The play opens “not too long ago” (around the 1950s), in a small town, Hillsboro (the state is unnamed), in the oppressive heat of summer. The town is modeled on Dayton, Tennessee, and the trial in the play is based, with some important variations, on the famed Scopes Monkey Trial of 1929.
Though the play is based on the Scopes Monkey trial, it is not an exact representation of it. Some details have been changed. For example, Rachel and her father, the Reverend Brown, have no precedent in the real-life event.
The stage is arranged on two levels. On the first, lower level is the courtroom, with benches but no walls; and beyond it, on the higher, second level, is a scene of the courthouse square, the town square, and of houses beyond it. Howard, a thirteen-year-old boy, enters the courthouse square and is followed by a girl nearly his age, Melinda, whom he knows from school.
The stage design makes the courtroom “loom” over the town, giving the audience the feeling that the court case is the most important event to have happened in Hillsboro in some time. Interestingly, no church is front-and-center on the stage—and the later church prayer meeting takes place in the court square, suggesting a merger of church and state in the town.
When Melinda wonders how Howard can play with the disgusting worms in the ground, brought up by a recent rain, Howard replies that Melinda’s family once was worms—or blobs of jelly, long ago, in prehistoric time. When Melinda becomes upset, and says she will tell her father what Howard has said, she runs off, and Howard yells that her father is a monkey.
Howard’s comments to Melinda, though derived from what he believes to be Cates’ teachings of the theory of evolution, are, of course, not really accurate at all. Although much is said differently in the play’s “trial” scenes, Darwin’s theory states that monkeys and humans had a common ancestor—not that humans descended from monkeys.
Melinda exits and Rachel Brown enters. Rachel is 22 and a teacher at the local school. She notices Howard, still playing with worms, then walks down to the lower, courtroom level, asking for a man named Mr. Meeker, the town bailiff. Rachel asks to see Bert Cates, a teacher imprisoned in the court jail, and asks also that Meeker not tell her father that she has come to see Bert. Meeker agrees and brings Cates up to the courtroom, to talk to Rachel alone.
The nature of the relationship between Cates and Rachel is never made explicitly clear in these early scenes. Clearly, the two are close friends and confidants, and their closeness might be romantic in nature. But one gets the sense, later on, that Rachel is afraid of becoming close to any man, lest she anger her controlling father.
Cates is happy to see Rachel, but believes she has put herself in a difficult position with her father by coming to visit him. Rachel brings Cates some extra clothes and other items from his home, and Cates says the jail is not uncomfortable.
Cates’ jailhouse situation in Hillsboro is rather comfortable, and Meeker seems to be kind to him—Meeker does not appear to judge Cates too harshly for his “misdeeds.”
Rachel tells Cates that Matthew Harrison Brady, the “second most-powerful man in America, after the President,” is coming to town, and that he will be arguing for the prosecution in the case against Cates. Rachel asks why Cates “did it,” and Cates answers that he merely did as he felt, as a schoolteacher, he was supposed to do: he taught his sophomore science class a bit of Darwin’s Origin of Species, excerpted in the class’s science textbook. Cates says evolution was a “long miracle,” that it didn’t just happen in “seven days.”
The problem of the play is revealed. Cates taught evolution in a state where the teaching of this subject was banned. The trial in Hillsboro, then, takes on a personal and a public dimension. Cates’ professional life has been put in jeopardy by his imprisonment, but, more importantly, the trial seeks to confront whether or not, in the United States, a government can declare certain branches of science “off-limits” because of Christian religious principles.
Rachel reminds Cates that there is a law against teaching evolution, and Cates says he knew about that law when he taught the lesson. Cates asks Rachel to continue loving him, and they hug as Meeker enters, saying he must sweep the courtroom. Rachel exits quickly and Cates thanks her for bringing some of his clothes.
At this point in the play, Rachel believes it is more important, as a “civil servant,” to respect the laws of the place in which one teaches than it is to speak one’s mind and to teach according to one’s conscience. Cates, for his part, believed that teaching science in a science class was simply the right thing to do.
