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William Inge’s artistic preoccupation is with the quiet desperation of middle-class midwestern American lives, in which the burdens and frustrations of convention and responsibility are shown to defeat the romance of ambition and dreams in direct proportion to the physical or intellectual limitations of the dreamers.

Of the characters in Picnic, only Rosemary gets what she wants—the certainty of marriage. Yet, it is the form and convention of marriage that she wins, exactly what Madge has feared being led into. Neither Rosemary nor Howard displays the vaguest symptoms of love. Theirs will be a material partnership, as opposed to the exclusively subjective relationship of Madge and Hal, with their deep and overriding passion. It is clear that actual happiness is to find neither couple: Rosemary and Howard will have conflicting and unreconcilable notions of what their marriage must be; Madge and Hal will live in uncertainty, financial insecurity, and, as it is intimated, an eventual separation not unlike that of Madge’s parents.

The essential unhappiness of human life, which is the theme of Greek tragedy wrought through larger-than-life characters, is brought by Inge into the ambience of realistic middle-class Americans. In Picnic, he spans the generations from teenage to octogenarian to illustrate the persistence of frustration: Millie and Madge are in their teens; Hal and Alan are in their twenties; Rosemary and Flo are in their late thirties; Howard, “rapidly approaching middle age,” is forty-two; “Mrs.” Potts is “close to sixty” and her demanding, vocal mother (heard but not seen on stage) is eighty years old or close to it. For all the characters in all these age groups, the aura of despair is, patently or inferentially, unrelieved.

Inge’s disclosure of the conventional pursuit of materially informed happiness as tragic misdirection is inherently suggestive of the appropriate alternative—namely, the commitment to one’s individual dignity. Each of the principal female characters finds an inner reserve of self to which happiness is not requisite and in which the meaning of one’s life is to be determined; the exception is Rosemary, who sacrifices dignity to conventional security. Helen Potts, having become aware of the absurdity of her situation, accepts it and achieves equanimity. Flo, left to her own resources by the departure of Madge, with Millie soon to leave as well, stands in the last scene as an individual, her stance and steady gaze evidence of her newfound ability to cope with the necessity that she had hoped to elude. Millie has found her self in her commitment to follow her intellectual impulsion and, eventually, to “write novels that’ll shock people right out of their senses” and become “great and famous”; significantly, she does not say “rich.”

The male characters are left in transitional gaps—Hal not knowing that Madge is on her way to him, Alan not knowing that Madge will not be his, and Howard about to be tested as a married man after his habitual lack of spousal responsibility.

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Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)