The individual human mind. In a child’s power to master the multiplication table there is more sanctity than in all your shouted “Amens!”, “Holy, Holies!” and “Hosannahs!” An idea is a greater monument than a cathedral. And the advance of man’s knowledge is more of a miracle than any sticks turned to snakes, or the parting of waters!
Two days later, the trial is in full swing. The scene opens with the young Howard on the witness stand. Howard explains to Brady the scientific theory that Cates taught him in school. Howard says, “Man was sort of evoluted. From the ‘Old World Monkeys.’” Brady mocks this theory and asks whether Cates ever mentioned God in his teachings. Howard says no. Brady begins what seems like a speech, but Drummond objects. Brady claims that he wasn’t about to make a speech but then derides evolutionists at length. The crowd applauds.
Drummond asks Howard what he thinks of Darwin and the theory Cates taught him. Davenport objects, but Drummond says he is trying to establish that Howard has the right to think. The judge and Brady insist that establishing the right to think is not the mission of the trial at hand. Drummond rephrases his question to ask Howard whether the theory of evolution has harmed him in any way. Brady objects, and the judge sustains the objection.
Drummond asks Howard if he believes the theory Cates taught him. Howard says he isn’t sure and has to think about it. Drummond asks Howard whether he thinks modern technologies like tractors and telephones are evil because the Bible doesn’t mention them. Brady protests that Drummond is confusing the witness. He asks Drummond whether “right” has any meaning to him. Drummond delivers a speech, claiming that right is meaningless but that truth is valuable “as a direction.” He says that a morality of simple right and wrong is arbitrary. Drummond asks Howard whether he understands their discussion. Howard says no, and Drummond dismisses him.
Davenport calls Rachel to the stand. Brady asks her about her acquaintance with Cates and about Cates’s religious affiliations. She explains that Cates stopped attending church after a local boy, Tommy Stebbins, drowned in the river while out for a swim. At the funeral, Reverend Brown declared that Tommy wouldn’t be saved because he had never been baptized. Cates interjects that Reverend Brown said the boy’s soul would burn forever. Dunlap shouts from the audience and calls Cates a sinner. The judge pounds his gavel and demands order. Cates continues to shout that religion should help people rather than cause them fear. The judge again calls for order. Drummond requests that Cates’s statements be stricken from the record, and the judge grants the request.
Brady resumes questioning Rachel about Cates’s religious views. Drummond objects on the grounds that hearsay isn’t admissible evidence, but the judge lets the question stand. Referring to their private conversation on the day of Brady’s arrival, Brady asks Rachel to repeat conversations she had with Cates about religious matters. Rachel falters. Brady quotes Cates as saying that man created God and that human marriage was comparable to the breeding of animals. Drummond objects. Rachel, visibly upset, claims that Brady is misquoting a joke Cates made. She goes silent, and Brady dismisses her. At Cates’s request, Drummond also dismisses Rachel.
Davenport states that the prosecution has no further witnesses. Drummond then attempts to call to the stand three scientists. Brady objects to the testimony of experts on evolution, and the judge sustains the objection. Drummond argues that testimony of scientists in this case is no different from testimony of forensics experts in a murder case. Drummond then asks the judge whether he would admit testimony on the Bible. When the judge agrees to allow such testimony, Drummond calls Brady to the stand. Davenport objects. The judge calls Drummond’s request strange, but Brady agrees to take the stand.
Drummond asks Brady about his familiarity with the Bible and with Darwin’s work. Brady says that he knows much of the Bible by memory but that he has never read Darwin. Drummond asks Brady how he can reject a book he has never read. Davenport objects. The judge orders Drummond to confine his questions to matters regarding the Bible. Drummond asks Brady whether he believes that every word in the Bible should be taken literally. Brady says that he does. Drummond then asks Brady about the episode of Jonah and the whale, and Brady says he believes that God is capable of miracles. Drummond asks about the story of Joshua causing the sun to stop, and Brady again affirms his belief in God’s power to perform miracles. Drummond asks Brady if he is aware of the implications of the sun stopping in the sky according to the modern theory of the solar system. Drummond asks Brady if he denies the teachings of Copernicus as well as Darwin. Brady replies that God’s will supercedes natural laws. Drummond asks several more questions relating to the Bible, and Davenport interrupts to raise doubts about the relevance of Drummond’s line of questioning. Brady says Drummond is playing into the prosecution’s hands by demonstrating the defense’s contempt for sacred things.
Drummond says that progress has a price and that the new understandings Darwin has brought to us demand that we surrender our faith in the literal truth of the Bible. Brady protests. Drummond asks Brady why God gave man the power to think if he didn’t intend for him to use it. Drummond asks Brady the difference between a man and a sponge. Brady, faltering, says that God’s will determines the difference between a man and a sponge. Dramatically, Drummond declares that Cates merely wants the same God-given right as a sponge—the right to think. The crowd, for the first time, applauds Drummond.
Brady calls Cates deluded. Drummond says that Cates merely lacks Brady’s clear-cut notions of right and wrong. Drummond calmly walks up to one of the scientists he intended to call to the witness stand and takes from him a small rock. Drummond asks Brady how old he figures the rock is. Brady says he isn’t interested in the rock’s age. Drummond cites one scholar’s claim that the rock is ten million years old. Brady claims that the rock can’t be more than six thousand years old because one biblical scholar determined 4004 b.c. to be the year of creation. Drummond asks Brady whether creation happened during a twenty-four-hour day and whether that day can be considered a day at all, given that the creation of the world preceded the creation of the sun. Drummond suggests that Brady’s supposed first “day” may in fact have been ten million years in duration.
The crowd becomes excited, and the judge calls for order. Brady accuses Drummond of attempting to destroy the people’s faith in the Bible. Drummond says that the Bible is a good book but that it isn’t the sole source of human knowledge. Brady claims that God spoke directly to the Bible’s authors. Drummond responds by asking why we shouldn’t think that God spoke to Darwin as well. Brady insists that God couldn’t have spoken to Darwin because God told Brady so. To the crowd’s amusement, Drummond mocks Brady’s claim to be the mouthpiece of God. Exasperated, Brady backs down momentarily and claims that every man has free will. Drummond asks why, if every man has free will, Cates is in jail. Brady begins raving, quoting the Bible, while Drummond continues to mock him, prompting laughter from the crowd.
Drummond dismisses Brady as a witness, but Brady continues to rant. The judge tells Brady to step down and adjourns the trial until the next day. Davenport asks the judge to strike Brady’s testimony from the record. Still babbling biblical names, Brady collapses in his chair. As the crowd leaves the courtroom, Mrs. Brady comforts her humiliated husband.
The centerpiece of the play, the trial scene careens on the wave of the courtroom crowd’s approval, moving from certain triumph for the prosecution to moral victory for the defense. Drummond’s ironic, probing questioning of witnesses and Rachel Brown’s emotional breakdown at Brady’s hands win Cates the crowd’s sympathies, and the trial culminates in Drummond’s humiliation of the dumbfounded Brady. Once the townspeople clearly demonstrate their support for Cates, the subsequent legal consequences he faces take on secondary importance.
The questioning of Howard, more so than that of any other witness, brings the specific conflict of the trial—creationism versus evolutionism—to an abstract level. Drummond argues to the court, “I am trying to establish, Your Honor, that Howard—or Colonel Brady—or Charles Darwin—or anyone in the courtroom—or you, sir—has the right to think!” When the judge responds that “the right to think is not on trial here,” Drummond barks back that the right to think “is very much on trial,” that it “is fearfully in danger in the proceedings of this court!” But regardless of the validity of Drummond’s argument, the nature of the American legal system limits it. Cates is on trial in a local court for breaking a law. Drummond, in his argument, does not challenge Cates’s guilt or innocence so much as the justice of the law itself, with respect to the Constitution of the United States. As we see at the end of the play, to make this challenge real, Drummond must bring it to a higher court.
The playwrights continually demonstrate their support for the evolutionists’ side by contrasting the defense’s compassion with the fundamentalists’ callous superiority. When Rachel takes the witness stand, Brady asks her to recount Cates’s reasons for his separation from the church community. Rachel recalls her father’s declaration that young Tommy Stebbins, who drowned to death, would be eternally damned because he was never baptized. Through the description of this event and of Cates’s departure from Hillsboro’s religious community, the playwrights illustrate Cates’s own moral development independent from organized religion. Cates declares to the court, “Religion’s supposed to comfort people, isn’t it? Not frighten them to death!” In this sympathetic portrayal, Cates emerges not as an atheist or an agnostic but as an individual who could not, in good conscience, abide by the cruel morality of the church.
Drummond’s argument emphasizes the distinction between “truth,” which he believes every man has a right to seek for himself, and absolute values of right and wrong as determined by religious authorities. Drummond implies that individuals and groups who use faith to stake their claims to righteousness often employ religion as a vehicle or justification for immoral pursuits. Reverend Brown, in his monomaniacal campaign to instill fear in the hearts of the people of Hillsboro, uses religion to buttress his authority. Although Brown enjoys respect from the townspeople, his condemnations of his own daughter and of Tommy Stebbins reveal his heartless interior. Cates, meanwhile, although he has broken the law and expressed doubts about religion, comes across as a compassionate figure. He stands up for Rachel and sincerely mourns Tommy Stebbins as a young life cut off too soon. Despite his status as a legal and religious outsider, Cates embodies a kindness and compassion that stand in sharp contrast to Reverend Brown’s unforgiving scorn.
Drummond suffers several procedural setbacks during the trial but makes his argument nonetheless. He uses Howard’s testimony to demonstrate that evolution represents human possibility rather than denial of God. Next, Drummond equates evolution with modern innovations, like the tractor, that have become essential elements in rural life. When the judge denies the scientific experts the opportunity to testify, Drummond uses Brady to show that a literal interpretation of the Bible leads into a web of contradictions. Although these tactics fail to exonerate Cates, they go a long way in discrediting his persecutors.
During the course of the questioning, the playwrights juxtapose the personalities and philosophies of Brady and Drummond. The stage directions differentiate the opponents: “The courtroom seems to resent Drummond’s gentle ridicule of the orator. To many, there is an effrontery in Drummond’s very voice—folksy and relaxed. It’s rather like a harmonica following a symphony concert.” Drummond’s delivery involves little ornamentation or finesse. Brady, on the other hand, uses a lengthy and grandiose style of oration that initially appeals to the court. But when the substance of Brady’s argument contradicts itself and his hubris becomes clear, Brady loses his popularity and support, while Drummond’s perseverance, grit, logic, and playful irony win over the courtroom.