Form and Content

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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 are highlighted by various social differentials: middle-class affluence versus moderateness of means, the married state versus forms of the single state, high intelligence versus mediocre intellectual ability, physical attractiveness versus plainness, and differences of age.

Madge Owens, a dime-store clerk, is unhappy despite her beauty, which ensures her ability to catch the most desirable bachelor in town, the Cadillac-driving Alan Seymour. Her romantic dreaming is punctuated by the distant train whistle at evening and comes to center on Hal, who can offer her no material security and with whom she falls in love. Hal and Alan, once roommates in college, present the contrast of an exciting failure and a successful dullard, respectively. Madge’s younger sister, Millie, resents Madge’s beauty because it brings people, including their mother, to prefer Madge. Yet, Millie is as superior in intelligence to Madge, as Alan is shown to be to Hal. The play ends with the intimation that Millie and Alan, both destined to respectable citizenship, are ideally suited as marriage partners and with the departure of Madge in pursuit of the unlucky Hal.

The three middle-aged women are left in the wake of the young. Helen Potts, whose marriage was annulled by her domineering mother but who has kept the name, Potts, of the boy whom she married, cherishes her memory of Hal as she continues to nurse her aged and now-invalid mother. Flo Owens, whose husband abandoned her and their two young daughters ten years earlier, looks sadly upon her daughter’s flight from the nest. Rosemary Sydney leaves for a honeymoon with a reluctantly compliant Howard Bevans after having emotionally coerced him into a promise of marriage. Each of the three women has had her frustrations intensified and redefined by the sensual presence of Hal.

The Labor Day holiday is the scene of two annual events: a town picnic and the eve of the reopening of schools at summer’s end....

(This entire section contains 684 words.)

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The picnic is not seen on stage. In the 1956 film adaptation of the play, the picnic was shown as a lavish extravaganza hardly tenable by the modest appointments of a small Kansas town. The stage’s unseen picnic, however, adequately underscores the unreality of life-as-fun, particularly in view of the fact that the audience’s only acquaintance with the picnic are the problems of those going to it and returning from it.

The Play

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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 intellectualism, and Howard’s noticing Rosemary’s shapely legs—and Rosemary’s drawing attention to Hal’s. Meanwhile, Hal, much traveled and variously occupied since his college days with Alan, becomes the designated escort for Millie, though he secretly desires to be close to Madge. His outward bravado is eventually mitigated by his admission to Alan that he does not know how to act around women, a fact confirmed by his inability to divert the aggressive flirtation of Rosemary. When she tries to coerce him into dancing with her, Hal, embarrassed and perplexed, refuses and thereby incurs Rosemary’s wrath. Humiliated, she accuses him of arrogance and chauvinism, rebuking him with the stinging charge that he came from the gutter and will return to it.

When Flo bursts in and surveys the scene, she forbids any more drinking and tells Millie to ride to the picnic with Alan, Mrs. Potts, and herself, while Madge is left to go with Rosemary and Howard. Rosemary, stunned by Hal’s rejection and her sudden feelings of ineptitude, persuades Howard to take her driving “into sunset,” thus skipping the picnic. Act 2 ends with Madge and Hal alone onstage, revealing their private, secret troubles—Hal his reform school past, Madge her weariness with being told that she is pretty—and frankly expressing their desire for each other. Madge abruptly kisses Hal, and he declares that they will not go to the picnic either.

Act 3 brings all the principals together to thrash out the implications of the various couplings that have occurred. Shortly after midnight, Howard and Rosemary return to the Owens residence, having made love. Coerced by circumstances in some ways beyond his control, Howard awkwardly tries to say good night, but Rosemary pleads with him to take her with him. He declines, but she persists in extracting his reluctant promise to return in the morning to take her off to get married. The scene shifts outside to the porch, where Hal and Madge have returned, suddenly very conscious of their predicament: how to explain to Alan, Flo, and Millie where they have been. As Hal attempts one more embrace, the curtain closes on a distraught Madge, unable to reconcile what she has done with the mundane activities and obligations she must face in the morning, and Hal, beating his fists together for the reckless bad faith with which he has treated the Owens home and his erstwhile friend Alan.

