This Day In Literary History
On May 3rd, 1913, the famous American playwright and novelist William Inge was born in Independence, Kansas. After graduating from the University of Kansas in 1935, Inge moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to attend the George Peabody College for Teachers.
He later dropped out and returned to Kansas. With the Great Depression in effect, Inge worked at whatever position he could find, including that of a state highway laborer and a radio news announcer.
He also taught high school English and drama. After returning to Peabody College to complete his Master's degree program, he taught at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. In 1943, he became a drama critic for the St. Louis Star-Times.
Through this position, he struck up a friendship with legendary American playwright Tennessee Williams, who encouraged him to try his own hand at play writing. His first play was a one-act drama called Farther Off from Heaven (1947). It would be staged at Margo Jones' Theatre '47 in Dallas that year.
William Inge's second play, Come Back, Little Sheba (1950) made his name as a playwright. Doc and Lola Delaney, a middle-aged married couple, decide to take in a boarder, despite the fact that they live in a cramped house.
The boarder is a pretty young college student named Marie, and she affects both the unhappily married Delaneys. Marie reminds Doc of Lola when she was young - before she let herself go and became fat and slovenly.
Doc, a chiropractor, had to abandon his dream of becoming a medical doctor in order to marry Lola, who had become pregnant with his child. She lost the baby - and her ability to conceive more children - in childbirth. A recovering alcoholic, Doc maintains his precarious sobriety by repressing his memories and emotions.
The obese, grotesque Lola also sees Marie as her younger self, before she was forced to marry Doc to avoid the scandal of unwed motherhood. She applauds Marie's lustful appetite for men and encourages the girl to pursue various lovers instead of settling like she did. Despite her obesity, Lola flirts pathetically with the milkman and the mailman.
When Doc finally realizes that Marie is not as perfect and pure as he had fantasized her to be, he falls off the wagon, driven to drink, despair, and slow, seething rage. Come Back, Little Sheba would be adapted as a feature film, a Broadway musical, and a TV play.
William Inge's 1953 play, Picnic, would win him the Pulitzer Prize. Set in a small Kansas town, the main character, the widowed Flo Owens, is the controlling mother of two daughters, Madge and Millie.
Flo has been grooming her older daughter Madge to be the trophy wife of Alan, a clean cut college boy bound to be a success. Shy yet rambunctious younger daughter Millie will soon attend college on a scholarship - just as Flo had planned.
A monkey wrench is thrown into the works of Flo's well ordered life when Alan's friend Hal, a scruffy, handsome drifter, shows up and starts working for Flo's next door neighbor. His presence makes Flo fear for her daughters' safety.
Later, Flo is chagrined when her neighbor, Mrs. Potts, suggests that Hal escort the dateless Millie to the neighborhood Labor Day picnic. Hal agrees, but he's more interested in Madge.
At the picnic, Hal charms all the ladies while Millie sneaks off to drink whiskey. Unfortunately, she gets sick from drinking too much. Later, Hal and Madge have a revealing conversation, share a passionate kiss, and run off to spend the night together.
Ashamed of what she's done, Madge tells Hal that she never wants to see him again. Hal tries to talk to her later, but when Flo and Alan find out what's happened, he's forced to leave.
Alan and Madge's relationship is over. The play ends with Madge, suitcase in hand, running out of the house and telling her mother that she's going after Hal, who is her true love. All the controlling Flo can do is watch helplessly as her daughter leaves.
William Inge followed Picnic with more classic plays, including Bus Stop (1955) and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. (1957) Bus Stop was set in a diner in rural Kansas. Late one night, a freak snowstorm strands a bus driver and his four passengers.
Taking refuge at an all-night diner, they meet the owner, her young waitress, and the local sheriff. Elements of comedy, drama, and romance come together as the characters get to know each other. Bus Stop would be adapted as a feature film and a TV series.
The Dark at the Top of the Stairs was a full length version of Inge's one-act debut play, Farther Off from Heaven. In it, the main character, Rubin Flood, must deal with the recent loss of his job and a resentful wife who denies him affection.
He must also deal with a shy teenage daughter preparing for her first dance, and a preteen son who would rather hide behind his mother's apron strings than deal with bullies. When Rubin turns to his female friend Mavis Pruitt for comfort and understanding, he unwittingly sparks rumors that they're having an affair.
In the 1950s, William Inge's plays were often staged live on television as episodes of the popular "live theater" series of the time. When his classic play Bus Stop was adapted as a TV series, he served as script consultant. The series ran for one season, from 1961-62.
Set in Colorado instead of Kansas, each one hour episode followed the lives of different characters who passed through the bus station and local diner in a small town, as well as the lives of the townspeople, including diner owner Grace Sherwood.
The legendary filmmaker Robert Altman cut his teeth directing eight episodes of the Bus Stop TV series. One of the episodes he directed, titled A Lion Walks Among Us, sparked controversy with its storyline.
The episode featured pop singer and teen idol Fabian as a psychotic serial axe murderer. Viewer outrage over the episode's disturbing content resulted in a Congressional hearing to investigate the impact of violence on television.
When he wasn't writing plays, William Inge dabbled in screenwriting, adapting other writers' novels for the screen. He also wrote original screenplays. His script for director Elia Kazan's classic 1961 film Splendor In The Grass won him the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
In the early 1970s, Inge tried his hand at writing novels. Of the two novels he wrote, his debut novel, Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff was most famous. Set late 1950s Kansas, it told the dark, psychosexual story of Evelyn Wyckoff, a small town high school Latin teacher and lonely, virginal 35-year-old spinster.
Denied a healthy social and sexual life by her demanding, hateful, controlling mother, Evelyn is drawn into a most unhealthy sadomasochistic relationship with her school's black janitor, who consummates the relationship by raping her on top of her desk.
Fearing that reporting the rape would disgrace her, Evelyn remains silent and allows her attacker to keep having his way with her. Soon, poor Evelyn, starved for affection, actually begins to look forward to their forbidden trysts.
She ends up getting caught, fired for consorting with a black man on school grounds, and disgraced for committing miscegenation. The novel which was neither racist nor misogynistic, would be adapted as a feature film in 1979.
Inge's second novel, the semi autobiographical My Son is a Splendid Driver, was published in 1973. It would be his last. He spent his remaining years teaching play writing at the University of California at Irvine.
After his last several plays proved unsuccessful both critically and commercially, William Inge fell into a deep depression. Believing that his well of writing talent had dried up permanently, he committed suicide in June of 1973 at the age of 60.
Quote Of The Day
"Nobody is bored when he is trying to make something that is beautiful, or to discover something that is true." - William Inge
Today's video features a complete live performance of William Inge's Pulitzer Prize winning play, Picnic, taped in 1986 for HBO and starring Jennifer Jason Leigh. Enjoy!