Inherit the Wind

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Inherit the Wind Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's Inherit the Wind. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee
Born in Cleveland and educated at Ohio State and UCLA, Jerome Lawrence Schwartz (who dropped his last name upon embarking on a professional career), began work as a newspaper and radio writer, then teamed up with Robert E. Lee (no relation to the Civil War general, and himself an Ohio native, educated at Ohio Wesleyan) to write radio plays. Their first collaboration for the stage, Inherit the Wind, earned them a great deal of notoriety, and made for them a reputation as playwrights of a political bent—intent on writing about current political issues in the US, including the relationship between science and belief, between political power and the right to speak one’s mind. Lawrence and Lee went on to found the American Playwrights’ Theatre, and to write another blockbuster, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, along with thirty-odd other collaborative plays, many of them still performed today, and reinterpreted to highlight other, current debates in American society.
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Historical Context of Inherit the Wind
Although the Scopes Monkey Trial took place in 1925—and involved a debate over the teaching of science broadly similar to that outlined in the play, with William Jennings Bryant, Clarence Darrow, and H. L. Mencken filling the “parts” ascribed to Brady, Drummond, and Hornbeck—Inherit the Wind is a post-war play, and its concerns are those of Americans after the Second World War, which was the central; political and social event of the 20th century. After the war, America was one of the two undisputed world political powers, with the Soviet Union being the other, and as a result, American society prized a set of cultural attitudes in perceived opposition to those of the USSR. These American ideals included: religious faith (often Christian); a positive, can-do spirit in business and in life; and, occasionally in opposition to the just stated ideals, a belief in individualism, and the right to speak one’s mind. These values are all brought out in Inherit the Wind, which seeks, ultimately, a compromise between religious belief, scientific knowledge, and the rights of communities and individuals to express themselves.
Other Books Related to Inherit the Wind
Perhaps the most famous and influential of the midcentury American playwrights working in a tradition of “realist” theater indebted, ultimately, to the 19th-century works of Anton Chekhov, was Arthur Miller, whose two most famous plays, The Crucible and Death of a Salesman, might be read, in part, as commentaries on the nature of current American political and social events. The Crucible, which tells a fictionalized tale of sexual intrigue during the Salem Witch Trials, was read by many as an allegory of the McCarthy anti-communist hearings of the 1950s. Death of a Salesman, though without overt allegorical meaning, nevertheless dramatized Willy Loman, a traveling salesman, as his career and family life seem to fall apart. Like Lawrence and Lee’s Inherit the Wind, Miller’s plays incorporate a great deal of contemporary speech patterns, and they dig deep into the mythos of American culture prominent during the 1950s—the idea that post-World War II American society was a purely positive, progressive place, one in which democracy, capitalism, and the nuclear family were the established and central social institutions. The plays of Tennessee Williams, including A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie, also use realist techniques (marking the actual speech-patterns of contemporary families, and dealing not with nobility but with “the common man”) to examine sexual desire, personal fulfillment, and the delusions many people take on in order to live their lives. Williams, a darker playwright than Lawrence and Lee, nevertheless also examines the nature of American home life in the middle of the 20th century.
Key Facts about Inherit the Wind
  • Full Title: Inherit the Wind
  • When Written: 1951
  • Where Written: New York City
  • When Published: Play first performed in 1955
  • Literary Period: American midcentury realist theater
  • Genre: realist drama; political drama
  • Setting: Hillsboro, state unnamed, ca. 1950 (based in part on Dayton, TN, and the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925)
  • Climax: Drummond gets Brady to admit that he, Brady, believes he has direct knowledge of the will of God (Act Two, Scene Two)
  • Antagonist: Reverend Brown
  • Point of View: third-person
Extra Credit for Inherit the Wind

More McCarthy. Inherit the Wind was also intended, in part, and like The Crucible, as a commentary on the McCarthy hearings in Congress—which sought, in the 1950s, to “root out” suspected Communists in American political, social, and cultural institutions. The idea of mass hysteria, suspicion, and a “witch hunt” for agnostics, Communists, or other “subversives” was a common theme in 1950s literature.

Famous names. The 1960 film version of the play, also called Inherit the Wind, starred Spencer Tracy (as Henry Drummond) and Gene Kelley (as Hornbeck). Kevin Spacey, George C. Scott, Jack Lemmon, and other famous actors also have participated in performances of the play, or its screen adaptations, over the past 60 years.