The sun rises on the doorstep in the play’s last scene. Millie smokes a cigarette, prepared for the first day of school. One by one, the neighborhood residents saunter by, and there is a flutter of speculation among Flo, Mrs. Potts, and Millie over the previous night’s events and what transpired between Madge and Hal. Into the midst of this comes Rosemary, bounding down the stairs, asking if anyone has seen Howard, with her immediate audience—including her sister schoolteachers who have come by to pick her up—unaware of what commitments were made in the night. A shivaree, or spontaneous wedding party, erupts when Howard arrives and Rosemary exults in her exit: “She got her a man.”

Alan enters and, after pleasantries exchanged with Millie, confronts Madge, apologizing for Hal’s behavior while completely exonerating Madge, and then promising that Hal will never bother her again. In his blind adoration of Madge, he is unable to see her as anything but chaste and victimized. Madge, noncommittal, expresses vague disappointment in what is happening to her. In the confusion of Howard and Rosemary’s departure, Hal sneaks onto the scene and reports that he is urgently headed for a freight train to Tulsa to avoid the police whom Alan has called, accusing Hal of car theft. Alan spots Hal, and after brief fisticuffs between the two, he concedes that he has been bested by Hal; he recognizes that Madge will never be his and leaves. To Flo’s dismay, Hal and Madge express their love for each other, and Hal begs Madge to come with him. As Hal flees, Madge runs to the house, emerging moments later with a packed suitcase, determined to follow Hal. Flo discerns that her daughter is following the same path that she herself had taken and pleads with her to stop. With the open approval of Mrs. Potts, Madge leaves, and the play ends with Flo wishing she had had the time to share with Madge her faltering motherly wisdom.

Dramatic Devices

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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, in particular, stands out as one only too trapped by her own beauty and the appearance of tranquillity of spirit.

The small midwestern town thus emerges in Picnic almost as a character itself; the ordinariness is palpable, the ever-present front porch is, in the morning, a symbol of gateways and pathways unexplored, of conversations destined to demarcate the premature endings, never the beginnings, of romance and adventure. These same porches at evening—shadowed and cloaked in diminishing sunlight—betray the final resting place of nostalgic glances back to what was not and never could have been, and the inevitable winter of discontent to follow. Only Madge’s sudden, joyful decision to join Hal—against her mother’s fervent protests—breaks the chilly atmosphere of sameness and safety. However, clearly Inge had an affection for these towns, referring to them in his other writings not as “flat,” a pejorative stereotype of unrelenting dullness, but as “level,” a place where a man or woman can get his bearings straight before embarking on a more ambitious task. This “levelness” is conveyed in Picnic by the barren stage, uncluttered by anything but the most homely of artifacts and images.

Historical Context

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When Picnic debuted in February of 1953, the United States was still embroiled in the Korean Conflict half a world away. Josef Stalin, having ruled the Soviet Union, since 1928, was nearing the end of his life, but communism appeared stronger than ever and seemed ready to expand into many of the world's developing nations. There were rumblings in Vietnam, then a French colony, and requests by the French for American assistance in maintaining order marked the beginning of America's long involvement with that Asian nation.

In the United States, fears of spreading communism and apprehensions regarding atomic weapons (the first such devices were used eight years earlier on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan) lead to the persecution of many people from suspected spies to common citizens with only the most tenuous of ties to communist politics. Feeding on the public's communist paranoia, Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Committee on Un-American Activities were able to ruin the lives of many people suspected of having communist sympathies. While on the surface, television and film tried to maintain the illusion of quiet perfection in America, political unrest was beginning to make itself felt. Arthur Miller's 1953 play, The Crucible, used the Salem Witch Trials to demonstrate the parallels between the hysteria of that seventeenth-century persecution of innocent women and the McCarthy hearings into communism that cost many people their careers and families.

While horrifying, Miller's play could not capture the reality of the paranoia, tension, and fear that swept across America during this period. In 1953, Hollywood stars such as Charlie Chaplin were banned from entering the United States, based on their politics. The U.S. government also convicted spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were tried for giving plans for the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. They awaited execution in 1953.

In America's small towns, this political unrest seemed a long distance away, at least on the surface. But it revealed itself in the growing unrest among young men and women, who, moved by a growing dissatisfaction with small town life, began to search for the happiness and promise of the American Dream. While music from the opening years of the 1950s is barely distinguishable from that of the late-1940s, within a year of two, rock 'n roll would prove to be a social catalyst, turning the dissatisfaction and unrest of youth into a motivated, focused force. Parents in the 1950s blamed personalities such as Elvis Presley and James Dean for their children's rejection of traditional values, but it was really a culmination of political and social events that led young adults, such as Madge Owens and Hal Carter, to look to the open road and large urban areas for excitement. Even a fifteen-year-old, like Millie, is already planning ahead to the day when she can leave for the big city and a more exciting life. This burgeoning sense of wanderlust and thirst for new experiences would pave the way for one of America's most experimental and significant decades, the 1960s.

Picnic begins with Millie sneaking outside to smoke. The 1950s was notable as a decade in which the earliest warnings about the dangers of smoking surfaced. One of the first messages to reach the public was a Reader's Digest article, ‘‘Cancer by the Carton,'' which warned about the risks of smoking. Cigarette manufacturers responded with the introduction of filter cigarettes, which they promised would reduce many of the risk factors. Now, after forty-five years of health warnings, the audience of 1998 would view Millie's opening cigarette very differently from the 1953 audience. During World War II, smoking was so acceptable that cigarettes were airlifted to the troops, even behind enemy lines. Cigarettes were also included in the food packets (c-rations) that were provided to each soldier in Korea. But in those cases, cigarettes were intended for men; women smoked, but there was still an element of disrepute attached to young women smoking. That would soon change. Although women had always smoked less frequently than men, Hollywood films showing glamorous stars smoking had helped to change the idea of smoking into a more respectable image for women. Thus, Millie, who begins each day with a cigarette, reaffirms the message sent by Hollywood films, but she also signals the change toward a greater acceptability for young women smoking.

Literary Style

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Act An act is a major division in a drama. In Greek plays the sections of the drama were signified by the appearance of the chorus and were usually divided into five acts. This is the formula for most serious drama from the Greeks to the Romans and to Elizabethan playwrights like William Shakespeare. The five acts denote the structure of dramatic action. They are exposition, complication, climax, falling action, and catastrophe. The five-act structure was followed until the nineteenth century, when Henrik Ibsen combined some of the acts. Picnic is a three-act play. The exposition and complication are combined in the first act when the audience first learns of Madge and Hal's attraction. The climax occurs in the second act when Hal is verbally attacked by Rosemary and Madge is attracted by his vulnerability. This leads to their sexual encounter later that evening. Rosemary and Howard also have a sexual encounter, and these trysts provide the falling action. The catastrophe occurs in the third act when their deception is revealed to Alan and when Madge realizes that she loves Hal and chooses to run away with him.

Scene Scenes are subdivisions of an act. A scene may change when all of the main characters either enter or exit the stage. But a change of scene may also indicate a change of time. In Picnic, the second scene of Act II occurs later on the same day and, thus, indicates the passage of time in the play.

Character A person in a dramatic work. The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual's morality. Characters can range from simple, stereotypical figures (the jock, the damsel in distress, the fool) to more complex multi-faceted ones. “Characterization” is the process of creating a lifelike person from an author's imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation. For instance, in the beginning of the play, Madge answers her mother's questions about Alan in a manner that hints that her attraction for him is not as intense as her mother hopes. With the introduction of Hal, Madge begins to realize that what she feels for Hal is love. All the passion that was missing from her relationship with Alan is present with Hal.

Drama A drama is often defined as any work designed to be presented on the stage. It consists of a story, of actors portraying characters, and of action. But historically, drama can also consist of tragedy, comedy, religious pageant, and spectacle. In modern usage, the term drama is also used to describe a type of play (or film) that explores serious topics and themes yet does not achieve the same level as tragedy.

Plot This term refers to the pattern of events in a play or story. Generally plots should have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but they may also be a series of episodes that are thematically connected together. Basically, the plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of Picnic is the story of how a drifter passing through town changed the lives of five lonely women. But the themes are those of loneliness, lost opportunities, and passion.

Setting The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The location for Inge's play is the porch and yard of two homes in a midwestern city. The action occurs over a period of twenty-four hours.

Symbolism Symbolism is the use of one object to replace another. Symbolism has been an important force in literature for most of the twentieth century. The symbol is an object or image that implies a reality beyond its original meaning. This is different from a metaphor, which summons forth an object in order to describe an idea or a quality; the motorcycle that Hal refers to is a metaphor for freedom, representing the means to travel and explore new places. Hal is a symbol of sexual opportunity and the latent sexual desire that several of the women feel but do not recognize. He is also a symbol of freedom to Madge.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1953: The article ‘‘Cancer by the Carton’’ is published in Reader's Digest. It warns the public of the health hazards of smoking cigarettes.

