Saturday, April 16, 2011

Inge Festival 2011, Day 3 - Cool Times

After the thunderstorms swept through Independence on Thursday night, the weather turned cold, windy, and rainy. It did not, however, put a damper on the festival.

Friday morning for me began with a discussion of Inge's relationship with the press and drama critics, always a dicey area for playwrights, and for Inge in particular. For some reason he was viewed by several critics as lucky; he seemingly came out of nowhere in 1952 to conquer Broadway with four hit plays in a row and elbow his way into the stratosphere of American theatre next to Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Of course, he was not an overnight sensation; his ascendancy had been a long and winding trip, including stints teaching and other occupations and even spending a couple of years as the critic at large for a St. Louis newspaper. His first play, Come Back, Little Sheba, had taken years to get into shape and had endured a lot of rejection before getting to the stage. The same thing happened with Picnic, and when it finally made it to Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, it had been through a lot, including a stormy relationship with the director, Joshua Logan, and the version of the play that we've come to know was despised by the author, who felt that he was bullied into making the play have a "happy ending."

It would be inevitable that Inge -- like his fellow playwrights of the era -- would hit the wall and produce unsuccessful plays. For some, they accepted this with a begrudging awareness that they have done their best work. But for Inge, the combination of flops and his internal demons of addiction and repression became too much and he committed suicide in 1973. The common practice -- especially with Inge -- is to blame the critics for sneering at his works as dated and sentimental. But it was more than just rejection by the press; it was Inge's own inability to believe in himself and shrug off the critics. It's not easy to do, but he seemed to let it -- along with his own demons -- lead him to the end. And it was a terrible loss.

Friday afternoon I presented my paper for the scholar's conference; "Plain Speaking - The Voices of William Inge". I examined Inge's use of everyday dialogue and the sometimes clumsy way his characters speak as the reflection of the true heart and soul of the characters, and how Inge often used the silences between the characters as powerful moments in his plays. It forces the actors to examine their roles with more precision and care, and to listen carefully to what the other characters are saying.

Last night was the gala dinner with performances by Elizabeth Wilson, Sheldon Harnick, Daisy Egan (the youngest person ever to win a Tony for her performance in The Secret Garden), and reminiscences of the last 30 years of Inge Festivals. I'm glad I've been here for twenty of them.



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