"Why have playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller stood the test of time, yet Inge, their contemporary, has failed to enter the modern canon in the same way?" - Todd Haimes
The Pulitzer Prize-winning William Inge play Picnic, directed by Sam Gold begins this Friday.
In the 1950s, Inge was the toast of Broadway, and no one was more pleasantly surprised by his status than the playwright himself. Inge grew up in Independence, Kansas, a quiet town nestled in America’s heartland that seemed unlikely to produce a celebrated author. Inge had a rather ordinary Midwestern life, staying in the region for college and eventually working as a drama and music critic for a newspaper in St. Louis. It was through this work that Inge found himself meeting playwright Tennessee Williams, who invited the critic to attend his new play, The Glass Menagerie. Watching that now-seminal play, Inge knew that his critical days and acceptance of his lot were over, and he immediately took up his pen to begin writing plays of his own.
He would soon write an unprecedented string of hits: Come Back, Little Sheba; Picnic; Bus Stop; and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. All were hugely successful on Broadway, and all would be made into films with some of the starriest actors of the day. I’ve often thought about what it was that made audiences latch on to Inge’s work so consistently during this fruitful period. This was a man who was truly writing what he knew, setting his plays in small towns very much like his own Independence, and writing about the kinds of people he encountered there. The plays stood out in the flashy Broadway landscape because no one else had thought these characters worthy of being put on stage before. But Inge intrinsically understood the beauty of seemingly small lives, knowing that a person who looked simple on the outside might be brimming over with the most complicated of emotions. What holds these people back isn’t the size of their dreams, but the limits of circumstance.
In Picnic, Inge wrote about people who felt particularly close to home for him. Growing up, his mother had taken in female school teachers as tenants, and Inge was fascinated by these single women and their lives. With his father on the road a great deal and his lone brother dying when Inge was 10 years old, Inge spent his formative years surrounded mostly by women. In fact, much of Picnic shows how closely Inge was paying attention to these women, watching as they were held back by society’s expectations for them. In Picnic, we can see women fighting against loneliness, being undervalued because of lack of beauty or overlooked in spite of their intelligence, desperately clinging to hopes for the future, and struggling to make it through each day. The way that Inge writes about these women is typical of his best work, in which quiet lives quickly move from a simmer to a boil, and all it takes is one tiny spark (in this case, the arrival of the attractive Hal Carter) to make everything explode.
For a decade, Inge was celebrated for this kind of work, and then it all suddenly came crashing down. After his four hits, Inge had a string of flops. Frustrated by changing tastes, he tried to write what the audience wanted, altering his style to suit the times, but the new work never caught on. Inge returned to Kansas, at first writing novels, and then self-medicating as he fell into a deep depression. He would go on to commit suicide in 1973, believing that he had faded into irrelevance.
When I read Inge’s plays, I am incredibly frustrated by the way that he was brushed aside in his later years. Why have playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller stood the test of time, yet Inge, their contemporary, has failed to enter the modern canon in the same way? For me, Flo Owens of Picnic is as memorable as Amanda of The Glass Menagerie. And his Lola of Come Back, Little Sheba is as fascinating as Blanche Dubois. Yet when I mention Blanche, I can bet that you know exactly what play she’s from, and if I mentioned Lola without the accompanying title, it wouldn’t be so clear.
My desire to bring Inge back into the spotlight is why I was so thrilled when the brilliant director Sam Gold approached me about reviving Picnic. Sam’s approach to the play is exactly what I think is needed to remind audiences of this playwright’s talent. This will not be a Picnic in which the 1950s are viewed through a veneer of nostalgia that distracts from Inge’s original intentions. It will not be a soft, bucolic view of small town life in the Midwest. This production will reflect the reality of time and place, of people hemmed in by the need to perform their daily domestic tasks and make a living, of young people dreaming big and living small. We will see people, just as Inge wrote them, without the comfort of distance that a “period piece” often provides.
I think the time is right to bring William Inge and his richly-drawn characters back to the Broadway stage. I hope that you’ll be as enamored of this play as I am and that we can begin to place Inge in the pantheon of writers to which he should belong. But whether you are an Inge devotee or not, please share your thoughts on Picnic by emailing me at email@example.com. I always appreciate hearing your feedback.
2012-2013 Season, From Todd Haimes