A Tribute to a Midwestern Bard
BY Trudy Ring
April 30 2013 5:00 AM ET
With four consecutive Broadway hits, a Pulitzer Prize, and an Oscar, William Inge was one of the top dramatists of the mid-20th century. But he’s not as well remembered today as some of his contemporaries — say, Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. And after his death, there was some controversy about naming a theater in his hometown for him, as some townspeople considered him a “degenerate” because he was gay.
Happily, less bigoted minds prevailed, and not only is there a theater bearing his name, it’s part of the larger William Inge Center for the Arts at Independence Community College in Independence, Kan. And this week the center is hosting a celebration of Inge’s life and work, recognizing his importance as a playwright, screenwriter, and novelist, in observance of the 100th anniversary of his birth.
From Wednesday through Sunday, the 32nd annual William Inge Theatre Festival will take place in Independence, with about 50 events total, including scholarly panels devoted to his work; a production of his hit play Bus Stop; a reading of Samuel V. Hunter’s new play, A Great Wilderness, starring Shirley Knight and Dakin Matthews; a gala dinner and auction; a multimedia tribute; and even a Victorian-style séance seeking to connect with the spirit of Inge, who died in 1973.
The festival, which started in 1982, has honored a living playwright each year until now, as organizers thought the best way to celebrate Inge was to recognize the present and the future of theater. But Inge’s centenary and the recent resurgence of interest in his writings made this the right time to devote the festival to its namesake, says Peter Ellenstein, artistic director of the Inge Center.
“I think Inge is in the process of again being rediscovered,” says Ellenstein, noting that playwrights tend to go in an out of fashion. This year his Pulitzer winner, Picnic, was revived on Broadway, and lesser-known Inge works are drawing audiences as well. In February a Kansas City, Mo., theater company presented a program of short Inge plays dealing with gay themes, something found only rarely in his work. Last year’s Inge festival included a reading of an unpublished work by the playwright called Off the Main Road. And the center recently published a volume of his short plays, Inge: A Complex Evening.
Inge was a giant of the theater in his time, with a still-unmatched record of four consecutive Broadway hits in Come Back, Little Sheba (1950); Picnic (1953); Bus Stop (1955); and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957). They are best known to audiences today through their entertaining if not completely faithful film versions; Inge didn’t get to do the adaptations. He did, however, write directly for the screen, and he won an Oscar for his original screenplay for 1961’s Splendor in the Grass, which starred Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty and was directed by Elia Kazan.
Inge’s work remains relevant today, Ellenstein says, because of his extraordinarily sympathetic portrayal of human foibles. “He’s one of the few playwrights in America who writes about empathy and forgiveness as maybe his main themes,” says Ellenstein. Inge wrote mainly about small-town Midwesterners, reflecting his roots, but he showed that their stories are universal — like everyone, they’ve experienced problems, they have various regrets, but they’re trying to make the best of the hand they’ve been dealt.
“He’s a really, really fine writer of well-observed characters,” adds Ellenstein, noting that because of this several scholars have called Inge “the American Chekhov.”
Ellenstein says Inge’s homosexuality informed his creation of true-to-life, sympathetic characters. “The fact that he had this big secret that the world had judged unacceptable, and he had judged unacceptable, made him look outside and judge what was authentic,” says Ellenstein.
For all the forgiveness Inge shows his characters, Ellenstein says, “The only person he was unable to forgive was himself.” In 1973, driven by professional setbacks, alcoholism, and shame over being gay, the playwright took his own life.
While Inge desired acceptance by the world at large, he never stopped wanting acceptance in his hometown. As demonstrated by the battle over naming the community college’s theater for Inge, that acceptance wasn’t always readily offered. But Independence has come to appreciate its American Chekhov, a phenomenon that brings a comparison to another playwright. “There are two places where they celebrate hometown playwrights: Stratford and Independence,” says Ellenstein.