Thursday, May 03, 2018

Born Today In 1913, Pulitzer-Winning Writer William Inge

William Inge was born today, May 3, in 1913. He 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, including Picnic, which 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."

Inge was born in Independence, Kansas. Heattended Independence Community College and graduated from the University of Kansas in 1935 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Speech and Drama.

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. 

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:  "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. A film adaptation made in 1955 was directed by Joshua Logan and won two Academy Awards.

In 1955 his play Bus Stop premiered. Its inspiration came from people he met in Tonganoxie, Kansas. Nominated for four Tony Awards including Best Play, it was made into a 1956 film starring Marilyn Monroe. 

In 1957 he wrote The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, an expansion of his earlier one-act, Farther Off from Heaven. The play was nominated for five Tony Awards including Best Play, and was adapted as a film in 1960.

His 1959 play A Loss of Roses was filmed as The Stripper (1963), with Joanne Woodward, Richard Beymer, and Claire Trevor, and a popular Jerry Goldsmith score.

In 1961 Inge 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."

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. 

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.

Inge died of suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning on June 10, 1973, at the age of 60.

The New Yorker did a feature on Inge in 2008. 
William Inge was sixty years old when he committed suicide, in Los Angeles, on June 10, 1973. For the first half of his life, Inge, who was born in Independence, Kansas, had stayed true to his Bible Belt roots and put off becoming an artist. After graduating from the University of Kansas and completing a teaching degree, he had taught at Stephens College for Women, in Columbia, Missouri, for five years. Then, in 1943, in what must have been a nerve-racking leap of faith for the timid, alcoholic, and largely closeted gay man, he applied for and got a job as a drama critic for the St. Louis Star-Times. At the paper, Inge was sometimes required to write features. One such assignment led to his meeting—and eventually perhaps sleeping with—a young writer named Tennessee Williams.
See full story here.

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