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.

A middling difference between "Inherit the Wind" and the real thing is the depiction of the people of Dayton. In the play, townspeople are portrayed as uneducated and 100% anti-Darwin, though polite and neighborly; a mild misrepresentation of the actual event, at which the town and the courtroom crowd split between pro-fundamentalist and pro-science factions. Both movie versions of "Inherit the Wind" preposterously caricature the local population, presenting the Dayton townspeople as ignorant, mean-spirited rednecks looking for someone to denounce. In the 1960 movie, townspeople hurl rocks at John Scopes and burn him in effigy; neither thing actually happened.

Another middling difference between "Inherit the Wind" and the real Dayton trial are the characters Rachel and Reverend Brown. Rachel is presented as the fiancée of defendant Scopes, and a sweet, guileless ingenue; Reverend Brown as her bigoted, heartless father, and also the leading local minister. Neither existed in real life, Scopes not being engaged at the trial and no one answering Reverend Brown's description playing any role in it. Creating a love interest for the protagonist is hardly new for dramatists, of course; but what Rachel and Reverend Brown say take them across the line into historical distortion. In the play's harshest anti-religion scene, Reverend Brown prays before his congregation that Scopes be sent to hell. When Rachel rushes forward to tell him to stop, Reverend Brown turns on her and, screaming fanaticism, denounces his own daughter to hell. This utterly fabricated moment is presented to audiences as having the same historical validity as the trial itself.

Another middling difference between "Inherit the Wind" and the actual Scopes trial is the cartoonish depiction of William Jennings Bryan. In the play and the movies, Bryan is shown as a huffing simpleton interested exclusively in far-right views and in hearing himself talk. The real William Jennings Bryan was secretary of state during the liberal Woodrow Wilson administration and was, in his day, one of the country's leading male advocates of women's suffrage. (It is true that he liked to hear himself talk.) During his presidential campaigns, Bryan ran as a populist whose concerns were focused on economic opportunity for the urban working class and small farmers. Bryan was also a member of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and had debated some of the leading paleontologists of his day. Bryan might have been wrong about Darwin's theory, but he was wrong out of conviction, not ignorance.

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