William Inge: Fringe or Hinge?

More than a few thoughts, lifted from my notebooks, to mark the birthday of playwright/screenwriter William Inge (1913-73).

I was guilty of being dismissive of Inge for many years, mostly through ignorance and a knee-jerk repugnance of “mere realism”. His works seemed conventional, when in actuality they were critiques of conventionality, not unlike the writings of Peyton Place‘s Grace Metalious. Like Tennessee Williams, Inge was a gay playwright from the midwest. Williams had been raised in St. Louis, though because of his associations with Memphis and New Orleans, we think of him as a playwright of the South. And Inge, who was from Kansas, is often called THE Playwright of the Midwest. Even that sounds like a drag at first blush. Kansas is the bleak place Dorothy escapes from before she visits the colorful Fairyland of Oz! But there are things to think about. Kansas contains the literal geographic center of the United States. This thing we call the Midwest is the guts of the country, everything else being borderland, constantly communicating with what lies beyond. The East Coast looks to Europe, the West Coast to Asia, the Southwest to Mexico, the Gulf Coast to the Caribbean. For better or worse, according to a certain line of thought, it might be said that the Midwest is the pristine part of the experiment, the “control”. If you want to symbolize a certain KIND of America, particularly the kind of America we seemed to be trying to build in the 1950s, Inge’s heyday, you would do well to look there. Both Truman and Eisenhower were from the Midwest! Detroit was turning out the world’s favorite automobiles! They weren’t Mercedes-Benzes or Rolls-Royces but they were solid and well-made and dependable…and so were the plays of William Inge.

So, I’m an Oz kind of guy and Inge’s plays are all “Kansas”. But ultimately I came to concede that Inge is well deserving of the adulation many afford him.  I have widened my experience somewhat. Having seen and read so much bad realism over the decades, and knowing that simplicity is often as hard or harder to achieve than grandiloquence, I can appreciate his achievements more. But also, there are several things that make his work stand out. The most interesting to me is that, more than any other American playwright of which I am aware, he possesses Shakespeare’s instinct for parallel plots and characters, and a certain “geometry” of relationships. This is one of the fundamental principles of art. It is a classical instinct. An awareness of shape, of pattern. Often, it’s about contrast…the old couple vs. the young couple, the happy couple vs. the unhappy couple, the smart vs. the dumb, etc. Also there are very clear, identifiable themes in his work: alcohol and alcoholism recurs, as do domestic violence, questions of status, cradle robbing, the alienated intellectual, and animalistic sex. His plays are wonderfully frank and seem groundbreaking. Also, like O’Neill and Williams, he seems very much a student of Freud and psychoanalysis, with some interesting manifestations. Inge, in general, seems very much akin to Williams…not quite an imitator of him but a near kinsman and a peer. Here are some thoughts on his principal works.

 

Come Back, Little Sheba (1950)

Doc and Lola are a middle aged couple, both of whom are pining for their lost youth. Both of them are clearly projecting their subconscious desires onto others. Lola longs for her lost little puppy “Little Sheba”, clearly a symbol for youth and innocence. She also lives vicariously by watching their college age boarder Marie spoon with her athlete boyfriend Turk. Doc, on the other hand, clearly desires Marie, though he probably denies it to himself. She is his “Little Sheba”. Both Doc and Lola have cause to regret their lost years. Lola’s pregnancy forced Doc to give up a medical career (he is only a chiropractor). Doc is a severe alcoholic. Indeed, the scene where he attacks Lola (with an axe in the original play) is one of the few I’ve come across that possesses the intensity which I believe a theatrical experience requires. It must have been mighty shocking in 1950—and I believe it still is. Not many writers have been brave enough to follow Inge down that path. Shirley Booth created the role of Lola in the original Broadway production and was also cast in the 1952 Hollywood adaptation. Sidney Blackmer (today best remembered for playing the elderly friend in Rosemary’s Baby) was the original Doc, which was much more sensible casting than Burt Lancaster, who played him in the movie (although Lancaster, as always does a fine job).

