Friday, May 3, 2013

This Day in Theater History (William Inge, Pulitzer-Winning Dramatist, Born)

May 3, 1913—William Inge was born in Independence, Kansas, the youngest of five children in a family that would give rise to his prize-winning plays and screenplays involving repression, marital incompatibility, and quiet desperation in the Midwest.

As I entered my teenage years, I embarked on a spree of reading (not attending—back then, I was in no position to pay for this obsession) plays. I became aware that Inge was considered, along with Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, part of a great triumvirate of postwar American dramatists. It came as a shock, then, when I heard the news in 1973 that he had taken his own life.

It had seemed so different in the spring of 1962, when the playwright had seen his four consecutive Broadway successes of the Fifties—Come Back, Little Sheba, Picnic, Bus Stop, and Dark at the Top of the Stairs—adapted into equally notable films, and an original screenplay, for Splendor in the Grass, had netted him an Oscar to go with the Pulitzer he had achieved for Picnic.

Since then, it has become all too plain to me why Inge was driven to despair a decade later: the popular and critical failure of his more recent plays; an inability to chart a new direction as a novelist; his homosexual orientation, at a time when there was much less acceptance of it; and alcoholism.(When it premiered in 1950, Come Back, Little Sheba was one of the first Broadway plays to deal with the disease so extensively and searingly.)

What I still don’t understand, though, is the continuing slippage of the reputation, and even memory, of his plays. Rest assured that the celebration of the centennial of Inge’s birth will be decidedly less widespread than that a few years ago for Williams (who, incidentally, championed his work as a neophyte), or even for Terrence Rattigan, who, though a Briton, paralleled Inge in his rise and fall.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Like Inge, Williams and Miller suffered through critical neglect in the 1960s. The reputations of the latter two, however, revived, even if what they wrote in their remaining years never really equaled what they produced at their youthful peaks.

In the last three decades, the frankness with which Williams addressed homosexuality has been more generally accepted. Even plays written during his decline, such as The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, have been staged once again, now seen as a continuation of his general themes. As for Miller, continuing relevance has been found in Death of a Salesman (particularly during the recent economic malaise) and The Crucible (the guilt-by-association theme was less remarked upon in the late Nineties than the middle-aged protagonist’s public shaming as a result of involvement with a Lewinsky-like younger woman). 

In his history of the Broadway drama in the Forties and Fifties, All That Glittered, Ethan Mordden offered up one means by which Inge's most autobiographical play, Dark at the Top of the Stairs, might have, along with Patrick Dennis' considerably more lighthearted Auntie Mame,  continuing meaning for our time: the message that "the unconventional family cell might succeed and the conventional one fail."

It has been said that Inge never really got beyond one or two themes, but how many writers really do? Inge might have tried to get away from his small town—first as a drama and music critic in St. Louis, then as a playwright and screenwriter in New York—but he came to realize that his best material lay back in the heartland—a realization that had also struck the novelist Willa Cather several decades before, under similar circumstances.

The Roundabout Theatre Co. mounted a fine revival of Picnic earlier this year (see my review here), and Come Back, Little Sheba was restaged several years ago with S. Epatha Merkerson of Law and Order in the role that Shirley Booth played so magnificently on stage and screen. But if Inge's reputation is to undergo a serious reevaluation, he will, once again, have to attract continued attention of top-notch actors and directors ready to rediscover him, as Jason Robards and Jose Quintero did with Eugene O’Neill starting with their reworking of The Iceman Cometh--and the way Inge himself attracted talents such as directors Elia Kazan and Joshua Logan, and actress Kim Stanley (who gave a career-making performance as the tomboy kid sister in Picnic).

No comments: