WILLIAM INGE: THE COST OF DISREGARD

"The action of the play is laid on the porches and in the yards of two small houses that sit close beside each other in a small Kansas town. . . . " Thus William Inge sets the scene for "Picnic," opening tonight at the Ahmanson Theatre--the play's first major revival since its original Broadway run. It is startling to consider how long ago that was: 1953.

It's also sobering to realize that Inge has been dead for 13 years. His suicide remains a vexation. We know that he was a classic depressive. But to what extent was his rejection by Broadway at the turn of the 1960s responsible for the collapse of his will to live? Was he tagged for self-destruction from birth, or might he still be with us today had he worked in a theater where everything didn't ride on having a smash hit with each play?

God knows, he had his hits. "Picnic" was the first really big one, although his first play, "Come Back, Little Sheba" (1950), had had a good run and a movie sale. "Bus Stop" (1955) was another smash, and did even better as a picture, starring Marilyn Monroe. "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," his most autobiographical play (1957), ran more than a year and also made it to the screen.

Then it stopped. "A Loss of Roses" (1959) was, in Inge's opinion, the best play he had ever written. The Broadway critics didn't agree, and it was taken off after a few weeks. "Natural Affection" (1963) and "Where's Daddy?" (1967) also flopped. "They (the critics) treated me as if I'd spit on the floor," Inge told an interviewer at the time. Later he noted, wryly, that the quote had been "cleaned up for publication."

So he went to Hollywood. His first screenplay, for Kazan's "Splendor in the Grass" (1961), won him an Oscar. But after a time the assignments started to dry up and Inge's enthusiasm began to flag. Always a loner, he became virtually a recluse, only leaving his Hollywood Hills home for an occasional teaching job.

It helped when his favorite sister Helene--the model for the tomboy sister in "Picnic"--moved in. But by now Inge was trapped in a downward spiral of depression and drugs and more depression. Worse, he couldn't think of anything to write about. Early on the morning of June 10, 1973, he entered his closed garage, got behind the wheel of his Mercedes and started the engine. His sister found him at 5 a.m.

Inge's friend Jack Garfein called me to the scene a couple of hours later to help with the press. As Inge was now half-forgotten, no press showed up. But I remember a police detective standing at Inge's desk, idly hefting the playwright's Oscar as he made his report over the phone. "So that's what they look like," he said.

An Oscar and a Mercedes and magnificent art collection didn't atone for the disregard that Inge felt in his last years, but it's too easy to paint him simply as a victim of Broadway's hit/flop syndrome. He had had periods of depression as a young man and also during his successful days. No one thing killed him.

But it was a troubled life. It's known that he brooded over his homosexuality--the way it set him apart from other men and prevented him from having a home and a family. As Inge's sister says today (she lives in Laguna and will be at the "Picnic" opening), he wrestled all his life with the knowledge that he was "different."

There's a delicate allusion to that in "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," where the mother tells the little boy that he's a "speckled egg." A father-fearing boy growing up in a small Kansas town 70 years ago would have had an especially hard time with that. Yet what shines out of Inge's best work, and especially "Picnic," is his fondness for such towns.

Like Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson, Inge knew all about the boredom and backbiting of Main Street. His sister recalls how hard it was for him to come back to the family home in Independence, Kan., for an overnight visit, even at the height of his fame. (He would be stunned to know that Independence now has a William Inge Festival, beginning this week.)

Yet towards the end of his life Inge was talking about going back to Kansas to teach. It probably wouldn't have worked. The speckled egg had hatched into a man who wasn't at home anywhere. But Kansas stood for home, and that's palpable in "Picnic." It's even more true today, when the play has become a memory piece, set in the idyllic (as they look from here) 1950s.

Most of us probably know "Picnic" best from the movie version, with Kim Novak as the beautiful small-town girl who runs away with the good-looking young drifter (William Holden). The "Picnic" theme that George Duning composed as a countermelody to "Moonglow" brings it all back--the Labor Day picnic, the Japanese lanterns, the river.

It seems an idyll. Yet "Picnic" wasn't meant to be a Norman Rockwell magazine cover. Its basic subject is the monotony that a small-town picnic relieves only briefly; the loneliness that will lead a spinster schoolteacher (remember Roz Russell?) to grovel at the feet of the dull storekeeper who doesn't particularly want to marry her.

There's a lot of pain in "Picnic" and if Inge had had his way there would have been more. In his original ending, the pretty Madge doesn't dare run off with the drifter but goes back to her job at the dime store--having lost, as well, her wealthy boyfriend. Inge thought that was what would really have really happened.

But director Joshua Logan thought this was too depressing. He induced Inge to devise an ending where Madge at least gets somebody, if only for a few months. Inge didn't buy it. But he wrote it. And, as Logan has noted, the playwright didn't turn down the fame, the prizes and the checks that the play and the movie brought him.

But he brooded about the ending, and in the late 1950s wrote a new version of the play, called "Summer Brave." It ends with Madge trudging off to work the day after the picnic, with a carful of teen-age boys hooting at her like the canaille mocking a deposed queen:

"Hey, beautiful--

"Hey, gorgeous--

"Where you goin'?--

"C'mon, get in--"

Inge wasn't, in his own mind, the Midwest optimist. It could be, however, that Logan read him better than he read himself. For "Bus Stop" and "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" also end on a note of provisional hope, and by that time Inge was calling his own shots.

(It can also be argued--and Logan did, at the time--that Madge's future with the rootless Hal is provisional indeed. It's easier to image her back home for the next Labor Day picnic with a baby, and no husband. It will be interesting to see how director Marshall Mason tips the last scene at the Ahmanson.)

Inge's sister Helene remembers "Picnic" fondly, not only as the play that proved to her brother that he could make a living as a writer, but as a humorous, loving portrait of a town that was, after all, home--even if Bill and she couldn't wait to get out of it.

If "Picnic" rings true, that's because a good deal of it is true, according to Helene. Independence's big event really was the autumn Neewollah Pageant--"Hallowe'en" spelled backwards. Her mother really did board schoolteachers, just as Madge's mother does, and one of them was exactly as man-hungry as Rosemary is. Helene recognizes herself as the younger sister and her older sister as Madge. (The drifter is imaginary.)

For a portrait of little Billy Inge, she says, look at the boy in "The Dark at the Stop of the Stairs," the one who collects movie stars' pictures and who "speaks pieces" for his mother's friends--the boy the other boys call a sissy.

"Bill always knew he was different," she says today. "And, finally, he told me that he was gay. It must have been the hardest thing he ever had to do--I just kissed him. I think it gave him a tremendous empathy for people, especially for down-and-outers.

"It was so sad when he said he didn't have anything to write about, because there were so many stories he could have written. He made the people in that town seem so interesting."

More interesting than they really were?

She smiles. 'There might be some truth in that. Of course, I never had Bill's insight."

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