William Inge

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Inge, William (Vol. 8)

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Inge, William 1913–1973

An American playwright, screenwriter, and novelist, Inge is the author of, among other plays, Bus Stop and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Inge presents ordinary lives; their horror, in his view, rests in their banality. Like the plays of Tennessee Williams, Inge's dramas frequently focus on women. He was a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. (See also CLC, Vol. 1, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

William Inge the playwright, like William Inge the gentleman from Kansas via St. Louis, uses his good manners for their proper dramatic purpose, which is to clothe a reality which is far from surface. It is done, as they say, with mirrors, but the mirrors may all of a sudden turn into x-ray photos, and it is done so quietly and deftly that you hardly know the moment when the mirrors stop being mirrors and the more penetrating exposures begin to appear on the stage before you. All of a sudden, but without any startling explosion, it happens, and you're not sure just when and how. This nice, well-bred next door neighbor, with the accent that belongs to no region except the region of good manners, has begun to uncover a world within a world, and it is not the world that his welcome prepared you to meet, it's a secret world that exists behind the screen of neighborly decorum. And that's when and where you meet the talent of William Inge, the true and wonderful talent which is for offering, first, the genial surface of common American life, and then not ripping but quietly dropping the veil that keeps you from seeing yourself as you are. Somehow he does it in such a way that you are not offended or startled by it. It's just what you are, and why should you be ashamed of it? We are what we are, and why should we be ashamed of it more than enough to want to improve it a little? That's what Bill Inge tells you, in his quiet, gently modulated voice that belongs to no region but the region of sincerity and understanding. No, don't be ashamed of it, but see it and know it and make whatever corrections you feel able to make, and they are bound to be good ones.

X-ray photos, coming out of mirrors, may reveal the ravages of tissues turning malignant or of arteries beginning to be obstructed by deposits of calcium or fat. This is God's or the devil's way of removing us to make room for our descendants. Do they work together, God and the devil? I sometimes suspect that there's a sort of understanding between them, which we won't understand until Doomsday.

But Inge reveals the operations of both these powerful mysteries in our lives if you will meet him halfway, and therein lies his very peculiar talent. (pp. vii-viii)

Tennessee Williams, in his introduction to The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, by William Inge (copyright © 1958 by William Inge; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1958, pp. vii-viii.

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, considered both as a play and a production, had all the ingredients of the masterpiece which its author has repeatedly been on the verge of writing. But these ingredients were not blended by a sufficiently determined intent. Whatever his actual intention in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs , [Inge] appears to have been most deeply concerned with traumatic family rifts and their devastating effect on...

(This entire section contains 3199 words.)

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children. But his group play technique tends to dissolve this central drama in favor of peripheral themes, chiefly the mistakes that women make in trying to run men's lives. Everything Inge shows us here seems to be authentic, but his several truths weaken the one truth. A play about family trauma would have produced a more gripping and fully realized drama, a successful or unsuccessfulmajor drama rather than a successful minor play. As it stands, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs is successful because it is many things to its audience. It moves the public without shattering it, and provokes middle-aged relief when the errant husband returns, is reconciled with his wife, and comically beckons her upstairs. (pp. 172-73)

William Inge needs a larger and more original vision than psychotherapy affords if his fine symphonic gifts are to come completely into focus. Even when the psychoanalytical motivations on which he relies are absorbing and compelling in the dramatic action, he does not carry them to the ultimate tragic conclusion. Instead he contents himself with such questionable solutions as the return of the father in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs or the successful exorcism of a fixation by one night of love in A Loss of Roses.

Whatever psychiatry can do, it cannot take the place of dramatic logic and tragic vision. (p. 173)

John Gassner, "William Inge and the Subtragic Muse: 'The Dark at the Top of the Stairs'," in his Theatre at the Crossroads: Plays and Playwrights of the Mid-Century American Stage (copyright © 1960 by Mollie Gassner; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers), Holt, 1960, pp. 167-73.

