Picnic was Inge’s second consecutive successful Broadway play, following on the heels of his debut work, Come Back, Little Sheba (pr., pb. 1950). Picnic, like each play in the quartet of Inge’s well-received Broadway productions of the 1950’s—also including Bus Stop (pr., pb. 1955) and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (pr., pb. 1957)—is quintessentially a play about midwestern life—about its everydayness, its sense of sameness, directionlessness, and about the tension between men and women, loners all, who face their lives with a combination of resignation, despair, and lonely isolation. Robert Baird Shuman, speaking of this run of successes, suggested that “critics could do little but marvel at the success of a man who wrote modest plays about the most prosaic of people, but who had never experienced a box office failure.”
That string of successes, however, ended at the close of the 1950’s, as a series of Inge’s plays, beginning with A Loss of Roses (pr. 1959, pb. 1960), was savaged by critics who found Inge not as effective a playwright when he left behind consideration of the midwestern malaise he knew so well. After the production of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, it was only in his screenplay for the motion picture Splendor in the Grass (1961), an Academy Award winner for original screenplay, that Inge achieved critical success. In Picnic, however, Inge was at the peak of his talent; Robert Brustein saw it as a “satyr play glorifying the phallic male,” and it was made into a highly popular film—as were each of the other three in the midwestern quartet of plays.
In the context of American theater, Inge’s work may be compared with that of Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams, whose regional settings parallel in power those of Inge’s Midwest. However, Inge’s own imaginative powers fall short of O’Neill and Williams in considering the larger themes of modern American life. If it can be said that great playwrights universalize the particular while good playwrights particularize the universal, Inge is decidedly a good playwright, one whose depiction of the longing of the human heart for meaningful companionship and a sense of destiny in Picnic is close to being the perfect metaphor for postwar listlessness and anxiety. At the time of its original staging, the urban, global village of the future was yet to arise, and Inge’s small-town America only beginning to vanish. The increasing isolation of the rural, nonindustrial America from the metropolises and its effects on the inhabitants of small towns is mirrored no better than in the characters of Picnic. Without Inge it is quite likely that the reality of the American Midwest and the inner lives of its people would never have been brought to the attention of twentieth century theater audiences and filmgoers. For that achievement alone, Inge holds a special place in American drama.