Inherit the Wind

The play (and movie) Inherit the Wind is an obvious dramatization of the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial, and many of its characters are utterly transparent representations of personages from the historical event. “Bertram Cates” is John T. Scopes. “Matthew Harrison Brady” is William Jennings Bryan. “Henry Drummond” is Clarence Darrow. And “E. K. Hornbeck” is H. L. Menken.

My question is this. Why did the playwrites even bother to give fictional names to these characters? The so-called disguise of dramatization is so thin as to be pointless.

I think it makes a difference. When you change the names, you get more license to take liberties with the events and it might seem like less of a big deal when you diverge from what really happened.

I read the Wikipedia entry on the play some time ago and was surprised to read that it’s considered a criticism of the McCarthy hearings, not a commentary about evolution. So that might explain a little.

The events in Inherit the Wind are actually quite a bit different from the real story of the Scopes trial. I don’t know offhand what to recommend to read about the real Scopes trial. There’s a chapter in Garry Wills’s Under God about the Scopes trial, but perhaps someone else can recommend something else to read about it.

Lawrence and Lee’s own introduction to their play is actually rather explicit about why they did so: “Only a handful of phrases have been taken from the actual transcript of the famous Scopes trial. Some of the characters of the play are related to the colorful figures in that battle of giants; but they have a life and language of their own - and, therefore, names of their own.”

While I have some reservations about how he structures the narrative, Edward Larson’s Pulitzer-prizewinning Summer for the Gods (1997; Harvard, 1998) is the major recent reassessment of the trial and it’s now the standard secondary account. He also discusses the various interpretations of it that have been put forward over the years and, inevitably, compares the play to the original events.
Incidentally, Larson handily documents the fact that Lawrence and Lee were pretty open about writing the play as a commentary on McCarthyism.

I was in a high school production of the play, and liked it very much (my role was tiny: the Reuters reporter who questions Brady during his press conference). I’m surprised to learn about an anti-McCarthy interpretation of the play. I saw it as much more a call for harmony between partisans of religion and science, and a criticism of Biblical literalism.

I just recently heard a report on NPR about the town the trial took place in… Apparently the town did it for the publicity and tourism.

Yup. They were trying to steal a march on Chattanooga, whose city fathers had also been looking into holding a test case, and reaping the attendant benefits.