Born in Independence, Kansas, Inge attended Independence Community College and graduated from the University of Kansas in 1935 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Speech and Drama. While at the University of Kansas, Inge was a member of the Nu Chapter of Sigma Nu. Offered a scholarship to work on a Master of Arts degree, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to attend the George Peabody College for Teachers, but later dropped out.
Back in Kansas, he worked as a laborer on the state highway and a Wichita news announcer. In 1937–38 he taught English and drama at Cherokee County Community High School in Columbus, Kansas. After returning and completing his Master's at Peabody in 1938, he taught at Stephens College, in Columbia, Missouri, from 1938 to 1943.
Inge began as a drama critic at the St. Louis Star-Times in 1943. With Tennessee Williams's encouragement, Inge wrote his first play, Farther Off from Heaven (1947), which was staged at Margo Jones' Theatre '47 in Dallas, Texas. While a teacher at Washington University in St. Louis in 1946–1949, he wrote Come Back, Little Sheba. It ran on Broadway for 190 performances in 1950, winning Tony Awards for Shirley Booth and Sidney Blackmer. (The 1952 film adaptation won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Shirley Booth. Willy van Hemert directed a 1955 adaptation for Dutch television, and NBC aired another TV production in 1977.) It was while teaching at Washington University that Inge's struggles with alcoholism became more acute and, in 1947, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. It was through AA that Inge met the wife of a member of his AA group whose name was Lola and, who through name as well as personal characteristics, was the individual upon whom one of the lead characters in Come Back, Little Sheba, "Lola," was based. Even as Come Back, Little Sheba was in a pre-Broadway run in early 1950, Inge was filled with some doubt as to its success, as he expressed in a letter to his sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous, "If Sheba makes it in Hartford I guess it will go on to Broadway and if it doesn't I suppose I'll be back in St. Louis. If it does make it to Broadway, I don't know when I'll be back." Inge never had to return to St. Louis.
In 1953, Inge received a Pulitzer Prize for Picnic, a play based on women he had known as a small child:
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.Picnic had a successful Broadway run from February 19, 1953 to April 10, 1954. He followed with Bus Stop (1955) and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957), an expansion of his earlier one-act, Farther Off from Heaven. The inspiration for the play Bus Stop came from people Inge met in Tonganoxie, Kansas. All three were adapted into major films. A major regional revival of Bus Stop is taking place at the Huntington Theatre in Boston in September and October 2010.
In 1953 his play Glory in the Flower was telecast on Omnibus with a cast of Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, and James Dean. His 1959 play A Loss of Roses, with Carol Haney, Warren Beatty, and Betty Field, was filmed as The Stripper (1963), with Joanne Woodward, Richard Beymer and Claire Trevor, and a popular Jerry Goldsmith score. In 1961, he won an Academy Award for Splendor in the Grass (Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen). John Frankenheimer directed All Fall Down (1962), Inge's screenplay adaptation of the novel by James Leo Herlihy. Inge was unhappy with changes made to his screenplay for Bus Riley's Back in Town (1965), so at his insistence, the writing credit on the film is "Walter Gage".
Natural Affection had the misfortune to open on Broadway during the 1962 New York City newspaper strike, which lasted from December 8, 1962 until April 1, 1963. Thus, few were aware of the play, and fewer bought tickets. It lasted only 36 performances, from January 31, 1963 to March 2, 1963. What theatergoers missed was a powerful drama on the theme of fragmented families and random violence. As with Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, the inspiration for Natural Affection came from a newspaper account of a seemingly meaningless and unmotivated murder. The play centers on a single mother, Chicago department-store buyer Sue Barker (Kim Stanley). While troubled teen Donnie (Gregory Rozakis), Sue's illegitimate son, has been away at reform school, she has entered into a relationship with Cadillac salesman Bernie Slovenk (Harry Guardino). With Donnie's unexpected return to her Chicago apartment, conflicts escalate, and Donnie finds himself on an emotional precipice. The closing five minutes of the play introduces a new character, a young woman Donnie meets in the apartment hallway. He invites her into the apartment and, without warning, kills her as the curtains close. The Broadway production, directed by Tony Richardson, benefited from composer John Lewis's made-to-order background music, which was provided via tape recordings, rather than live performance, and worked in the same fashion as a film score.