Picnic (1953)

This is SUCH a prevalent theme in American drama and film in the 1950s—the misunderstood, aimless drifter, the rebel who doesn’t fit in. Clearly these representations influenced a whole generation of young people, making “rebellion” a widespread cultural phenomenon in the 1960s. Hal is a vision of pure unalloyed masculinity. He comes into town on the day of the Labor Day picnic and turns everything upside down, when he falls in love with the most beautiful girl in town. The WAY they fall in love is as powerful as Doc’s alcoholic outburst in Sheba. Folks are dancing at the picnic and suddenly the two start dancing, and they fall into sync like a mating dance. Brilliantly conceived, and very astute about the way sex works. Hal takes the girl’s virginity and is forced to flee the town, but she resolves to follow him. Is it a mistake? Will they become another Doc and Lola? The 1955 movie features William Holden as Hal, which strikes me as unfortunate casting. Holden (one of my favorite Hollywood actors) possesses a palpable intelligence that is generally perfect for a leading man. In this case though, Hal is supposed to be kind of dumb. Coming from Holden, it doesn’t wash. Needed to be someone like Dean, Brando, or even Presley. Or Paul Newman, who had lobbied for the role in the Broadway production but was deemed too small, so the part went to Ralph Meeker! Ralph Meeker was indeed dumb enough. In addition to the movie, I saw a live production at the University of Rhode Island in the mid ’80s, which featured my then-girlfriend Sheila O’Malley as Millie. She wrote her memories about the production here!

Bus Stop (1955).

Technically, despite many dark themes and moments, Bus Stop would have to be called a comedy. The format is an old one, same as Tales of a Wayside Inn or Canterbury Tales, The Iceman Cometh or The Time of Your Life. A bunch of people stuck in a bus stop, snowed in. The dark element is provided by two parallel plots: a sexed-up cowboy is kidnapping a pretty nightclub singer, and a pervert professor is trying to pick up a high school girl. The tension comes from seeing how these two issues get resolved. The first plot ends with the singer giving in and going with the cowboy after he decides to be a little nicer). The second ends with the professor having a change of heart and backing out of his plan to deflower the girl (not quite sure why). This professor character is the worst character Inge has written…a stupid stereotype who recites poetry all of the time. Maybe things were different then, but nowadays such a character would be impossible…his behavior is beyond socially unacceptable. No one would VENTURE poetry in this way. But also no one did back then either—not in this way, gratuitously, constantly and for no good reason. Inge plays always have at least one zowee element though, and, bad as he’s written, this professor provides this element. A creepy pedophile as a character is still highly risque 60 years later. I really hate the end of this play though…it reminds me of so much bad commercial theater. Difficult to articulate…it’s the “leave-taking” scene, when people say goodbye to one another in a way that rings so patently false. Every character says goodbye to every other character, and in each case it’s a “moment”, something “profound” gets said. It sucks because it’s artificial and artificial in a bad way, in the same way that naked exposition is bad. It exists only because this is a play and it is thought that the audience requires it. However, the characters in this reality don’t require it, so it sticks out like a sore thumb. Today the 1955 film is best remembered as one of Marilyn Monroe’s best cinematic showcases.

The Dark at The Top of the Stairs (1957)

This one feels “lesser” than the previous three, can’t say why. It is definitely clunkier.

A mother is too protective of her two kids, a 10 year old boy who is spoiled and babied (and bullied by other kids) and a 16 year old girl who is shy. She quarrels with her husband, who is on the road all the time as a traveling salesman. He slaps her after a fight and it looks like he has left home for good. Probably the most effective and intriguing element of the script is a tragedy that occurs. A nice Jewish boy who seems perfect in every way is taking the daughter to a dance at a country club. A woman there humiliates him because he is Jewish. The boy searches for the daughter and cannot find her. Later that night he kills himself. The daughter, it turns out, had been hiding because no one else had wanted to dance with her (in those days it was the fashion to keep exchanging partners) so she looked unpopular, which she was. The intriguing and true moral of this is that shyness is a from of self-indulgence…selfishness, in that it is a lack of awareness of the needs of the people around us. This could be much more emphasized in the play and NEEDS to be. The Jewish boy needs to be a much bigger character than he is in this play. He is almost a walk-on, so it blunts would should be true tragedy…makes it more of a mere theatrical device. As with Bus Stop, Inge’s craft seems to be sloppy in the end….all of the loose ends sort of getting tied up in a way that is impossible. Suddenly the two children are completely reformed and the marriage repaired. It beggars belief even while it probably satisfies audiences in the short term. The 1960 film version featured Robert Preston (not known for his dramatic chops), Dorothy Maguire, and Shirley Knight. The Broadway version had Pat Hingle (later so memorable in Splendor in the Grass), Eileen Heckart (who’d also been in Picnic), and Teresa Wright. 

