Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)
The 1950’s, those “happy days” before the Vietnam War, were marred by a subsurface of disillusionment that had earlier found expression in film noir and was coming to the surface in the Beat movement, rock music, and the government’s explicit fear of communist infiltration. In tune with this changing of the times, William Inge wrote five plays examining the interior reality of the middle-class ethos. He diagnosed a midcentury, midwestern, middle-class fear of facing life on its own terms and a sublimative quest for security in convention and status, a quest that led to frustration in success as well as in failure. Picnic is the second of these plays. Like its predecessor, Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), and its first two successors, Bus Stop (1955) and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957), it had a successful Broadway run. Inge appeared then to reweave his already perfected texture of quietly desperate lives. A Loss of Roses (1959) and his subsequent work fell noticeably short of his consistent tetrad, the one exception being his Academy Award-winning screenplay for Splendor in the Grass (1961). The countercultural revolt of the young, anticipated in the character of Madge Owens and implicitly invoked in Splendor in the Grass, was a reality by 1961, and Inge, who may rightly be called the first playwright to examine the Midwest and its people, is more accurately recognized as a playwright who exposed a profound malaise of the 1950’s.