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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2357

By Sherwood Anderson

UPON THE HALF decayed veranda of a small frame house that stood near the edge of a ravine near the town of Winesburg, Ohio, a fat little old man walked nervously up and down. Across a long field that had been seeded for clover but that had produced only a dense crop of yellow mustard weeds, he could see the public highway along which went a wagon filled with berry pickers returning from the fields. The berry pickers, youths and maidens, laughed and shouted boisterously. A boy clad in a blue shirt leaped from the wagon and attempted to drag after him one of the maidens, who screamed and protested shrilly. The feet of the boy in the road kicked up a cloud of dust that floated across the face of the departing sun. Over the long field came a thin girlish voice. “Oh, you Wing Biddlebaum, comb your hair, it's falling into your eyes,” commanded the voice to the man, who was bald and whose nervous little hands fiddled about the bare white forehead as though arranging a mass of tangled locks.

Wing Biddlebaum, forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts, did not think of himself as in any way a part of the life of the town where he had lived for twenty years. Among all the people of Winesburg but one had come close to him. With George Willard, son of Tom Willard, the proprietor of the New Willard House, he had formed something like a friendship. George Willard was the reporter on the Winesburg Eagle and sometimes in the evenings he walked out along the highway to Wing Biddlebaum's house. Now as the old man walked up and down on the veranda, his hands moving nervously about, he was hoping that George Willard would come and spend the evening with him. After the wagon containing the berry pickers had passed, he went across the field through the tall mustard weeds and climbing a rail fence peered anxiously along the road to the town. For a moment he stood thus, rubbing his hands together and looking up and down the road, and then, fear overcoming him, ran back to walk again upon the porch on his own house.

In the presence of George Willard, Wing Biddlebaum, who for twenty years had been the town mystery, lost something of his timidity, and his shadowy personality, submerged in a sea of doubts, came forth to look at the world. With the young reporter at his side, he ventured in the light of day into Main Street or strode up and down on the rickety front porch of his own house, talking excitedly. The voice that had been low and trembling became shrill and loud. The bent figure straightened. With a kind of wriggle, like a fish returned to the brook by the fisherman, Biddlebaum the silent began to talk, striving to put into words the ideas that had been accumulated by his mind during long years of silence.

Wing Biddlebaum talked much with his hands. The slender expressive fingers, forever active, forever striving to conceal themselves in his pockets or behind his back, came forth and became the piston rods of his machinery of expression.

The story of Wing Biddlebaum is a story of hands. Their restless activity, like unto the beating of the wings of an imprisoned bird, had given him his name. Some obscure poet of the town had thought of it. The hands alarmed their owner. He wanted to keep them hidden away and looked with amazement at the quiet inexpressive hands of other men who worked beside him in the fields, or passed, driving sleepy teams on country roads.

When he talked to George Willard, Wing Biddlebaum closed his fists and beat with them upon a table or on the walls of his house. The action made him more comfortable. If the desire to talk came to him when the two were walking in the fields, he sought out a stump or the top board of a fence and with his hands pounding busily talked with renewed ease.

The story of Wing Biddlebaum's hands is worth a book in itself. Sympathetically set forth it would tap many strange, beautiful qualities in obscure men. It is a job for a poet. In Winesburg the hands had attracted attention merely because of their activity. With them Wing Biddlebaum had picked as high as a hundred and forty quarts of strawberries in a day. They became his distinguishing feature, the source of his fame. Also they made more grotesque an already grotesque and elusive individuality. Winesburg was proud of the hands of Wing Biddlebaum in the same spirit in which it was proud of Banker White's new stone house and Wesley Moyer's bay stallion, Tony Tip, that had won the two-fifteen trot at the fall races in Cleveland.

As for George Willard, he had many times wanted to ask about the hands. At times an almost overwhelming curiosity had taken hold of him. He felt that there must be a reason for their strange activity and their inclination to keep hidden away and only a growing respect for Wing Biddlebaum kept him from blurting out the questions that were often in his mind.

