Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Although the trial in Inherit the Wind concerns the battle between creationism and evolutionism, a deeper conflict exists beneath the surface. Drummond points to this more basic issue when he asks his young witness Howard whether he believes in Darwin. When the boy responds that he hasn’t made up his mind, Drummond insists that the boy’s freedom to think—to make up his own mind—is what is actually on trial.
The creationists in the play, who adhere to rigid, fundamental Christian doctrines, are a conservative force that has prescribed for Hillsboro society how their minds should be made up. Their conservatism is rooted in fear. The most adamant creationists, Brady and Reverend Brown, occupy positions of authority at the top of the social order, and their primary motivation is to maintain this control over that social order. Like Darwinism, which questions the religious foundation of that social order, new, progressive ideas present a threat to the creationists’ status as leaders.
Drummond, Hornbeck, and Cates, though they maintain respectable positions within society—attorney, journalist, and teacher, respectively—are more interested in the truth than in maintaining their own social status. Their willingness to stand by their own judgments even as they call those judgments to question indicates their self-reliance—a trait that is notably absent in Brown and Brady, who lean instead on the legitimacy gained by their status as religious leaders. Brown, for instance, uses fire-and-brimstone sermons to root out dissent in the Hillsboro community and within his own family. The obedience he demands of the community is the opposite of freedom. In contrast, the questioning that Cates practices—and encourages—promotes free thinking, which opens new paths to progress.
In the early twentieth century, rapid urbanization, immigration, and technological improvements exposed American city dwellers to a wide range of new ideas. Although advances in transportation and communication enabled these ideas to spread throughout the United States, many rural areas were slow to accept these new ways of thinking.
In Inherit the Wind, Hillsboro and its residents exemplify this conservative, rural mindset. Hillsboro’s largely static townspeople are seldom exposed to new faces, let alone new ideas. Many are illiterate or have received education solely from a single, conservative perspective—fundamentalist Christianity. Within the small confines of their town, Reverend Brown’s parishioners are content and complacent because their day-to-day environment never presents them with any new or contrary ideas.
When the trial starts, Drummond, Hornbeck, the radio announcer, and several prestigious scientists arrive in Hillsboro from the nation’s big cities, hoping to teach the locals a lesson in progress and free thought. Brady and Brown, meanwhile, cast Drummond as the devil, an agnostic crawling from the city gutters to defile the purity of Hillsboro’s citizens. The gruff manners of Drummond and Hornbeck do little to endear them to their new small-town acquaintances. In contrast, Brady, though a figure of national prominence, showboats his humble Nebraska origins in order to win the locals’ support.