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The opening scene of the play is very important, for it gives the setting, introduces all the major characters, establishes the conflict, reveals the theme, and sets the tone and mood.
The scene opens with a minor character from the country town of Hillsboro. He is a thirteen-year-old boy digging for worms on the courthouse lawn. It is clear that he is a somewhat rebellious teenager, for he espouses Darwin's philosophy of evolution. In contrast to him, Melinda, another youth that he says evolved from a worm, is very typical of the town philosophy. She is upset by Howard's words and tells him that his ideas are sinful. Therefore, the basic theme and conflict of the play are introduced by two very minor characters. Melinda and Howard, however, foreshadow all the other conflict in the play: Cates vs. the state; Rachel vs. Cates; Drummond vs. Brady; and censorship vs. freedom of thought.
From outside the courthouse, the audience is led inside by Rachel Brown. She has come to the courthouse to see her boyfriend, Bert Cates. He is one of her fellow teachers at the local school, but he has been jailed for teaching his science class about Darwin and evolution; such teaching is outlawed in the state. Rachel is the daughter of the local fundamental minister; as a result, she has adopted all of his conservative philosophies about life and the Bible. She is shocked and horrified that Cates has taught blasphemy in the classroom. She begs him to apologize to the official, say that he made a mistake, and promise never to teach evolution again. Even though he cares about Rachel, Cates refuses to agree to her suggestions.
The most important newsman to arrive is E.K. Hornbeck, a reporter from the Baltimore Herald. When he comes to town, he is shocked to see the fundamentalism and lack of thinking of the townspeople. He humorously tells Brady that he has arrived in hell. Through such comments, Hornbeck, more than any other character, lightens the tone of the play, filling the drama with irony and wit. He also serves as a philosopher and commentator throughout the play. In this first scene, he clearly tells Rachel that he is not a serpent out to tempt her; he also says there is not a tree of knowledge in Hillsboro, only a tree of ignorance.
It is obvious throughout the first scene that the playwrights are not objective. From the very beginning, the audience (or reader) is led to identify with the evolutionists. Even in the encounter between young Melinda and Howard, he is the more appealing and rational character. When Rachel and Cates are compared, she comes across as weak and irrational, begging her boyfriend to be cowardly and to simply say he made a mistake; in contrast, Cates is stable, determined, intelligent, and sure of himself and his cause. In a similar manner, Drummond, Cates' attorney, is made to be a much more witty, intelligent, and pleasing character than Brady, the fundamental literalist who will represent the state against Cates. The playwrights clearly want the audience to believe there is rationality in the theory of evolution as opposed to the provincial and irrational theory of creationism, as given in the Bible.