Once he had been on the point of asking. The two were walking in the fields on a summer afternoon and had stopped to sit upon a grassy bank. All afternoon Wing Biddlebaum had talked as one inspired. By a fence he had stopped and beating like a giant woodpecker upon the top board had shouted at George Willard, condemning his tendency to be too much influenced by the people about him, “You are destroying yourself,” he cried. “You have the inclination to be alone and to dream and you are afraid of dreams. You want to be like others in town here. You hear them talk and you try to imitate them.”

On the grassy bank Wing Biddlebaum had tried again to drive his point home. His voice became soft and reminiscent, and with a sigh of contentment he launched into a long rambling talk, speaking as one lost in a dream.

Out of the dream Wing Biddlebaum made a picture for George Willard. In the picture men lived again in a kind of pastoral golden age. Across a green open country came clean-limbed young men, some afoot, some mounted upon horses. In crowds the young men came to gather about the feet of an old man who sat beneath a tree in a tiny garden and who talked to them.

Wing Biddlebaum became wholly inspired. For once he forgot the hands. Slowly they stole forth and lay upon George Willard's shoulders. Something new and bold came into the voice that talked. “You must try to forget all you have learned,” said the old man. “You must begin to dream. From this time on you must shut your ears to the roaring of the voices.”

Pausing in his speech, Wing Biddlebaum looked long and earnestly at George Willard. His eyes glowed. Again he raised the hands to caress the boy and then a look of horror swept over his face.

With a convulsive movement of his body, Wing Biddlebaum sprang to his feet and thrust his hands deep into his trousers pockets. Tears came to his eyes. “I must be getting along home. I can talk no more with you,” he said nervously.

Without looking back, the old man had hurried down the hillside and across a meadow, leaving George Willard perplexed and frightened upon the grassy slope. With a shiver of dread the boy arose and went along the road toward town. “I'll not ask him about his hands,” he thought, touched by the memory of the terror he had seen in the man's eyes. “There's something wrong, but I don't want to know what it is. His hands have something to do with his fear of me and of everyone.”

And George Willard was right. Let us look briefly into the story of the hands. Perhaps our talking of them will arouse the poet who will tell the hidden wonder story of the influence for which the hands were but fluttering pennants of promise.

In his youth Wing Biddlebaum had been a school teacher in a town in Pennsylvania. He was not then known as Wing Biddlebaum, but went by the less euphonic name of Adolph Myers. As Adolph Myers he was much loved by the boys of his school.

Adolph Myers was meant by nature to be a teacher of youth. He was one of those rare, little understood men who rule by a power so gentle that it passes as a lovable weakness. In their feeling for the boys under their charge such men are not unlike the finer sort of women in their love of men.

And yet that is but crudely stated. It needs the poet there. With the boys of his school, Adolph Myers had walked in the evening or had sat talking until dusk upon the schoolhouse steps lost in a kind of dream. Here and there went his hands, caressing the shoulders of the boys, playing about the tousled heads. As he talked his voice became soft and musical. There was a caress in that also. In a way the voice and the hands, the stroking of the shoulders and the touching of the hair were a part of the schoolmaster's effort to carry a dream into the young minds. By the caress that was in his fingers, he expressed himself. He was one of those men in whom the force that creates life is diffused, not centralized. Under the caress of his hands, doubt and disbelief went out of the minds of the boys and they began also to dream.

And then the tragedy. A half-witted boy of the school became enamored of the young master. In his bed at night he imagined unspeakable things and in the morning went forth to tell his dreams as facts. Strange, hideous accusations fell from his loose-hung lips. Through the Pennsylvania town went a shiver. Hidden, shadowy doubts that had been in men's minds concerning Adolph Myers were galvanized into beliefs.

The tragedy did not linger. Trembling lads were jerked out of bed and questioned. “He put his arms about me,” said one. “His fingers were always playing in my hair,” said another.

