Discover William Inge on his 100th birthday
April 09, 2013
Years ago I worked in and around the central Kansas towns featured in the classic 1955 film, Picnic.
Set during a Labor Day weekend in a small Kansas town, the film was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Kansas native William Inge. People from all over called the office I worked in to ask if, after 40 years, all the locations were still intact. Were there guided tours? Did we play the film in local theaters? One Australian man vowed that once he figured out exactly where Kansas was, he planned to visit every location in the film - from the swimming lake in Sterling to the backyards of tiny Nickerson. (I always wondered if he made it or if he got arrested for trespassing.)
So what is it about the story of the washed-up football star who blows into town and reveals the loneliness and desperation in the lives of the townspeople he meets?
William Inge had a way of creating plays about ordinary, small town people that went right to the human condition. Raised in Independence, Kansas, Inge based his characters on the people he knew and observed growing up and working in small Kansas towns. Inge's work is, in turns, humorous and heart wrenching in its exploration of social conventions and traditional gender roles. While many of his characters appear to be leading relatively "happy lives" by Midwest standards, Inge manages to shake them up and let the truth rise to the surface.
May 3 marks Inge's 100th Birthday. Inge committed suicide in 1973 at the age of 60. Each May, the William Inge Center for the Arts in Independence, Kansas honors the playwright with a theatre festival recognizing contemporary dramatists. This year the focus is exclusively on Inge and his work.
In the 1950s, Inge had a string of Broadway hits in addition to Picnic, including Come Back, Little Sheba, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs and, another of my personal favorites, Bus Stop. In 1961, Inge won an Academy Award for his original screenplay, Splendor in the Grass, which starred Warren Beatty and Joanne Woodward as high school sweethearts driven to self-destruction by their meddling parents.
If you haven't experienced William Inge, now's the time.