Sometimes a story is more interesting than the truth. Inherit the Wind isn’t an accurate depiction of the Scopes Monkey trial and never claimed to be. However, its compelling fiction has replaced the real facts for many people.
Let’s look at the biggest difference in the play, the basis of the trial. Teaching evolution in Tennessee was illegal. That is true. The facts about the arrest portrayed in the play are not. In the play, Bertram Cates is a biology teacher who taught evolution as part of this curriculum. In real life, the man arrested, Scopes, wasn’t a biology teacher and no one was sure that he taught evolution. Here’s what really happened.
The Tennessee legislature passed a bill that made teaching evolution illegal. A few months later, the American Civil Liberties Union ran an ad in a Chattanooga newspaper offering their services to a teacher who was willing to test the law in court. The ad was brought to the attention of the business leaders of Dayton, Tennessee. They decided that it was in the best interests of Dayton to arrest a teacher and hold a trial in their town.
Dayton was struggling economically. The businessmen realized that a trial of national importance would bring attention and money to Dayton. The regular biology teacher refused to take part. Scopes coached several sports teams and taught in the high school, but didn’t teach biology. He had been a substitute teacher in biology for a few days. He had no idea if he ever mentioned evolution, but agreed to be the test case. The press and public descended onto Dayton just as the town leaders had envisioned.
The leaders of Dayton used the evolution controversy for reasons that hand nothing to do with evolution. So did the playwrights of Inherit the Wind. They wanted to make a statement against McCarthyism. To do this openly would have been professional suicide. So they wrote a play that was loosely based on the trial in order to make a statement about an individual’s right to think. They created such a powerful play that they unintentionally changed the public’s common perception of the events.