Back at the storefront, Hornbeck strolls and the storekeeper closes up. The organ-grinder comes onstage with the monkey, and Melinda gives the monkey a penny. Henry Drummond, a thick, slouching man, enters. Seeing Drummond in front of the bright red of the setting sun, Melinda exclaims, “It’s the Devil!” Hornbeck greets Drummond, saying “Hello, Devil. Welcome to Hell.”
The introductory note that precedes Act One establishes that Inherit the Wind does not adhere strictly to the factual details of the Scopes Monkey Trial, which frees the playwrights to deliver universally applicable lessons about humankind in the modern age. In twentieth-century America, the advancement of technology and ideas often outpaced the general population’s ability to digest and understand them. The reconciliation of science and religion remains an issue to this day, and perspectives restricted by religion, politics, or nationality often impede individual freedom of thought and expression. This tension manifested itself in the debate over evolution in the 1920s, just as the debate over the ethical implications of human cloning stirs similar controversy today.
The playwrights hint at one of Inherit the Wind’s major themes—the conflict between urban and rural attitudes—in their description of the setting of the opening scene. They stress that Hillsboro should appear a “sleepy, obscure country town about to be vigorously awakened.” The natural state of Hillsboro is static—a condition that is disrupted by the arrival of prominent strangers from cities in the first scene.
The opening lines of the play introduce the central conflict: that of creationism versus evolutionism. As befits a play about the meaning of education, the first characters onstage are children. Howard and Melinda enact the conflict troubling the town in miniature. Howard accuses Melinda’s father of being a monkey, while she, in turn, accuses Howard of “sinful talk.” Melinda’s reaction mirrors the outrage of Hillsboro’s authorities and adults about Cates’s teaching of evolution theory in public school. Howard, meanwhile, attempts to convey Cates’s ideas about evolution but betrays a distorted understanding of these new ideas. Evolution does not equate men with monkeys, but rather posits that the two species share common ancestors. When Howard asks a worm what he wants to be when he grows up, what he really means to ask is what the worm wants its species to become when it evolves. Howard’s misunderstanding humorously illustrates the ways in which young minds can internalize and distort new ideas.
The Hillsboro townspeople, aside from Cates, Rachel, and Reverend Brown, form a composite character, and function as a barometer for atmosphere surrounding the trial. Their sense of festivity in welcoming Brady to Hillsboro demonstrates the town’s unquestioning embrace of Christian fundamentalism and the significance of this trial in such a quiet, rural town. The playwrights convey the townspeople’s lack of sophistication through their dialect and the content of their words. The mountain man Elijah’s illiteracy emphasizes Hillsboro’s lack of progress. The fact that an illiterate man sells Bibles adds a layer of irony, for Elijah believes in and profits from a book he can’t even read himself. Indeed, a significant portion of Hillsboro’s townspeople are illiterate, so Reverend Brown’s authority as an interpreter of Scripture carries extra weight.
Brady, who arrives in a flurry of gluttony and arrogance, betrays the ignorance and fear at the root of his religious fundamentalism. Although Brady professes his disgust at the idea of evolution, he knows next to nothing about Charles Darwin’s work. One of Inherit the Wind’s recurring arguments, which Drummond later makes explicit in his defense of Cates, is that it is unjust to reject ideas without examining them. When Brady hears that Drummond will oppose him in the trial, he and the mayor discuss banning Drummond from Hillsboro as a public health hazard. Though absurd, this suggestion is not all that different from the Hillsboro legislature’s law against instruction in evolution—both show how figures of authority can use their power to spread fear of the unknown among those they govern.
E. K. Hornbeck provides crucial commentary throughout Inherit the Wind. The playwrights use him to transmit their opinions to the audience—a logical choice, for Hornbeck stands in for the real-life journalist and critic H. L. Mencken, whose reporting on the Scopes trial served as a critical source for the playwrights. Hornbeck’s quips also provide comic relief in an otherwise weighty work. Although it often appears, especially early in the play, that Hornbeck’s comments are addressed to no one but himself, he serves as a chorus character for the playwrights’ attitudes toward religion and the events of the trial. Echoing the choruses of ancient Greek drama, Hornbeck’s lines appear in verse form, and his predictions, which initially seem extreme, eventually prove true as the play progresses. His presence accentuates the differences between urban and rural attitudes as he editorializes that the rural South lags behind the rest of the nation in coming to terms with the changing times.