Meeker remarks to Cates, when the two are alone, that Meeker voted for Brady for President twice (Brady has run three times, but has lost each one). Meeker also says he once saw Brady speak, and that his oratorical powers are impressive. Meeker asks who will be representing Cates in court, and Cates says that he wrote to a newspaper in Baltimore, sympathetic to his cause, and that the paper will be sending a lawyer from Chicago on his behalf. The scene fades out as Cates returns to the basement jail, even though Meeker offers that Cates can spend the night in the courthouse, if he pleases. The lights in the court dim.
Brady is based on the real-life character William Jennings Bryant, a powerful orator and “populist” who himself ran for President, and was defeated, three times. That a famous politician and a famous lawyer are coming to Hillsboro to take up Cates’ case indicates the public nature of the debate—and the fact that Hillsboro is to be a proving ground in the conversation between the importance of religious belief and of scientific inquiry in America.
The lights rise on the town level of the stage. It is the next day, and a Storekeeper opens his shop, remarking to Mrs. Krebs, a townswoman, that it is very hot. Mrs. Krebs replies that the Lord “gives the heat, and gives us glands to sweat with.” Reverend Brown, Rachel’s father, enters, says hello to Krebs and the Storekeeper, and asks why the banner isn’t up yet, welcoming Brady to Hillsboro.
An interesting evolutionary take, from Mrs. Krebs, on why human beings have sweat glands. Of course, a Darwinian would answer that the incremental and accidental development of sweat glands made some humans more fit than others, causing those fitter humans to survive and pass on the genes, thus making sweat glands more common.
The town is a-bustle with excitement; it seems that every member of the town welcomes Brady’s arrival, and that his coming to Hillsboro is one of the biggest events in the town’s history. Melinda, the young girl from the opening of the play, is selling lemonade, and Mrs. Blair, Howard’s mother, tells Howard to “spit down” his hair. Reverend Brown wants the town to appear cheerful, neat, and “Christian” for Brady’s big arrival party. A boy named Elijah is selling Bibles to the crowd.
More of an indication that Brady’s arrival is one of the greatest events in Hillsboro’s history. The town appears, from this scene, to be rather unified in its acceptance of Brady’s pro-Christianity, anti-evolution arguments, and in its belief that Christian teachings ought to be the foundations of scientific thought taught in schools. This attitude will change as the play goes on, however.
A man named Hornbeck, a reporter from the same Baltimore paper to which Cates has written, walks on-stage. Mrs. Krebs asks if he has a “clean” place to stay, and Hornbeck jokes, sarcastically, that he left a “clean place” to come to the town of Hillsboro—the “buckle on the Bible Belt,” he jokes aloud.
Hornbeck has a hard time believing that Hillsboro would have the comforts and amenities of a major metropolitan area. He assumes, from the beginning, that Hillsboro residents are “backward” and unthinking in their Christian beliefs.
Elijah offers Hornbeck a Bible, but Hornbeck declines, buying a hot dog from a vendor instead, and saying he prefers treating his stomach to his soul. Elijah asks if Hornbeck is a sinner, and Hornbeck says he’s worse—a newspaper reporter for the Baltimore Herald. When an organ-grinder, a street entertainer, enters with a dancing monkey, Hornbeck jokingly talks to the monkey, and asks if it will be testifying in the trial. A townsperson announces the arrival of Brady’s train.
Elijah was the name of an important Biblical prophet, and Hornbeck seems to be poking fun at the boy Elijah, who cannot read the Bibles he sells, and who therefore is unaware of the importance of his name as a Biblical and literary allusion. Hornbeck’s scene with the monkey is played for comic relief, in a play that mixes both comic and tragic elements.
As the townspeople rush to greet Brady at the platform, Hornbeck asks the Storekeeper whether he has an opinion on evolution; the Storekeeper responds that “opinions are bad for business.” Hornbeck jokingly talks again to the organ-grinder’s monkey, saying he (the monkey) is Brady’s ancestor. Townspeople waive banners (DOWN WITH DARWIN and DON’T MONKEY WITH OUR SCHOOLS). As Brady exits the train many of the townspeople, having been coordinated by Reverend Brown, begin singing “Gimme that Old Time Religion.”
