2016-07-27
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.

While making Bryan seem a monstrously unpleasant simpleton, "Inherit the Wind" presents Clarence Darrow as a humble, aw-shucks figure. The actual Darrow was a harsh-tongued elitist who was respected but widely disliked, in part because he never missed a chance to praise his own intellect. (For insistence, at the real Scopes trial, Darrow snapped to Bryan, "I am examining you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes.") By making the Bryan character seem insufferable and the Darrow character homespun and genuine, "Inherit the Wind" flip-flopped the history of the event, in order to stack the deck against religious views.

Interpretations of characters are, of course, authors' prerogatives. That leaves the most substantive complaint against "Inherit the Wind," that it altered the bedrock facts of the trial, to present as "history" things that never happened. What was said at the trial is not a matter for generalized speculation; there is a transcript. The "Inherit the Wind" authors cited a few lines from the transcript, in order to lend their work the sheen of scrupulousness, and then went on to alter central facts of the case.

For example, the point in "Inherit the Wind" at which faith looks most stupid is when William Jennings Bryan obstinately insists the world must have been formed in precisely 4,004 B.C.E. But at the trial, Bryan specifically rejected this view.

Here is the exchange from "Inherit the Wind." Bryan, not Darrow, has raised the question of the 4,004 B.C.E. theory, which originated with the 17th-century Irish Bishop James Ussher:


William Jennings Bryan ("Mathew Harrison Brady"): A fine Biblical scholar, Bishop Ussher, has determined for us the exact date and hour of the creation. It occurred in the year 4,004 B.C.

Clarence Darrow ("Henry Drummond"): That is Bishop Ussher's opinion.

Bryan: It is not an opinion. It is a literal fact, which the good bishop arrived at through careful computation of the ages of the prophets as set down in the Old Testament. In fact he determined that the Lord began the creation on the 23rd of October in the year 4,004 B.C. at--uh, at 9 a.m.!

Darrow: That Eastern Standard Time?

(Laughter in the court.)

Here is the actual exchange from the trial transcript, in which Darrow is the one who raises the subject. At this point, they have been discussing the 4,004 date, and Darrow stumbles by suggesting that a 4,004 creation would make the Earth "4,000" years old:

Darrow: Would you say that the earth was only 4,000 years old?

Bryan: Oh, no; I think it is much older than that.

Darrow: How much?

Bryan: I couldn't say.

At the actual trial, Clarence Darrow made several attempts to get Bryan to endorse the 4,004 B.C.E. creation date, and each time Bryan refused. In the play, it is Bryan who brings up the subject and dives in, while Darrow gets to play fair-minded, suggesting that 4,004 dating is merely someone's "opinion."

At another point in "Inherit the Wind," Darrow asks Bryan if he's read the book he is objecting to, "On the Origin of Species":

Darrow ("Drummond"): I don't suppose you've memorized many passages from the "Origin of Species"?

Bryan ("Brady"): I am not in the least interested in the pagan hypothesis of that book.

Darrow: Never read it?

Bryan: And I never will.

Darrow: Then how in perdition do you have the gall to whoop up this holy war against something you don't know anything about?

In fact, Bryan had read "On the Origin of Species" some 20 years before the Scopes trial and had engaged in a running debate about the book with Henry Fairfield Osborn, then president of the American Museum of Natural History and roughly the Carl Sagan of his day. By pretending that Bryan was attacking something he refused to read, "Inherit the Wind" makes it seem that anyone who disagrees with Darwin must be willfully uninformed.

Alteration of history in "Inherit the Wind" reaches the point of outright duplicity in Bryan's two final scenes, in which he is portrayed as transformed into a demented maniac.

The first such scene comes at the end of the Darrow-Bryan courtroom confrontation. At the actual trial, the judge, sensing the bantering between the two was going nowhere, simply adjourned court till the following day, and everyone rose and left. In "Inherit the Wind," this happens:

Stage directions: Brady [Bryan] is almost in a frenzy.

Bryan: All of you know what I stand for! What I believe! I believe, I believe in the truth of the Book of Genesis!

(Beginning to chant.)

Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Kings, First Samuel, Second Samuel, First Kings, Second Kings--

Darrow: Your Honor, this completes the testimony. The witness is excused.

