William Inge Collection
The William Inge Collection consists of the first edition and production archive for Picnic: A Summer Romance and playbills for various productions of Inge's plays.
- Inge, William (Person)
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0.50 linear feet
William Inge (1913-1973) was one of the most successful American playwrights during the 1950s. No American writer of serious drama has matched his unbroken series of critical and popular successes during that decade. Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), Picnic (1953), Bus Stop (1955), and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957) all portray lonely, frustrated people who struggle to find lasting love and happiness in small towns in Inge’s native Midwest. Despite similarities of character, theme, and setting in these plays, each one was eminently successful; moreover, each was made into a popular motion picture, further enhancing the reputation of the former schoolteacher who was nearly thirty-seven years old when Come Back, Little Sheba premiered. As Robert B. Shuman notes about this stage of Inge’s career, “Critics could do little but marvel at the success of a man who wrote modest plays about the most prosaic of people, but who had never experienced a box office failure.” However, Inge never again experienced critical or popular success in the New York theater after 1958, and his four Midwestern plays of the 1950s remain his best and most enduring, though he wrote several more plays, screenplays, and novels before the end of his career.
Born in Independence, Kansas, on 3 May 1913, William Motter Inge was the fifth and youngest child of Maude Sarah Gibson Inge and Luther Clayton Inge. Luther Inge was a traveling salesman who was often absent, and young William was raised in a mother-dominated home that significantly influenced his personality and his art. The young Inge was a “momma’s boy” who displayed an early flair for recitation and performance, much like Sonny Flood in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Also like Sonny, Inge was teased by other boys as a sissy, but his neurasthenic mother sheltered and encouraged him. During Inge’s high-school years, his performing talents expanded to acting and cheerleading, and though he was popular, he seldom dated. These formative experiences contributed to the homosexuality Inge never publicly admitted but hinted at in some of his later writing. After his high-school graduation in 1930 Inge enrolled in the University of Kansas, where he studied drama and continued acting. He also wrote dialogue for musical comedies that were produced annually and spent undergraduate summers playing juvenile roles in a touring vaudeville show. At this point in his life, Inge fully intended to become a professional actor. When he graduated in 1935, however, he decided against pursuing an acting career. His touring experience had taught him about the uncertainties inherent in acting, and he did not want a life in smalltime show business. The alternative, to go to New York in hopes of being discovered, was an even more tenuous proposition. He also knew he could not return to Independence; not only was employment hard to find there during the Great Depression, but he also felt a need to live apart from his mother and the small-town roots that he later wrote about but never could return to permanently. Reluctantly, he accepted a scholarship to work on a master’s degree at George Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee, in preparation for a career in “the security of teaching.” Inge was a reasonably successful graduate student but often regretted his decision against an acting career. According to Jean Gould, Inge tried to accept teaching as his profession, but “‘developed a sickness of mood and temper’ which compelled him to leave for home two weeks before he was to get his degree.” Back in Kansas, doubting now his fitness either for acting or teaching, Inge floundered. He worked as a laborer on a highway crew, then as a scriptwriter and announcer for a Wichita radio station. Whatever subsistence these jobs provided, they offered little satisfaction for Inge. He apparently had few friends and no romantic interests. In the fall of 1937 he began teaching English in the Columbus, Kansas, high school. The experience proved positive enough that in the summer of 1938 he returned to Peabody, where his thesis was accepted. With master’s degree in hand, Inge began an instructorship in English and drama at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. At Stephens, Inge worked closely with Maude Adams, an actress who had retired from the stage. His teaching was undistinguished, but his interest in drama was renewed through working with Adams and through frequent weekend trips to see plays in Kansas City and St. Louis. However, his personal life remained generally unhappy and he began to drink heavily. Columbia was a small town where any overt expression of his homosexuality would have made him a pariah. After suffering a brief emotional breakdown, he began to write for his own pleasure and the release of tensions. None of this writing was published, but he developed sufficient confidence in his writing that in 1943 he eagerly accepted the opportunity to become a drama critic for the St. Louis Star-Times, replacing a friend who had left to serve in World War II. For Inge, and ultimately for American drama, this hiatus from teaching proved fortunate.