Inge's The Last Pad premiered in Phoenix, Arizona in 1972. Originally titled The Disposal, the world premiere of The Last Pad was produced by Robert L. "Bob" Johnson and directed by Keith A. Anderson through the Southwest Ensemble Theatre. The production starred Nick Nolte with Jim Matz and Richard Elmore (Elmer). The production moved to Los Angeles and opened just days after Inge committed suicide. The original production in Phoenix was proclaimed the Best Play of 1972 by the Arizona Republic, while the Los Angeles production brought awards to Nolte and helped introduce him to the film industry and catapult his subsequent film career.
Summer Brave, produced posthumously on Broadway in 1975, is Inge's reworking of Picnic, as he noted:
It wouldn't be fair to say that Summer Brave is the original version of Picnic. I have written before that I never completely fulfilled my original intentions in writing 'Picnic' before we went into production in 1953, and that I wrote what some considered a fortuitous ending in order to have a finished play to go into rehearsal. A couple of years after Picnic had closed on Broadway, after the film version had made its success, I got the early version out of my files and began to rework it, just for my own satisfaction. Summer Brave is the result. I admit that I prefer it to the version of the play that was produced, but I don't necessarily expect others to agree. Summer Brave might not have enjoyed any success on Broadway whatever, nor won any of the prizes that were bestowed upon Picnic. But I feel that it is more humorously true than Picnic, and it does fulfill my original intentions.About two dozen unperformed plays by Inge have begun receiving wider attention in 2009. They were available for viewing, but not copying or borrowing, in the collection of his papers at Independence Community College. One, a three-act play entitled Off the Main Road, was read at the Flea Theater in New York City on May 11, 2009, with Sigourney Weaver, Jay O. Sanders, and Frances Sternhagen in the cast. Another, The Killing, a one-act play, directed by José Angel Santana, and starring Neal Huff and J.J. Kandel, was performed at the 59E59 Theater, in New York City, through August 27, 2009. It is not yet known how many of these additional plays are complete. Besides Off the Main Road and The Killing, six others were performed in April 2009 at the William Inge Theater Festival, in Independence, Kansas. These six were published in A Complex Evening: Six Short Plays by William Inge.
During the 1961–62 television season, Inge was the script supervisor of ABC's Bus Stop TV series, an adaptation of his play. With Marilyn Maxwell as Grace Sherwood, the owner of Sherwood's Bus Station and Diner in a fictitious Colorado town, the series presented dramas about the townspeople and travelers who passed through the diner in 25 hour-long episodes. The sixth episode, "Cherie", with Tuesday Weld, Gary Lockwood and Joseph Cotten, was an abbreviated version of the original Bus Stop play. Robert Altman directed eight episodes, and one of these, "A Lion Walks Among Us", led to a Congressional hearing on violence. The episode, which starred Fabian as a maniacal axe-wielding serial killer, was adapted from Tom Wicker's novel Told By an Idiot.
In 1963, Inge met with CBS to consider a one-hour filmed television drama about a family in a Midwestern town. The series, with six continuing characters, had the tentative title All Over Town, and was planned for the 1964–65 season. Instead, Inge did a play, Out on the Outskirts of Town, which was seen November 6, 1964, on NBC as part of the Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre series. It starred Anne Bancroft and Jack Warden with Inge taking the role of the town doctor. NBC gave the play a repeat on June 25, 1965.
Inge wrote two novels, both set in the fictional town of Freedom, Kansas. In Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff (Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1970), high-school Latin teacher Evelyn Wyckoff loses her job because she has an affair with the school's black janitor. The novel's themes include spinsterhood, racism, sexual tension and public humiliation during the late 1950s. Polly Platt wrote the screenplay for the 1979 film adaptation starring Anne Heywood as Evelyn Wyckoff. The film was released under several titles: The Shaming, The Sin, Secret Yearnings and Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff.
