Inherit the Wind is a play dramatizing the Hillsboro Monkey Trial, in a small American town called Hillsboro, state unnamed, in the 1950s. This trial is based on some historical facts of the Scopes Monkey Trial, which occurred in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, and which brought William Jennings Bryant, Clarence Darrow, and H. L. Mencken—a famous politician, lawyer, and reporter, respectively—to a small town to determine whether a man ought to go to jail for teaching evolution in a science class, in violation of state law.
In the play, Bertram Cates, a high-school biology teacher, has been jailed for doing exactly this—teaching evolution as science. He is visited in the jail by Rachel, his friend and possible lover—Rachel asks him whether he should continue fighting the law, and warns that Matthew Harrison Brady, a famous former Presidential candidate, is coming to Hillsboro to argue the case against Cates. Back in the town, men, women, and children prepare for Brady’s triumphant arrival, singing religious songs. When Brady arrives, he states that he is fighting not just to put Cates in prison, but to defend Christian religious teaching across the US, and to keep some “northern” states from teaching the irreligious idea that humankind’s ancestors were monkeys. Brady, tipped off as to Rachel’s relationship to Cates, pulls her aside to ask Rachel questions about Cates’ religious beliefs. It is announced, meanwhile, that Henry Drummond, a famous progressive lawyer, will be traveling to Hillsboro from Chicago to defend Cates. Hornbeck, a progressive reporter from Baltimore, observes the scene, jokes about the ignorant religious beliefs of the town, and writes articles in support of Cates’ cause.
The trial begins, and Drummond and Brady, along with his co-prosecutor Tom Davenport, the town district attorney, select jurors. One evening, as the trial is taking place during the day, Reverend Brown organizes a prayer meeting in which he delivers fiery invective against Cates, Drummond, and others who do not believe in God, or who wish to challenge God’s principles. Brady, shocked by Brown’s fervor, argues that religious law is true, but that sinners should be forgiven, not damned. The next day, Rachel is forced to testify against Cates, reporting that Cates has questioned the absolute truth of Christian teaching, especially as regards science; Rachel is led, weeping, off the stand, and Drummond attempts to call scientific experts to testify about Darwinian principles. But the Judge and Brady argue that evolution cannot even be explained in court, as this, too, violates the state no-evolution law. Drummond therefore calls Brady to the stand as an expert on the Bible, and proceeds to show that Brady’s belief in the absolute literal truth of the Bible is misguided, leading to scientific problems and failures of logic and sense. Brady, exasperated, declares finally that he understands God’s intentions better than other people, and this causes the people in the court to see Brady as a vain buffoon—he, too, is led from the stand, confused and embarrassed.
The next day, the verdict is rendered by the Judge: Cates is guilty, but after the Mayor has prevailed on the Judge to deliver a light sentence, because many other American towns are following the case via newspaper and radio, the Judge sentences Cates only to a 100 dollar fine and 500 dollars bail, the latter of which is paid by Hornbeck. Cates is then free to leave town—he wonders if he has won the trial, since it appears he has lost, but Drummond tells him that Cates has made the Hillsboro law seem ridiculous, and has inspired others to think for themselves and to speak their minds. Brady attempts to give a long closing address after the trial is over to the crowd in the court, but the radio broadcaster stops him before he even gets started, saying the trial and verdict are over—Brady becomes so upset that he suffers a stroke-like fit, and is led off-stage. When it is announced soon after that Brady has died, Drummond speaks kindly of Brady, saying that he was a man of greatness, but a man who believed he knew, better than others, what God wanted, and how humans should live. Drummond also quotes a line from Proverbs, in the Bible, quoted before by Brady, that “a man who troubleth his own house . . . shall inherit the wind,” meaning that a man must trust in the personal conscience of his fellow man, in order to live and thrive in society. Hornbeck objects to Drummond’s defense of Brady, saying Drummond is too soft and kind—but Drummond replies that Hornbeck, not unlike Reverend Brown, is closed-minded in his viewpoints, and that Hornbeck wants only to ridicule those who do not agree with him.
Rachel comes up to Cates and Drummond and says that she, too, has resolved to think for herself—her first act of this new resolve is to leave her father’s house and to go with Cates wherever the railroad will take them, to start a new life together. On his way out of the courthouse, Drummond finds Rachel’s copy of Darwin and a Bible on the Judge’s bench—he mimes “weighing” the two books against each other, then smiles, places both in his bag, and walks out to join Cates and Rachel on the train.