Inge, William 1913–1973
An American playwright, screenwriter, and novelist, Inge is the author of successful plays which are often compared with those of Tennessee Williams. Inge presents ordinary lives, horrible in their banality. He received the 1953 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for Picnic. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Until the appearance of A Loss of Roses (1959), Inge had a reputation as a playwright whose work did not fail. Following the modest success of Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), Inge's next three plays, Picnic (1953), Bus Stop (1955), and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957), established him as one of Broadway's most successful playwrights; because of our strange belief in the corollary relationship between income and reputation, Inge also came to be accepted as one of America's leading dramatists. His own ambiguous sense of his position is made clear in the Foreword to 4 Plays in which he dwells on his longing for both big success ("but none of them has brought me the kind of joy, the hilarity, I had craved as a boy") and artistic success, a feeling of having contributed something to the theater.
If the self-image that Inge projects in that Foreword—the playwright who went into analysis after the first hint of success with Sheba—tags him as a representative American (intellectual, artistic variation) of the fifties, it is not surprising that his plays should embody the theatrical commonplaces of the decade. The Dark at the Top of the Stairs is almost a casebook of clichés for our time…. The basic pattern in [the play] is to confront the child with a situation that must push him or her toward maturity. (p. 41)
The articulate self-awareness that Inge and most of his contemporaries give to their characters disposes of the virtue of revelation through dramatic action, through the conflict of personality, through the interaction of one man's life on another…. Speeches, such as those of Lottie's [in Dark], are hardly Chekhovian revelation; they are much more like the show-and-tell period at the neighborhood kindergarten. Behind Lottie's self-definition and those of Sammy in Dark, Hal and Rosemary in Picnic, Dr. Lyman in Bus Stop, and Doc and Lola in Sheba … lies the remnants of a first-year course in psychology or an incompletely digested analysis. At least, Inge, in his psychologizing, avoids the kind of jargon that some of his fellow playwrights use. (pp. 42-3)
Although Inge's characters spend a good part of their time explaining their motivations (in Picnic, for instance, although one good scene between the two sisters would make everything clear, Millie must indicate frequently that she resents Madge's beauty and Madge must have a speech in which she complains that beauty is not enough), they still have to go through the regular expositional hoops to give the audience the past out of which the dramatic present has grown…. The clumsiest exposition in the early Inge plays comes in Bus Stop in which Elma Duckworth, another of the adolescent yearners, wanders from character to character, gathering information as though she were a researcher for Current Biography. The logical end product of Inge's tendency toward explanation is A Loss of Roses, in which practically nothing happens except in the narrated past.
One of the recurring criticisms of American drama in the last fifteen years is that in it action has given way to talk. There is a kind of validity in that position, but since good talk in the theater is often a kind of action, the difficulty lies not in the fact of but the quality of the talk. The naturalistic tradition seems to have spawned a host of dull people who are bromidic and repetitive, inarticulate except at those moments of high whine when they grind out their tales of woe; Inge's plays have their quota of such characters…. I could...
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It is possible to know what makes a good play. Above all, a writer must follow the logic of his material relentlessly, no matter where it leads. Once situations are established and characters alive, they must develop in a world of their own making. Art demands truth…. The lesser artist cannot resist rearranging his material or cannot summon the courage to follow wherever it leads…. In Dark at the Top of the Stairs, the adolescent problems of the children and the material dislocations are not resolved honestly, when Ruben at the top of the stairs urges Cora to come to bed with him. (p. 145)
[The most disturbing of Inge's techniques is his] popularization of Freudian analysis. Evil is clinically analyzed rather than dramatically presented. In Dark at the Top of the Stairs, for example, Lottie, the vulgar-mouthed sister of Cora, tells of her sexual difficulties with her husband Morris. Her confession is a self-analysis that presumably resolves the problem by unearthing it. Her coarse talk is a compensation for her unsatisfactory sex life, but no character change occurs, nor do relationships with her husband or sister move in new directions. (p. 146)
After four successive hits—Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), Picnic (1953), which also won a Pulitzer Prize, Bus Stop (1955), and Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957)—William Inge spoiled his record with A Loss of Roses...
