Bus Stop is an expanded version of William Inge’s one-act play People in the Wind (pb. 1962), which enjoyed both popular and critical success, having more Broadway performances than any of his other plays. Critics praised his abilities to accurately capture the flavor of the American Midwest in his diction and multidimensional characters, who ache with loneliness, without sentimentality.
In interviews, Inge stated that he viewed the play as an experiment in which he could examine different kinds of love, from innocence to depravity, and thought of Bus Stop as a comedy. Bo’s undisciplined, yet well-intended behavior creates most of the humor in the play, and this combination of homespun wit with the pathos of the characters likely accounts for the play’s continuing popularity over time.
Like his earlier works, Inge examines themes of loneliness along with the connection between love and sex. Overt references to sexual activity include Carl and Grace’s casual affair during the course of the play, Bo’s reference to being “familiar” with Cherie, and the undercurrent of immorality in Dr. Lyman’s advances toward Elma. With the sexually repressed climate of the 1950’s, many critics of the time objected to the play’s preoccupation with sex, most of which is omitted from the film version (for which Inge did not write the screenplay). Biographer R. Baird Shuman argues that Inge’s use of sex in the play is not crass, however, but rather an effective way to reveal the alienation humans experience in the search for genuine love and acceptance. Inge succeeds in underscoring his dialogue with a profound sense of loneliness and longing for love.
This search for love and authentic human connection constitutes the main theme of the play. All the characters, with the exception of Will, refer in some way to their own sense of isolation. Grace tells Elma in the first few moments of the play that without the restaurant, she would go crazy with loneliness, and despite his bravado, Bo confesses to Virgil that “in the last few months, I been so lonesome, I . . . I jest didn’t know what t’do with m’self.” Although the other characters do not make explicit reference to being alone, it is suggested in their situations. Cherie, separated from most of her family by a flood, wants to appear strong and independent, but her revelations to Elma about her future prospects show Cherie to be a lonely young woman looking for a man to truly love her and not use her as a sexual object. Elma suggests that if Cherie only loved Bo, it would not be so bad to go with him to Montana, but adds “If you don’t love him, it’d be awfully lonely.” Lyman, too selfish to submit himself to true love, has three failed marriages and an unsuccessful teaching career. Knowing his attraction to girls is inappropriate, he lives a forlorn existence, traveling from one place to another in an attempt to escape the authorities. He chooses to remain in a drunken state, unable to bear the pain of his own depravity but incapable or unwilling to make any changes in his character.
The dialogue never clearly establishes whether or not Carl is married, but driving a bus is certainly a solitary profession. Inge hints in the play that other bus drivers have told Carl that Grace may be “agreeable” and that he is taking advantage of her loneliness. In the play’s final act, Grace seems happy to have an occasional fling with Carl without the burden of commitment. This echoes Grace’s earlier line to Elma about the loneliness she felt in her...
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marriage when she says “makin’ love isone thing, and bein’ lonesome is another.” When Will makes it clear that Carl and Grace have spent some time upstairs together, however, Grace is embarrassed, fearing Elma might think worse of her. Grace justifies her actions by explaining that she is restless and has to have a man occasionally, “just to keep m’self from gettin’ grouchy.” Even Elma—young, smart, and curious—reveals her sadness in not having any boyfriends. The unspoken implication is that Elma does not have a date for the school prom or for a Saturday night movie.
Inge portrays Virgil, Bo’s longtime friend and father figure, as the most tragic of all the characters. To care for Bo, he has given up his chances of finding someone to love, and at the end of the play is left completely alone—literally out in the cold. It is almost inconceivable that Grace, a warm and compassionate woman, would not offer Virgil the option of waiting inside for the next bus, but Inge carefully plots the play in such a way that Grace and Virgil have no contact until the end—she never had a chance to get to know him. She is exhausted and wants to go to bed, but cannot chance leaving the restaurant unlocked, so she is forced to put him out. Had Carl not been interested in Grace, the play might have ended with her taking Virgil in, which would have made a much tidier and happier ending for the play. Inge rejects the happy ending, however, bringing a more honest and sardonic tone to Bus Stop that resonates beneath the action of the play, raising it above the level of trivial romantic comedy.
Because Bus Stop, however well-crafted, is considered largely predictable, it did not win any major awards, and most critics do not consider Inge a great playwright, even though he garnered the Pulitzer Prize with his play Picnic (pr., pb. 1953). No one can dispute, however, the overwhelming popularity of Bus Stop in not only the 1950’s but also the twenty-first century.
The humor and romance between Bo and Cherie take central focus in the play, but Inge’s gifts as a playwright rest most comfortably in his use of subplots and his creation of intricate and distinctive minor characters who are shaped with such compassion for their frailties that audiences are immediately drawn to them. The heavier, more complicated relationships of the supporting characters give Bus Stop a deeper meaning that speaks directly to the human heart about loneliness and the infinite search for meaningful connections, which accounts for the play’s longevity in American theater.