On a scorching July day in 1925, a trial began in Dayton, Tennessee, pitting two intellectual greats of the time against each other. At issue was a state law banning the teaching of evolution and a Dayton teacher's knowing infringement of that law. For twelve days, Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes captured the nation's attention as a media circus swept through Dayton, carrying the historical event to a world of readers and listeners. But as the trial failed to achieve its intended purpose - testing the Tennessee law - and the participants gradually followed each other to the grave, the once-famed Scopes "Monkey Trial" fell from the public eye and memory.
Thirty years later, playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee published their dramatized account of the trial in Inherit the Wind. Though they fictionalized and consolidated much of the actual event, the essence endures. For as they brought history to life again, they found the central issues were as current as ever, and the American public embraced the play as a great drama. Today, more than forty years since Inherit the Wind reached Broadway, America continues to revive the story both in film and on stage. Since 1955, there have been no less than three films, for both television and the big screen, and Inherit has graced the Broadway stage again this spring in a two-month run.
That the play has thrived for decades suggests a usefulness far deeper than merely a
characteristic look at America in the 1920s. In fact, further analysis reveals that aside from
endless community theatre shows, the large-scale productions of Inherit over
the past 40 years coincide with periods of crisis in American culture and a heightened debate
over creationism versus evolution. To scholars, such as John Crowe Ransom and James Hunter, this issue is not an isolated one. Instead, both Ransom and Hunter believe that the proceedings of the Scopes trial and the subsequent dramatizations mirror a continuous cultural conflict between different belief systems. Although Hunter labels the two camps progressive and orthodox and Ransom refers to the modernists and fundamentalists, both base their definitions on where people look for meaning in an increasingly complex world. The story of Inherit the Wind, can be read, therefore, as far more than twelve sweltering days in history; it is, instead, the narrative of a nation and the continual struggle for control and the license to write the past of a people.