[Overnight] is one of a series of Inge's plays in a different vein from that of his accredited hits: Picnic, Bus Stop, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. The later plays have little of the gentle humor and ameliorativeness of the former. The first in Inge's more severe manner was the 1959 A Loss of Roses, and the last one vouchsafed an off-Off Broadway production in 1970, was The Last Pad…. Nearly all these "unpleasant" plays take place in a sordid atmosphere—which is perhaps the chief reason for the reviewers' and public's aversion to them. They require a subtly superior kind of acting and direction to make them more acceptable. But what I wish to stress here is that these plays reveal the sorrow, pain and protest which were always latent in Inge's spirit but which for a while he succeeded in tempering with benign comedy and with perhaps too heavy a dependence on the therapeutic aspects of Freudian psychology.

The American theatregoing public more than any other is repelled by the expression of raw hurt, the anger of wounded souls—especially when, as in Inge's case, it sometimes lacked clear focus. The original title of The Last Pad, which deals with prisoners awaiting capital punishment, was Don't Go Gentle, to signify the character's (and Inge's) need to cry out in violent desperation against the cruelty in man's fate.

Of these plays (several are still unproduced) Overnight is perhaps the most balanced and assimilable. It does not go to the savage extreme that The Last Pad does. But before I speak further about Overnight I believe it appropriate to say something more about Inge's work in general.

For all the good notices in the dailies, the box-office success and the Pulitzer Prize the first plays won, I am convinced Inge was underestimated. Serious critics thought the early plays too sweet, sentimental, facile. But whatever justification there may have been in such pejorative judgments, they were rarely set in a just perspective. Fault was found with Inge for not measuring up to standards he never set himself.

Inge was the dramatist of the ordinary. He plumbed no great depths, but this limitation does not negate the honesty or genuineness of his endeavor. Inge really knew and felt his people; he was kin to them. His plays provide insights into their childlike bewilderment, their profound if largely unconscious loneliness. His touch was popular, but never "commercial." His plays reflect a perturbed spirit modestly but nonetheless authentically groping for alleviation from the burdens of our society, particularly as they affect simple or unsophisticated citizens outside our big cities or on their fringes. As such, Inge's plays are perceptive and touching. The narrowness of their scope, their American "provincialism" is in his case an asset rather than a liability. There was very little synthetic in what he had to say; his plays were born of his own distress. (pp. 91-3)

Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1974 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), August 3, 1974.

Come Back, Little Sheba was probably the late William Inge's best play, certainly the most sturdily crafted, smoothly functioning, and universally meaningful. In passing, it may bear a casual resemblance to soap opera, but it is much too honest and down-to-earth a work, far too concerned with existential truth, to be glibly downgraded. Of all the plays about addiction in which the past quarter-century has abounded, this one may ring truest; it provides some modest answers without falling into the trap of pretensions to omniscience. Even more interestingly, it examines with sympathy the marriage of complementary failures: a woman who had conventional beauty but not enough brains, and a man who allowed his conventional propriety to get the better of his talent….

Inge was haunted by the pathos of the beautiful but dumb woman (who may or may not have been a stud in dehomo-sexualizing disguise), but neither in Picnic nor in Bus Stop did he focus in on it with such devastating straightforwardness…. [The] quintessential drama [of the play is] the portrayal of the terrible battle between waning good looks and time with its scorched-earth policy, and of the heartbreaking fragility that only women whose one defense was allure can display when they must finally shiver in a nakedness of soul for which the nakedness of flesh is no longer adequate covering….

Universal catastrophe becomes visible beneath the diminutive drama….

John Simon, "The 'Sheba' of Queens," in New York Magazine (© 1974 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), September 9, 1974, p. 67.

