William Inge: Small Town America On Stage

The name William Inge probably isn’t recognizable to many, but serious classic movie buffs—the kind of folks who log long hours watching movies on TCM or AMC—are probably familiar with movies based on his plays. Inge was one of the most popular and successful American playwrights of the 1950s, and four of his plays were adapted for the screen, with each one featuring well-known stars in lead roles. These include Come Back, Little Sheba (1952) with Burt Lancaster and Shirley Booth; Picnic (1955), with William Holden and Kim Novak; Bus Stop (1956), with Marilyn Monroe and Don Murray; and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs ( 1960) with Robert Preston and Dorothy McGuire. Inge’s last great success was with the story and screenplay for Splendor In The Grass (1961), starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. Inge won the Academy Award for his screenplay for Splendor In The Grass. All of these films except for Bus Stop are set in the Midwest.

William Inge

William Inge

William Motter Inge was born in Independence, Kansas on May 3, 1913. His father, a salesman, was often gone from home, and Inge grew up largely in the presence of women, including not only his mother and sisters but also an aunt, who were all outgoing and talkative. His mother was doting and overprotective, and Inge was a shy and introspective boy who was drawn to the theater and who, according to R. Baird Shuman in his Twayne’s study of Inge, “became a good listener, a shrew judge of people and their speech patterns, and a perceptive observer of middle-class hypocrisy. These qualities, established early, served him well when he began to write plays.”

Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty in "Splendor In The Grass."

Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty in “Splendor In The Grass.”

Inge became active in theater in high school and also liked to perform recitations for local groups. Inge entered the University of Kansas in 1930 with majors in speech and drama and plans of becoming an actor. He performed in college plays and acted during two of the summers between semesters and actually left college for a year to perform with a touring company. After graduation he went to Culver Military Academy in Indiana with a plan to teach there a while and earn some money to support himself for a future move to New York.

Shirley Booth in the film version of "Come Back, Little Sheba"--an incredible performance. (Photo: classicmoviesblogspot.com)

Shirley Booth in the film version of “Come Back, Little Sheba”–an incredible performance. (Photo: classicmoviesblogspot.com)

The onset of the Depression made Inge change his plans. He was offered a scholarship to the George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, Tennessee and went there to complete a master’s in English. Inge eventually completed his degree after some time working on a Kansas road gang and stints as a radio announcer and high school teacher. He then joined the staff of Stephens Women’s College in Columbia, Missouri as an English and drama instructor. There Inge worked alongside the legendary stage actress Maude Adams, head of the college’s drama department. Inge changed jobs once again in 1943. When Reed Hynds, drama critic for the St. Louis Star-Times was drafted, Inge was hired to take his place for the duration of Hynds’ service.

Postwar steaminess: William Holden and Kim Novak in a publicity still for "Picnic."

Postwar steaminess: William Holden and Kim Novak in a publicity still for “Picnic.”

Inge proved to be a natural at the job, and one day decided to do a feature story on a playwright with local connections who was on his way up in the theater world: Tennessee Williams. Inge and Williams met and got along right away (and had a short-lived love affair as well). Inge saw the opening of Williams’ The Glass Menagerie in Chicago in 1944 before it went to New York to open on Broadway and was powerfully impressed, believing it not only the finest play he had ever seen, but also realizing that everyday people and situations like the ones he knew from his own life could form the basis for powerful dramatic art. Inge began to write plays. He returned to teaching after his service on the newspaper ended, this time at Washington University, but was determined to succeed as a dramatist.

Don Murray and Marilyn Monroe in the film version of "Bus Stop."

Don Murray and Marilyn Monroe in the film version of “Bus Stop.”

He was soon on his way. An unpublished short story Inge had written earlier became Come Back, Little Sheba, the story of the once happy but now troubled couple Doc and Lola Delaney. The play opened on Broadway with Sidney Blackmer and Shirley Booth as Doc and Lola, and Booth would reprise her role in the film version. Inge’s three other best known plays followed: Picnic, Bus Stop, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, each one eventually adapted for the screen. Inge won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1953 for his play Picnic. This play also earned him the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Donaldson Award. The Donaldson was an earlier prestigious theater prize that fell by the wayside after the rise of the Tony Awards.

But by the end of the 1950s, Inge’s star had begun to fade. His play A Loss of Roses, later made into the move The Stripper (1963) with Joanne Woodward, flopped on stage. Inge had one last success in film with the screenplay for Splendor In The Grass, but other plays of his in the 1960s met with disappointing critical and audience response. By the early Seventies, Inge focused on writing fiction, completing two novels: Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff (1970) and My Son Is a Splendid Driver (1971).

Timmy Everett, Eileen Heckard, and Frank Overton in a Broadway production of "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs."

Timmy Everett, Eileen Heckard, and Frank Overton in a Broadway production of “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.”

A man who had long suffered from alcoholism, depression, and self doubt, along with anxiety about his homosexuality, Inge finally reached a breaking point and committed suicide on June 10, 1973.

Inge deserves to better known. His work explored the themes of isolation, loneliness, and people in conflict who recognize their obligations to one another and learn to accept limits and compromises in their lives. His work marvelously evokes the Midwest, particularly the Midwest of the 1920s. Although the features of small town life and provincial society that can be oppressive or destructive are a part of Inge’s work, I would have to agree with the scholar Michael Wentworth that Inge “downplays the small-town setting as a primary and exclusive psychological determinant but focuses rather upon his characters’ capacity for for personal growth and maturation in such a setting.”

Inge’s papers are housed at the Independence Community College in Independence, Kansas, which hosts an annual William Inge Theater Festival. Buckeyemuse is a long-term proposition, so there will be more about Inge and his various works down the road.

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

William Inge (Revised Edition) by R. Baird Shuman, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1989.

Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One–The Authors. Entry on William Inge by Michael Wentworth. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2001.

Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature. Edited by George Perkins, Barbara Perkins, Phillip Leininger. Entry on William Inge by Sam Smiley. Harper Collins, New York, 1991.

3 Comments

  1. Ann Kennedy on May 3, 2016 at 10:28 pm

    If not for Splendor…and Picnic, I wouldn’t have recognized the name. I saw Splendor at, a young age, and wasn’t supposed to have seen it. But I must say at the time it seemed to have a darkness that I was yet to understand, but what my friends and I found intriguing. Having seen it again as a young adult, its impact was quite different. As for Picnic, what a great dance scene, and you can watch it on youtube, of course.

    Another wonderful piece, Patrick. You always expand my reading, writing, watching and listening to-do list:-)

    • buckeyemuse on May 4, 2016 at 12:21 am

      Thank you, Ann. I have seen Splendor, Come Back, Little Sheba and Bus Stop but have yet to see the other two. I just picked up a copy of Picnic at Barnes and Noble recently. I look forward to doing posts on all these movies/plays. I was really struck by how potent Splendor is–I found the first forty minutes kind of rocky, but then the movie hits its stride for me. It definitely got me to thinking about what are the healthy ways we can help young people grow into adulthood–and what some unhealthy ways are and what they do to people. Thanks again, Ann—I always enjoy reading your responses. More new stuff on the way!

  2. Ann Kennedy on May 4, 2016 at 1:43 am

    Looking forward to more! It might take me awhile to get to it, but I’ll make it eventually. I’m about to wind up the blog and life may return to normal, such as it is:-)

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