- William Inge: Essays and Reminiscences on the Plays and the Man ed. by Jackson Bryer and Mary Hartig
Given that during the 1950s his plays had more productions than any other serious dramatist in that decade, it is surprising, if not shocking, how little scholarship exists on William Inge. Prior to this collection, only five book-length contributions—including two biographies and a bibliography—and a scant number of articles existed. This volume, inspired by Inge’s centennial in 2013 and edited by Jackson Bryer and Mary Hartig, hopefully heralds the beginning of a new era.
Both editors and the collected essays highlight this critical amnesia and suggest reasons why Inge succeeded so well during the fifties, but then lost favor. Barry Gross’s essay is especially detailed on this matter, pointing to Robert Brustein’s predominantly misleading dismissal of Inge in his 1958 Harper’s review of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs as the piece that initially poisoned the well of Inge criticism. To counter this, Bryer and Hartig assert that “This collection is designed to illuminate the virtues of William Inge’s plays as well as give some insight into the man behind the work” (5). It effectively achieves both aims and offers insights into Inge’s better-known works, as well as several unfamiliar, later ones which, although different in style and topic, are worthy of attention. What emerges is an updated picture of a playwright who should not be dismissed as old-fashioned, but who was, in certain ways, ahead of his time. This assertion is convincingly argued in several pieces, though most tellingly in the contributions from Jane Courant and Kerk Fisher.
Divided into two sections, the first portion makes up nearly two thirds of the book and contains new critical articles on the breadth of Inge’s output. These began life as scholarly presentations at the annual William Inge Festival, held every year in the playwright’s hometown of Independence, Kansas, and have been revised for this collection. While certain of these are more persuasive and cogent than others—notably Albert Wertheim, Courant, and Ralph Voss—each essay contributes some new insight into the playwright.
Wertheim firmly places Inge as a key voice within the political and theatrical milieu of the 1950s and suggests that “Inge was largely responsible for bringing a mature, honest discussion of sexual matters out of the closet and into the playhouse” (17). In the less convincing “The Inside-Outsider,” John Patrick argues that the illegality of homosexuality when Inge was writing made gay playwrights better observers and commentators on how society defined heterosexuality, as it was knowledge they needed to survive. Thus, he suggests, Inge presented authentically realized heterosexual couples in his work, while including putative homosexuals in the “wistful, intellectual, alienated child or young teenager” who silently watches from the periphery of the main group (28). Courant’s particularly rich essay uses [End Page 95] Come Back, Little Sheba to illustrate Inge’s “deliberate use of American mass culture as the mythological center of his characters’ lives” (31). Aside from offering an early warning to reject the restrictions of both, she elucidates ways this play adeptly depicts how mass culture reinforces sexual stereotypes, as well as the growing generational divide of the era.
In their essays, David Richman and Fisher each explore different versions of Inge’s Picnic. While Richman juxtaposes the Dramatists Play Service acting edition against the Random House reading version to highlight differences in their presentations of Hal, Fisher adds the earlier The Front Porch and later Summer Brave to his analysis. Despite some overlap, both illustrate far more changes than Madge’s decision of whether to stay or follow Hal. Fisher concludes, contrary to popular opinion, that having Madge stay works better theatrically, and is a happier outcome than having her leave.
Drawing on more recent scholarship, Voss offers a concentrated debunking of Brustein, revealing the critic’s attack on Inge to be both false in...