not die in the courthouse in a raving frenzy. He died in his sleep at the age of 65 five days after the trial. His doctors had urged him, a diabetic, to cut his heavy workload. Insulin treatment was still in its early years.
There is considerable evidence that the play and film are not simply inaccurate, but rather are highly biased in their intent. The historical inaccuracies are systematic and of a kind that presents a consistent bias of slanderous proportions against people who believe the Biblical account of creation.
On the other hand, those critical of the miracles of the Bible are portrayed as eminently reasonable people who must suffer abuse, threats and ignorance from fundamentalist Christians.
The evidence suggests that the inaccuracies in the play and film Inherit The Wind are substantive, intentional and systematic. Christians, and particularly William Jennings Bryan, are consistently lampooned throughout the play, while sceptics and agnostics are portrayed as intelligent, kindly, and even heroic. I cannot escape the conclusion that the writers of Inherit The Wind never intended to write a historically accurate account of the Scopes trial, nor did they seriously attempt to portray the principal characters and their beliefs in a fair and accurate way.
- John T. Scopes and James Presley, Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes, Holt, New York, 1967, p. 60. Return to text.
- The Great Monkey Trial, Sprague de Camp, p. 432. Return to text.
- Ref. 2, pp. 36–37. Return to text.
- Ref. 2, p. 147. Return to text.