My Son Is a Splendid Driver (Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1971) is an autobiographical novel that traces the Hansen family from 1919 into the second half of the 20th century. The novel received praise from Kirkus Reviews:
Mr. Inge's novel, told in the form of a memoir, is a little more extended than Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff and though there's a slackening of structure and splintering of content towards the second half, the first part is immaculate in both design and focus. It features the early years of Joey, the narrator here, and there are lovely scenes, as clear as the summer sunlight, with his family and on visits to assorted relatives. The time lag between Joey and his older brother Jule – his mother's favorite, my son the splendid driver, and an attractive playboy of this midwestern world – will never be reconciled. Even long after Jule's early death from a wanton incidental. Here Act I breaks away from Act II, a whole psychic anatomy of Joey's years as a young man in compressed and fractured incidents – one replayed from Miss Wyckoff and one which seems unnecessary (his parents' syphilis). Thus Joey grows up impaired, never resolving his relationship with his absentee father or insufficiently loving mother, and ends up with his "aloneness like a corridor that has no end." Inge has told his story of life and death and all those spaces in between with a gentleness and probity which gives his novel a persistence few writers achieve.During the early 1970s, Inge lived in Los Angeles, where he taught playwriting at the Irvine campus of the University of California. His last several plays attracted little notice or critical acclaim, and he fell into a deep depression, convinced he would never be able to write well again.
He committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning on June 10, 1973 at the age of 60.
Since 1982, Independence Community College's William Inge Center for the Arts in Inge's hometown of Independence, Kansas, has sponsored the annual William Inge Theatre Festival to honor playwrights. The William Inge Collection at Independence Community College is the most extensive collection on William Inge in existence, including 400 manuscripts, films, correspondence, theater programs and other items related to Inge's work.
Inge has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
There is also a black box theater named for William Inge in Murphy Hall at the University of Kansas
Burial: Mount Hope Cemetery, Independence, Montgomery County, Kansas, USA
by Carl van Vechten
Four Plays: Come Back Little Sheba; Picnic; Bus Stop; The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (Black Cat Books) by William Inge
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Grove Press (January 21, 1994)
Amazon: Four Plays: Come Back Little Sheba; Picnic; Bus Stop; The Dark at the Top of the Stairs
'Inge has presented with astounding veracity the oppressive banality of the lives of his characters: the events of their lives have the nerve-lightening regularity of a dripping faucet. His female characters especially are engulfed by the bathos of their lives, and Inge capitalizes on this fact in order to heighten dramatically the moment of personal crisis which comes to each of them. In his four major successes--Come Back, Little Sheba; Picnic; Bus Stop; and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs--the play carries the audience through the moment of crisis; and the final curtain falls upon a note of hope and fulfillment.'--R. Baird Shuman
A Life of William Inge: The Strains of Triumph by Ralph F. Voss
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: University Press Of Kansas (September 1, 1990)
Amazon: A Life of William Inge: The Strains of Triumph
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. He went into his garage one night and shut the door, seated himself behind the wheel of his new car, and turned the key. By morning he was dead. "Death makes us all innocent," Inge had written, "and weaves all our private hurts and griefs and wrongs into the fabric of time, and makes them a part of eternity." But William Inge had it made, or so it seemed in 1962. He had written an unprecedented string of Broadway hits: Picnic, Bus Stop, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and Come Back, Little Sheba. All four plays had become successful films featuring top Hollywood stars. Inge had received a Pulitzer Prize for Picnic and an Academy Award for his screenplay, Splendor in the Grass. Even his longtime friend and mentor, Tennessee Williams, was envious of his success. 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. As criticism of his work intensified, Inge responded with increasingly frantic attempts to please by "modernizing" his writing. He abandoned the small-town characters and settings he knew in favor of more lurid, urban subject matter. In the end, his characters lost their authentic voices, and neither critics nor audiences found his later work believable. In this first book-length literary biography of Inge, Ralph Voss peels back the veneer of public success and lays bare the private pain and isolation of the man who was called America's first authentic midwestern playwright. He draws upon interviews, memoirs, and unpublished manuscripts, letters, and papers to show how Inge's unhappy life fueled the struggles his plays depict.
Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910-1969 by William J. Mann
Hardcover: 496 pages
Publisher: Viking Adult; First Edition edition (October 11, 2001)
Amazon: Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910-1969
William Mann's Behind the Screen is a thoughtful and eye- opening look at the totality of the gay experience in studio-era Hollywood. Much has been written about how gays have been portrayed in the movies but no book— until now— has looked at their influence behind the screen. Whether out of or in the closet, gays and lesbians have from the very beginning played a significant role in shaping Hollywood. Gay actors were among the earliest matinee idols and gay directors have long been among the most popular and commercially successful filmmakers. In fact, gay set and costume designers created the very look of Hollywood.
With this landmark book, Mann fills a void in the Hollywood history archives. Written in the tradition of Neal Gabler's An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood and based on hundreds of hours of interviews with survivors of this golden age, Behind the Screen is destined to become a classic of film literature.
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