In 1925, schoolteacher John Scopes was put on trial in the state of Tennessee for teaching evolution in its schools. In the trial that followed in Dayton, Tennessee, the chaotic atmosphere and intense press coverage earned it the label "Monkey Trial." There, former secretary of state William Jennings Bryan prosecuted Scopes for disobeying the law against teaching evolution, and famous intellectual Clarence Darrow served as the defense attorney. The trial was covered in the press by noted reporter H.L. Mencken.
Playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, who had been working together since their days as founders of Armed Forces Radio during World War II, were familiar with the Scopes trial and the drama it contained. In the late '40s and early '50s, they recognized a parallel to the anti-intellectual fervor of the Southern opponents to evolution in the current American landscape. Senator Joseph McCarthy's hearings to root out Communism in America, especially in the film and theatre communities, was seen by many as a witch hunt, leading friends and co-workers to turn each other in for suspected Communist leanings.
In response to the increasingly censorious climate of McCarthyism, playwright Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, a play which explored the hysteria of the modern-day witch hunt through the historical guise of seventeenth century witch trials. Similarly, Lawrence and Lee chose an event from history ? though more recent history ? as a means of exploring the clash between fundamentalists and free-thinkers, believers and intellectuals. In the Scopes Monkey Trial and in the town of Hillsboro's vehement condemnation of a man who dared to speak a belief contrary to their own, Lawrence and Lee found an allegory through which they could explore the condemnation of leftists and individualists in America as Communists.
To that end, Lawrence and Lee emphasize that Inherit the Wind is not meant to be taken as literal historical fact. Though they were familiar with and drew on the transcripts of the actual trial, their play is and is intended as a work of fiction. In fact, the play as printed includes a note from the playwrights reminding the reader that "Inherit the Wind is not history;" that the characters have names of their own separate from the historical figures on whom they are based; and that the play "does not pretend to be journalism." Rather, they argue that "the issues of [Bryan and Darrow's] conflict have acquired new dimension and meaning in the thirty years since they clashed at Rhea County Courthouse." They do not set the play in 1925 but instead say that "It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow." In the political climate in which the play was written and produced, those words function as a warning against repeating the wrongs of the past.
Though their play is fictional, Lawrence and Lee were quite familiar with the history surrounding the play. They credit the lawyer Arthur Garfield Hays with granting them access to the "unwritten vividness" of the original trial through his recounted memories of what he saw there and offer thanks to the many reporters who provided them with information on which to base their play. From the original transcript of the trial, Lawrence and Lee took Darrow's (in the play Drummond's) condemnation of anti-intellectualism, an exchange between Darrow and the judge which earned him a citation for contempt, and parts of Darrow's examination of Bryan (in the play Brady).
The fictional names given to the characters emphasize that this is more allegory and fiction than literal history. Darrow becomes Drummond, Bryan Brady, and Menckens Hornbeck. Rev. Brown and his daughter Rachel are purely fictitious. And many would argue that the ignorance of the townspeople and circus-like atmosphere of the trial are exaggerated far beyond reality.
Lawrence and Lee, in the midst of a busy career writing for radio and stage, had complete the script for Inherit the Wind by 1950. The play, however, did not open on the stage until five years later. For two years, between 1952 and 1954, their agent Harold Freedman could not find a buyer for the script. Finally, in 1954 Margo Jones, a producer from Dallas, agreed to produce the play at Theatre '55. The time, in the midst of 1950s paranoia and McCarthyism, was right. The opening of the play on January 10, 1955, drew rave reviews.
New York producer-director Harold Shumlin heard about the Dallas production of Inherit the Wind and decided to bring it to Broadway, taking Margo Jones on as an associate producer. The star-studded cast included Paul Muni, a well-known stage and film actor who had been retired for six years but emerged from retirement to play Drummond. Ed Begley, well-known as a character actor, and Tony Randall played Hornbeck. Shumlin's direction and Muni's performance earned particular accolades, as did the power of the Lawrence and Lee's script. The play opened on April 21, 1955, at the National Theatre, and quickly became a box office success.
Despite Lawrence and Lee's intentions in the written text of the play, the producers and promotional people looking to draw audiences chose to capitalize on the play as dramatization of historical fact. Many promotional materials emphasized the circus atmosphere of the real life Monkey Trial, with lines like "Carnival in the Courtroom" and "A Battle of Giants: The Greatest Verbal Boxing Match of the Century." In more recent days, the presentation of Inherit the Wind as fact rather than fiction has earned the ire of various groups, including Southerners, offended by the degrading image presented by the ignorant people of Hillsboro.
To be sure, Inherit the Wind is a play about the clash between Northern and Southern culture. If taken as the words of the playwrights, Hornbeck's opinions about the closed-mindedness of Hillsboro residents and his desire to return to the city could be seen as insulting. However, cynical Hillsboro's confrontation with the play's true protagonist, Drummond, in the final scene demonstrates that the audience should not subscribe to Hornbeck's negative opinions. Nonetheless, the play depicts the clash of a Northern intellectual, in the form of Drummond, who believes he knows best, with a small Southern town, who see him as an intruder. Davenport, the prosecutor from Hillsboro, even refers to Drummond repeatedly as "the gentleman from Chicago," marking him as an outsider.
In 1950s America, regional conflict was growing to be an increasing source of tension. After the conflicts made evident during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the uneasy relationship between Northern manufacturers and Southern agriculturalists was made evident, the clash of the two segments of the country seemed inevitable. An increased role of the federal government during WWII meant that the South, traditionally a bastion of states' rights and self-government, would feel intruded upon by outsiders. The conflict between North and South in Inherit the Wind functions as a harbinger of the greater conflict to come in the South during the 1960s. The line from Proverbs does not apply only to Brady, for Hillsboro by condemning Cates and the South for discriminating against many of its own citizens are troubling their own houses and thus inheriting the wind.
In 1960, a film adaptation of Inherit the Wind premiered on the silver screen. It starred Spencer Tracy as Drummond and Fredric March as Brady and like its theatrical predecessor earned positive reviews. Variety called it "a rousing and fascinating motion picture" and called Spencer and March's performances Oscar-caliber. The screen adaptation of the play, however, was not written by Lawrence and Lee but by Nathan Douglas and Harold Smith. In their version, the circus atmosphere was even more greatly intensified and points about theology and academics central to the original script were deemphasized. A TV movie produced in 1988 was based on nearly the same script. Only a more recent 1999 made-for-cable adaptation of Inherit the Wind returned to the original text.
Not only on television but on the stage and in the classroom as well, Inherit the Wind remains one of the most popular American plays of all time. It has been translated into thirty languages, read and produced worldwide. To this day, it remains a favorite production for high schools and colleges and a required-reading book for many school systems.