From the first scene, audiences are aware that the trial in Inherit
the Wind is the trial, not so much of Bertram Cates, but of the town of Hillsboro. Lawrence and Lee state this theme explicitly in their stage directions: the
physical arrangement of the stage ensures that "the town is visible always,
looming there, as much on trial as the individual defendant" (Act I, Sc. 1).
This theme surfaces throughout the play; for example, in the Rev. Brown's
outrage that, in one of his previous trials, Drummond "cast the guilt away from
the accused and onto. all of society" (Act I, Sc. 1). And yet Brown makes
precisely the playwrights' point: Cates is a scapegoat being made to pay the
penalty for "all of society" as it progresses forward. It is as though
society's collective unconscious acknowledges that a break with the
past-represented in this case by what Drummond characterizes as "fairy-tale
notions" (Act I, Sc. 2)-but is unwilling to shoulder the responsibility for
that progress upon itself. Drummond articulates this view when he tells the
jury, "Gentlemen, progress has never been a bargain. You've got to pay for it"
(Act II, Sc. 2). Lawrence and Lee portray Hillsboro as almost a "case study" in
society's unwillingness to pay this price, while at the same time being eager
to accept (at least some of) the benefits of progress.
And the play makes clear that progress is inevitable.
"Standing still"-as Drummond suggests Brady has done (Act II, Sc. 1)-is more
sinful in Drummond's (and the playwrights') estimation than supposedly
blaspheming against the received "wisdom" of the past or against authoritarian
religious dogma. The presence of the radio broadcasters in the courtroom in Act
III highlights the fact that even sleepy little Hillsboro cannot escape the
encroachment of the modern world. The future cannot be ignored. Drummond
acknowledges that it cannot be engaged uncritically-his speech about the price
of progress, the give-and-take that it necessitates (Act II, Sc. 2) honors that
truth-but neither can it be wished away. Consequently, people like Cates and
Rachel, who are willing to entertain new ideas, even if they do not ultimately
accept them, are vindicated by the play's theme, while characters like the Rev.
Brown are vilified.
As for the possible theme that religion and science need not
oppose each other (see comments in the Metaphor Analysis, above), Cates
displays an understanding that science and religion need not be at odds; he
summarizes Darwin as teaching "that living comes from a long miracle."
On the whole, however, the play does very little to develop this theme. More
important to the play's purposes is a spirited defense of the right to think,
which it certainly delivers. Rachel represents Drummond's victory. "Bad or
good, it doesn't make any difference. The ideas have to come out-like children.
Some of 'em healthy as a bean plant, some sickly. I think the sickly ideas die
mostly." (Act III).