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Act and Scene Summaries With Notes
Act 1, Scene 1
The play opens in Hillsboro, a small rural town. Howard, a thirteen-year-old boy is digging for worms on the lawn of the courthouse. Melinda, a young girl, tries to engage him in conversation, but he is disinterested. In fact, Howard tells Melinda that she was just a worm at one time in evolution. When she protests his information, Howard graphically describes the beginning of the world and her place in it as a worm. Melinda tells him he is sinful to talk in such a fashion. Howard counters by saying her father is a monkey. Visibly upset, Melinda runs away.
Rachel Brown comes on stage and enters the courthouse; however, she looks as though she does not want to be seen here. She calls out to Mr. Meeker, the bailiff, who enters and addresses her. She asks him not to tell her father, the town preacher, that she is visiting Bert Cates, the teacher who is jailed for telling his class about evolution. Meeker agrees that it is not his business to tell Rachel's father anything and goes to the holding cell to get Bert. When Mr. Meeker returns with the prisoner, he leaves the two of them alone to talk. Bert tells Rachel she should not have come to visit him. Rachel says she had to come, for she is very worried about Bert. She urges him to tell the officials that he was only joking about evolution and that he will never do it again. Bert listens, but he does not agree with Rachel. Their discussion turns to the fact that Matthew Harrison Brady is coming to act as the prosecuting attorney in the case against Bert. As a result, Rachel is very concerned about Bert's fate, for Mr. Brady is the most important man in the United States aside from the President.
Bert explains to Rachel exactly what he did to get thrown in jail. In his classroom, he had the book, Hunter's Civic Biology, which contained a chapter about Darwin's Origin of the Species; even though it was against the law, he taught the chapter to his science class. He defends his actions with an explanation. He tells Rachel that he does not believe that people landed on earth like a geranium in a flowerpot; instead, he is convinced that they evolved in a miraculous process that did not happen in only seven days. Rachel reminds Bert that there is a law against teaching evolutionary theory. She also tells him that everyone in the town believes he has done wrong. Rachel wonders why Bert cannot be on the right side of things. Bert knows that the right side of things for Rachel is always her father's side.
The scene shifts away from the courthouse and into the town. A storekeeper greets Mrs. Krebs, and the two of them casually discuss the heat, indicating it is summertime. Reverend Brown enters and asks about the banner that is to be hung to greet Mr. Brady's arrival in town; he also inquires about the picnic to be given in his honor. The minister seems very interested in impressing Brady and showing him what a great community Hillsboro is. Mrs. Krebs assures Rev. Brown that the picnic will be ready as planned.