The Play

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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 Hill, Montana, to which he is returning after winning almost every first place in the rodeo events in Kansas City. So successful was he that his picture was taken by Life magazine. He watched Cherie sing her best number, “That Ole Black Magic,” fell desperately in love, and now wishes to solidify his sense of responsibility for her through marriage. She insists that she does not want to marry him, but he is...

(This entire section contains 1231 words.)

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staunch in his commitment.

The act ends as Grace develops a headache and goes upstairs to her apartment for a nap. Carl, the bus driver, has supposedly gone for a walk. Will, the sheriff, leaves the room, and Dr. Lyman speaks of his hatred for authority figures, noting that, right or wrong, he always insists on having his way.

The second act finds Dr. Lyman trying to set up a rendezvous with Elma in Topeka, where she plans to see the Kansas City Symphony and stay overnight with her sister. He arranges to meet her there. Virgil discloses that he was once in love, but felt more comfortable with the fellows in the bunkhouse. Cherie reveals that she has been dating men since she was fourteen, having almost married her cousin Malcolm at that age. She also tells how she fled from Bo, only to be caught at the bus station and forced onto the bus to Montana. When Cherie suggests that Virgil play a guitar tune for them to help pass the time, Elma wants to have a floor show that will demonstrate their various talents.

The performances feature Virgil on his guitar, Cherie singing “That Ole Black Magic,” and Dr. Lyman and Elma acting the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Bo, though asked to perform some of his rope tricks, prefers to brood. During the rendition of the balcony scene, Dr. Lyman, who has been spiking his drinks since his arrival, reaches the point of intoxication. As Cherie sings her song (having given explicit orders to Elma not to allow table service during her numbers), Bo’s fires are rekindled. He tries to grab her, only to be hauled outside by Will, who whips him, handcuffs him, and takes him to jail. Cherie is aghast.

At this point, Grace returns from her nap, and Dr. Lyman, drunk enough to be morbid, announces that has been too weak and selfish to love another and that he is a drunken, unruly child. He tells Elma never to bother with a foolish old man such as he, goes to the restroom, which is outside, vomits, and returns to fall on a bench for some much-needed sleep. The act ends as Virgil tells Cherie that Bo’s sexual encounter with her was his first. She is so moved that she leaves with him to seek Bo’s release from jail.

Act 3 brings about the resolution of the situations of the characters. Carl’s walk has taken him upstairs to Grace’s apartment, and her headache was a guise to meet him. Their rendezvous becomes known to all when the sheriff later reminds Carl that his overshoes are upstairs, outside Grace’s door. Released from his incarceration, Bo apologizes to Cherie and offers her money to return to Kansas City. Cherie confesses that she has known many men, but he approaches her romantically rather than aggressively, and she is receptive. He kisses her. After a conference with Virgil, he tells her that he is virgin enough for both of them, and she agrees to go to Montana to marry him. Dr. Lyman awakes and cancels his rendezvous with Elma, calling himself an old reprobate. Carl reveals that a detective in the bus station in Kansas City told him that the professor had been picked up for loitering around schoolyards. A check of the records showed that the professor had been arrested several times for involvement with young girls, though his record is clear at present. Virgil decides to leave his young friend Bo and seek employment elsewhere. The roads clear; the bus rolls out. Grace reveals to Elma the true nature of the professor’s intentions. As she closes up the restaurant, Virgil is left out in the cold, awaiting the next bus south.

Dramatic Devices

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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 agrees to marry Bo and become part of his life in Montana. Dr. Lyman’s exile is heightened and made more tragic by the isolation of the setting, since he will remain a vagabond, in every sense of the word. Virgil becomes a true isolate as he decides to leave Bo and travel in the direction of the next bus.

Inge’s symbolism heightens the interaction and brings moments of truth to the characters. The names of the characters imply this aspect of the drama. Will Masters, the sheriff, serves as the master will, and his trouncing of Bo brings the young broncobuster to a state of contrition before Cherie (whose name means “beloved”); she then can see him in a new light and thus love him. Further, Will imposes a sense of order upon the entire group and represents authority. Dr. Gerald Lyman is, indeed, a man who has lied to himself about the reality of his existence. Grace, the restaurant owner, extends a period of grace to the weary travelers, receives a stay of grace from Carl, and embodies the concept of grace in her attitudes toward the others. Virgil Blessing has been a blessing in Bo’s life, looking after him as a father would do, tempering the young man’s tempestuous nature. Virgil is a virgin in the sense that he is intimidated by women and avoids romantic situations. The name Virgil also suggests “vigil” and “virility,” words that further explicate the nature of his relationship with Bo: He keeps vigil over the young man in a virile way until he is no longer needed.

Places Discussed

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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

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Booming 1950s Economy In the post-World War II years, the nation was economically prosperous. The G.I. Bill provided the means for returning soldiers to get a better education. More importantly, it funded a program whereby each soldier could buy a house. This spurred a boom in new home construction, which led to increased production of all the appliances, furniture, and automobiles. All of this production led to an increase in employment and in the gross national product. With World War II behind them, and extra money to spend and more time to spend it, Americans turned to entertainment in increasing numbers.

Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn MonroeBus Stop might very well have been art imitating life. The year before the play’s debut on Broadway, Joe DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe. It was not a marriage between a lonely cowboy and a cabaret singer, but the union between DiMaggio, one of the best athletes of all time, and Marilyn Monroe was almost as unlikely. Accordingly, it became front-page news as the world was captivated by their marriage. In many ways, their union represented a joining of two of the most visible forces of the 1950s: baseball and Hollywood.

