William Inge’s understanding of the female personality is not surprising in view of the fact that he came from an emphatically female-dominated home. As the youngest of Luther Clayton and Maude Sarah Gibson Inge’s five children, Inge identified more closely with his mother and sisters than he did with males. His father was a traveling salesman who spent little time at home during Inge’s formative years. The young Inge, much dominated by his mother, early developed an interest in acting, largely through his initial school experiences with recitation.
Popular as a teenager, Inge was a cheerleader and was active in his high school’s dramatic programs. He enjoyed acting and continued his studies after high school at the University of Kansas, where he majored in drama and frequently acted in university productions. Still provincially midwestern at the time of his college graduation, Inge feared going to New York to pursue his first love, acting, and went instead to George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville to prepare for teacher certification and to take a master’s degree in education. Inge taught high school for one year in Columbus, Kansas, where he surely met numerous teachers such as those he depicts with such accuracy in Picnic and students such as those in Splendor in the Grass. For the next ten years, except for a crucial three years as art, music, book, and drama critic for the St. Louis Star-Times, Inge taught English and drama at the college level, first at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, and then at Washington University in St. Louis.
It was the crucial years away from teaching, from 1943 to 1946, that led Inge into his career as a playwright. In his position as a three-year replacement for a friend on the Star-Times who had been drafted, Inge interviewed Tennessee Williams, who was resting at his parents’ home in St. Louis after the 1944 Chicago opening of The Glass Menagerie. A friendship blossomed, and Williams persuaded Inge to do some serious writing. Farther Off from Heaven, the prototype for The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, was the result, and in 1947, Margo Jones, whom Inge had met through Williams, produced the play in her theater in Dallas. The production was well received, and Inge was encouraged by its success to continue writing. By 1949, he had abandoned teaching in order to devote himself fully to his writing.
During this period, Inge had become a heavy drinker, and in 1948, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Through his association with this organization, he came to understand much more about alcoholism and about alcoholics, information that finds its way directly into Come Back, Little Sheba in the person of Doc Delaney, the play’s frustrated protagonist.
Similarly, Inge, continually beset by depression, self-doubt, and concern about his homosexuality, which he was never able to accept, began a course of psychoanalysis in 1949, and he was in and out of analysis through the 1950’s. Although one may question whether psychoanalysis made Inge any better able to cope with his own fears and frustrations, its influences and effects are clearly seen throughout his work, particularly in A Loss of Roses, Natural Affection, and Where’s Daddy?
Despite the successes he had known, by 1973 Inge felt that he was “written out,” that he had nothing more to say. Although he enjoyed his work in theater workshops at the University of California campuses at Los Angeles and Irvine and was successful in them, he was unable to deal with the artistic frustrations that plagued him, and on June 10, 1973, he took his own life.
William Motter Inge (ihng) is one of the most important midwestern playwrights. He was born the youngest of five children, the son of Luther and Maude Inge. Beginning in 1938, William Inge taught English composition and dramatics at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, for five years. In 1943, Inge replaced the drama editor, who had been drafted for military service, at the St. Louis
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