Just before the success of his The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams visited his mother in St. Louis in late 1944. Inge sought out Williams for an interview, and a lifelong competitive friendship between the two men began. Inge told Williams that he wanted to write plays, and Williams encouraged Inge to pursue that ambition. Heartened, Inge began to write seriously. Before 1945 was over he wrote his first play, Farther Off from Heaven, which he later reworked into The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. In 1946 Inge had to relinquish the job at the St. Louis Star-Times when the regular critic returned from the war, and he reluctantly accepted a teaching position at Washington University of St. Louis. “I hated it, but it was a job,” Inge later said. Although he had returned to teaching out of necessity, he continued to pursue playwriting. Through Williams, Inge met Margo Jones, a pioneer of theater in Dallas. When Jones read Farther Off from Heaven, she chose it for an amateur production in Dallas in 1947. Although it was limited to a few performances, it was well enough received that both Inge and Jones were encouraged. Unfortunately, success on the scale Inge desired continued to elude him, while his friend Williams’s career was soaring. From 1946 to 1949, Inge continued to teach while writing plays, only one of which, Front Porch, was produced for a limited run, in St. Louis, in 1948. Charles E. Burgess reports that during Inge’s year in St. Louis “Evidence abounds that his personal dilemmas included his sexual life style as well as his alcoholism.” He drank so heavily during these years that he turned to Alcoholics Anonymous in 1948, gaining a perspective on alcoholism that contributed to his characterization of Doc Delaney in Come Back, Little Sheba, but failing to overcome the addiction himself.
In 1949 Inge sent Come Back, Little Sheba to Audrey Wood, a New York agent he had met through Williams, and who had rejected earlier plays he had sent her. Wood brought Come Back, Little Sheba to the attention of New York’s Theatre Guild, and by the end of the year the play had been accepted for production. Inge took a precipitous leave from Washington 13 University to see Come Back, Little Sheba through production. Although he had a rocky time in New York before Come Back, Little Sheba was finally produced in 1950, he never again had to teach for his livelihood. In Inge’s work, as in his personal life, the greatest problems are those related to finding an elusive happiness and satisfaction in life, transcending ineffectuality, frustration, and loneliness. In almost all of his plays, his characters fail to find sustaining happiness and struggle for a spiritual equilibrium based upon recognizing, accepting, and coping with circumstances. Nowhere is this more evident than in Inge’s first Broadway success, Come Back, Little Sheba.
Inge’s next successful play, Picnic, is the story of how one sexually attractive man, an outsider to the community, affects a group of lonely, frustrated women in a Kansas town. None of the women in Picnic – Flo Owens and her two daughters, Madge and Millie; Rosemary Sydney, a schoolteacher who lives in the Owens home; and Helen Potts, who lives next door – has a strong relationship with a man. Flo is a widow in her forties who is mistrustful of all but the most docile and wellmannered men. Millie is an intellectual tomboy of sixteen. Helen is nearly sixty and was married, but her parents had the marriage annulled. Rosemary is about Flo’s age and has never married, but she dates Howard Bevans, a businessman of fifty. Madge, the most beautiful girl in town, has never dated anyone but the wealthy and incredibly shy Alan Seymour, who is so awed by Madge’s beauty that he hardly believes she is real. Flo hopes Madge and Alan will marry, but Madge is vaguely dissatisfied with her life and with Alan as well; she questions the value of her beauty and dreams of adventure while going through the dull routine of working at the dime store and having chaste dates with Alan. Neither Madge nor Alan is sexually aggressive enough to challenge the moral climate in which they live. The handsome stranger is Hal Carter, a virile drifter who has failed at everything he tried to do after his college days as a football hero. Hal was a college friend of Alan and comes to the town hoping that Alan can offer him a job.
