Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 779
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 Star-Times. Inge wrote critical reviews of plays, motion pictures, music, art, books, and recordings until 1946, when the regular critic returned from military duty.
During his tenure at the Star-Times, Inge interviewed Tennessee Williams, the youthful author of The Glass Menagerie (pr. 1944), who was visiting his family in St. Louis during November, 1944. Williams encouraged Inge to pursue his own writing ambitions, namely to write his own play. Before the end of 1945, Inge completed his first play, Farther off from Heaven, which he later completely rewrote into The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Williams read the play and sent it to Margo Jones, a director of a regional theater in Dallas, who produced it in 1947. After he left the Star-Times, Inge was hired as an English instructor at Washington University in St. Louis for the next three years. He disliked the teaching job but continued his writing.
When Inge completed his second play, Come Back, Little Sheba, he sent it to his agent, Audrey Wood, who persuaded the Theater Guild to stage it at the Westport Country Playhouse in 1949, with Shirley Booth in the starring role. The Theater Guild decided to produce the play on Broadway, and it opened on February 15, 1950. This play was the first of four dramas which established Inge as a major American dramatist. The others were Picnic, Bus Stop, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. All four were subsequently made into successful motion pictures. For Come Back, Little Sheba, Inge won the George Jean Nathan Award and the Theatre Time Award. Booth won an Academy Award for her performance in the film version. For Picnic, Inge won the Pulitzer Prize in drama and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, among others. In addition, Inge later won an Academy Award in 1961 for his original screenplay Splendor in the Grass.
Inge’s strength was in the setting of his plays. He saw the Midwest as a great middle ground and made little reference to where or when his characters lived, stressing instead the how and the why. Inge transcended region, even though his plays have regional qualities. His plays are “provincial with no provincialism,” and, while his stories concern the heartland of America, they have meaning to all who are interested in sharing the visions and frustrations of ordinary men and women anywhere.
According to critic Robert Brustein, until Inge, Broadway had treated the Midwest as a “large mass of unidentified land west of Sardi’s restaurant and east of Schwab’s drugstore.” Inge’s best writing painted a much truer picture of the many aspects of midwestern life. His works demonstrated that the region offered much more culturally than many patronizing observers had previously supposed. Inge was a midwesterner by birth. More precisely, he was a Kansan who became the first major American playwright to deal seriously with that region. It is interesting to note that late in his career, when his personal and professional life fell on hard times, it was a shift away from the Midwest that accompanied his failing powers as a writer.
Inge had great compassion and understanding for the lives of small-town people. The men and women he created in his works often led despairing lives, but Inge’s basic attitude toward them was one of fondness, rather than one of hatred or contempt. Inge wrote of the “sweetness of character” that the people of the Midwest possessed. Inge’s characters nearly always accepted who they were, making his plays real rather than ideal.
In 1959, Inge’s play A Loss of Roses closed after twenty-five performances, which led to a floundering both personally and professionally. Inge left New York for Hollywood with great bitterness toward the New York critics who had begun to treat his works so dismally. He kept writing, however, and completed two novels, the first being Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff, published in 1970. His second novel, My Son Is a Splendid Driver, was largely autobiographical. Both books were well received. Inge fought depression and experienced many health problems. He committed suicide on June 10, 1973, at his home in Los Angeles. He was buried in the family plot in Mount Hope Cemetery in his hometown of Independence, Kansas. It was a quiet, simple ceremony, a scene that could have come from one of his works.