The infamous criminal-defense attorney Henry Drummond arrives in Hillsboro vilified as an atheist but leaves, after losing the trial, as a hero. To the audience—and to many of the townspeople—Drummond makes a convincing case for the right of a human being to think. He accomplishes this feat by exposing the contradictions underlying his witnesses’ inherited religious beliefs. During the case, Drummond demonstrates that people know less than what they believe themselves to know. His greatest triumph in the name of free thought is getting Howard Blair to admit that he has not made up his mind about evolutionary theory. When we hear this admission, Drummond’s point becomes clear: freedom of thought becomes the freedom to be wrong or to change our minds. The world, viewed in this light, is full of possibilities.
Although Drummond typically exposes the shortcomings of his subjects’ beliefs in gentle fashion, his cross-examination of Matthew Harrison Brady causes humiliation and hysteria. Brady self-destructs when his convictions about the literal truth of the Bible wither under the light of Drummond’s skepticism. Until that point, Drummond deploys his wry wit—his purple suspenders from Nebraska, his cracks about the unfairness of Brady’s title and the judge’s announcement of a Bible meeting but no evolutionist meeting—to no one’s harm, while ironically exposing the injustice that his defendant faces. While Drummond’s attack of Brady is not mean-spirited, it is devastating. At the same time, the power of Drummond’s attack stems not so much from Drummond’s wit as from the weight of Brady’s egotism, stubbornness, and arrogance as they collapse in his ranting testimony.
Unlike Brady, Drummond does not conceive of truth as a set of fixed rules that can be read from a book and imposed on society. His wonder about the world, which he shares and encourages in Cates, allows him to “look behind the paint,” to interpret events for more than their obvious meanings. Drummond’s thorough examination of his witnesses’ beliefs exposes complexities and contradictions in the same way that Cates’s microscopes reveal to his students complexities of life and matter not visible to the naked eye.
At the beginning of Inherit the Wind, Brady arrives pompously, confident that the trial is as good as won. Scornful of the threat that Drummond might present to him as the opposing attorney, Brady exhibits hubris, or excessive pride, in failing to consider the prospect of his own humiliation. Playing on his home turf in rural Christian Tennessee, Brady basks in the glow of his simple-minded supporters’ praise. When Drummond undermines Brady’s authority, Brady breaks down, for he lacks the inner strength to reconsider his own beliefs and adjust to an unexpected challenge.
We learn that Brady ran for president in three consecutive elections but never succeeded. This failure plagues him throughout his life and manifests itself during the trial. When Brady falls ill following his floundering responses to Drummond’s line of questioning, he deliriously spews forth the speech he had prepared for a possible presidential victory. Brady is a caricature of the real-life prosecutor William Jennings Bryan. Like Brady, Bryan lost three presidential elections and died shortly after the Scopes Monkey Trial. In Inherit the Wind, as in the national media in 1925, Brady’s / Bryan’s death symbolized the humiliation he suffered in the trial and the end of an obsolete brand of politics. Bryan was a Democrat, but in the decades after his death, his party took on a more progressive, liberal stance. Not that conservative elements disappeared from American politics—they now exist as tenets of the Republican party.
Although his politics and values are rigidly fundamentalist, Brady remains a complex character. Although he subscribes to a rather traditional brand of Christianity, he embraces more of the Bible than the Hillsboro preacher Reverend Brown does. When Brown harshly calls for eternal hellfire as punishment for Cates and all those who side with him—including even his own daughter—Brady interrupts Brown and reminds the crowd of the Christian doctrine of forgiveness. Brown’s version of Christianity, with its frequent casting out of sinners, is grounded in the harsher books of the Old Testament. Brady’s, on the other hand, recognizes the more compassionate elements of Jesus’ message and the possibilities that this compassion creates for mankind.
As his jailer, Mr. Meeker, points out, Bertram Cates is not a criminal type. A quiet, unassuming twenty-four-year-old, Cates is innocent, naïve, and wondrous about the world—and he suffers emotionally as a result of the townspeople’s treatment of him. He struggles to stand up as an individual even as the crowd opposes his views and actions. Although he remains idealistic throughout Inherit the Wind, he often needs Drummond’s encouragement to persevere with his cause. Cates doubts himself at times, especially when Rachel pleads him to admit his guilt and beg forgiveness.
In several instances in the play, Cates displays the humanity of an open, forgiving mind, as do the other evolutionists and progressives. Ironically, forgiveness comes more readily to Cates than to his staunchly Christian neighbors—foremost among them Reverend Brown, whose fire-and-brimstone sermons led Cates to abandon the church. Although Rachel unwittingly and unwillingly betrays Cates by testifying against him at Brady’s behest, he sympathizes with her pain as she becomes distraught during her time on the witness stand. In fact, Cates urges the court to dismiss Rachel from the stand, which denies her the chance to defend Cates when questioned by Drummond. In the end, when Cates leaves town with Rachel, we see that his trial has opened Rachel’s mind as well.
Rachel’s romance with Cates runs parallel to her own personal development and highlights the primary conflict in the play—fundamentalism versus freedom of thought. Rachel’s budding emotions pull her away from her father, Reverend Brown, the religious leader of Hillsboro. As Rachel tells more of her story, her father and the form of Christianity practiced in Hillsboro appear more and more cruel and heartless. Rachel relates that her father always frightened her, even from a young age. He publicly confirms her fears at a town prayer meeting, when he damns her soul for supporting Cates. As Rachel’s romantic interest, Cates, who teaches evolution to his students and brings an open mind to matters of science and religion, stands in bold opposition to Rachel’s father and his views. Perhaps most important, Cates refrains from imposing his own views on others and is willing to engage in constant questioning of ideas. Throughout Inherit the Wind, these two characters—Cates and Reverend Brown—test Rachel’s loyalties. At the conclusion of the trial, Rachel separates from her father and departs with Cates—a choice that enables her personal liberation.