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William Motter Inge (//; May 3, 1913 – June 10, 1973 ) was an American playwright and novelist, whose works typically feature solitary protagonists encumbered with strained sexual relations. In the early 1950s, he had a string of memorable Broadway productions, and one of these, Picnic, earned him a Pulitzer Prize. With his portraits of small-town life and settings rooted in the American heartland, Inge became known as the "Playwright of the Midwest".
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. From 1937 to 1938 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 (AA). 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 person 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:
Picnic had a successful Broadway run from February 19, 1953, to April 10, 1954. It was made into a movie in 1955, directed by Joshua Logan, and won two Academy Awards. 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 was held 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[according to whom?] 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.
The Last Pad is one of three of Inge's plays that either have openly gay characters or address homosexuality directly. The Boy in the Basement, a one-act play written in the early 1950s, but not published until 1962, is his only play that addresses homosexuality overtly, while Archie in The Last Pad and Pinky in Where's Daddy? (1966) are gay characters. Inge himself was closeted.
Summer Brave, produced posthumously on Broadway in 1975, is Inge's reworking of Picnic, as he noted:
About two dozen unperformed plays by Inge began 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 Forte 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:
During the early 1970s, Inge lived in Los Angeles, where he taught playwriting at the University of California, Irvine. 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.
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. In the March 2008 issue of The Brooklyn Rail, playwright Adam Kraar asked former Inge House resident playwrights Marcia Cebulska, Catherine Filloux, Caridad Svich, Lydia Stryk, and Alice Tuan how exactly Inge's life and work has influenced them.