Marilyn Monroe was one of the biggest stars of the 1950s. She had appeared nude in the very first issue of a new men’s magazine, Playboy, in 1953. More than fifty thousand copies of the magazine sold, indicating the strength of her appeal. The role of Cherie in Bus Stop seems written for her, and indeed, she starred in the film version of the play when it was released in 1956.

Monroe was popular for her ability to appeal to different audiences. A beautiful woman, she represented sexuality—and therefore attracted so many of the budding teenagers of the fifties. It is little wonder that audiences perceived Monroe’s marriage to DiMaggio as unlikely. This star of the New York Yankees represented the benefits of hard work and good character. He was a private, quiet man that shunned media attention; she was a vibrant, mediasavvy movie star that craved attention.

Literary Style

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Act Dramas are divided into different acts. In Greek plays the drama was usually divided into five acts. This is the formula for most serious drama from the Greeks to the Romans and to later playwrights like William Shakespeare. The five acts denote the structure of dramatic action: exposition, complication, climax, falling action, and catastrophe. This five-act structure was standard until the nineteenth century, when Ibsen combined some of the acts. Bus Stop is a three-act play. The exposition and complication are combined in the first act when the audience first learns of Cherie’s abduction and of Bo’s plans for a wedding. The climax occurs in the second act when Bo fights with Will, is arrested, and Cherie learns why Bo feels so committed to her. The catastrophe fails to occur in the third act—Bus Stop is comedy, not a drama. If this had been written as drama, Cherie would not have changed her mind and Bo would have boarded the bus, alone and heartbroken.

Audience The audience is defined as the people for whom a drama is performed. Many authors write with an audience in mind. Inge states in the forward to Four Plays that he wanted his audience to observe several different portrayals of love and to be interested in all the characters. This is unusual; in general, authors never tell their audience what reaction they expect.

Character Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multifaceted ones. They may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. The actions of the characters drive the play.

Characterization is the process of creating a character, replete with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation. For instance, Grace is lonely. The audience knows this because she tells them so on several occasions, but also because as she leaves the stage at the end of the play, her wistful glance reveals how much she dreads the loneliness upstairs.

Setting The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The location for Bus Stop is a small diner. All of the action occurs between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning in this same setting. The limited setting forces all the action to occur within a small space and all the characters to interact.

Compare and Contrast

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1955: Walt Disney opened Disneyland in Los Angeles, California. Built for $17 million, the park was so successful that Disney immediately made plans to expand it.

Today: The Disney Corporation continues to grow. The company is now worth nearly 80 billion dollars and has expanded into film and television, as well as merchandising.

1955: Nineteen years after its introduction, the Volkswagen Beetle manufactured its one millionth car.

Today: The Volkswagen Beetle has been redesigned and reintroduced to the American automobile buyer. It has once again proved popular and successful, as it appeals to a youthful demographic.

1955: TV dinners are introduced as an easy and popular alternative for busy housewives.

Today: Frozen prepared meals are very popular with consumers. Their convenience makes them a popular choice for working parents with little time to make home-cooked meals.

1955: The first shopping mall opens in the Detroit area in 1954. By the end of the following year, 1800 new shopping malls open across the country.

Today: Shopping malls are a common experience in American life. They have become gathering places for teenagers.

1955: The United States federal minimum wage is increased from $0.75 to $1 an hour.

Today: Nearly forty-five years later, the minimum wage has increased by less than $5.

Media Adaptations

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Bus Stop was made into a popular Hollywood film in 1956. It was nominated for several awards, including an Academy Award Best Supporting Actor nomination for Don Murray. The National Board of Review Awards selected Bus Stop one of the ten best films in 1956. Marilyn Monroe starred as Cherie, and many critics consider it to be her best film performance. The film also starred Hope Lange, Eileen Heckart, and Arthur O’Connell. Joshua Logan directed for Fox Studios. This is a ninety-six minute color film available in Beta and VHS.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Chapman, John. A review of Bus Stop in Daily News, March 3, 1955.

Coleman, Robert. A review of Bus Stop in Daily Mirror, March 3, 1955.

Courant, Jane. ‘‘Social and Cultural Prophecy in the Works of William Inge.’’ Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1991, pp. 135-51.

Erben, Rudolf. ‘‘The Western Holdup Play: The Pilgrimage Continues.’’ Western American Literature, Vol. 23, No. 4, February, 1989, pp. 311-22.

Kerr, Walter F. A review of Bus Stop in New York Herald Tribune, March 3, 1955.

McClain, John. A review of Bus Stop in New York Journal American, March 3, 1955.

Shuman, R. Baird. William Inge, Twayne Publishers, 1996.

Watts Jr., Richard. A review of Bus Stop in New York Post, March 3, 1955.

Weales, Gerald. ‘‘The New Pineros.’’ American Drama Since World War II, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1962, pp. 40-56.

Further Reading Leeson, Richard M. William Inge: A Research and Production Sourcebook, Greenwood Press, 1994. A critical overview of Inge’s plays with information about reviews and critical studies.

McClure, Arthur F. Memories of Splendor: The Midwestern World of William Inge, Kansas State Historical Society, 1989. Contains production information and photographs of Inge and his work.

Shuman, R. Baird. William Inge, Twayne Publishers, 1996. This book is primarily a biography of Inge’s work. It also contains a detailed discussion of each of his works.

Voss, Ralph F. A Life of William Inge: The Strains of Triumph. University of Kansas Press, 1989. A critical biography of Inge’s life and work.

Wager, Walter. ‘‘William Inge.’’ The Playwrights Speak. Delacorte Press, 1967. Wagner presents interviews with several contemporary playwrights. This book presents an opportunity to ‘‘hear’’ each writer express his or her thoughts about the art of writing.


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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.


Critical Essays


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