The Storekeeper, like Sillers later in the play, is more passively Christian—believing that the Bible is an important document in the lives of Hillsboro citizens, but also believing that Christianity need not play an active role in every part of his life. The Storekeeper’s main focus is on making sure his store turns a profit, in order that he can provide for his family and maintain his business.
Brady gives an impromptu speech to the crowd. He thanks them for the song and warm welcome, jokes about the hot summer weather in Hillsboro, and says he has come for two reasons: to defend the “Word of God” against Cates’ “attack” on that Word, by the teaching of evolution; and to defend the state’s law against evolution from Northerners, who believes that laws banning evolution should themselves be stricken from the books.
Brady outlines his reasons for coming to Hillsboro—he wishes to take up the town’s own “private” cause, in the fight against Cates; and he wishes to make a national political debate out of the teaching of evolution in schools. What goes unmentioned is the probable third reason: that Brady wishes to find another stage from which to state, loudly, his political and moral views.
Brady has a picture taken with the Mayor, a shy man who is in awe of Brady’s celebrity. Brady asks to meet the town’s “spiritual leader” and is introduced to Reverend Brown. The Mayor gives a brief, prepared speech, thanking Brady for coming, and names Brady to the position of Honorary Colonel in the State Militia. Hereafter, many townspeople refer to Brady as Colonel Brady, even though this “commission” is only symbolic.
The Mayor appears to be quite nervous in Brady’s presence—who he seems to feel is a “superior” political force, and his prepared remarks seem stilted and mechanical next to Brady’s impromptu loquacity. Brady’s designation as “colonel” will become an object of scrutiny and humor later in the trial.
Brady meets Tom Davenport, the district attorney with whom he is partnered in the prosecution—Brady vows to work with him to punish Cates. A luncheon has been prepared for Mr. and Mrs. Brady, and Mrs. Brady warns Brady not to “over-eat” on account of the day’s heat and excitement. Brady says he will not eat too much, but he nevertheless gorges on a very large amount of food. Brady is described as a paunchy man, aged about 65, very large, with a ruddy complexion.
Mrs. Brady is like the Greek character Cassandra—she prophesies that something bad might happen to Brady, that he might over-exert himself and fall ill, but Brady pays little attention to her admonitions. Later on in the play, however, it will become clear that Brady has pushed himself, and his ailing body, too far in his pursuit of justice in Hillsboro.
Brady, after eating, asks the crowd whether Cates is a “criminal by nature.” Rachel, who emerges from the sea of townspeople, answers that he is a good man, and after Brady expresses interests in Rachel’s opinions, asking if she is a friend of Cates’, Brady pulls Rachel aside and has a conversation with her about Cates’ personality and temperament, as the welcome party continues around them.
The audience knows, or would reasonably infer at this point, that Cates is of course not a “criminal,” but rather a science teacher attempting to teach science in his classroom. Brady, to his credit, seems open to the idea that Cates is simply “misguided” in his efforts, whereas Reverend Brown wishes only to castigate and excommunicate Cates.
A townsperson asks Davenport who the defense attorney representing Cates will be; Davenport confesses he does not yet know, but he thinks this attorney will stand no chance against Brady. Hornbeck enters this conversation and tells the Mayor and Davenport, along with others gathered around, that he disagrees—that he, Hornbeck, represents the Baltimore Herald, and that the paper has sent him to report on the trial, and Henry Drummond, from Chicago, to be Cates’ attorney. The town gasps at this latter piece of news.
Drummond is, apparently, a lawyer of national renown. Drummond was based on the progressive lawyer Clarence Darrow, also known for his spirited defense of people or parties often not accorded opportunity in the eyes of the law. Drummond, like Darrow, is also fairly open-minded, despite his probable lack of religious belief—it will become clear, later, that Drummond does not automatically assume that Christian adherents are “backward” or unintelligent.
Reverend Brown refers to Drummond as an “agnostic” and a “vicious, godless” man, saying that he once observed Drummond in a trial, “perverting” the evidence and causing a guilty man to go free, by implying to the jury that society at large, and not the guilty man, was responsible for the committed crime (Reverend Brown does not name the crime in detail). Brown vows that the town will not admit Drummond within its limits; Davenport says this is not legally possible, but the Mayor says, shyly, that he will look into the possibility of barring Drummond.