One afternoon a man of the town, Henry Bradford, who kept a saloon, came to the schoolhouse door. Calling Adolph Myers into the school yard, he began to beat him with his fists. As his hard knuckles beat down into the frightened face of the schoolmaster, his wrath became more and more terrible. Screaming with dismay, the children ran here and there like disturbed insects. “I'll teach you to put your hands on my boy, you beast,” roared the saloon keeper, who, tired of beating the master, had begun to kick him about the yard.

Adolph Myers was driven from the Pennsylvania town in the night. With lanterns in their hands a dozen men came to the door of the house where he lived alone and commanded that he dress and come forth. It was raining and one of the men had a rope in his hands. They had intended to hang the schoolmaster, but something in his figure, so small, white, and pitiful, touched their hearts and they let him escape. As he ran away into the darkness, they repented of their weakness and ran after him, swearing and throwing sticks and great balls of soft mud at the figure that screamed and ran faster and faster into the darkness.

For twenty years Adolph Myers had lived alone in Winesburg. He was but forty but looked sixty-five. The name of Biddlebaum he got from a box of goods seen at a freight station as he hurried through an eastern Ohio town. He had an aunt in Winesburg, a black-toothed old woman who raised chickens, and with her he lived until she died. He had been ill for a year after the experience in Pennsylvania, and after his recovery worked as a day laborer in the fields, going timidly about and striving to conceal his hands. Although he did not understand what had happened, he felt that the hands must be to blame. Again and again the fathers of the boys had talked of the hands. “Keep your hands to yourself,” the saloon keeper had roared, dancing with fury in the schoolhouse yard.

Upon the veranda of his house by the ravine, Wing Biddlebaum continued to walk up and down until the sun had disappeared and the road beyond the field was lost in the grey shadows. Going into his house he cut slices of bread and spread honey upon them. When the rumble of the evening train that took away the express cars loaded with the day's harvest of berries had passed and restored the silence of the summer night, he went again to walk upon the veranda. In the darkness he could not see the hands and they became quiet. Although he still hungered for the presence of the boy, who was the medium through which he expressed his love of man, the hunger became again a part of his loneliness and his waiting. Lighting a lamp, Wing Biddlebaum washed the few dishes soiled by his simple meal and, setting up a folding cot by the screen door that led to the porch, prepared to undress for the night. A few stray white bread crumbs lay on the cleanly washed floor by the table; putting the lamp upon a low stool he began to pick up the crumbs, carrying them to his mouth one by one with unbelievable rapidity. In the dense blotch of light beneath the table, the kneeling figure looked like a priest engaged in some service of his church. The nervous expressive fingers, flashing in and out of the light, might well have been mistaken for the fingers of the devotee going swiftly through decade after decade of his rosary.

Hairy Fairy Tale

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 626

When is a classic born? When a once highly successful commercial play, revived several decades later, is found to be speaking just as strongly to the time of its revival. At that point you exclaim, ‘‘Damn it, this is art, after all!’’ That has now happened to Picnic, thanks to the Roundabout Theatre revival, and one only wishes that the playwright, William Inge, a lonely suicide in 1973 who would have turned 81 this year, could have lived to see it.

Picnic (1953), Inge's second hit after Come Back, Little Sheba, ran for two years in sold-out houses, but the one person it never made happy was its author. Inge had originally written a much bleaker play, Front Porch, which Joshua Logan helped him rewrite less hopelessly as Picnic, and which he later rewrote again, gloomily and unsuccessfully, as Summer Brave. What Logan correctly perceived is that a happy ending need not be sappy. When the beautiful but very ordinary Madge leaves her rich boyfriend Alan to run after the handsome, likable, but shiftless Hal, a romantic yearning in the audience is satisfied. But whether the resultant union will be a fulfillment or a fiasco is anybody's guess. Similarly, when the homely schoolteacher Rosemary begs, bullies, and wheedles the bibulous shopkeeper Howard into converting their affair into a marriage, there is no sense of triumph in it. Over all hangs the shadow of Flo, whose husband died young, and who had to raise Madge and her younger sister, Millie, a tomboy with artistic leanings, all by her weary, lonesome self.