    Today: Evidence surfaces that tobacco companies have known for many years about both the health risks and addictive nature of cigarettes. Many states sue tobacco manufacturers for heath care costs incurred in treating sick smokers. A settlement that will reach into the billions of dollars is reached.

  • 1953:Playboy magazine begins publication with a nude photograph of Marilyn Monroe. Conservative groups are shocked by this wanton display and predict the end of traditional American values.

    Today: Nudity and sex are no longer topics that generate much controversy. Magazines, such as Playboy, have been eclipsed by nudity in film and on the internet. Many conservatives still contend that the quality of American life has been reduced by such open displays of sexuality.

  • 1953: On January 22, The Crucible opens at New York's Martin Beck Theatre. The play's historical witch hunt parallels the persecution of innocent people by the McCarthy Hearings in the senate.

    Today: Many refer to independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr's investigation of President Clinton as a ‘‘witch Hunt,’’ a reference to both Miller's play and the McCarthy Hearings of the 1950s.

  • 1953: Drought plagues much of the Midwest. Parts of thirteen states are declared disaster areas.

    Today: The summer and fall of 1998 have seen several extremes of weather, from flooding and tornadoes to hurricanes. Damage to crops, livestock, property, and citizens of small towns reaches record highs.

  • 1953: Frozen TV dinners are introduced by C. A. Swanson & Son. They sell for ninety-eight cents and prove to be extremely popular among people who don't have time to prepare a meal.

    Today: American lifestyles have become more frenetic and busy; many still embrace frozen meals for their convenience. They prove to be particularly popular with single people.

Media Adaptations

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Picnic was adapted to film in 1955. The film, starring William Holden as Hal, Kim Novak as Madge, and Cliff Robertson as Alan, was very successful, winning two academy awards for art direction and editing; it also won a Golden Globe for the director, Joshua Logan.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Chapman, John. Review of Picnic, in the Daily News, February 20, 1953.

Coleman, Robert. Review of Picnic, in the Daily Mirror, February 20, 1953.

Courant, Jane. ‘‘Social and Cultural Prophecy in the Works of William Inge,’’ in Studies in American Drama 1945-Present, Volume 6, no. 2, 1991, pp. 135-51.

Hawkins, William. Review of Picnic, in the New York World-Telegram and the Sun, February 20, 1953.

Herron, Ima Honaker. ‘‘Our Vanishing Towns: Modern Broadway Versions,’’ in the Southwest Review, Volume LI, no. 3, Summer, 1966, pp. 209-20.

Kerr, Walter F. Review of Picnic, in the New York Herald Tribune, February 20, 1953.

McClain, John. Review of Picnic, in the New York Journal American, February 20, 1953.

Watts, Richard, Jr. Review of Picnic, in the New York Post, February 20, 1953.

Weales, Gerald. ‘‘The New Pineros,’’ in American Drama since World War II. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1962, pp. 40-56.

Further Reading Leeson, Richard M. William Inge: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Greenwood, 1994. This is a thorough critical overview of Inge's plays with information about reviews and critical studies.

McClure, Arthur F. Memories of Splendor: The Midwestern World of William Inge. Kansas State Historical Society, 1989. This book contains production information and photographs of Inge and his work.

Shuman, R. Baird. William Inge. Twayne, 1996. This book is primarily a biography of Inge. It also contains a detailed discussion of each of his works.

Voss, Ralph F. A Life of William Inge: The Strains of Triumph. University of Kansas Press, 1989. This is a critical biography of Inge's life.

Wager, Walter. ‘‘William Inge,’’ in The Playwrights Speak. Delacorte, 1967. Wagner presents interviews with several contemporary playwrights. This book presents an opportunity to ‘‘hear’’ each writer express his or her thoughts about the art of writing.


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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: Dodd, Mead, 1966.

Leeson, Richard M. William Inge: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Lumley, Frederick. “William Inge.” In New Trends in Twentieth Century Drama: A Survey Since Ibsen and Shaw. 4th rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

McClure, Arthur F. William Inge: A Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1982.

Miller, Jordan Y. “William Inge.” In Reference Guide to American Literature. 2d ed. Chicago: St. James, 1987.

Shuman, Robert Baird. William Inge. New York: Twayne, 1965.

Wolfson, Lester M. “Inge, O’Neill, and the Human Condition.” Southern Speech Journal 20 (Summer, 1957): 225-226.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide