The Scopes Trial vs. 'Inherit the Wind'
The movie's inaccuracies have perpetuated stereotypes
Many Americans know the Scopes trial not from history books but from "Inherit the Wind," an excellent work of drama and one of the most popular plays of the postwar era. "Inherit the Wind" opened on Broadway in 1955, with Paul Muni playing Clarence Darrow, Ed Begley as William Jennings Bryan, and the young Tony Randall as H.L. Mencken. It was a long-running hit. The well-known United Artists movie followed in 1960, with Spencer Tracy, Frederick March, and Gene Kelly in the lead roles; made-for-TV versions appeared in 1988 and 1999, with George C. Scott winning an Emmy for his role in the 1999 production. Along the way, "Inherit the Wind" became one of the most-produced plays in high school theater, meaning many millions of boys and girls were exposed to it in their teens. It's safe to say that 99% of viewers of the play and movie assume that what they are seeing is veracious history. They are not.
"Inherit the Wind" relentlessly distorts what happened in Dayton, Tenn., in 1925. The authors, Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee, originally asserted that "Inherit the Wind" should not be viewed as historically accurate: They changed Darrow's name to "Henry Drummond" and Bryan's name to "Mathew Harrison Brady," saying this was to remind audiences that they were taking liberties with the actual event. But lines of dialogue from the actual Scopes trial are used in the play, and the marketing of the Broadway version of both movies worked heavily to create the suggestion that audiences were seeing the actuality of the event. Reviewing the movie opening in 1960, for example, The New York Times proclaimed, "A fascinating slice of American history brought brilliantly to the screen."
"Inherit the Wind" differs from the actual Scopes trial in ways minor, middling, and substantive. Many minor differences are theatrical license. "Inherit the Wind" begins with John Scopes languishing in jail for the crime of free thought; Scopes was never jailed, and in fact, volunteered to be prosecuted. (See main story
.) The play has William Jennings Bryan fall down dead in the courtroom just after the verdict and sentence are read; the real Bryan died five days after the trial's conclusion. Having a character die in court might be dismissed as a mere preposterous theatricality, of the sort found in many dramas and films. In this case, however, theatrical license adds the overloaded twist that God is striking Bryan down for being wrong about evolution.