Theatre yesterday and today



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William Inge’s Picnic, opened on Broadway sixty-four years ago last month. I caught a new production of it by the Transport Group that is currently in previews at the Judson Gym off Washington Square Park the other night. It was my first time seeing this play that has had a rich history since its premiere those many decades ago, when it brought to the landscape the work of a new post-war playwright, favorably compared to Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. These two contemporaries of Inge were, by 1950, well represented with All My Sons and Death of a Salesman (Miller), and A Streetcar Named Desire and The Rose Tattoo (Williams).

William Inge, circa 1960s.

Born Walter Gage in Independence, Kansas in 1913, Inge’s home town was, until the depression, said to have had “more millionaires per capita than any other city in the country.” Though not of that class, (according to his bio at the official William Inge Theatre Festival website), Inge was able to receive an early exposure to theatre as a member of a local Boy Scout Troop. From where the troop gathered in a ground floor meeting room of the Independence Civic Center, its 2,000 seat theatre was big enough to offer the scouts balcony seats to see all the shows staged there. I found it comforting to read that Inge, as I once did, got his education from his perch up in the cheap seats.

Independence shaped not only Inge as a person, but as a playwright. “I’ve often wondered how people raised in our great cities ever develop any knowledge of humankind,” he said. “People who grow up in small towns get to know each other so much more closely than they do in cities.” In his plays, Inge took that knowledge of small town life and expanded upon to address larger issues, such as alcoholism and sexual repression among teenagers, not just in the era of the fifties in which he was writing, but setting his plays in different decades to speak to the same truth.

He graduated from the University of Kansas at Lawrence with a Degree in Speech and Drama. A budding playwright, he was teaching high school in Columbus, Kansas when he was offered a scholarship to work on his Masters at the George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, Tennessee, which he accepted. Inge bounced between his home town and Nashville, continuing to teach school, finally finishing his Masters three years after he started in 1938.

It was five years later, having moved to St. Louis, Missouri and finding employment as a drama critic, that he came in contact with another young playwright, Tennessee Williams. It was serendipity that Inge would be in St. Louis for the first production of The Glass Menagerie and befriended this fellow fledgling playwright. With Williams’s encouragement, Inge now understood the sort of plays he needed to be writing and the work and dedication necessary if he was to finally to pursue in earnest his playwriting career.

So it was in early 1950 that Inge debuted on Broadway with Come Back, Little Sheba, which starred Shirley Booth in a career-making performance. Having already won a Tony for the role of Lola, Booth won the Academy Award for the film version of the play exactly one month after Picnic’s opening night on Broadway. And what an opening night it was! Set in a small town backyard in Kansas at an indeterminate time, this play was the closest to autobiography. “When I was a boy in Kansas, my mother had a boarding house,” he said. “There were three women school teachers living in the house. I was four years old and they were nice to me; I liked them. I saw their attempts and, even as a child, I sensed every woman’s failure. I began to sense the sorrow and the emptiness in their lives and it touched me.” It would win him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Arthur O’Connell (upper left), Eileen Heckart and Ralph Meeker in Picnic (1953)

Indeed, the female characters Inge created for Picnic are what makes it sing. Yes, the intrusion of a wild man into the proceedings, a drifter with no manners or even decency, brings the necessary drama to the proceedings, but it is the women who are by far more interesting than the men. The play received excellent reviews with Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times eloquently stating its strength: “Since Mr. Inge can write comedy as well as drama, the first stirrings among the girls and women are amusing. But Picnic is a deadly serious play. Before it is over, the vagrant with the loud mouth and the unsavory past has altered the whole landscape. Whatever was unreal in the first scene is brutally real in the last act. Forces get loose that no one will ever again put under control.”

In addition to these two plays, Inge would have two more hits in the fifties: Bus Stop and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. It was an envious run, but a run is what it was. His next (and final) three Broadway shows all closed quickly. And though he did write the film Splendor in the Grass which won him the 1961 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, it was an anomaly. His follow-up was another original screenplay, All Fall Down, which is a good movie, but did not do much box office. After that, it was downhill; rewriting the poorly received Broadway production of his A Loss of Roses, it was lackluster as a film in spite of its more provocative title, The Stripper. And 1965's Bus Riley’s Back in Town, a vehicle for the red-hot Ann-Margret, is best not mentioned at all (though I’m mentioning it).

“By Walter Gage,” Inge’s real name, used to disassociate himself from the finished product.

Of Inge’s Broadway career, theatre historian Ethan Mordden has written somewhat condescendingly that “without the poetry of Williams or the moral ratiocination of Miler, Inge made that brand-name duo a triumvirate for a while with a little craft and a little flamboyance.” Perhaps true, but then again, it is no small feat for Inge to have had four hit Broadway shows between 1950 and 1957, creating rich and indelible characters for some of the best actors of the 50s: Kim Stanley, Paul Newman, Eileen Heckart, Elaine Stritch and Pat Hingle.

No billing in this early ad for Paul Newman, who made his Broadway debut in “Picnic.”

Sadly, beset with failures that plagued him, Inge committed suicide in Los Angeles on June 10, 1973, just five weeks after his 60th birthday. But he is in no way forgotten, particularly by way of the Inge Theatre Festival, held every year in Independence, which is a worthy testament to his legacy.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: