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Inherit the Wind is based on the 1925 "Monkey Trial" which took place in Dayton, Tennessee. John Scopes, a teacher, violated the Butler Act, which restricted the teaching of evolution in state- funded schools. The famous Clarence Darrow was the defense attorney and William Jennings Bryan, orator, populist, and three- time presidential candidate, was the prosecuting attorney. Because of the nature of the trial and the popularity of the attorneys on both sides of the case, it received national attention. Besides being broadcast on the radio, H. L. Mencken, a famous journalist and writer who wrote for the Baltimore Evening Sun, was on hand for the trial.
Thirty years after the Scopes trial, Lawrence and Lee wrote Inherit the Wind. It is obviously modeled after the famous Tennessee trial, but in detail, it is very different from the events of the actual proceedings. The playwrights wrote the play with a clear purpose of demonizing fundamentalists and making the fight between creationism and evolutionism seem like a fight between ignorance and rationality. The play depicts Bertram Cates as an earnest young man who teaches evolution because he believes it is the truth. In reality, Scopes was called upon by some people in Dayton who wanted to bring fame to their city. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had advertised for someone to challenge the Butler Act. Scopes answered the call. He was not a science teacher, but he had substituted for a science class. In truth, he did not remember teaching evolution and did not know much about it; but the book the students were using in the classroom, Hunter's Civic Biology, included a short section on evolution. The lawyers kept Scopes off the stand during his trial so it would not be revealed that he knew so little about the issues at stake. Never imprisoned, Scopes was treated as a sort of hero by many people.
The end of the play shows Brady trying to give a speech with no one listening. In actuality, Darrow never let Bryan give a speech because he feared the man's eloquence; in truth, Darrow accepted a guilty plea to forgo the summation speeches. Neither did Bryan die in the courtroom. In life, he died a full five days after the trial was over. The small details that belittle Bryan in the play are also false. He was actually a colonel in the army, not an honorary one. His wife was not a strong, doting woman; in real life, she was an invalid whom Bryan nursed. Finally, Bryan was not against evolutionism on pure religious grounds; instead, he was opposed to Darwinism because he believed it "justified an economic jungle and discouraged those who labor for the improvement of people's living conditions."
In spite of the great differences between the actual trial and the one depicted in the play, it is clear that Lawrence and Lee intentionally recreated and then exaggerated the situation of the real trial. By the time their play was produced, the issues of Darwinism and evolution were not nearly as volatile as they were during the actual trial. The extremities that the playwrights presented, however, caused the play to gain attention and critical commentary. The extremities created an extremely dramatic and intense play.