In the 1950s, William Inge was one of America’s most successful playwrights, with a series of significant Broadway productions. Then, for many years, his plays fell out of fashion. Today, his work resonates powerfully for audiences and theater artists, even though many critics still regard Inge as a “lesser” American dramatist. Charles Isherwood, in his New York Times review of last year’s Transport Group production of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, states that it is “a sturdily crafted and sincerely felt but ultimately shallow play.” Inge’s naturalism, which some critics have declared as lacking poetic dimension, may seem mundane. Inge is “dated,” his dramaturgy is “clunky” and too well-made for contemporary audiences, his view of sexual repression is no longer relevant—I often hear these generalizations and misperceptions.
Yet beneath the surface of Inge’s plays is a unique sensitivity, an imaginative sympathy for people who bravely give, and ache, and sometimes die because they have more love in them than the world will permit them to express.
Inge sees the essential human decency and need for love in all his characters. This strikes some as unfashionable in an age when many playwrights strive for edginess, when we think we know so much about the darkness that is part of life. But look closer at Inge’s drama—at the honesty with which he writes about people and community and life and death—and you’ll see that Inge’s sensibility is complex and sometimes tragic.
“I think Inge will be perennially revived because he captured the human heart in a very specific way,” explains Peter Ellenstein, Artistic Director of the Inge Center in Independence, Kansas, where Inge was born and raised. “While the outward circumstances may differ for the viewer, the struggles of his characters to come to terms with their own limitations, expectations, triumphs and failings are universal.”
The Inge Center for the Arts, which evolved from the prestigious William Inge Theater Festival, is a year-round center for playwriting activities, which includes a residency program where playwrights live and work in Inge’s boyhood home. As a past and upcoming resident of Inge House, I’ve gotten closer to William Inge and his body of work. What has struck me is Inge’s talent for making invisible things visible, his singular empathy, and how his craft helped him transmute childhood memory and personal impulses into moving theater for a wide audience.
How exactly has Inge’s life and work influenced today’s playwrights? I solicited answers by email from five former Inge House resident playwrights. I like to think of the responses I received (only excerpted here) as a kind of dialogue between Inge, myself and these contemporary theater artists to whom he has spoken through his plays and the posthumous sharing of his home:
William Inge: I’ve always been glad that I grew up in Independence, because I feel it gave me a knowledge of people and a love of people.
Alice Tuan: A modest town allows one to breathe in every detail, know the workings of every citizen, at least know the temperature of attitude.
Caridad Svich: Living for a few months...in Inge’s restored boyhood home made me feel closer spiritually to Inge’s work and to understand first-hand the kind of physical terrain that was at the centre of his formative years and memories...In addition there was a clear sense of the aura and shall we say, spookiness, delineated in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs as we were living in the house that inspired the play!
Lydia Stryk: I read the plays and was bowled over by them—by their lyrical simplicity and modernity and the open and free structure of them and the openly sexual themes which seem to me to be way ahead of their time. And here I was in the house and on the porch and in the town in which those plays took place. Perhaps the word inhabitation best describes the way the experience felt.
Tuan: There’s nothing like reading the plays of William Inge in his actual boyhood home. The dogs bark out of nowhere, the train whistles through the calm, Cherryvale is but 11 miles away. The detail, the feel of the plays, are particularly resonant and the adage of writing so specific that it becomes universal never rang more clearly.
Svich: To me, Inge’s life and art inevitably go together in great part because of his chronicled depression and eventual suicide. It is a shame to read autobiography into a writer’s work, but certainly there is a distinct tinge of melancholy in his writing, and in his later work, a bitterness that is inescapable. A life hard-lived. A life haunted.
Catherine Filloux: When I was at the Inge house...William Inge’s ghost appeared to me. I had been reading steadily the great Voss biography about him as well as all his plays. I woke in the middle of the night and Inge was sitting next to my bed. He was quite elegant in a suit. I was not at all threatened by the apparition. The resounding feeling that I received from Inge as he sat there was one of profound sadness. His sad face will never leave me. And then I went back to sleep and have felt since very fortunate to have had his visit and that he shared his honesty with me.