Bryan:
(Pounding the air with his fists.)
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obediah--

There is confusion in the court. The judge raps his gavel.

Judge: You are excused.

Bryan: Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habbakkuk, Zephaniah--

Brady [Bryan] beats his clenched fists in the air with every name. There is a rising counterpoint of reaction from the spectators.

This scene goes on, Bryan shouting the names of the books of the Bible with deranged fury as the townspeople jeer him. Then Bryan collapses on the witness stand and has a nervous breakdown, his wife rushing forward to console him. Nothing remotely similar to this happened at the actual trial. (Bryan's wife, who was bedridden, did not even attend.)

In the last courtroom scene of "Inherit the Wind," as the trial ends, Bryan insists on making a closing statement, waving what the stage directions call "a thick manuscript." He seizes the floor and begins a second disjointed speech, shouting:

Bryan: My dear friends! Your attention please! Fellow citizens, and friends of the unseen audience. From the hallow hills of sacred Sinai, in the days of remote antiquity, came the law which has been our bulwark and shield. Age upon age, men have looked to the law as they would to the mountains--

Bryan's last speech in "Inherit the Wind" goes downhill from there, gradually becoming unhinged. Spectators at first jeer Bryan, and then ignore him; at this point, Bryan drops down dead.

At the actual trial, Bryan had been planning to read a two-page closing statement but shifted gears when called by Darrow to the stand; copies of Bryan's summation were later simply handed out to reporters.

Here is the first section of the actual closing statement by William Jennings Bryan from the Scopes trial:

"Science is a magnificent force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. It can also build gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moral rudders for the control of storm-tossed human vessel. It not only fails to supply the spiritual element needed but some of its unproven hypotheses rob the ship of its compass and thus endanger its cargo. In war, science has proven itself an evil genius; it has made war more terrible than it ever was before. Man used to be content to slaughter his fellow men on a single plane--the earth's surface. Science has taught him to go down into the water and shoot up from below and to go up into the clouds and shoot down from above, thus making the battlefield three times as bloody as it was before; but science does not teach brotherly love. Science has made war so hellish that civilization was about to commit suicide; and now we are told that newly discovered instruments of destruction will make the cruelties of the late war seem trivial in comparison with the cruelties of wars that may come in the future. If civilization is to be saved from the wreckage threatened by intelligence not consecrated by love, it must be saved by the moral code of the meek and lowly Nazarene. His teachings, and His teachings alone, can solve the problems that vex the heart and perplex the world."


There's plenty to disagree with in the above statement, and Bryan went on to use the phrase "a Christian state" to describe what the United States should be, an idea to which even many Christians would object. (Read the complete summation.) But the actual words Bryan chose to end the Scopes trial with are not raving dogma; they are thoughtful and prescient. Warning that science must be restrained by morals and love is a progressive sentiment; turning against Darwin was just the wrong way to argue this point. Note especially Bryan's concern, stated in the year 1925 when it was generally thought that the Great War would be the last war ever: "Now we are told that newly discovered instruments of destruction will make the cruelties of the late war seem trivial in comparison with the cruelties of wars that may come in the future."

"Inherit the Wind" was written in the early 1950s, when McCarthyism and anti-intellectualism were insidious forces in American life. If the authors monkeyed around with the facts of the Scopes trial in order to add power to a message about freedom of speech, to a point their objective was defensible.

But the altering of history in this play and its subsequent movie imitators has backfired in two ways: first, by making the argument between science and religion seem much more destructive than there is any reason for it to be, and second, by using intellectual dishonesty in the name of intellectual freedom.

Science and religion might not be such an overheated topic in American public debate if hundreds of theatrical productions and two movies had not advanced the false notion that the Scopes trial demonstrated that these two forces are engaged in a duel to the death. And because "Inherit the Wind" alters history to advance its thesis, the play is itself anti-intellectual--an exercise in thought manipulation, rather than an honest debate about a complicated case. If there is going to be an argument between science and religion, let's hear the best arguments from each side, not the best from one side and slanted fabrications from another. This play's title comes from the biblical verse that cautions, "Whoever troubles his own house shall inherit the wind." The time has come to retire "Inherit the Wind," which now troubles its own house.