When the Laguna Playhouse revived William Inge's "Bus Stop" for the first time in the fall of 1956, the Kansas-born playwright was working at the top of his form in the glow of national celebrity.
He lived at the Dakota off New York's Central Park, dined among the literati at the Algonquin Hotel and ranked alongside Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller as one of America's three best living dramatists.
Not that many years later--though it must have seemed eons to him--Inge climbed into his Mercedes 240SL and turned on the ignition in the closed garage of his Hollywood Hills home above Sunset Strip. The engine was still running when his body was found behind the steering wheel at 4 a.m. on June 10, 1973.
Inge left no suicide note. But earlier in his career he had written this: "Once we find the fruits of success, the taste is nothing like what we had anticipated." And anyone who knew him toward the end of his life could have told you he considered himself a failure.
Indeed, as a Playhouse version of "Bus Stop" bows for the second time--it premieres Thursday at the Moulton Theatre in Laguna Beach--Inge's lonely Midwest chronicles are, if not forgotten, often ignored or recalled with indifference.
South Coast Repertory, for example, has never produced anything by Inge. Neither has the Mark Taper Forum, nor the La Jolla Playhouse. ("It's largely a matter of taste," says SCR literary manager John Glore. "I personally don't find his plays that engaging on any level, emotionally or intellectually, though I do have some respect for what he does as a craftsman.")
This is not to say Inge's work has disappeared. Several revivals by major Southern California theaters have flickered to life in recent years, reflecting a certain interest: "Bus Stop" at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1990; "Come Back, Little Sheba" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1987; and "Picnic" at the Ahmanson Theatre in 1986.
For the most part, however, Inge's period pieces about small-town desolation have been left to amateurs, a sure sign they're not being taken seriously even if they're being staged sincerely. As though to prove it, the Newport Theatre Arts Center opened its current season over the weekend with a loving but awkward caricature of "Picnic."
The Laguna Playhouse's Andrew Barnicle says he "always wanted to stage a play by Inge." Nevertheless, as artistic director of the county's top community theater, he acknowledges having had doubts about launching a season with one. "They're usually too grim to startoff with," he says. But "Bus Stop," which he's staging himself, "is less dark," Barnicle adds. "It's a romance. Inge called it a fantasy, because it has an implausibly happy ending."
Given the playwright's stunning success during the '50s, a happy ending for Inge himself might have seemed quite plausible. He could do virtually no wrong in those years.
"Come Back, Little Sheba," his first and most modest hit, introduced him to Broadway in 1950. "Picnic" followed in 1953 and ran for 477 performances. It brought Inge enormous prestige with the Pulitzer Prize and, by one report, $350,000 for screen rights. "Bus Stop" opened in March, 1955, and ran for 478 performances. Then came "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" in 1957, his final Broadway triumph.
All were turned into movies, three with considerable success. And though Inge did not write the screenplays and was connected to those films in name only, his stock rose even higher.
Hollywood's version of "Sheba," starring Burt Lancaster and Shirley Booth (who reprised her Tony Award-winning performance and won an Oscar), took the best picture prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1952. The movie "Picnic," starring William Holden and Kim Novak, dazzled the country in 1955 with its repressed passion and smoldering atmosphere. "Bus Stop," with Marilyn Monroe, was a hit in 1956 and proved for the first time that she was a fine actress.
But then Inge fell from grace.
In a withering attack presaging his abrupt change of fortune, the rising critic Robert Brustein skewered his plays in Harper's as formulaic and mediocre. He called the playwright "a fiddle with one string." Cutting even closer to the bone, he described Inge's work as watered-down Tennessee Williams--knowing, as everyone in the theater world knew, that Williams had inspired Inge and had been instrumental in getting him produced.
When Inge's next play, "A Loss of Roses," opened in 1959 to terrible reviews and closed three weeks later, the playwright fled New York in shock.
Hollywood soon claimed him, flattered him and fed him. His first screenplay, "Splendor in the Grass," even won an Oscar in 1962. But eventually he floundered. By the end of the '60s, Inge felt used up and overlooked.
So Clayton Garrison's offer to hire him in 1968 as a tenured, full professor for UC Irvine's theater department was more than welcome.
Garrison, then dean of the UCI School of Fine Arts, believed strongly in having artists from various fields join the faculty in full- and part-time capacities. By the mid-'70s he also managed to attract to the campus painters Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella, composers John Cage and Philip Glass, choreographers Antony Tudor and Merce Cunningham.
"At first things went swimmingly with Bill," Garrison recalls. "He had pretty much licked his alcoholism. He was a superb teacher. The students adored him. But he continued to suffer from severe depression. And he had tremendous anxieties about driving, which was part of the problem. He had to engage a driver to get him down to classes."
Because Inge looked at UCI as a new beginning, Garrison said, he considered moving to South Laguna. "We searched out a place. I went with him to look at it, and he was going to buy it. But it was too difficult for him to break from Los Angeles and the proximity of the movie industry. He didn't want to take that chance.
"In the second year with us, his progressive depression made it harder for him to get down. Through a mutual agreement and a rather painful one--but one which he advanced--it was determined that he would resign. He then took an adjunct position at USC, which did not last, either."
During that period, however, Inge and Garrison became friends, drawn together in part by the coincidence that both had come from the same small town--Independence, Kan.--both had gone to the same elementary school (though 12 years apart) and both had had the same first-grade teacher.
"We made this discovery on our first meeting, and it astonished him," recalls Garrison, 70, who still teaches musical theater at UCI. "I think it's one of the reasons why he was taken with me.
"I know Brustein put him down, had absolutely no respect for him. But my response to that is Brustein has never lived in Kansas. Bill's plays speak of a period and of a people. There's an absolute accuracy to the characters in their situations and in their speech. It's the way people in the Midwest lived and talked."
Before Inge died, he dedicated "Overnight," one of his many unpublished plays, to Garrison. In it, the central character--an alcoholic actress who's on furlough from a Los Angeles asylum--clearly appears to be speaking for the playwright at the end of his life.
"Sometimes I feel so wasted," she says. "Sometimes I have the feeling that there's a great engine inside of me that's all steamed up and ready to go, except that there's no place for it to go to.
"I haven't been getting any work," she continues at another point. "Nobody seems to want me. When an actress loses her audience, she feels the whole world is rejecting her. I just don't know where to go or what to do."
Garrison recalls that Inge was "extraordinarily gentle, very reserved. You never knew what was happening inside of him. He also never came to terms with his sexuality. He was homosexually inclined, but he never got involved in relationships.
"I think that's why his plays are filled with these lonely, isolated, not-too-complicated figures, many of them very gentle, many of them searching to overcome their isolation, many of them (making) an agonizing exploration of their loneliness.
"That's what Bill's own life was all about."
* "Bus Stop" premieres Thursday, with a preview tonight, at the Laguna Playhouse's Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Performances are Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7 p.m.; matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Through Oct. 11. $12 to $19. (714) 494-8021.
"Picnic" continues at the Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Performances are Thursdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m. Sundays at 2 p.m. Through Oct. 11. $15. (714) 631-0288.