Rather than being fully realized characters-at least on the printed page-the characters in Inherit the Wind are type characters-that is, one who “embodies a substantial number of significant distinguishing characteristics of his group or class” (Holman, 541-42). The main characters are, for the most part, starkly drawn and lack nuance. Rather than being a flaw, however, this fact may account for some of the play’s strength and its enduring power in the American theatrical repertoire. Because the characters are to some extent universal, capable of being recognized in any day and any place, they are able to shoulder the meanings and experiences subsequent generations of readers and theatergoers bring to their encounters with them.
Bertram Cates is a young teacher who is open to new ideas and who shares some of those ideas, Darwinian theories of evolution, with his students, in defiance of a state law that forbids him to do so. Cates is “typed” as a free-thinker, one who is not afraid to ask questions and to speculate, and who does not believe that merely entertaining a new thought makes one a criminal.
Matthew Harrison Brady is a charismatic politician-a three-time presidential candidate-and preacher who champions a literal reading of the Bible, which he sees as the hallmark of true faith. He is concerned with public morality and views Cates’ teaching of evolution as a threat to it. Brady is “typed” as one who belongs to the past, and as a closed-minded religious authoritarian.
The Rev. Jeremiah Brown, however, may fit that type even closer than does Brady. Brown represents some of the worst that religion has to offer. His fervor for true faith even leads him, at one point, to pray a curse upon his own daughter, Rachel Brown, who is in love with Bertram Cates, because Rachel dares to ask him to pray for Bert’s soul with mercy (a supposedly Christian attribute!). Brady, at least, evinces none of the mean-spirited judgmentalism that Brown does. By the end of the play, Rachel, like Cates, is willing to expose herself to new ideas; her father, presumably, never reaches that point.
Henry Drummond is the attorney from the “big city”-intellectual, liberal, free-thinking, sophisticated in the eyes of the world-who defends Cates. He is as passionate a champion of the right to think as Brady is a champion of the “old-time religion.” Drummond is labeled at various points in the play as a “godless atheist,” and, while he is an atheist (or at the least agnostic), he is “typed” as one who sees the sacred in the human individual. The mind is sacred to Drummond, and its freedom and integrity must not be violated.
E.K. Hornbeck is, like Drummond, a “big city sophisticate,” but he is more cynical and-as his speech in blank verse throughout the play shows-self-important than is the attorney. The playwrights “type” Hornbeck as a skeptic who is quick to reduce people and situations to witty one-liners. By he play’s end he is as skeptical of Drummond as he is of Brady. Hornbeck emerges as, in some ways, just as close-minded as Brady or Brown, because he is unable to see in Brady what Drummond does: a certain greatness of spirit, however mistaken.