Inherit the Wind

Summary and Analysis of Act One, Scene I

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Act One, Scene I Summary:

At the foreground of the stage is a courtroom set. Behind it, on a raked level, is the Main Street and converging streets of the small town of Hillsboro. A thirteen-year-old boy named Howard is greeted by a twelve-year-old girl named Melinda, who talks of the rain last night and the hot weather today. Howard, who is going to go fishing, looks for worms, dangling one in front of Melinda and telling her that she was a worm once ­ the whole world was once covered by worms and blobs of jelly. Melinda threatens to tell her pa on Howard for this sinful talk and runs off, with Howard shouting that her "old man's a monkey" after her.

As Howard looks for worms, a twenty-two year old woman named Rachel enters, carrying a suitcase, and goes to the courthouse. Meeker, the bailiff, enters from inside the jail below. Rachel asks him not to let her father ­ the Reverend ­ know she's there and says she wants to see Bert Cates. Meeker says the jail isn't the proper place for a minister's daughter and offers to bring him up to the courtroom to talk to her.

Meeker gets Cates, who is "a pale, thing young man of twenty-four," and leaves Cates and Rachel alone to talk. Cates tries to cheer her up, telling her the food in jail is better than at the boarding house and it is cool down there, and Rachel tells him she has brought him a clean shirt, tie, and handkerchiefs from his place. She urges him to admit he was wrong and say it was all a joke, figuring if Matthew Harrison Brady ­ "the biggest man in the country ­ next to the President, maybe" ­ is coming to town to say he is wrong, then he must be. Cates says that all he did was teach Chapter 17 in the biology book, Darwin's Origin of Species. Rachel insists that everyone says that what he did was bad and that there's a law against it, but Cates says that everything is not black and white. Nevertheless, the two embrace. Rachel rushes out when Meeker comes back in to sweep. Meeker mentions his amazement that Brady, who ran for President three times, is coming to little Hillsboro before Cates goes back down to the jail.

Out in the square, Mrs. Krebs and a storekeeper greet Reverent Jeremiah Brown. The townspeople prepare for Brady's arrival on the next train. A man named Corkin and another man raise a banner which reads "Read Your Bible." Mrs. Krebs has helped to prepare a picnic lunch and is excited to board visitors to town in her house, for a cost, while the storekeeper is excited about increased business from all the people in town. Howard's excited about the ribbons decorating the depot while Melinda sells lemonade. A hawker sells hot-dogs, Mrs. McClain sells fans, and Howard tells his mother, Mrs. Blair, that it's just like a county fair. A bearded, barefoot "holy man" from the hills named Elijah sells Bibles.

Just then, newspaperman E.K. Hornbeck, a man in his mid-thirties wearing city clothing enters. He turns down Mrs. McClain's offer of a fan and Mrs. Krebs' offer of a room and when facing a choice between a Bible and a hotdog, chooses the hotdog. He introduces himself to Elijah as a writer for the Baltimore Herald and remarks he's read some of Elijah's stuff, which confuses the man. Then, he speaks to an organ-grinder's monkey, whom he calls "grandpa" and asks if he's a witness for the defense or prosecution. When the monkey takes Melinda's penny, Hornbeck says that is proof it is father of the human race. A boy named Timmy announces that smoke from the incoming train is visible, and the crowd departs to meet it. Remaining behind, Hornbeck asks the storekeeper about his opinion on evolution, and the storekeeper says he doesn't have any, since they're bad for business.

Matthew Harrison Brady, "a benign giant of a man...gray, balding, paunchy, an indeterminate sixty-five," enters with his wife Sarah, the mayor, the minister, and other citizens. The townspeople sing "Give Me That Old-Time Religion," adding a verse "It is good enough for Brady, / And it's good enough for me!" A magnetic speaker, Brady thanks the people for their hospitality and says he is there to defend against an attack by the big cities of the North and to defend the Living Truth of the Scriptures. Photographers snap pictures, and the major welcomes Brady in a speech which credits the man with everything from women's suffrage to Wilson's election to President to victory in World War I. Brady arranges a picture of himself between the mayor and minister, and the mayor presents him with a commission as Honorary Colonel in the State Militia, before leading him off to the picnic lunch.

At the picnic, Brady meets Tom Davenport, the circuit district attorney, with whom he'll be working at the trial, and asks if Cates is a criminal by nature. Rachel says he isn't, and when Brady wants to question her further, her father forces her to answer his questions. She knows him because she too is a schoolteacher, of second graders, who Brady asks if she tries to teach according to the precepts of the Lord. When Brady asks if Cates has tried to pollute her mind with heathen dogma, she objects, saying Bert isn't a heathen. Brady takes her outburst as loyalty to a fellow teacher.

A man named Bannister asks who the defense attorney will be, and the mayor says whoever it is won't have a chance against Brady. Hornbeck announces that the Baltimore Herald, looking for a headline, has paid Henry Drummond, "the most agile legal mind of the Twentieth Century," to defend Cates. The townspeople, who know of Drummond from his defense of child-killers and blaming society for murderer's crimes, are shocked. Brady, too, becomes pale when he hears this but quiets the townspeople's plans to bar Drummond from town by saying they should welcome him because this Goliath will magnify their cause. Brady eats constantly as he says they'll be able to fight Drummond with some of the things Rachel has told them, before apologizing for picking at his food and going off for a nap before the trial. The townspeople follow him offstage, singing again.

