This year’s scholarship extends the emerging approach of contextualizing the study of playwrights in the larger culture. In contrast to the tendency of academe to continually subdivide into narrower areas of study, the most compelling studies here are interdisciplinary and distinguished by an increasingly wide focus. The context for analysis is not just a historical moment but the sweep of history.
A particularly apt example opens William Inge: Essays and Reminiscences on the Plays and the Man, ed. Jackson R. Bryer and Mary C. Hartig (McFarland). Albert Wertheim, author of Staging the War: American Drama and World War II (2004), had written “American Theatre in the 1950s and Inge’s Plays” (pp. 13–24) before his death in 2003. In this essay he connects the personal and the political in a surprising way. His thesis is that postwar America “felt it harbored a destructive sickness within its organs, a sickness that seemed to have something to do with the cancerous disease of Communism.” Such a view accords with the House Un-American Activities Committee, the McCarthy hearings, and many plays, but “the political plays like The Crucible are, together with William Inge’s plays—and particularly Come Back, Little Sheba and Dark at the Top of the Stairs—part and parcel of a larger questioning in American drama and in American society about post-war sickness—not merely political, but physical, psychological, and marital.” Wertheim’s argument is that playwrights who focus on the personal may be thought to be avoiding the serious political issues, but for him they are participating in the same vision. [End Page 395]
This of course is not the TV version of the 1950s, but as David Mamet comments in “A National Dream-Life,” the dramatist writes about the repressed that the culture cannot express directly to itself. Wertheim provides an introduction to the major American plays of the 1950s, touching on the major dramatists as they reflect this theme, and then narrows to “this area of sexual maladjustment and sexual health [about which] William Inge has so much to tell us.” In Come Back, Little Sheba Lola and Doc’s “premarital sex, Lola’s abortion and their consequent exile” from town “have not merely colored but shaped their wasted lives.” Their problems reflect acceptance of “the sexual rules and gender typing” of their parents, and “the old sexual and standards have wrecked their lives, but they are too timid to change.” In Dark at the Top of the Stairs Cora and Lottie are “the products of their parents’ narrow-minded, restrictive sexual upbringing” and as a result neither achieves sexual satisfaction. Wertheim makes a convincing case about the time period and about the plays that reveal its deepest issues: “Drama in the 1950s was preoccupied with illness and maladjustment, and with the means for proper health, a health projected in terms of the body, the body politic, or the body joined in wedlock or sexual congress. In relation to that general preoccupation, it explored the concerns of the times with anti-Communism and the Cold War, the military conflict in Korea, and the debilitations that were part of the legacy of World War II: physical handicaps, mental illness, alcoholism and drug addiction.” This is an essay not to be missed for the context it gives to the drama of the 1950s.
Wertheim’s essay sets the tone for the first half of the book, “Critical Essays” (the second half is “Reminiscences”). In “The Inside-Outsider” (pp. 25–29) Robert Patrick writes that the outsider’s view (his outsiders are homosexuals like Inge, Tennessee Williams, John Van Druten, and Arthur Laurents) created “a new questioning of sexual relationships.” Jane Courant’s “Come Back, Little Sheba and Mass Culture” (pp. 30–54) observes that Inge’s play elucidates an “early warning system” about “deep social inequities that would be challenged in the decades to follow.” In “Robert Brustein’s ‘Men-Taming Women of William Inge’: A Re-Examination” (pp. 96–119) Ralph F. Voss takes up Brustein’s 1958 condemnation of Inge’s plays—“intended to endorse marriage and family at the expense of male freedom”—and gives an excellent overview...