Stryk: I wanted to know more, so I found his slightly disguised fictional memoir, My Son is a Splendid Driver...And then I read the marvelous biography, A Life of William Inge, by Ralph Voss, and by the end of it, I was sobbing...what I got from his memoir and from Voss’s book was the feeling that William Inge was the saddest man who ever lived. And I was just filled with sadness, and it carried over into my stay there, and it infuses the play I wrote there, Atlantis. I’ve never written anything as sad in my life.
Marcia Cebulska: When I was working on Touched [a biographical play about Inge], I came to know William Inge not only as a gifted writer but also as an extremely sensitive human being—easily crushed by criticism and disappointment, concerned over reputation, a fragile man. I came to learn how, in his plays, he exposes these passions and vulnerabilities, letting us see into his soul.
Tuan: He is so deft at depicting and dramatizing the world that he knows, in articulating an isolation amidst an intimate and possibly suffocating environment that his plays continue to ring true to remind this culture of the complexities of the human heart and the need, amidst the free and the brave, to have room to grow against the norm.
Meanwhile, on Broadway, the vibrant, brave and soulful work of William Inge grips audiences in the current production of Come Back, Little Sheba at Manhattan Theatre Club. This revival realizes some of the play’s values better than others. It is blessed by S. Epatha Merkerson as Lola; and unfortunate in what seems a miscasting of Lola’s husband, Doc. But the production is an example of Inge’s brilliant stage art, and a rare opportunity to see a classic grip a contemporary audience.
The play, and in some ways this production, shows how masterful Inge is at dramatizing the unspoken. Many of the most memorable moments occur when characters are watching other characters. The watching is actually part of the action of the play, with Doc discreetly looking at Marie, the young border in his house, Lola watching—with both hunger and vicarious joy—Marie and her lover playing with each other, and Marie savoring her muscular man.
Lola, as played by Merkerson, aspires to love with nobility, abandon and even poetic sensitivity. The character doesn’t achieve tragic grandeur, but when, at the end of the play I actually saw her deeply held dreams of love die, I felt in a unique way the tragic cost of time. Lola expresses the realization of her loss with the declaration that her beloved dog (Sheba) will never return. This could seem simplistic. But coupled with the vibrant yet dangerous world that Inge has built up to this point in the play and further dramatized by the wounding of Lola’s soul as lived by Merkerson, the moment is heartbreaking. The production doesn’t end with elegiac dignity—it ends with Lola beating the eggs for her husband’s breakfast. But, for me, this ending evokes the ways that people go on, even after the old world has ended. Perhaps something in this moment captures Inge’s own ongoing struggle between his heart and his world.
Marcia Cebulska is the author of Touched—The Last 2,000 Heartbeats of William Inge, commissioned by the William Inge Center for the Arts.
Catherine Filloux’s play Killing the Boss recently completed a critically acclaimed run at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
Adam Kraar is one of two playwrights-in-residence at the Inge House this spring. In April, his newest play, The Return of Sita Rubin, will have a workshop at the Inge Center for the Arts. This summer, his play Captain Abalone will appear in Applause Books’ Best American Short Plays.
Lydia Stryk’s work has been seen at many theatres around the U.S. and in Europe, including Denver Center, Steppenwolf and Theatrehaus Stuttgart.
Caridad Svich’s free adaptation of Lope de Vega’s erotic comedy The Labyrinth of Desire premieres at Miracle Theatre in Portland, Oregon May 2008.
Alice Tuan is one of two playwrights-in-residence at the Inge House this spring. Her work will be produced in March at the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival, as part of Game On.
Adam Kraar is one of two playwrights-in-residence at the Inge House this spring. In April, his newest play, The Return of Sita Rubin, will have a workshop at the Inge Center for the Arts. This summer, his play Captain Abalone will appear in the Applause Books' Best American Short Plays.