Brown apparently is not satisfied merely referring to Cates as a godless unbeliever—he reserves special scorn for Drummond, whom he believes is more “evil” than Cates because Drummond willingly travels the country, representing criminals whom Reverend Brown believes to be beneath legal representation at all.
But Brady, returning to the party after conversing with Rachel, is told of Drummond’s arrival, and after a moment’s pause, he remarks that the town ought to welcome Drummond, because Drummond is a legal “Goliath,” and it means that the “whole world” will watch as Brady and his team defeat Drummond and defend the Word of God.
It seems hard to take Brady’s statement at face value, since he is of national renown himself, and is surely one of the greatest orators in the United States. But Brady prefers to make it seem that Drummond is the established figure, and that Brady is the underdog in this fight.
As the party ends, Brady thanks the Reverend Brown for the warm conversation he has had with Rachel—Brady implies that Rachel has given him key insight into Cates’ character, but Rachel looks nervous as to the information she has shared with Brady. Brady thanks the party again and leaves with Mrs. Brady to take a nap at his hotel; the party breaks up. Rachel goes to the courthouse, now lit, and Hornbeck follows behind her, watching.
Brady’s conversation with Rachel becomes an immensely important part of the actual trial, once it begins. Brady has gained insight from Rachel that will allow him to press her for details of Cates' non-religious, pro-science beliefs. It is unclear whether this testimony would be admissible in other courts, but the Judge determines that this “hearsay” is okay in Hillsboro.
Rachel asks after Meeker but cannot find him in the empty courthouse. Hornbeck enters after Rachel and begins to speak with her. He shows a draft of an article he has written about Cates to Rachel—Rachel seems surprised that Hornbeck is on “Bert’s side” in the trial. Rachel says she believed Hornbeck was only a cynical critic (which Hornbeck himself admits, mostly, to being); but Rachel believes that Hornbeck has made Cates out to be a hero. Hornbeck agrees with this assessment of Cates.
One might imagine that Rachel would realize Hornbeck’s sympathies lie with Cates—but Rachel appears so distrustful of “city folk” that she naturally believes all of them wish to make fun of Hillsboro residents, regardless of those residents’ beliefs. Hornbeck, for his part, appears more motivated by the excitement of the trial than by the particular idea of helping Cates’ cause.
But Rachel tells Hornbeck that Cates, as a teacher, is a public servant, and public servants ought to do as the law intends—and the law in the state forbids the teaching of evolution. Rachel tells Hornbeck she believes all answers to human evolution can be found in the Bible, and that she believes Brady would not have come unless Cates were truly wrong to teach evolution.
Rachel again voices the belief that Cates’ primary obligation is to the school, the school board, and the state, and not to his own conscience. In this view, Cates was selfish to put his interest in evolution above his duty to serve the people of the school district of Hillsboro.
But Hornbeck responds that Brady only pretends to be a champion of the people; Hornbeck implies that Brady’s speeches are intended more for his own self-aggrandizement than for the sake of the “common man.” Hornbeck tells Rachel that the times have changed, and that the modern world no longer has room for Brady’s antique speechifying and his Bible-centric theories of science. Hornbeck and Rachel leave the court, which goes dark.
Hornbeck seems to see through some of Brady’s posturing, but probably goes to far in ascribing to Brady a kind of fascination with public acclaim—after all, as Drummond later points out, Brady does have firmly held beliefs, and does have an interest in public service. Hornbeck, on the other hand, is mostly a muckraker and trouble-maker, without concern for any particular set of beliefs—he makes fun of anything he sees as backwards.
The Storekeeper ends the scene by telling a townswoman that it looks to be a hot night. Melinda screams as she sees a shadow walking toward the town from the station—a man Hornbeck identifies as Drummond, but whom Melinda calls the Devil. Hornbeck jokingly welcomes Drummond, “the Devil,” to Hell (the hot town of Hillsboro), under his breath. The scene ends.
Hornbeck likes to participate in the religious fervor of the town, but only to make fun of it—thus he revels in the idea that Drummond would be considered a devil-figure, and hopes to make light of it during the course of the trial. The heat of the night is a useful symbolic indicator of the heat of hell.