When he first arrives, Hal does yard work for Helen in exchange for a meal. Working shirtless in Helen’s yard, Hal immediately draws the notice of all the women, except the wary Flo. When Alan and Hal are reunited, Flo must reluctantly accept Hal as Alan’s friend, but she senses trouble when Helen suggests that Hal be Millie’s date at the upcoming Labor Day picnic. Hal is an insecure character who affects a surface braggadocio. He enjoys the attention he gets but confesses to Alan, “I won’t know how to act around all these women.” His boasting hides his self-doubt until a climactic scene in act 2, just as everyone is about to leave for the picnic. As this scene progresses and the characters drink from Howard’s liquor bottle, Hal abandons the tomboy Millie for the voluptuous Madge and fails to avert the desperate attentions of the aging schoolteacher Rosemary. Rosemary and Millie get drunk, and Millie flees, feeling humiliated and rejected. Rosemary angrily condemns Hal: “You’ll end your life in the gutter and it’ll serve you right ‘cause the gutter’s where you came from and the gutter’s where you belong.” While Hal stands stunned by Rosemary’s attack, Flo enters to forbid more drinking, declare that Millie will not go to the picnic with Hal, and order Madge to go change out of her provocative dress. Then Flo, Helen, Millie, and Alan leave to secure a site at the picnic – a departure that strains credibility after what has occurred – leaving Madge to come to the picnic with Rosemary and Howard after she changes. Rosemary, however, is by now extremely upset. The alcohol and Hal’s rejection have made her conscious of her own desperation, and she tells Howard she wants “to drive into the sunset” instead of going to the picnic. When Rosemary and Howard leave, Madge and Hal are left alone. Madge senses Hal’s chagrin and tries to console him. Hal confesses his insecurities, saying that Rosemary was right. Madge, pleased that Hal has confided in her, kisses him – and the moment overwhelms them. Picking Madge up in his arms, Hal says, “We’re not goin’ on no goddamn picnic.” Late that night, Howard and Rosemary return, and Inge makes it clear that they have had sex instead of going to the picnic. Rosemary tells Howard he must marry her because she cannot bear to return to teaching and letting the years pass. When Howard tries to avoid commitment, she sinks to her knees and begs him. He promises only to return in the morning. After Rosemary goes inside, Hal and Madge return, and it is clear that they, too, have made love. Madge is ashamed, and they both admit that they forgot all about Alan and Flo. They have no idea how they will explain their absence, and when they kiss again, Madge tears herself away and runs into the house, crying.
Early the next morning, Rosemary tells everyone that Howard is coming to marry her, making it impossible for him to refuse when he arrives. Flo is furious about Hal and lies to Helen that nothing has happened between Madge and Hal. Amid the general congratulations of Rosemary and Howard as they leave the house, Hal appears. He talks with Madge when everyone else goes offstage to see Rosemary and Howard to their car. Alan and Flo find Hal and Madge together, and Alan tries to fight Hal but is easily subdued. Hal must catch a train to Tulsa because Alan has reported him to the law, claiming that Hal stole the car that Alan had loaned him. Hal and Madge admit they love each other, and Hal asks Madge to come with him. She cries that she cannot, and Hal flees. A short while later, however, Madge packs and follows Hal over Flo’s objections. Flo is nonplussed by these events, but Helen admits that she liked Hal and thinks Madge did the right thing. Robert Brustein was only partially correct when he termed Picnic “a satyr play glorifying the phallic male.” Although Hal is important, the force of the play is generated by the women, particularly Madge and Rosemary. Inge was adept at the portrayal of female frustration; indeed his women characters, as are those of Williams, are generally more compelling and memorable than his male characters. In Madge, Inge captured well the frustrations peculiar to those so beautiful that no one believes they have problems. Rosemary nearly steals dramatic focus from the other characters. A forced marriage, like that of Rosemary and Howard, is a major theme in Inge’s work; seldom does he depict such love as free and happy. Madge’s following Hal was not Inge’s idea; it was insisted upon by the director of the play, Joshua Logan.
Logan and Inge were friends at the time of the original production of Picnic but later became antagonists. Summer Brave, which, according to its title page, is the “rewritten and final version” of Picnic, was published in 1962 in Summer Brave and Eleven Short Plays. Summer Brave has few changes from Picnic, but Madge does not follow Hal in the later version. Picnic is the play most commonly associated with Inge, and it is still often presented by professional and amateur groups throughout the country. The decade of critical and popular success that followed brought Inge the fame and fortune he had long desired. After Come Back, Little Sheba, The New York Times hailed Inge as Broadway’s “most promising” playwright. Two years later, the success of Picnic brought him a Pulitzer Prize, a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and a tie with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible for the Donaldson Award. Then came Bus Stop and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, neither of which won awards but both of which helped establish his reputation. By some estimates, he realized close to $1 million from his plays and the movies that were made from them. The motion pictures in particular helped enhance Inge’s reputation in the 1950s because all proved to be critical and commercial successes. Shirley Booth won a Best Actress Academy Award for reprising her stage role as Lola in Come Back, Little Sheba on the screen in 1952. Joshua Logan’s richly produced Picnic, starring Grace Kelly and William Holden, shot on location in Kansas, was one of the biggest movies of 1956.
Source: Ralph F. Voss, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 249: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Third Series, pp. 167-179.
Source of Acquisition
Accession number MSS2022-012. Purchase from Clouds Hill Books, May 5, 2022.
Processed by Sarah Schnuriger.
- Inge, William (Person)
- William Inge Collection
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Collecting Area Details
Part of the Manuscripts Collecting Area
Olin Library, 1 Brookings Drive
St. Louis MO 63130 US