[Inge's] early plays have a richness of incident and humor that endows with audience-winning appeal even minor roles as he felt the surging of his powers. In contrast, the last plays and the two late novels he wrote are suffused with despair and self-pity; moreover, the characters who exhibit these traits lack the dramatic depth of the self-sufficient, if psychologically tortured, small-towners of the early works. (p. 439)

Beginning in 1950, he achieved four consecutive Broadway successes. These plays, Come Back, Little Sheba, Picnic, Bus Stop, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, gained other vast audiences as motion pictures, although Inge did not write the adaptations. These four plays, along with his Academy Award winning script for the movie Splendor in the Grass, have earned a respectable place in contemporary American literature as reflections of the way Midwesterners spoke and behaved in the first half of the twentieth century. They continue to intrigue new audiences with each community theater revival or television rerun.

In contrast, Inge's later works were in large part rejected by audiences and members of the theatrical profession as well as by critics. Brooks Atkinson's evaluation of the phase that began with the playwright's first Broadway failure in 1959 is typical: "It was as if Mr. Inge had lost his gift of seeing living truths in obscure places. For all practical purposes his career was over." A friend of long standing, the playwright William Gibson (author of The Miracle Worker), observed that Inge's "work did change, over the next three flops [Broadway productions] the real and simple folk of his Midwest settings turned into big-city neurotics, modern, super sexy, violent—thin fantasies…. Still writing plays, he couldn't get them produced now, they went begging; one of our top three playwrights had simply been liquidated." (pp. 439-40)

It was when Inge, numbed by urban living and by artistic failures at a relatively advanced point in his career, began giving attention to social issues that his work wore a glaze of topical narrowness. (p. 441)

There was much diligent courage in Inge's attempts to come to terms with the modern idiom in the last plays and novels. He knew he was on shaky ground, having recognized in his commentaries on his own plays the danger of mutability in works drawn around ideas or events rather than character development. "All attempts to deal with men in groups, or as objects of time and environment, I think, fail," Inge wrote in the introduction to A Loss of Roses, the production of which in 1959 broke his string of successes. (p. 442)

[Inge's plays reveal] his nostalgia for the past and ability at portraying family life; the extraordinary ability to capture middle-class speech patterns; a preference for individuality and popular culture as subject matter; and a colloquial rather than esoteric approach to writing. (p. 451)

Inge's conviction that [Tennessee Williams's] works and will helped him to find his own way is borne out by relatively frequent references to [Williams] in plays and novels where anachronism would not result. He dedicated The Dark at the Top of the Stairs to Williams. Textual references to Williams in other Inge works are couched in such a way that they often seem to express a defense of the function and scope of literary art. The most notorious passage is in Natural Affection, in which the lines are spoken by a nymphomaniacal wife and her near-impotent, bisexual husband…. [Their] dialogue really is an ironic position statement on the right and obligation of an author to use his creativity to interpret aspects of modern life, including the unsavory. Unfortunately for this new consciousness in Inge, he lacked the poetic and cosmopolitan touch that has enabled Williams to present naturalistic material in a way acceptable to many critics and audiences. (p. 454)

Inge [had] something of the attitude of a dispassionate observer to both physical and spiritual violence—including some in his personal life…. [The courage to endure emotional quandaries] is evident in many characters in Inge's best plays, as acquaintances say it was in his own life. (p. 456)

Creativity gave some catharsis to Inge. There is verisimilitude in his treatment of both tragic and comic elements of alcoholism in the drawing of such characters as Doc Delaney in Sheba, Howard in Picnic, Professor Lyman in Bus Stop, and Vince in Natural Affection. He approached homosexuality in his characterizations more cautiously; except for Professor Lyman's pursuit of schoolgirls (largely alluded to rather than demonstrated), characters with deviate sexual tendencies do not appear straightforwardly until the fifth Broadway play, A Loss of Roses, in the minor role of Ronny Cavendish. Inge's plays of the 1960s presented homosexuals in major roles to an audience conditioned by that decade to accept such stage characters. Vince of Natural Affection and Pinkerton (Pinky) of Where's Daddy? are well-rounded tragicomic figures in somewhat weak plays, even carrying some of the burden of defending conventional values…. The most fully developed character in Inge's last New York play, The Last Pad, carries the comedy lines despite his status as a convicted murderer awaiting execution for killing his mother and grandmother. One of the few notices of the play called it "another slice of the Inge landscape—full of strong women and suffocating men."

