Saturday, January 22, 2005

Writing On Writing - Part 9

Originally published on April 21, 2004:

Today is the first day of the 23rd Annual William Inge Theatre Festival, taking place at Independence Community College in Independence, Kansas. I'll be going there tomorrow. I’ve written about this event before, but I haven’t really examined the subject of this event and what his life and work represents to me and a lot of writers.

William Inge was born in Independence, Kansas (not to be confused with Independence, Missouri, the bustling suburb of Kansas City) in 1913. Located in the southeast corner of the state seventy miles north of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Independence is one of those idyllic places that you see depicted in Norman Rockwell illustrations that evoke small-town America right down to the white picket fences and kids cruising the main drag on Friday nights. Independence is what people think of when they say “the heartland.” And it was from this seemingly ideal place that Inge created some of the most interesting and tortured characters in American drama. His best-known plays; Picnic, Bus Stop, Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and Come Back, Little Sheba, as well as his Oscar-winning screenplay Splendor in the Grass, are all based on his life and times in this little town that today still looks much as it did when Inge was growing up.

Most playwrights have a common thread that runs through their work; in essence, they write the same play over and over. (If you have any doubts about that, look at the works of Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller.) This is because they are writing from the one thing they know best: their own life. Inge’s plays depict the lives and characters from his past; his family, his parents, his friends, and the hopes and dreams of a child who was not quite sure what was expected of him and who, as he grew up, became aware of things that were at odds with the only place he knew of as home. He never spoke of it in public or wrote openly about it, but Inge must have known as a young man that he was gay, and he dealt with it as most gay people of that time did – he suppressed it until he was able to escape so as not to embarrass himself or his family. Inge went to college at the University of Kansas and from there to a career in teaching, eventually ending up in St. Louis where he met Tennessee Williams. Inspired by Williams’s work, Inge began to write his own plays, and like Williams, he wrote about his life and his family and in doing so, he created an archetype character, the Handsome Young Man, that reflects many facets of Inge’s personality as well as his deeply-closeted feelings about himself and his desires.

Like a comet streaking across the sky, the Handsome Young Man, described in great detail by Inge in his stage directions as a muscular and confident youth in tight jeans and t-shirt, plays a role in nearly every play Inge wrote. Hal in Picnic, Bo in Bus Stop, Turk in Come Back, Little Sheba, and Sammy in Dark at the Top of the Stairs are all seen as breathtaking objects of envy, jealousy, and desire by both male and female characters. As a dramatic device they provide a turning point in the play – the focus of the action and reaction – and the danger and choice that must be faced by the people he touches. They are never depicted as evil or cruel; in fact, Inge paints them as lovable pups that blunder onto the scene and cause disruption through no fault of their own. It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to see what Inge was writing about. What makes his work amazing is that he so well depicted the people who surround this character and how they pin some kind of fulfillment of their small-town hopes and dreams on him. And when he leaves, as he inevitably must, they have to adjust their lives to his passing through and see how he has changed their world.

When I first was invited to attend the William Inge Theatre Festival in 1991, I knew very little about him, other than the fact that his niece was a family friend from my hometown in Ohio and that I had read and seen several of his plays. But when I saw Independence and saw the house he grew up in that provided the setting for Picnic and Dark at the Top of the Stairs (and, by the way, it is dark up there), and saw the places such as the country club and the picnic grounds and the diner and met his now-aged childhood friends, it became clear to me that Inge wrote with such a true voice about his life and his inner dreams. Over the years at the Inge Festival I have met playwrights who were contemporaries of Inge; Jerome Lawrence, Robert Anderson, Arthur Miller, John Patrick, and playwrights who make no bones about acknowledging Inge’s influence on their own writing, such as Neil Simon, John Guare, A.R. Gurney, Wendy Wasserstein, and Edward Albee. All of them share the common bond of writing their lives onto the stage much as Inge did and much as every playwright – including this humble scribe – still does. They all realize that the genius of Inge was not in creating these characters as much as it was in listening to the people he knew and loved and depicting them so truly.

Inge received the Pulitzer Prize for Picnic, and Bus Stop was turned into a star vehicle for Marilyn Monroe. He was considered to be one of the great playwrights of the 1950’s, but by the mid 1960’s his writing began to falter. He also faced personal demons including depression and alcoholism, exacerbated no doubt by having spent all of his life in the closet, and in June 1973 he committed suicide. He was buried in the cemetery in Independence. His gravestone says simply William Motter Inge – 1913-1973 – Playwright. I will stop by that marker on Saturday and say a quiet thanks from one small-town boy to another.



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