Critical Context

William Inge enjoyed a long period of continuous success in the American theater. Come Back, Little Sheba (pr., pb. 1950) brought Inge his first recognition. For his next play, Picnic (pr., pb. 1953), Inge was presented the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, the Drama Critics Circle Award, and the Donaldson Award, and the Outer Critics Circle voted Picnic the best play of the year. In 1955, Bus Stop was produced and published, and in 1957 The Dark at the Top of the Stairs completed this cycle.

All these plays deal with love and its ability to heighten, frustrate, or mar happiness. The settings of the plays, in the vast Midwestern plains, add dimension to the loneliness of the characters and extend to them a kind of universality. The older characters speak of love lost, love desired, or love unfulfilled; the younger characters lend hope in their willingness to take chances for happiness. Doc and Lola in Come Back, Little Sheba are masterpieces; Hal Carter and Madge Owens in Picnic achieve love at its physical, emotional, and psychological best. Bo and Cherie in Bus Stop also achieve the ideal.

Though Inge did not enjoy another great success on Broadway, his film scripts also brought moments of true grandeur. In such films as Splendor in the Grass (1961) and Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1964), Inge achieves the same poetic truths with small-town characters. His ability to present characters in powerfully wrought situations made for him a place of significance in the history of the American theater. His insights are gentle, his dialogue realistic, and the truths perceptive. His four great plays, with their expansive American landscape, are panoramic in their ability to illuminate characters and somehow lift them to the level of prototypes. Most significantly, Inge writes with hope for humanity.