04.01.09 - 12:00 AM | by Terry Teachout
( Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal.)
A half-century ago, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams were universally reckoned the finest American dramatists of the postwar era. They still are. In 1959, however, the short list also included William Inge, and there were those who ranked Inge higher than either of his contemporaries. He was certainly more successful than Miller or Williams, both of whom already had notably uneven track records on Broadway by the end of the 1950’s. Inge, by contrast, was the theatrical success story of the decade. His first four plays, Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), Picnic (1953), Bus Stop (1955), and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957), were all box-office hits that were made into equally popular Hollywood films, and Picnic also won a Pulitzer Prize. With the exception of Neil Simon, no other modern American playwright has had a comparable run of good luck.
Since his death, Inge’s reputation has remained in eclipse. Variety, the Hollywood trade paper, snidely observed two years ago that the most famous American playwright of the Eisenhower era is now “known if at all because his last name fits so readily into crossword puzzles.” To the extent that Inge is remembered today, it is as a purveyor of unchallenging fare for playgoers who found the plays of Miller and Williams too disquieting. Though his four hits continue to be mounted by regional companies and amateur troupes, they have yet to be revived on or off Broadway with anything like decisive success, and Splendor in the Grass is mostly known to contemporary film buffs for the performances of Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty.
Yet some of the most high-minded drama critics of Inge’s day, including Harold Clurman and Mary McCarthy, took his work seriously—Clurman even directed the original Broadway production of Bus Stop—and signs that his stock may be on the rise once more have lately appeared on the horizon. In 2007, Los Angeles’s Center Theater Group presented a revival of Come Back, Little Sheba that was subsequently brought to Broadway by the Manhattan Theatre Club and was the subject of enthusiastic notices. In the fall of 2008, Chicago’s Writers’ Theatre invited the much-admired director David Cromer to stage Picnic, and the resulting production was widely praised as revelatory.
These revivals, and others of similar quality, have persuaded me that the conventional wisdom regarding Inge was not just wrong but the inverse of the truth. Inge was, in fact, a playwright of the first rank, one of the few that this country has produced. Why, then, did his plays disappear from view so completely and for so long?
In retrospect, the most immediately distinctive aspect of Inge’s work is its subject matter. Born in Kansas in 1913, he was the first American playwright of note to write about small-town life in the Midwest, a region that figured prominently in the American novel but had yet to be put on stage in an honest and comprehending way. All four of his early plays (as well as Splendor in the Grass) are set in towns closely similar to Independence, the place where he grew up, and the experiences of his characters mirror those of his own uneasy youth.
Inge was the youngest of four children of a traveling salesman and a genteel, sexually inhibited woman who was aware of and bitterly disappointed by her husband’s frequent infidelities. In The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, which the playwright would later describe as “my belated attempt to come to terms with the past,” he portrays himself as an introverted, stage-struck child whose playmates saw him as a mama’s boy. Not surprisingly, Inge grew up to be a hard-drinking, deeply secretive homosexual who, having internalized the values of his small-town youth, never managed in later life to come to terms with his condition and found it impossible to sustain close relationships of any kind.
Like other sensitive young people who have been disappointed by the real world, Inge sought refuge on the stage, first as a student actor and then as a college drama instructor, before ending up as the drama critic of a St. Louis newspaper. It was there, in 1944, that he met Tennessee Williams, who had just written The Glass Menagerie, in which Williams drew on his own unhappy family life to create a masterly “memory play” then en route to Broadway. The Glass Menagerie inspired Inge to become a playwright, and it also (as he later said) “enabled me for the first time to see the true dynamics between life and art.” He immediately began writing an autobiographical play called Farther Off from Heaven that was produced in Dallas three years later, followed by another play with a small-town setting, Front Porch, that was performed by an amateur group in Galveston in 1948.
By then Inge’s drinking had evolved into full-blown alcoholism. He missed the opening of Front Porch, apparently because he had checked himself into a psychiatric hospital to dry out. After his release, he began attending AA meetings and wrote a play whose principal male character is a drunk. That play, Come Back, Little Sheba, opened on Broadway two years later and made him famous. …
What is most striking about Come Back, Little Sheba is the compassion with which Inge portrays his characters, as well as the care he takes to avoid caricaturing them. By 1950 the supposed narrowness of provincial American life had become a staple of American fiction, literary and otherwise. By contrast, Inge writes with unfeigned sympathy of his Kansas towns and the lonely, unfulfilled people who live in them. Never does he parade his implicit superiority to that of his less enlightened characters. …
Like Come Back, Little Sheba, Picnic is not obviously poetic, at least not in its diction. Instead, Inge’s characters speak of their hopes and fears in the plain language of their time and place. Therein lies much of the strength of his plays: they are so true to life that they reach a point in which they transcend the bounds of the ordinary. When Rosemary, the unmarried schoolteacher of Picnic, tells Howard, her reluctant beau, of her mounting dissatisfaction with her spinster’s life, it is as if one of the figures in an Edward Hopper painting had stepped out of the frame and spoken: …
It was Harold Clurman who first analogized Inge to Hopper. He called Inge “our dramatist of the ordinary. . . . His writing is bare but suggestive. At times it touches the rim of poetry, and the right actors can transport it into that realm.” It is just such speeches that Clurman undoubtedly had in mind.