Hal, a college chum of Alan's, dropped out and became a drifter. He returns to their Kansas town in the hope of employment, which Alan warmly offers him. In the end, he doesn't take the job but gets Madge, Alan's girl, leaving his would-be benefactor shaken. Ditto Flo, who so wanted her pretty daughter to marry up, not down. Hal also brings early sorrow to Millie, who forsook her tomboyish ways and put on a dress for a date with him for the Labor Day picnic. That eponymous bucolic romp, which we never actually see, also eludes the hero and heroine, who find a fiercer, less innocent, joy. A happy ending? Sort of, but with shadows lurking all around.

Scott Ellis, who directed, has made small, helpful changes in the text, mostly cutting out the ‘‘Baby’’s that Hal keeps hurling at Madge. He also set the action in the thirties to achieve a sense of distance. And he has done wonders with train whistles that weave their siren calls around these hinterland-locked characters. He has called on his (and our) favorite choreographer, Susan Stroman, to devise the crucial dance in which Hal and Madge first make contact. And he has eliminated the two act breaks, thus allowing the hot, clotted atmosphere of Indian summer to hold uninterrupted sway. From Louis Rosen, he got the right, ingenuous music.

Ashley Judd is not so beautiful a Madge as was Janice Rule (‘‘Pre-Raphaelite,’’ Logan called her), yet she gives a slow-building, implication-laden, almost too intelligent performance that prevails. Kyle Chandler does not have the animal magnetism of Ralph Meeker's 1953 Hal but brings to the role a sinewy, idiosyncratic presence that gradually scores. Polly Holliday is a touchingly oversolicitous Flo, and Debra Monk a rendingly desperate Rosemary, while Larry Bryggman makes Howard into a splendidly tragicomic figure. The others all contribute handsomely, but none more so than Tony Walton's spot-on scenery, William Ivey Long's canny costuming, or Peter Kaczorowski's lyrical lighting. The true protagonist, though, is the atmosphere: a sense of something pent-up longing to break out. Some escape, others resign themselves; hard to tell the winners from the losers.

Source: John Simon, ‘‘Hairy Fairy Tale’’ in New York, Vol. 27, no. 18, May 2, 1994.

Review of Picnic in Commonweal

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 556

It is the supreme distinction of Mr. William Inge's world to exist solidly, as an imaginative fact, with more energy and vitality than that of any American dramatist of his generation. Neither deliquescent, as is that of Tennessee Williams nor shaped by Arthur Miller's blunt polemic rage, it is a world existing solely by virtue of its perceived manners—a perception which, as Mr. Lionel Trilling observed in another connection, is really only a function of love. The poetry, in Mr. Inge's plays, is all in the pity; he gives us the hard naturalistic surface, but with a kind of interior incandescence. What Elizabeth Bowen said of Lawrence defines Mr. Inge also: in his art, every bush burns.

At the center of ‘‘Picnic’’ is a sexual situation, common and gross, but orchestrated by the playwright with a subtlety of detail and a breadth of reference dazzling in their sensibility; the form, then, is that of a theme with variations. Into a community of women—widowed, single, adolescent, virgin—comes an aggressively virile young man. What the play studies, in all its disturbing ramifications, is exclusively his sexual impact on them: the initial movements of distaste and scorn, then a kind of musky stirring of memory and desire, followed by passion and willful hatred, subsiding in quiescence and resignation. It is a graph of emotion most beautifully and skillfully described, issuing in the simple wisdom of Mr. Inge's old spectator who, after this savage eruption of ‘‘life,’’ can still see that ‘‘he was a man, and I was a woman, and it was good.’’

I have done the fine articulation of Mr. Inge's play the injustice of paraphrase. But nothing in ‘‘Picnic’’ lacks the sting of truth. All of its observation springs from some point of hard personal knowledge, some perception to which Mr. Inge has come by pain. His characters are small, but genuine in their pathos, most moving in their naked impotence before life. The script has, moreover, the benefit of a remarkable production, somewhat coarsened perhaps by Joshua Logan's strident direction, but otherwise limpid, sensual, grateful to the eye and ear.