A Loss of Roses (1959)

An interesting set-up for a play. Set in the Depression, a spoiled 21 year old son lives with his widowed mother. His former babysitter, who has since becomes a traveling actress, comes back to stay with them briefly when stranded between gigs. She is the definition of worldliness—though she is good at heart, and merely weak when it comes to pleasure. She yields to the boy’s advances, and falls for him, thinking he’ll marry her. But having had his way, he changes his mind. It would have been a better play if it ended with her suicide (O’Neill would have done that). Instead she just goes back with her woman-beating boyfriend for a future of making porn films. The play suffers (especially in the opening beats) from very crude exposition, both about the family’s backstory and the fact that it is the Depression. Surprising to see such mishandling coming from such a seasoned playwright. In 1963 it was made into the movie The Stripper, starring Joanne Woodward. 

Splendor in the Grass (1961)

This one was an original screenplay, not originally a theatre work, and probably the pinnacle of Inge’s fame and career. I found this to be a very powerful, very American story. A sort of Romeo and Juliet…but here the star-crossed lovers are doomed mostly because of their own psychology. We certainly are in a different era today. It seems fairly inconceivable that someone would make a movie in post-Reagan America in which the moral is that young folks need to go ahead and have sex, or the results will be tragic! I’m being jokey of course. It’s actually a more “mature” theme than that. In a very interesting way we have an epilogue to the romantic tragedy, which turns out to be the true theme of the play. It’s the Wordsworth quote on which the title is based. When the romance and passion of youth is gone, we live. Some echoes of Inge’s earlier work are in that theme. He sets up a nice parallelism…the boy (Warren Beatty) has a father (Pat Hingle) who warps his sexual attitude; the girl (Natalie Wood) has a mother who warps hers. They both wind up repressed and won’t end up consummating the one great passion of their lives. They’ll wind up “settling”. I found the opening scenes too pointed, a quality I always hate. Every conversation is about sex: The kids only say “Let’s do it, let’s not do it”. The parents only say “Ya aren’t DOIN’ IT, are ya?” It would be more effective with a little more of the texture of life in there. On another note, it was great fun seeing my old boss and mentor Crystal Field of Theater for the New City, 45 years younger, as one of Natalie Wood’s girlfriends.

All Fall Down (1962)

Another original screenplay, based on a novel by James Leo Herlihy, the same guy who wrote Midnight Cowboy, it is nonetheless very comfortably in Inge territory. A pair of young brothers, a teen and a young man in his 20s, the children of well off and doting but eccentric parents. The older one is shiftless, a drifter, who is so good looking that he is essentially a gigolo. Hilariously so, wherever he goes women melt and are putty in his hands. His pattern is to hook up with them, sponge off them, and then abuse them. He repeatedly gets into trouble with the law for beating women. The younger brother wants to be a writer and he is sort of our window onto the events. Then the older son comes home, where he encounters his old high school flame. They hook up, she gets pregnant, he blows her off, she drives off the road and commits suicide. The younger brother lies in wait to kill the older one with a pistol but relents when his sees him sobbing about the loss of the girl. John Frankenheimer directed the film which is pretty excellent, and the ensemble is truly terrific: Karl Malden and Angela Lansbury (doing the best acting I think I’ve ever seen her do) as the parents, Warren Beatty as the older brother, Brandon de Wilde (the kid from Shane) as the younger one, and Eva Marie Saint as the old flame. All shot in that gritty early sixties realism, black and white, wonderful record of the times. Still and all, the vogue for Inge seems to have fallen off after this, and pretty rapidly.

Natural Affection (1963)

This one has the potential to be a cool play, but Inge fudges the ending. A successful woman is living in sin with her less successful boyfriend. Her teenage son (whom she had orphaned for most of his life while she pursued her career) gets out of reform school. The fit is awkward—the boyfriend is jealous but he tries to make a go of it. The woman is guilty. In the end she rejects him though…the kid retaliates by killing another woman who conveniently wanders in just after the mother has walked out. It’s unbelievably clunky. Inge has to do the unthinkable — kill the mother — for the play to really work but he chickened out, so it feels like a let-down. There is a parallel subplot (not sure what it’s supposed to illuminate or signify) about an alcoholic neighbor and his younger wife (whom the kid’s mother’s boyfriend is screwing). The original Broadway production, directed by Tony Richardson, had Kim Stanley, Tom Bosley, and Harry Guardino, but only ran for two months. It may not have been the fault of the play. Natural Affection was a victim of the notorious newspaper strike that killed so many worthy productions those months — no reviews or ads with which to promote the show.

