I keep bumping into William Inge in my life, not that we travel in the same circles. Inge was a great playwright, now dead; and I am an unexceptional one, but currently alive.
My Inge encounters began when I was 11 and saw the film adaptation of his play Picnic. It featured William Holden, Kim Novak, technicolor, and a fabulous sound track. It was a transformational moment in my life, for it enabled me, for the first time, to begin to get some rudimentary idea of who I was.
For one thing, I learned through my attachment to that film that I was different from my buddies. We all loved the movies; but while they all jammed Saturday matinees to hoot and holler at war films and westerns, I was more than content to wait until Sunday afternoons to sit by myself immersed in some adult drama featuring beautiful women and a great sound track. I haven’t changed to this day.
It never bothered me on Monday mornings at school when we swapped stories on what we had seen over the weekend. I was usually alone when it came to picking favorites and that was fine by me. Even when we all loved certain sci-fi films like “War of the Worlds” or “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms”, the sub-plots that always included an unspoken sexual attraction between the scientist / hero and the old professor’s frightened niece was what I had my eye on. Apparently, I was a bit precocious when it came to romance and sex and I chose not to share that with my pals. In my late 60’s, I don’t mind admitting it.
I once overheard my mother talking on the phone with a friend, the mother of one of my pals. She sounded a bit concerned when she said, “He seems to like more serious stuff. He thought Country Girl was good.” “Good?” I thought to myself as I stood on the stairs above the kitchen. “Good? Grace Kelly is the most beautiful woman in the world and she gave the performance of a lifetime! What do you mean, ‘good’?”
But of all the adult dramas I saw, “Picnic” stood out. Despite its seemingly happy ending (the beautiful but brainless Madge defies her mother and runs after the shiftless hunk, Hal, to marry him after their torrid 12-hour romance at the annual Labor Day picnic), there is an unspoken undercurrent of melancholy which touches me. On some level we all know that sooner, rather than later, Hal will tire of the sex, get drunk, and slug Madge, a gorgeous, statuesque simpleton whose lack of intellect would tire anyone after two weeks. (A second ill-conceived marriage between a career bachelor and the local spinster schoolmarm results from the same picnic.)
Apparently Inge and I share a melancholy nature. My inexplicably dolorous, romantic nature rose to the surface when I was 11 and I knew for the first time what Inge instinctively knew, that good things just don’t work out.
Over time I learned about Inge and his plays. (I’ve seen most of them as film adaptations: Come Back, Little Sheba, Bus Stop, Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Splendor in the Grass.) I also learned more about Inge’s personal life, mostly from the man who became my playwrighting mentor, Larry Maness.
My writing instincts rose in midlife and I took a playwriting course at a local college. The instructor was Larry Maness, himself a successful novelist, play and screenwriter. I learned the fundaments of the craft from Larry and also learned that as a young man at the University of Kansas he had a friendship with William Inge. It seems Inge, who was an alcoholic and eventually took his own life, was in need of a personal driver and Larry served as such. He and I didn’t discuss it much but the Inge coincidence was one that I noted at the time.
It was Maness who contacted me sometime later to tell me that the Maxwell Anderson Playwright’s Series in Greenwich, CT was calling for submissions for their new play development program. He thought my first play, Final Exam, which I wrote during his course, might be a worthy candidate. I submitted the play and it was accepted for a staged reading. This led to yet another Inge-bump.
The play was to be performed as a staged-reading on a late winter Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon. Suspecting that I wasn’t going to be having a multitude of such flirtations with success in my playwriting life, I decided to make as memorable a weekend out of it as I could. I set out to find a nice B&B.
After failing with several leads, I came upon the Old Greenwich Inn. The innkeeper had a kindly telephone voice which delivered the disappointing news that the only available space was a very large suite meant for families and was beyond my range. I was out of luck. We had a pleasant conversation and she seemed to sympathize with my plight. Then she said, “It’s really too bad because The Picnic Room would have been great for you, but I just booked it this morning.” “The Picnic Room”? I asked. “Yes, it’s a small room and it was where William Inge wrote “Picnic”. “Madam”, I said, “you’re going to have to hear me out. William Inge and Picnic have a special meaning to me. I have just written my first play and it is opening in Greenwich in two weeks. Is there any way…?” “I’ll get back to you”, she said.
Through her kindness and willingness to take a financial hit, she moved the other couple, themselves understanding and cooperative, into the suite. And I became, as had Inge before me, an aspiring playwright and transient tenant in the delightfully quaint and comfortable Picnic Room. There I spent three days charmed in mindful awareness of my surroundings, hoping that the magic and sacredness of that space would become a part of me.