In 1955, Americans were watching I Love Lucy, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and Davy Crockett. In these programs, life was easy; jobs were plentiful, and the American Dream appeared as a tangible reality. It was an idealized image of an America that only existed on television—and on the stage.
In Bus Stop, William Inge attempts to create a story that is, according to him, ‘‘a composite picture of varying kinds of love, ranging from the innocent to the depraved.’’ This was his intent, as stated in the forward to Four Plays, published in 1958. This very sentiment recalls a time in American social history when love and sexuality could be neatly defined and classified. Inge’s play was meant for an America defined by picket fences, perfect families, and romantic infatuations that could be resolved in thirty minutes.
It is now clear that the world was not so perfect. The Cold War raged, women were marginalized, and the fight for civil rights was escalating; but for two hours audiences could escape and find solace in a small Midwestern town—even if it was not real. Inge features three romantic situations in Bus Stop—Bo and Cherie, Grace and Carl, and Elma and Lyman. While Inge may have hoped that the audience would find each couple equally interesting, it is clear that Bo and Cherie take center stage. And although they are obviously unsuited for one another, the romantic ideal is that love conquers all.
In the 1950s, television audiences knew that all the differences, problems, and conflicts would be neatly resolved before the last commercial aired. Strong parents, mostly fathers, could set any problem straight. Viewers rarely questioned this formula, and indeed, there was something comforting about its very predictability. Critics who reviewed Bus Stop noted that whether Bo and Cherie ended up together was never a question. What held the audience’s interest was how the couple would reach the end goal.
In this respect, romantic comedy, whether it appeared on television, film, or theater, provided the same comforting resolution. As Gerald Weales notes, ‘‘it is proper that Cherie and Bo exit together for a Montana ranch where, according to the conventions of the theater, they will live happily ever after.’’ This is the ultimate goal of the writer whose plot embraces romantic love.
If, as Inge states, he wanted to portray varying kinds of love, how can Cherie and Bo’s romance be classified? Consider that Bo’s sole goal in finding a wife is to assuage his loneliness. He barely knows Cherie, never ask if she loves him, and indeed, does not seem to want the answer to that question. Her choice to leave with him appears to be based as much on opportunity and lack of choice, as it is on genuine affection, if in fact, she actually loves him. For most of the play she does not even like him.
Thus, their union at the end of the play is formulaic and unrealistic. It is, however, in keeping with romanticized visions of ideal love, which insists that sex should end in marriage.
Inge’s goal of portraying depraved love might be defined by any of the three couples, since at least one member of each pairing also defies the mores of the 1950s. In the puritanical atmosphere of the period, illicit sexuality, as Inge demonstrated in Come Back, Little Sheba and Picnic, is always cause for public concern. In Bus Stop, Cherie admits to a sexual history. She has had many partners, beginning at age fourteen with her cousin and continuing even when she met Bo. That is, in fact, how they first got together; the problem for Cherie is that Bo mistakes sex for love.
According to the values of the 1950s, Cherie must love Bo, since she cannot simply walk off insisting that it was only sex—even if it was. She must love him, or she must be provided with a reason for her sexual freedom, as is Grace.
The older, more experienced Grace is as lonely as Bo, but marriage is not the answer. She states that she is only looking for a temporary or...
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