The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Bus Stop begins during a snowstorm in early March in a small town about thirty miles west of Kansas City. The entire action of the play takes place in a street-corner restaurant, which serves as a stopover for the bus lines in the area. It is 1:00 a.m., and telephone lines are down because of the snow. Elma Duckworth, a romantic girl who works for Grace, the restaurant owner, questions Grace about her life with her former husband, Barton. The sheriff, Will Masters, comes in to tell them that the Topeka bus is due and the road to Topeka is blocked by the storm.

Act 1 presents the other major characters of the play, now stranded in this bus stop in rural Kansas. The first to appear from the bus is Cherie, a blonde girl of about twenty, dressed in a jacket of tarnished metallic cloth, a dress of sequins and net, and gilded sandals that reveal brightly painted toenails. Her accent is Southern; she is from the Ozarks. Cherie works at the Blue Dragon nightclub by the stockyards in Kansas City and is being abducted by Bo Decker, a cowboy from Montana who has succumbed to her charms and now seeks her hand in marriage, since she is his first sexual conquest. Cherie had quit school at age twelve to stay home with her many brothers and sisters in River Gulch, Arkansas. When a flood washed away the town, her family was separated; she and one sister then went to Joplin, where Cherie won second prize in an amateur talent contest. This achievement led to her present employment at the Blue Dragon.

The second character from the bus is Dr. Gerald Lyman, a former Rhodes Scholar with a Ph.D. from Harvard University; he has been married three times and freed with varying exactions from the women. The third wife wanted only freedom to seek new happiness with a ballplayer; the second wife, a former student, sued him for divorce on charges of drunkenness and incontinence; the first wife, after a month’s honeymoon in Bermuda, sued him for his house, car, and an alimony he still finds difficult to pay. He now wanders from town to town simply to prove that he is free, having walked away from his last position at a small, progressive college in the East. His first words are from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Ah! This castle hath a pleasant seat.” He gives the central clue to his character when he quotes from Hamlet: “Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered!” The professor is hopelessly trapped by the concept of the ideal, and his preference for young maidens has led him to local schoolyards, much to the chagrin of the authorities. His travels give him an opportunity to seek those young divinities who will, perhaps, lend meaning to his otherwise miserable existence. He immediately begins his pursuit of Elma.

Bo Decker and Virgil Blessing enter last, Bo having fallen asleep on the bus. Virgil, in his forties, has a fatherly attitude toward Bo, who is in his twenties, the epitome of youthful masculinity. Bo owns a ranch in Timber...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

William Inge employs a journey device to frame his play-within-the-play. His wayfarers are exiled, and they prevail upon one another’s talents to alleviate the emptiness of this snowy night. In this manner, each character is explicated fully, and the significant details of his motives and actions are revealed. It is a device similar to Geoffrey Chaucer’s in The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) and Giovanni Boccaccio’s in The Decameron (1353).

The playwright skillfully interweaves comedy with tragedy to create dramatic irony. When Dr. Lyman plays the balcony scene with young Elma, he repeats the line, “My name, dear saint, is... is hateful to myself.” These words serve as a point of recognition for him and bring him to the admission that he has placed himself above others and made himself unable to love. The pose of the intellectually superior being is merely that, a pose. The fact that the planned rendezvous with Elma is canceled suggests that the professor may have achieved a degree of genuine self-knowledge.

The play’s setting is ingenious in that its isolation illuminates the spiritual isolation of many of the characters. Young Elma longs for the adventure that exposure to such places as Topeka can bring. Grace passes her lonely life here, grateful for the temporary relief Carl brings from the emotional and physical exile she experiences. Cherie decides to bring the loneliness of one-night stands to a stop as she...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Kansas diner

Kansas diner. Dingy Kansas restaurant where long-haul buses make rest stops. All three acts of the play occur within this setting. The audience understands that the owner’s apartment is above the restaurant and there is a privy out back. These facts emphasize the small-town nature and rural setting of the play. A sense of bleakness, isolation, and loneliness pervades the play. The time is an hour after midnight, and snow is falling heavily. Roads are closed, and the bus from Topeka will be forced to lay over.

When the bus arrives and its passengers and driver disembark, the lonely diner becomes alive with people, each of whom reflects the isolation of the location with a similar isolation. Preoccupied by personal concerns, the characters allow little real communication among themselves. Eventually, a few manage to overcome their personal isolation. However, for the most part, the restaurant becomes a metaphor for the lack of meaningful interaction among human beings and for the transitory nature of human relationships. The play is Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks, transferred from an urban to a rural location. At the conclusion of the play, the diner once again stands empty and alone.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Marilyn Monroe and Cherie Published by Gale Cengage

Booming 1950s Economy
In the post-World War II years, the nation was economically prosperous. The G.I. Bill provided...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Dramas are divided into different acts. In Greek plays the drama was usually divided into five acts. This is the...

(The entire section is 413 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1955: Walt Disney opened Disneyland in Los Angeles, California. Built for $17 million, the park was so successful that...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

After World War II the U. S. government began an aggressive campaign to build a system of freeways that would link the United States and make...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Bus Stop was made into a popular Hollywood film in 1956. It was nominated for several awards, including an Academy Award Best...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

William Inge’s Picnic (1953) concerns young love. Although more serious than Bus Stop, it is also a...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Atkinson, Brooks. A review of Bus Stop in The New York Times, March 3, 1955.


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(Great Characters in Literature)

Dusenbury, Winifred L. The Theme of Loneliness in Modern American Drama. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1960. Focuses mostly on Come Back, Little Sheba. Much about the theme of loneliness can be applied to most of Inge’s plays, and most notably to Bus Stop.

Inge, William. “Interview with William Inge.” In Behind the Scenes: Theatre and Film Interviews from the “Transatlantic Review,” edited by Joseph McCrindle. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971. A seven-page interview with William Inge is searching and revealing. It provides valuable insights into Inge’s major dramas, including Bus Stop.

Kansas Quarterly 18, no. 4 (1986). This entire issue of Kansas Quarterly is devoted to William Inge. The dozen articles cover most of his plays and both of his novels. Although no single article is devoted to Bus Stop, at least half of them give some interpretive consideration to the play.

Lewis, Allan. American Plays and Playwrights of the Contemporary Theatre. New York: Crown, 1965. Compares Bus Stop to Maxim Gorky’s Na dne (1902; The Lower Depths, 1912).

Shuman, R. Baird. William Inge. 2d ed. New York: Twayne, 1989. Offers a complete reevaluation of all of Inge’s plays and of his two novels. A major interpretive section on Bus Stop.

Voss, Ralph F. A Life of William Inge: The Strains of Triumph. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989. Voss’s is the most thorough critical biography of William Inge. His analytical considerations of all the plays are strong, and his comments on Bus Stop have particular merit.