Study Guide

Inherit the Wind Introduction

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Inherit the Wind Introduction

Inherit the Media's Attention

You might sometimes want to call the cops on your teachers for that child labor law-breakin' amount of homework they assign—but would you send them to jail for teaching evolution? (In case you flunked your bio class, we're here to remind you that the theory of evolution basically states that all complex organisms, including humans, are descended from much simpler creatures. Like amoebae. Like, whoa.)

Inherit the Wind is a play about just that notion: sending a man to jail for teaching evolutionary biology. Written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee in 1955, this work's inspiration was the Scopes Monkey Trial.

What's that trial thing with the funny name, you ask? It's a 1925 case against a high school teacher over the legality of teaching evolution in state-funded schools, of course. As it turns out, the teaching of evolution, a hot topic in some school districts even today, was a relevant issue way back in 1925, too.

Look, we know we were being funny before, but Mr. Scopes might actually have gone to jail for teaching evolution. That kind of thing doesn´t happen anymore. But his battle is far from over—how does one draw the appropriate line between church and state, anyway?

Well, this play tells the story of the fictional character Bert Cates, a small-town teacher who is accused of and tried for teaching his students that their grandparents were monkeys… at least, that's the way some of the townspeople understand Darwin's theory. (For the real deal, check out Shmoop's Evidence of Evolution.)

An Allegory for all Trials-Against-Ideas Everywhere

Inherit the Wind was first put on in 1955. In case you don't remember, that was smack-dab in the middle of the McCarthy trials. These trials were designed to root out Communists in the good ole U.S. of A.; but people went way overboard with their accusations of Communism during that time, and a lot of innocent folks' lives were ruined.

Now, just as Bert is portrayed as a martyr in the play—as a guy who is being punished for breaking an unfair law—many people in the U.S. were being accused of being ¨unamerican¨ in 1955. Sometimes, people lost their careers, their loved ones, and their whole reputations over accusations of Communism.

So, Lawrence and Lee use the unfairness of the Scopes Trial to highlight the injustice of their own time. Get it? The Scopes Trial can be kind of like an allegory for the McCarthy trials? Just in case: The moral of the story is that some groups use the justice system to keep others from having intellectual debates.

Inherit the Wind wasn't just successful in future high school classrooms. It was very successful onstage, and made it to the big screen on three different occasions. The 1960 version of Inherit the Wind has a star-studded cast and was nominated for four Academy Awards.

It also won a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for best film—superswag. Oh, and don't forget the small-screen: there's even a made-for-TV adaptation of this play. Nice. Read it, watch it, watch a slightly different version of it, rinse, repeat. This baby never gets old.

What is Inherit the Wind About and Why Should I Care?

Have you ever noticed that when talk turns to politics and religion, people can get a little, er, excited? Even if you can't vote yet, you know that, someday, participating in your community's political life will be an important part of being a citizen. And the political discourse in this brave new millennium is pretty divisive.

You might think it's impossible to be friends with someone whose views don't match yours if you watch enough cable TV. And while Inherit the Wind is about evolution, it applies to any situation where people can't see eye to eye because of deep-rooted ideological beliefs. The important thing about the play is that it shows the danger of refusing to at least have a dialogue between competing views.

Spoiler alert: The prosecutor ends up dying, presumably as a result of his inability to meet the other side halfway… or because he can't get enough of the fried chicken. It's hard to tell.

The final scene shows the defense lawyer weighing both the Bible and Darwin's The Origin of Species, as a symbol for how the two sides should come together. Trust us: putting these two books together is not easy.

In any case, as we said, the characters in the play don't see eye to eye on evolution. But the ability to walk in someone else's shoes can apply to any topic: abortion, gay marriage, universal healthcare, the (super)size of your soda. Pick your politically explosive poison.

So, whether you're worried about where your country is headed, or excited about the possibilities of the future, you'll have to work with people whose opinions are very different than yours if you want to make any sort of change. Inherit the Wind, much like The Devil Wears Prada, offers some insight on how to deal with those sorts of situations. That's why it's such a classic.

Inherit the Wind Resources


All About Lawrence and Lee
Everything you wanted to know about this playwriting team.

The Dynamic Duo
Robert E. Lee and Jerome Lawrence make their home state proud.


They're going to put me in the movies…
The star-studded film version of the play is a classic.

And TV, too.
Just because it's made-for-TV doesn't mean it isn't full of great actors.

And for good measure…
People seem to love to make this play into a TV movie. Check this one out, too.

One for the road.
This is the earliest TV adaptation of the play. Ta-da.


Goodbye, Mr. Lee.
One of the playwrights' obituaries. Sadface.

Taking it to the Stage
Here's an article about bringing the play to life for the first time. It's pretty moving, if you ask us.


Drummond's Big Moment
From the movie, a spicy version of Drummond's frustration with the trial's proceedings.

Live in London
Check out this trailer for the play, starring Kevin Spacey, a Shmoop favorite.


Always a Critic…
While watching this review of a staged version of the play, we wonder: will critics always be critics? And we answer ourselves: yup.


Come One, Come All
Here's the awesome movie poster for Inherit the Wind.

And here's a photo from a production of Inherit the Wind, which is included in the print version of the play. Sweet.

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