Inge, William 1913–
American playwright, author of Bus Stop, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and Come Back, Little Sheba. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-10.)
William Inge may justifiably be called the first playwright to examine the Midwest with insight and to write seriously of it—to have concern for the sociological uniqueness of the area and for the psychological manifestations of this uniqueness as it is revealed in the reactions of its people. Inge has presented with astounding veracity the oppressive banality of the lives of his characters. The events of their lives have the nerve-tightening regularity of a dripping faucet. His female characters especially are engulfed by the bathos of their lives, and Inge capitalizes on this fact in order to heighten dramatically the moment of personal crisis which comes to each of them. In each of his four major successes—Come Back, Little Sheba; Picnic; Bus Stop; and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs—the play carries the audience through the moment of crisis; and the final curtain falls upon a note of hope and fulfillment. And, except in the case of Madge in the stage version of Picnic, this hope and fulfillment come as a result of an acceptance of reality, an adjustment to inevitability, and a willingness to face life on non-romantic terms. (pp. 17-18)
In reviewing all of Inge's plays, one can note dominant themes common to most of them. However,… Inge always begins his work with characters rather than with themes. Once he has sketched his people, he incorporates them into a situation from which theme emerges…. He strips bare human motivation; and, like Williams, Miller, and McCullers, Inge brings one face-to-face with the compromises which man is forced to make in a society which may often be actively malevolent. (pp. 31-6)
William Inge is usually the conscious Realist in his writing; however, when Romanticism overtakes him, as it occasionally does, he leans toward Naturalism. Whether he is being essentially a Realist or a Naturalist at any given time, he depends almost wholly upon sharp characterization for the presentation of his ideas. Such authors as T. S. Eliot, Clifford Odets, Elmer Rice, Edward Albee, and often Eugene O'Neill use their characters as vehicles for the presentation of their ideas, but William Inge concentrates on creating Rembrandt-like portraits from which ideas necessarily proceed. Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller are similar to Inge in permitting theme to evolve essentially from intricate character delineation. (p. 169)
Inge's ear is carefully attuned to the dialogue of the people he writes about. He does not have Williams' gift for poetic dialogue; however, he has demonstrated a unique ability to transmit through dialogue the crushing boredom and the ensuing frustration of singularly commonplace members of society. Inge's Kansas and Oklahoma become extensions of Lewis' Main Street; of Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio; or of Wolfe's Dixieland. In a sense Inge's Realism becomes a notable form of American Gothic. In Inge's work, the dark recesses are in the human mind rather than in the landscape and architecture; the eerie stone buildings become bungalows in the great American flatland; the horror is less bloodcurdling than sustained; the blacks and the whites of human behavior tend toward grays. (pp. 173-74)
R. Baird Shuman, in his William Inge, Twayne, 1965.
[William] Inge follows [Tennessee] Williams in writing she-dramas, in giving to women if not the leading then certainly the pivotal (and most insightfully created) role in his work. Inge, however, concentrates more on the pathos of the woman's suffering and, unlike Williams, permits this suffering to issue in triumph. Although the central conflict is a struggle between man and woman, the woman's victory does not necessarily posit the man's defeat. Rather he capitulates, giving himself up to the woman's power to comfort and provide his life with affirmative meaning. Thus Inge's plays end—like most romances—in marriage or reconciliation….
Inge's purpose in writing drama is not political, moral, aesthetic or social, but rather psychological or, more accurately, homiletic. The pervasive surface theme of his work is that people find salvation from fear, need and insecurity only through the fulfillment of domestic love.
Robert Brustein, "The Men-Taming Women of William Inge: The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," in his Seasons of Discontent: Dramatic Opinions 1959–1965 (© 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster, Inc.), Simon & Schuster, 1965, pp. 83-93.