Rachel calls down to Cates, who doesn't respond. Hornbeck offers to give her advice, saying he's inspecting the battlefield. He offers her a newspaper with a story he's written about Cates as a hero, "boy-Socrates, latter-day Dreyfus, / Romeo with a biology book." Rachel wants to know if the article will be published in the local paper because it would make people understand Cates' actions. She's surprised someone as cynical as Hornbeck would write an article like that and says she can't see Cates as a hero because a teacher, as a public servant, should do as the law and school-board tells them. She thinks all the answers to life's questions are in the Bible and that Cates must be wrong if Brady, who is "the champion of ordinary people," came to speak against him. Hornbeck says she is deceived, that Brady used to be a hero to the people but now they can think for themselves and he deceives them.

Rachel leaves and Hornbeck watches the square, where the storekeeper and Mrs. McClain talk about the hot weather before leaving. Melinda runs onstage to give the monkey a penny, before the organ-grinder leaves. She is alone onstage, except for Hornbeck when a hunched-over figure with his head jutting forward walks onstage, lit from behind with the red sun, his face in shadow. "It's the Devil!" Melinda screams and runs off. Actually, it's Drummond, who Hornbeck greets by welcoming him to Hell.

Act One, Scene I Analysis:

From the very first description of the set, it is evident that the town of Hillsboro is as much a major player in Inherit the Wind than any of the characters. The town is "visible always, looming there, as much on trial as the individual defendant." Lawrence and Lee describe a courtroom set without walls, in which the town square, shops, and streets are always visible. In making the town always visible, they insure that it is clear to the viewer that this court case is not just a question of disembodied ideas or legal precepts. Rather, this play and the court case it dramatizes mean to challenge an entire way of life and thinking embodied by Hillsboro, as a small Southern American town.

Hornbeck, the reporter, draws upon the image of a "truck-garden" when he challenges Rachel's assertion that the answers to all the questions of existence can be found in the Bible: "All?! You feed the youth of Hillsboro / From the little truck-garden of your mind?" Thus, the viewpoints of the people of Hillsboro are severely limited. This limited ability to see beyond oneself and one's beliefs contrasts sharply with the extended line of vision provided to the spectator of the play through the open set. The viewer of the play can see what characters like Rachel cannot ­ that the action and beliefs discussed in the courtroom are controlled by the culture of the town which encompasses it.

From observing the disconnect between the words and actions of the people of Hillsboro, the viewer becomes aware of the hypocrisy which the play criticizes. The townspeople ­ people like Mrs. Krebs, Reverend Brown, and the Mayor ­ and Matthew Harrison Brady all preach Christian sentiment and proclaim the importance of morality, according to the Bible. However, perhaps ironically, they seem far more interested in material goods and appearances than with Christian behavior. The preparation for Brady's arrival includes banners, food, and talk of the money the town will make during the trial ­ rather than any deep discussion of the issue at stake in Cates' breaking the law. Even the singing of "Give Me That Old-Time Religion" is more of a show for Brady's arrival than a heartfelt expression of religious sentiment.

One stunning parallel in this scene occurs between the characters of Mrs. Krebs and Elijah. Mrs. Krebs proclaims to be so Christian that she says she doesn't even mind the heat because "the Good Lord guv us the heat, and the Good Lord guv us the glands to sweat with." But her immediate reaction to the trial is glee over the amount of money she will make by putting up borders. Elijah at first seems to contrast to Mrs. Krebs. Whereas she is an upstanding townswoman, he is a barefoot mountain man. To Hornbeck, and to the viewer, Elijah at first seems as if he might be a voice of reason ­ a true prophet, a true believer in religious precepts, like the Old Testament prophet Elijah to whom Hornbeck alludes. Elijah's action's, selling Bibles, to the crowd, and his statement to Hornbeck, telling him that the doesn't read, reveals him to be just as materialistic and ignorant as the rest of the town. That Elijah, who conjures thoughts of a true religious mind, is a fraud suggests the townspeople are just as bad.

On a similar note, the concern with outward appearance over inward meaning is apparent from Rachel's first visit to Cates in jail. She has stopped by his room to get him some clothes, assuming that his physical appearance will make the difference in his trial. Similarly, Brady's first act when arriving in town is to call for the Reverend, so that the two of them can be photographed together for the press. Cates' admonition to Rachel, that she will only see things in black-and-white without digging deeper for the complications applies to the whole town. They live in Hillsboro, as Rachel says, and are concerned solely with Hillsboro and nothing beyond it.

In one sense, Hornbeck the reporter functions as a surrogate for the viewer. Like the viewer, he is an outsider to Hillsdale. He comes from Baltimore, a city, and believes himself to be more intelligent, more intellectual, and more perceptive than the townspeople. The viewer is tempted to take Hornbeck's words at face value and to perceive him to be their guide for the spectacle of the trial ­ but such a choice would be dangerous. Rachel is right in perceiving him to be cynical. In fact, Hornbeck represents the opposite end of the spectrum from Rachel. Whereas she is afraid to dig to deeply, to see the truth about life, he has looked at its dark side for so long, as a reporter, that he has become inured to the beauties and good things about life. Both attitudes are dangerous.

Hornbeck's language, however, is significant in the way that it is set apart from the other dialogue of the play. Whereas the other characters speak in everyday prose and in a Southern dialect, Hornbeck's lines are written in blank verse. Hornbeck speaks out loud as a writer, attempting to make and extend meaning out of everything he observes. His numerous allusions ­ calling Rachel "Little Eva" for her temptation, for example ­ demonstrate that this is no ordinary trial and incite the viewer to look beyond the surface details of the action for a more universal meaning.

Lawrence and Lee state in a preface before the first scene that this play is not to be taken as history. They say that the "time of the play is not 1925... It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow." Thus Hornbeck, like the bard of the Odyssey, sings the song which makes the meanings inherent in Inherit the Wind timeless and relevant.