William Inge: playwright of small-town life

“When I was a boy in Kansas, my mother had a boarding house. There were three women school teachers living in the house. I was four years old, and they were nice to me; I liked them. I saw their attempts, and, even as a child, I sensed every woman’s failure. I began to sense the sorrow and the emptiness in their lives and it touched me.” — William Inge[1]

William Inge was a popular and successful playwright in the 1950s. Celebrated for his authentic stories of small-town life in the American heartland, Inge wrote of everyday people grappling with the universal themes of longing and loneliness.

His credits included a string of Broadway hits: Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), Picnic (1953), Bus Stop (1955), and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957). All four plays had long runs and became successful films starring leading actors. Picnic earned Inge a Pulitzer Prize — he also won an Academy Award for writing the screenplay for Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1961). Sixty years later, Inge’s plays continue to enjoy success on the stage.

Come Back, Little Sheba tells the story of Doc and Lola, an unhappy couple who married when Lola became pregnant. Twenty years later Lola, overweight and unattractive, mourns for the child she miscarried, while Doc, a chiropractor and recovering alcoholic, resents his wife for causing him to marry and leave medical school. Lola calls out to her lost puppy, Sheba. She is so lonely, she tries to engage the postman in conversation. The couple’s quiet desperation becomes palpable when Marie, a young college student, rents a room in their house.

Picnic unfolds as Hal, a charismatic drifter, arrives in a small Kansas town on Labor Day. Down on his luck, Hal is hoping to find work through his old college friend, Alan, whose family owns a successful business. Instead, Hal disrupts the lives of everyone he meets: Helen, the friendly neighbor who offers him a meal in exchange for yard work; Madge, Alan’s steady and “the prettiest girl in town,” who pins her hopes and dreams on him; Millie, Madge’s jealous tomboyish sister; Flo, the sisters’ wary mother, whose husband walked out years earlier; Rosemary, the spinster school teacher and Flo’s boarder.

Bus Stop is a comedy about small-town characters stranded in a Kansas snowstorm. The Dark at the Top of the Stairs draws on Inge’s past to tell a story of family conflict set in 1920s Oklahoma.

Born in 1913, William Motter Inge grew up in Independence, Kansas, a son of a traveling salesman. His interest in the theatre was inspired by local stage productions, which he attended as a Boy Scout. After high school, he studied at Independence Junior College, the University of Kansas, and George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. In the late 1930s, he worked as a news announcer and taught high school English and drama. In the 1940s, while working as the drama and music critic for the St. Louis Times, Inge met Tennessee Williams, who became a friend and mentor. It was during this time that Inge wrote his first play, Farther Off From Heaven.

William Inge, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams were “the great postwar hopes of the American theatre…Where Miller was the ideologue and Williams the scene shaking man of passion, Inge was the subtle craftsman, the playwright who seemed to be setting forth the tranquil surface of small-town life in casual chatter and unrealized longing. Beneath the surface, however, there moved in his plays the same contests of will and lonely striving that drove the others.”[2]

Time seemed to forget Inge as the 1960s ushered in new audiences with new interests. His plays A Loss of Roses (1959), Natural Affection (1963), and Where’s Daddy? (1965) did not do well. He left New York and moved to California.

In his book A Life of William Inge, Ralph Voss wrote, “Privately, Inge was miserable. His long struggle with alcoholism and profound shame over his homosexuality plagued him before, during, and after his decade of great success.” Inge responded to intensified criticism of his work by abandoning his small-town characters in favor of more modern, urban subjects, wrote Voss. “In the end, his characters lost their authentic voices, and neither critics nor audiences found his later work believable.”

William Inge committed suicide. “In the spring of 1973 one of the country’s most successful dramatists, William Inge, ran out of reasons to think he was any good,” wrote Voss.


[1]William Inge biography, William Inge Center for the Arts. http://ingecenter.org/william-inge-biography/

[2]William Inge obituary. Written by Paul L. Montgomery for The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1973/06/11/archives/william-inge-playwright-is-dead-william-inge-who-won-53-pulitzer.html

[3]A Life of William Inge: The Strains of Triumph. Written by Ralph F. Voss. Original publication date April 1989. University Press of Kansas. https://kansaspress.ku.edu/978-0-7006-0442-5.html