May 3, 1913– William Inge:
“Of all tyrannies a country can suffer, the worst is the tyranny of the majority.“
I have never had the good fortune to perform in a play by William Inge, although I have studied and admired his work for the stage and films. I have it on good authority that my little terrier Lulu wants the chance to play the title role in Come Back, Little Sheba in my theatre company, The Backyard Players’, summer production of that American classic. It will be playing in repertory the rest of the season along with a production of that two character musical about married life I Do!, I Do!, in which I will be playing both roles, and the musical version of Grey Gardens featuring an all-raccoon cast. It is certainly shaping up to be an astounding theatrical summer in my backyard.
Inge is a sort of American Anton Chekhov. On the surface he creates common conversation about the smallness of people’s lives, but the characters go very deep. Human pain permeates Inge’s dramas. His major works for the stage: Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), Picnic (1953), Bus Stop (1957), and Dark At The Top Of The Stairs (1959) all became successful films featuring top Hollywood stars. Middle-America born and raised, Inge wrote plays that reveal rustic small-town Americans struggling with sexual repression, alcoholism, gossip and religiosity. These themes haunted Inge his entire life.
Inge won the Pulitzer for Picnic in 1953. In 1961 he received an Academy Award for his screenplay of Splendor In The Grass, a heartbreaking depiction of teenage angst and confusion in the midst of adult pettiness and despair, starring an improbably beautiful, young Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty.
In the 1950s, Inge had quite the run of hit plays on Broadway. Even his friend and mentor, Tennessee Williams, was envious of his success. Yet, he would still spend his lifetime seeking the validation of the citizens of Independence, Kansas where he grew up; neighbors who scorned him for being gay.
Before he became a successful playwright, Inge was a drama critic for the St. Louis Star-Times. In the fall of 1944, he got an assignment to interview a playwright, who was in his hometown, St. Louis, for a visit before his new play, titled The Glass Menagerie, was to open in Chicago. The playwright was Tennessee Williams. Inge was big on boozing and so was Williams. And, they were both queer. For two weeks, they sat around in bars, talking about life and theatre. Williams wrote in Memoirs (1975) that he never had so much fun in St. Louis as he did during that visit. They were kindred spirits, hard-drinking sensitive types. Inge later wrote that all Williams would talk about was his new play, and he listened to him talk about growing-up in St. Louis, the background of his play, but Inge just didn’t pick up on the vibe that Williams was a genius.
When The Glass Menagerie opened in Chicago, Inge was in the audience. This particular production is now legendary, one of the most famous stage productions of the 20th century. Inge:
“I sat in a half-filled theatre but I watched the most thrilling performance of the most beautiful American play I felt I had ever seen. I had the feeling at the time that what I was seeing would become an American classic. I was expecting a good play, yes, but I didn’t know that I was going to encounter a work of genius. The play itself was written so beautifully, like carved crystal and so it was a stunning experience for me and it shocked me a little, too, to suddenly see this great work emerge from a person that I had come to know so casually. From then on, I held Tennessee in a reverence that made the casual quality of our friendship almost impossible. I think from that time on we were always a little self-conscious with each other.“
Inge’s own plays are truly great and he enjoyed considerable success, but they lack that certain spark of genius that William’s works brought to the world. Inge’s dramas are very much of the 1950s. You can’t really see Inge’s work now without looking at them as period pieces, inextricably intertwined with 1950s Midwestern America. But, the writing is gorgeous, poetic with a deep piercing sadness and loss, and a bit of madness pushing at the edges, seen through the filter of those wholesome, we-don’t-talk-about-that-sort-of-thing sexually-repressed 1950s.
There is a very real difference in his plays when compared with the work of his friend Williams. Williams’ works transcend time and place. His themes are universal. That is why Williams’ plays are so magical. Inge’s plays have other kinds of magic, but nothing like what Williams achieved. Inge was aware of this, and it was somehow too much for him. Yet, Inge’s plays are astoundingly good. They just are not Tennessee Williams plays.
Inge was talented, but tortured. That was not that unusual for a gay man of his era. His long struggle with booze, depression, and the profound shame over his being gay plagued him before, during, and after his decade of great success. He was obsessed with how the public would perceive his gayness and haunted by his lack of success in the latter part of his life. He grew weary of all the comparisons with Williams.
In 1973, insecure and distraught, but still famous, still considered one of our brightest and most successful playwrights, Inge ran out of reasons to continue to live a life in the closet. He went into the garage of his Hollywood home, shut the door and started up his brand new automobile. He was just 60 years old.
His final play, The Last Pad, featuring a very young Nick Nolte, was Inge’s only play that openly addressed his gayness. It opened in Los Angeles just three days after his death. He is buried in Independence where people still talk about him.
Never making it to the landmark status of Williams or Arthur Miller, Inge’s plays are still a major part of the American Theatrical canon. His work is frequently revived. The 38th annual of the William Inge Theater Festival at the William Inge Center For The Arts in Kansas was canceled this year because of come sort of virus going around.
“Death makes us all innocent and weaves all our private hurts and griefs and wrongs into the fabric of time, and makes them a part of eternity.“