Bertram “Bert” Cates is currently awaiting trial in Hillsboro, Tennessee for teaching his students evolution. Rachel Brown, the reverend’s daughter, is visiting Bert in the courthouse jail. It seems that she and Bert are romantically involved, and she is trying to convince Bert to recant, in order to get out of trouble. Bert refuses, believing that teaching evolution is not a crime. He is determined to stand firm, despite Matthew Harrison Brady, a former presidential candidate, coming to Hillsboro to prosecute Bert. The Reverend Jeremiah Brown, Rachel’s father, is concerned with making a good impression with Brady, and ensuring that Brady knows Hillsboro is a God-fearing town. E.K. Hornbeck, a journalist for the Baltimore Herald, arrives in the town. He provides surly and sarcastic comic relief, but his biting comments seem to sail right over the townspeople’s heads. In contrast, Matthew Harrison Brady arrives dramatically in the town and immediately captures the hearts of the people. Henry Drummond will be legal counsel for the defense, sponsored by the Baltimore Herald. Drummond is a well-known agnostic, and the people of the town begin likening Drummond to the Devil himself. Brady, for his part, welcomes the challenge.
The prayer meeting devolves into a sermon by Reverend Brown, reciting the creation story from the Bible, and ends with his praying for Bert’s eternal damnation. Rachel rushes forward and begs him to stop. Even Brady tries to curtail Brown, reminding him of a line from the Book of Proverbs: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind”. This is a stern warning that sometimes zeal can destroy, rather than save. Howard, the little boy at the beginning of the play, is called to the stand. He reports that Bert did teach them about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and that he did say that humans were descended from “old world monkeys”. He damningly reports that no mention of God or the Book of Genesis were made during the lessons, which incenses the court. Drummond questions the boy about whether he thinks reading from Darwin’s book is wrong and posits that the entire trial is based on whether or not people are allowed to think. The Judge objects and insists that the right to think is not on trial, to which Drummond responds that a man sits in jail because he chose to speak what he thinks.
Rachel is called to the stand. Brady asks Rachel why Bert stopped going to church two summers ago. Rachel responds that it was after the little Stebbins boy drowned. At the funeral, Reverend Brown preached that the boy didn’t die in a “state of grace” because he hadn’t been baptized at the time of his death, meaning that Tommy Stebbins is in Hell. Brady then forces Rachel to reveal the comment that Bert had made in private. She hesitantly admits that Bert once joked, “God created Man in His own image – and Man, being a gentleman, returned the compliment.” Brady pushes Rachel further, but she becomes so emotionally distraught that she is excused from the stand, and Bert won’t allow Drummond to question her further.
Drummond then attempts to call Dr. Keller, head of the University of Chicago Zoology Department, as an expert witness to explain exactly what evolutionary theory is to the jury. Brady objects on the grounds that this kind of testimony would violate the Butler Act, which is what they are there to try to enforce. The Judge agrees, and also strikes down Drummond’s two other expert witnesses, decimating Drummond’s case. Drummond knows he has to get creative, and asks the Judge if he will admit expert testimony on the Holy Bible, to which both Brady and the Judge agree. Drummond uses this opportunity to call Brady himself to the stand, as he is a self-professed expert on the Bible.
He asks Brady how he can be so sure evolution is irreconcilable with the spirit of the Biblical creation story when he’s never even read Origin of Species. Drummond pulls out a copy of the Bible and asks whether Brady believes that the Bible should be taken literally, to which Brady responds in the affirmative. He questions him with Biblical stories. After showing Brady fossil remains that date back 10 million years, he brings his questioning to the finale: if the sun was not created by God until the fourth day, who is to say that the first three days were only 24-hours long? Brady falters and Drummond posits the first “day” could have been 10 million years long.
The Judge attempts to regain control of the court, and Brady accuses Drummond of attacking the Bible. Drummond asks why God could not have possibly spoken to Charles Darwin. It ends with Brady yelling that God does, indeed, speak to him, to which Drummond declares him the “Prophet from Nebraska.” Brady is humiliated and begins to yell the names of the books of the Old Testament, as he is excused from the stand. The court is cleared.
A radio man from Chicago is setting up to broadcast the case from the courtroom. It’s the first time a public event has ever been broadcast over the radio, a historic occasion. The Judge reads the verdict: guilty. Bert makes a statement which is faltering, but does show that he will continue to oppose what he views as an unjust law. Brady feels let down by a lack of drama surrounding the verdict; the people view him as a joke now. The Judge fines Bert $100, with no prison time, and allows 30 days for a file of appeal with the State Supreme Court.
The Judge recesses the court, but Brady desperately wants to make one final speech. With the business of the court concluded, a few spectators dutifully stay to listen, but without enthusiasm; the rest of the townspeople have moved on from their fallen hero. Brady collapses from the heat and stress, and is rushed to a doctor.
Bert sees the fact that he’s lost his job and possibly his place at the local boarding house as a loss, but Drummond assures him that he has been a champion for others who will also be affected by this law, and others like it, and those who will challenge it, as he did. Rachel enters with a suitcase and announces she’s leaving her father’s house. The Judge enters to announce Brady has died. Hornbeck makes some smarmy comments, at which Drummond takes great offense and defends Brady’s memory. Through an impromptu eulogy, he reveals that he is probably even more religious than Brady was, but knows that God isn’t as unforgiving and immovable as Brady made Him out to be. Hornbeck is appalled by the revelation of Drummond’s beliefs, and accuses him of being overly sentimental. Bert goes home to pack so that he can meet Rachel at the train depot to get out of town. Alone, Drummond picks up Darwin’s book in one hand and the Bible in the other. He weighs them in each hand, shrugs, and then slaps them together and puts them into his briefcase, symbolizing that maybe, just maybe, these two opposing concepts can coexist.
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