Hairy Fairy Tale

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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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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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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.


Critical Overview