This stop on the Literary Road Trip is taking us to Independence, Kansas. Back in the 1920’s Independence was said to have more millionaires per capita than any other city in the country. That fact is important because it meant the town had many more cultural events than a normal town. Big name shows and performers stopped in Independence on their travels between Kansas City and Tulsa, Oklahoma. They were usually just for one night but it was enough to fuel the theatre dreams of our featured author: William Inge.
Wittiam Inge was born and raised in Independence and it was the setting for his play, Picnic. Although he wrote two novels, Mr. Inge is best known as a playwright. He was the dominant playwright of the 1950’s. In addition to Picnic, he wrote Come Back Little Sheba, Bus Stop and Splendor in the Grass. He received the Pulitzer for Picnic, numerous Tony awards and his plays, made into movies earned Oscars.
William Inge did not start out as a playwriter. He was first a teacher of English in high school and two colleges. And then he taught screenwriting near the end of his career. He also had a job as a drama and music critic for the Saint Louis Star-Times. This is where he got his first big break and his start as a playwriter.
Inge became friends with Tennessee Williams and traveled to Chicago to see his play, The Glass Menagerie. About that experience, Inge said, “I was terrifically moved by the play. I thought it was the finest (play) I had seen in many years. I went back to St. Louis and felt, ‘Well, I’ve got to write a play.'”
As part of this Literary Road Trip I decided to read one of William Inge’s plays. At the library they had a nice selection of his plays. I chose to read Picnic. I don’t think I’ve read a play since high school or college. At first it was odd because I wanted to read every word just like a novel. After a few pages I got into the rhythm of reading just the dialogue and I stopped occasionally for the background information. It was fun and very easy to get caught up in the fast movement of the play. I’m definitely going to “do plays” again.
The stage setting for Picnic is the back of two modest houses in a small Kansas town. One house belongs to a widow, Flora Owens and her two teenage daughters, Madge and Millie. The second house is the home of another widow, Helen Potts and her invalid mother. There are a few other cast members: Rosemary, a middle-aged school teacher who rooms with Flora Owens, and her school teacher friends and Howard, her boyfriend. There is also Alan, who Flora is pushing Madge to marry, and Hal, a new young man in town. There is immediate attraction between Hal and Madge.
The entire play takes place over the course of a day and it all happens in the back yard. In my viewpoint the play was all about women, their emotions, aspirations and what life was like for women in the late 1940’s and 50’s. From a 2009 perspective, it was quite interesting. William Inge based this play on memories from his childhood.
“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.”
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