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Though essentially naturalistic, Mr. Inge's plays generate a mood of intense Freudian pressures that gives them overtones of poetry. His favorite theme is sex, his favorite thesis that it causes problems. His first Broadway hit, Come Back, Little Sheba, produced in 1950, explored the consequences of what used to be called a "shotgun wedding." (p. 97)
As is usually true of Mr. Inge's plays, the secondary characters in this one are flat and unconvincing, but, because of the honesty with which he has drawn the two principals and the poignancy he has achieved through their relationship, Come Back, Little Sheba represents not only his first-produced but also his best work.
Picnic, a more celebrated play, concerns a group of unmarried women of varying ages whose stale existence in a sleepy, midwestern town is temporarily enlivened by the appearance of a handsome vagabond…. The play … contains some of Mr. Inge's best writing, but its heavy emphasis upon sex and female frustration creates a suffocating atmosphere of sickness that, in the end, subverts most of its good qualities.
Both The Dark at the Top of the Stairs and A Loss of Roses … deal with problems stemming from the Oedipus complex. (pp. 98-9)
Finally, there is Natural Affection, Mr. Inge's latest, and perhaps worst, work to date. The first act, concerning an unmarried couple whose...
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The successful playwright, whose dramatic scope is never outwardly wide, whose characters are as commonplace as old shoes, and whose subject matter rarely rises above the ordinary routine of small-town life, necessarily must possess compensating gifts. William Motter Inge … has an abundance of such gifts. Possessed of extraordinary perception, sensitivity, and compassion, he has the rare and admirable trait of expressing the frustrations and dilemmas of "the so-called little man without being patronizing and without the sentimentalist's knack of killing him with a dubious sort of kindness, à la Saroyan." His dramatic aim, as expressed in a series of midwestern and southwestern community plays, is modest but almost invariably true. As the creator of a large number of well-realized, though ordinary men, women, and children, Inge has portrayed the fortunes and misfortunes of their domestic lives with integrity and sympathy…. [Beginning with Come Back, Little Sheba] his career has revealed Inge as "the modest poet of the American landscape of failure and near failure." Although limited in range and depth of technique and style, Inge's stagecraft has captivated both stage and motion picture audiences by its familiar realism. (pp. 211-12)
[Come Back, Little Sheba] is honest Americana. As a bare, almost clinical characterization of a middle-aged and intellectually mismated couple, the play exhibits a young play-wright's genuine concern for hapless people, beset by secret frustrations and dreams of a better life—for small-town natives who, transplanted to a small midwestern city, live lives "of quiet desperation," knowing in themselves that their narrow world will not improve, yet clinging to hope. (p. 212)
[Come Back, Little Sheba] obviously was the creation of a talented playwright. Nevertheless, it was a bit bare and restricted. Just three years later Inge broke through into a much wider world with a new play titled Picnic: A Summer Romance, a moving drama about a young drifter and a new group of Kansas townsfolk who, during a brief summer association, learn a lot of simple yet profound things about each other. (p. 213)
Criticism has been made of Inge's...
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The similarities in characters and situations in [the work of William Inge and Tennessee Williams] are obvious: sexual fantasies, frustrated women, the devirilization of studs—"homosexual spite"—homosexual characters studied covertly etc. However, Inge's plays add to the list of ruses the homosexual dramatist has been forced to employ in depicting his own experience, particularly with regard to "virile friend-ship," the caustic description of heterosexual relationships, and the portrait of "Mom," the overprotective and castrating woman and mother. (p. 121)
[A] careful reading of [Inge's] plays, beginning with the very first, clearly reveals that the studs [Turk in Come Back, Little Sheba,...
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