This unpublished play, set on "death row," is the most graphic of Inge's works in which incarceration is a real, remembered or anticipated trauma. Inge had experienced it as a result of depression and alcoholism from time to time, from his youth until a few days before his suicide. Tennessee Williams and William Gibson learned that the end for Inge came after he checked himself out of a sanatarium and proceeded to combine excessive sedation and drinking in his last days. "He suffered from extreme claustrophobia, a fact that explained his inability to accept hospital confinement for more than two days," Williams has written. Gibson remembered that in the late 1940s Inge "was worried that he was drinking too much" and inquired about admission to an Eastern clinic for therapy, but cancelled the request when Sheba went into rehearsals.

It is little wonder that breakdowns, of one sort or another, form a species of resolution in most of Inge's plots. (pp. 456-57)

Teachers, particularly intellectual professors, provide a goodly share of the comic pathos in his plays. They are invariably disturbed in some way, although capable of courageous self-discipline as he himself was…. Inge's treatment of boardinghouse-dwelling high school teachers in Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff and Picnic often is devastatingly and pathetically funny. The sardonic futility expressed by Picnic's Rosemary could be close to Inge's own view of the profession: "Each year, I keep tellin' myself, is the last. Something'll happen. Then nothing ever does—except I get a little crazier all the time"…. (pp. 458-59)

The loss of youthful illusions is a great tragedy throughout Inge's works—plays and novels which demonstrate that he had almost total recall of his boyhood. The disappointments of his maturity are reflected in the depression of Miss Wyckoff, experiencing premature menopause, when she finds that "only her memories of childhood seemed real to her. Her life since then had no substance nor reality. She was a total failure. She wished to God that he would take her life, but that was useless, too"…. Inge himself was able to cope with the erosion of self-worth for a time, as he said in the brief foreword to A Loss of Roses, by holding to the view that "man can only hope for an individual peace in the world." (pp. 459-60)

Front Porch-Picnic-Summer Brave represents some of Inge's memories of the sunstruck prairie towns of his youth with "all the variety I could find of character, mood, pathos and humor." By contrast, Come Back, Little Sheba is a rendering of the interior autumnal gloom of a barely respectable urban Middle West…. Considering a title, Inge remembered the tiny black Scottie he had been forced to give up when he changed living quarters…. The pet lost in reality in St. Louis becomes the symbol of vanished innocence and happiness in the play; even the name of the principal female character, Lola, appears to be a modification of the Scottie's name, Lula Belle. (p. 466)

Although the setting of the play is urban, the main characters really are not departures from the bedeviled villagers of Inge's other strong plays, as Harold Clurman has pointed out: "It is a realistic portrait of small-town people cramped almost to extinction by their repressions, their shallow spiritual horizons, their mechanical Puritan prejudices, their ignorance." Doc and Lola have been uprooted, because of reaction against their indiscretions, from the town of their youth, [Green Valley]…. Throughout Inge's works, childhood environments are given names symbolizing rural placidity and lost innocence; other examples are Maple Grove of Bus Riley's Back in Town (the nearby metropolis called Midland City obviously is drawn from St. Louis), and the Belleville of Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff. In the urban situation brutally portrayed in Natural Affection, a place of childhood security is longed for by even such a city-sated sophisticate as Claire: "Sometimes I wish I was back home in Bloomfield with my Mommy and Daddy. But I just love Chicago. I wouldn't leave Chicago for anything in the world. I just wish I didn't get so lonely." (pp. 466-67)

Charles E. Burgess, "An American Experience: William Inge in St. Louis 1943–1949," in Papers on Language and Literature (copyright © 1976 by the Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville), Fall, 1976, pp. 438-68.


Inge, William (Vol. 19)