Celebrating Sixty Years of Inherit the Wind
By Cecelia Bellomy
On the sixtieth anniversary of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s seminal play Inherit the Wind, the Theatre Research Institute celebrates an incisive work of drama that is just as relevant as ever.
As recently as 1992, there was a performance of the play somewhere in the world almost every day. Translated into over thirty-five languages, Lawrence and Lee, the former an OSU alum and both Ohio-natives, have made an international impact.
But what is so transcendent about the play? It is based on the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial in which a young Tennessee school teacher was charged and found guilty under state law for teaching evolution to his students. William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, two of the most popular American figures of the time, came to the tiny town of Dayton to battle the issue as opposing attorneys. Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate and renowned orator, represented Fundamentalist Christians in supporting the state law against the teaching of evolution while Darrow, an atheist and criminal attorney, famous for succeeding at such difficult cases as that of Leopold and Loeb, defended John Scopes and the teachings of Charles Darwin. The trial, which resulted in the conviction of Scopes, though with a much-reduced sentence, grew to enormous proportions in American culture. This was no mere court case, this was a battle of ideas, and those deeply held. On one side, Christians feared the loss of their faith to science, and on the other scientists feared the impediment of progress and knowledge due to religious beliefs. It was the first ever court case to have its sentencing broadcast live over the radio. It is clear to see why Lawrence and Lee were drawn to the Scopes Trial—it has at its center an explosive conflict, a dilemma with gigantic stakes for each side, represented no less by Bryan and Darrow, the larger-than-life figureheads for each team.
Lawrence and Lee turn William Jennings Bryan into Matthew Harrison Brady, a big-eating man with an even larger appetite to hear his own voice. He is motivated to do what he believes is sincerely right, but he is even more motivated to be adored by the American people. Darrow becomes Henry Drummond, an agnostic wit with a passion for individuality and human integrity. They set the play in the fictional small town of Hillsboro, USA, and add a former friendship between Brady and Drummond and a romance between teacher of evolution, Bertram Cates (analogous to John Scopes), and the local minister’s daughter, Rachel.
Inherit the Wind is not history, but a drama taken loosely from the pages of American history. In an article from The Columbus Dispatch in 1990, when Ohio State staged a performance of the play for Jerome Lawrence’s seventy-fifth birthday, Lawrence said, “This play is not about science vs. religion…It’s about everybody’s right to learn and teach without censorship.” This is the truly transcendent quality of the work—its universal theme of the human right to express one’s self and think freely.
The play premiered in Dallas in January, 1955 under the auspices of Margo Jones. Before Jones’ interest, no Broadway theatres were interested in the piece because it was too risky, but by April, ’55, the play was running at the National Theatre on Broadway with the same cast. Paul Muni (Scarface) originated the role of Henry Drummond, Ed Begley (Sweet Bird of Youth) played Matthew Brady for which he won the Tony for Featured Actor in Play, and Tony Randall played E.K. Hornbeck, the cynical journalist based on H.L. Mencken. It played until June, 1957 and had over 800 performances which set a record at the time for the longest-running straight play on Broadway. It has been revived twice since in 1996 and 2007, and there have been four separate screen adaptations featuring such actors as Spencer Tracy, Gene Kelly, and Jack Lemmon.
The play’s idea “is so current because everybody wants to stand up and say: ‘I have a right to think and believe as I choose’…Censorship is the real obscenity,” Lawrence tells the Dispatch. Truly in a world of battling ideologies and burgeoning human rights movements, now more than ever, we want to determine what we believe as individuals. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit the Wind has the power to spark that desire.
At the end of the play, Henry Drummond, alone in the courtroom, the day done, the verdict announced, balances a copy of Darwin’s Theory of the Evolution and The Descent of Man in one hand and a copy of the Bible in the other, slaps them together, puts them both in his briefcase “side by side,” and leaves. For Lawrence and Lee it is not about what you believe, but about having the freedom to determine those beliefs for one’s self.
Cited source: Grossberg, Michael. “Jerome Lawrence, OSU Celebrate with ‘Inherit the Wind'” The Columbus Dispatch 4 Nov. 1990: n. pag. Print.