Its second act concludes with a sustained, complex scene that is among the more notable achievements of the American theatre. It is a kind of ritual dance, involving the boy and girl only as sexual objects, but merciless in its exposure of the skein of envy, desire and psychic desolation which surround them.

Having committed myself to this degree, I feel ungrateful at expressing some fears as to the limitation of Mr. Inge's talent. He seems to me, at this juncture, an artist whose sensibility still exceeds the dispositions of his intellect—that is, his power to order and clarify experience is inadequate to his imaginative apprehension of it. Mr. Inge's ‘‘detachment,’’ of which we hear so much, may be esthetically desirable, but I suspect a deeper search might reveal it as the characteristic attitude of a mind stunned, numbed by life. How else account for the curious inertia of Mr. Inge's plays, their lack of moral reverberation, their acquiescence in disaster? I offer these observations not as a reproach, but only as points of departure for an inquiry into the mysterious blemishes which mar this most remarkable American talent.

Source: Richard Hayes, review of Picnic in Commonweal, Vol. LVII, no. 24, March 20, 1953, p. 603.

Review of Picnic in the Nation

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 596

The young girl in William Inge's new play, ‘‘Picnic’’ (Music Box Theater), like Shaw's ‘‘ingenue,’’ is waiting for something to happen. But the environment of the American play—specifically Kansas— is a place where nothing can happen to anybody. The women are all frustrated by fearful, jerky men; the men are ignorant, without objective, ideals, or direction—except for their spasmodic sexual impulses. There is no broad horizon for anyone, and a suppressed yammer of desire emanates from every stick and stone of this dry cosmos, in which the futile people burn to cinders.

If you read my description and then see the play you will be either vastly relieved or shockingly disappointed. For though what I have said may still be implicit in the words, it is hardly present on the stage. I happen to have read the playscript before it was put into rehearsal, and I saw in it a laconic delineation of a milieu seen with humor and an intelligent sympathy that was not far from compassion. What is on the stage now is a rather coarse boy-and-girl story with a leeringly sentimental emphasis on naked limbs and ‘‘well-stacked’’ females. It is as if a good Sherwood Anderson novel were skilfully converted into a prurient popular magazine story on its way to screen adaptation.

In this vein the play is extremely well done. It is certainly effective. Joshua Logan, who is a crackerjack craftsman, has done a meticulous, shrewd, thoroughly knowledgeable job of staging. He has made sharply explicit everything which the audience already understands and is sure to enjoy in the ‘‘sexy’’ plot, and has fobbed off everything less obvious to which the audience ought to be made sensitive.

All pain has been removed from the proceedings. The boy in the script who was a rather pathetic, confused, morbidly explosive and bitter character is now a big goof of a he-man whom the audience can laugh at or lust after. The adolescent sister who was a kind of embryo artist waiting to be born has become a comic grotesque who talks as if she suffered from a hare-lip; the drained and repressed mother is presented as a sweet hen almost indistinguishable from her chicks; the tense school teacher bursting with unused vitality is foreshortened as a character and serves chiefly as a utility figure to push the plot. Even the setting, which—for the purposes of the theme—might have suggested the dreary sunniness of the Midwestern flatlands, has been given a romantically golden glow and made almost tropically inviting.

Having seen the play with this bifocal vision—script and production—I cannot be sure exactly what the audience gets from the combination. Lyric realism in the sound 1920 tradition of the prairie novelists is being offered here as the best Broadway corn. In the attempt to make the author's particular kind of sensibility thoroughly acceptable, the play has been vulgarized.

The cast is good—Kim Stanley is particularly talented, though I disliked the characterization imposed on her—and it follows the director with devoted fidelity. There is a new leading lady, Janice Rule, who besides having a lovely voice is unquestionably the most beautiful young woman on our stage today.

Here at any rate is a solid success. But I am not sure whether the author should get down on his knees to thank the director for having made it one or punch him in the nose for having altered the play's values. It is a question of taste.

Source: Harold Clurman, review of Picnic in the Nation, Vol. 176, no. 10, March 7, 1953, p. 213.

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