Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

During the Labor Day holiday in a small Kansas town, seven lives are disrupted by the arrival of a sensually attractive, indigent young man who performs some cleanup work for a meal. The young man, Hal Carter, carries out the work for “Mrs.” Potts (who is unmarried); the experience of a male presence in her house increases her sense of vitality and gives her a new perspective on the life that she has led as her mother’s aide and, currently, nursemaid. “Mrs.” Potts’s neighbor, Flo Owens, is unsettled by the young man, in whom she sees, first, a threat to the plans that she has for her daughter Madge and, second, the embodiment of her own desire for a man, following a decade of adjustment to her husband’s desertion. Madge is captivated by Hal and finds in him the direction in life that she chooses to take. Her younger sister, Millie, finds her own sense of female maturity awakened by Hal and becomes ready, as a result, to pass from tomboyhood to intellectualism.

The person most dramatically influenced by Hal’s arrival is the town’s schoolteacher, Rosemary Sydney: She resents Hal for reminding her of her lost youth and unsatisfied desires, and she is stimulated by her resentment to pressure Howard Bevans, her only marital prospect, into a guarantee of wedlock. Therefore, Howard’s life of easy and unchallenging bachelorhood is ended as a result of Hal’s appearance. One other man, Alan Seymour, is also affected: He loses Madge, who he had assumed would marry him, to Hal. Alan engineers Hal’s flight from town by falsely accusing him of car theft, but Madge subsequently leaves town to follow Hal.

The disruptions of the seven lives...

(The entire section is 684 words.)

The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Picnic begins on a bright “sunlit” stage revealing the porches of two small houses in a small Kansas town on the late summer morning of Labor Day. All the action of the play takes place within one twenty-four-hour period. This neighborhood, like the entire town, is poised for the last summer holiday of the season, culminating in the annual Labor Day picnic before the beginning of the school year. The houses are tidy but unremarkable, except that their occupants are all women, young and old, each of whom has been seared—or scarred—in one way or another by her experiences with men. In one house lives Flo Owens, whose husband abandoned her to rear her two daughters: Madge, the “prettiest girl in town,” and Millie, a precocious, tomboyish teenager. A boarder, Rosemary Sydney, an old maid schoolteacher, also lives with them. Mrs. Potts, the friendly, harmlessly meddling neighbor in the next house, opens the play, speaking to Hal Carter, a strapping vagabond in cowboy boots, dungarees, and tee shirt.

She encourages him to let his metabolism digest the big breakfast he has eaten before he begins the chores he has contracted to do for his keep. As the first act proceeds within this matriarchal setting, each of the key characters is paraded before the audience. Flo, embittered by her years of living alone, broods over her daughters’ welfare, looking for security in Madge’s expected marriage to the stable and respectable Alan Seymour. She is wary of Hal’s presence, but accepts him because he has been presented as Alan’s former college buddy. Madge, a beautiful young woman, is the captive of a beauty that breeds resentment in her sister, fear in her mother, and adulation and lust in the young men of her town. Millie, a self-styled intellectual at age sixteen, smokes in secret and expresses disdain for her sister’s beauty and femininity. Rosemary Sydney is, on the surface, prim but is inwardly a bawdy, frustrated woman whose longing for male companionship and marriage consumes her and compels her to grasp for attention from any man, whether Hal or businessman Howard Bevans.

Hal, vigorous and vital, signals early in the play what is absent in the Owens household; yet at the same time, Hal is also depicted as an unwelcome intruder into this small community—an appealing masculine specimen whose virility is a vivid contrast to the personalities and lifestyle of the two other prominent men in the play: Alan Seymour, his friend from college, and Howard Bevans, an aging businessman. While Hal is impulsive and uncouth, Alan is a cautious, unprepossessing young man destined for both goodness and greatness; he treats Madge with unadorned awe and reverence. To him, she is a goddess who deserves nothing but unalloyed tenderness and grace; he thinks of her not sexually but as the prototypical nice girl. Howard, on the other hand, is a bumbling but benevolent soul who prizes bachelorhood and independence.

As act 2 begins, picnic plans are evolving and the ensemble awaits departure time while the conversation turns on Hal’s past, Millie’s...

(The entire section is 1259 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Picnic, in common with all of Inge’s plays, does not draw its strength from innovative staging or some imaginative reversal of the conventions of the theater. Inge’s dramatic instrument was instead the steady, relentless, and well-focused depiction of the everyday as manifested in the small town of the Midwest. Just as his friend and fellow playwright Tennessee Williams evoked the South, Inge wrote to bring his native midwestern landscapes to life through the strong characterization of individual lives. The action and intrigue of one day in the waning summer of a small Kansas town are both the setting and substance of Picnic, a testimony to and a revelation of what Inge regarded as both “the sweetness of character” and the unarticulated tensions of the tortured midwestern soul.

The composition of Picnic began as a tableau, a series of character sketches of five women in small-town Kansas titled “Front Porch,” which then evolved into a more developed play, Summer Brave, and finally into Picnic. Its evolution from these vignettes of characterization is clearly evident in the strong individualistic portrayal of the women in Picnic. Inge, as many critics have observed, had an uncanny insight into the psychological processes of the female mind, and he used that capability to create realistic dialogue, especially in the scenes that occur in the Owens household among an all-woman entourage. Madge,...

(The entire section is 422 words.)

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

When Picnic debuted in February of 1953, the United States was still embroiled in the Korean Conflict half a world away. Josef Stalin,...

(The entire section is 712 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

An act is a major division in a drama. In Greek plays the sections of the drama were signified by the appearance...

(The entire section is 762 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

  • 1953: The article ‘‘Cancer by the Carton’’ is published in Reader's Digest. It warns the...

(The entire section is 303 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

  • Research the economic future of small town America in the period immediately after World War II. Consider the importance of agriculture,...

(The entire section is 137 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Picnic was adapted to film in 1955. The film, starring William Holden as Hal, Kim Novak as Madge, and Cliff Robertson as Alan, was...

(The entire section is 45 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

  • Andrew Marvell’s ‘‘To His Coy Mistress,’’ published in 1681, is an early poem that argues that time is fleeting and that young...

(The entire section is 177 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Atkinson, Brooks. Review of Picnic, in the New York Times, February 20, 1953.


(The entire section is 282 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Armato, Philip M. “The Bum as Scapegoat in William Inge’s Picnic.” Western American Literature 10 (Winter, 1976): 273-282.

Brustein, Robert. “The Men-Taming Women of William Inge.” Harper’s Magazine, November, 1958, 53-57.

Diehl, Digby. “Interview with William Inge.” In Behind the Scenes: Theater and Film Interviews from the Transatlantic Review, edited by Joseph McCrindle. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1971.

Gould, Jean. “William Inge.” In Modern American Playwrights. New York:...

(The entire section is 162 words.)