Out on the Outskirts of Town (1964)

This teleplay, starring Anne Bancroft and Jack Warden, was first presented on Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre — an artifact of the times, comedian Bob Hope lending his name to a dramatic series. Warden played a small town doctor, a sort of Marcus Welby idea.

Where’s Daddy? (1966)

Surprisingly good comedy. Most dramatic writers (like O’Neill and Miller) are too self-conscious and ham-handed to write proper comedies, although they condescendingly make the attempt from time to time. This one feels much like the light commercial fare of the time written by the likes of Neil Simon or Murray Schisgal. (It leads one to wonder…since his dramas feel a lot like Williams. Is his skill merely imitative? It could be debated) Nevertheless Where’s Daddy? is quite funny. An unconventional couple (they are both actors) who live in an NYC walkup are about to have a baby. Except that the self-indulgent father can’t deal with it. He’s going to leave the girl and she’ll put the baby up for adoption. Of course it won’t work out this way in the end…he’ll cave in and assume the role of father. The young man is amazingly indulged by everyone (including the gullible, compliant girl) and it does nobody any favors. This seems to be the point of the play. Other characters include the girls’ mother (a conservative rich woman), the Stanley Kramer-esque black couple across the hall, and, the young man’s adopted father, an apparently gay man named “Pinky”. It’s all quite a time capsule—it would be delightful to see if it revived. I’m guessing it didn’t succeed at the time, hence it’s obscurity. Beau Bridges played the lead in the original broadway production, which only played three weeks.

With theatre seemingly played out for him, Inge then wrote two novels: Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff (1970) and My Son is a Splendid Driver (1973). More on the former anon.

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In 1973, around the time of his 60th birthday, William Inge committed suicide. First he tried pills, but was rushed to the hospital and resuscitated. Then, a few weeks later, he went out to the garage and sat in the car with the engine running until the fumes did their work. He left no note, but there are pretty big elephants in the room as to cause. One was his homosexuality, which he was conflicted about, as men of his generation often were. Only the tiniest of clues about his orientation are evident in his work, although there are indeed several suicides to foreshadow his own end. But that stuff is really deep background. More to the purpose was Inge’s status as a playwright at the time of his death. He’d been nearly forgotten over the course of the previous decade, and on top of it, he was creatively exhausted. Some of his later work had felt like he was going back to the well of his earlier plays, with diminishing returns. In his last years, he seemed to be unable to summon new ideas. At the time of his death he was teaching playwriting at UC Irvine. And let’s face it — the big 6-0 can be a traumatic benchmark.

But…the whole point of being a writer is immortality, is it not? In addition to the countless revivals of the aforementioned works, some of his unproduced dramas emerged posthumously. Of note are:

Young Nick Nolte in “The Last Pad”

The Last Pad a.k.a The Disposal (1972-73)

Inge’s last play had premiered at the Southwest Ensemble Theatre in Phoeniz, Arizona in 1972 starring a young local actor named Nick Nolte. It is one of Inge’s few plays with an openly gay character. Nolte moved with the production to Los Angeles, where it opened just a few days after Inge died. The production helped bring Nolte to the attention of movie and TV casting people, and there you are.

Summer Brave (1975)

This was a reworked version of an early draft of Picnic. It was produced on Broadway two years after Inge’s death. Unfortunately it closed after a couple of weeks.

Good Luck, Miss Wykoff (1979)

Much more fortuitously, in 1979, Inge’s novel Good Luck, Miss Wykoff was adapted into a screenplay by Polly Platt, or, as my wife likes to call her, “The Brains Behind Bogdanovich“. It’s about a female schoolteacher who is fired for having an affair with an African American janitor. The telefilm starred Anne Heywood, John Lafeyette, Donald Pleasance, Robert Vaughn, and Carolyn Jones, in her very last role.

Before we leave the topic of Inge, I’d also like to plug two editions of Inge’s one-acts, edited by my old colleague Craig Popisil: The Apartment Complex: 7 One-Act Plays and Somewhere in America: 6 One-Act Plays. Get ’em, read ’em, produce ’em!

Independence Community College is the site of the site of the William Inge Center for the Arts and the William Inge Theatre Festival. The University of Kanas, where I was fortunate enough to visit several years ago, also has a theatre named after him. Inge attended both institutions.