Though they are mostly very bleak indeed, it is not hard to understand why Come Back, Little Sheba and the three plays that followed it were so successful. Their characters were familiar, their dramaturgy traditional (though never rigidly so). And not only did Inge respect the humanity of his unhappy Kansans, but he also went out of his way to suggest that their lives might not be devoid of hope. Even Come Back, Little Sheba, the darkest of his four early plays, holds out the possibility of redemption for Doc and Lola, while Bus Stop, the most conventional of the four, is a rose-colored variation on Robert Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest in which romantic love is allowed to conquer all.
Such theatrical conservatism, however, was going out of critical fashion at the end of the 50’s. Just as Terence Rattigan and Noël Coward were being made to look old-fashioned by John Osborne and the other “angry young men” in England who were writing plays about the British class system and its discontents, so did Picnic, Bus Stop, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, with their orderly plots and (relatively) happy endings, seem quaint to those who longed to throw off the shackles of the “well-made” play and put raw slices of life on the Broadway stage.
Inge was aware of this shift in taste and wanted very much to respond to it, especially after the failure in 1959 of A Loss of Roses, a Depression-era story of two women in which he seemed to have exhausted his small-town subject matter. He had long had mixed feelings about his popularity, and feared that he had compromised his art in order to attain it. “I know I’ve got to change,” he told a reporter in 1962. Splendor in the Grass, the Depression-era tale of adolescent love that he wrote for Elia Kazan to film, indicates the direction in which he proposed to go, for it dramatizes with much greater explicitness the theme of sexual inhibition that was to preoccupy him throughout his life.
The commercial success of Splendor in the Grass emboldened Inge to abandon the elegiac tone of his earlier stage plays. Bosley Crowther, the New York Times film critic whose reviews were an index of Establishment taste, praised it as “a frank and ferocious social drama.” But more sophisticated commentators found the film to be overwrought and implausible, and when Inge turned away from his provincial milieu to write Natural Affection (1963) and Where’s Daddy? (1966), both of which have a contemporary urban setting, it became evident that he was incapable of writing believably about the sexual revolution of the 60’s, no doubt because he was so ambivalent about his own sexuality. Both plays are blatant and unconvincing, and audiences rejected them as decisively as they had embraced Picnic and Bus Stop. Inge continued to write plays after 1966, but none was produced on Broadway, and his theatrical career was for all intents and purposes over.
The posthumous reception of Inge’s four major plays has inevitably been influenced by their unabashed traditionalism—as well as by the popularity of Joshua Logan’s effective but overblown film versions of Picnic (1955) and Bus Stop (1956), both of which distort the author’s intentions, Bus Stop grossly and Picnic more subtly. Both films can leave present-day viewers with the impression that Inge was little more than a purveyor of safe domestic melodrama, the Pulitzer-winning poet laureate of the American middlebrow.
To see a thoughtfully staged production of any of Inge’s early plays, on the other hand, is to be struck by the delicacy and ambiguity with which he portrayed the world from which he came. Those who criticize him because he was incapable of writing about America in the 60’s with similar skill, or because he chose in his successful plays to go his own way rather than emulating Tennessee Williams, are missing the point of his achievement. Within his limits he was close to perfect, and it was only when he felt obliged to move beyond them that he faltered.
Now that Inge’s plays are being revived by directors who understand what their author was trying to do, it is especially revealing to compare them with the work of his better-regarded contemporaries. The coarse, blowsy pseudo-poetry of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) and the melodramatic hysteria of Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) are hard to take seriously after seeing a well-staged production of Come Back, Little Sheba, Picnic, or The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, all of which now seem to me to rank high among the best American plays of the 20th century.
Do three dramatic masterpieces and a consummately well-made romantic comedy add up to an oeuvre? Perhaps not, but it is surprising how many well-known playwrights have reputations that are based on an equally short list of fully realized works. If Tennessee Williams, as now seems likely, is destined to be remembered mainly for The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, then surely William Inge’s four major plays are more than sufficient to show that he was not a mere commercial craftsman but one of America’s finest playwrights, an artist whose best work deserves to be presented regularly and remembered permanently.