Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

INGE, WILLIAM (1913-1973)

Born on May 3, 1913, in Independence, Kansas, William Inge is best remembered for four theatrical successes: Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), the Pulitzer Prize winner Picnic (1953), Bus Stop (1955), and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957). Inge's portraits made him the first successful playwright to re-create small-town Plains life, including its hypocrisy and oppressive judgments. His characters frequently find that they must settle for life as it is and not as they wish it to be.

Before his success with Come Back, Little Sheba, which was produced on Broadway in 1950, Inge had worked in a number of occupations, none of which satisfied him. He labored on a highway crew, as an English teacher in the Columbus (Kansas) High School in 1937–38, as an instructor at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, from 1938 to 1943, and as a drama critic for the St. Louis Star-Times from 1943 to 1946. He once told an interviewer that he felt out of place in Kansas and did not claim it as his past until he moved to New York.

Even after his success with Come Back, Little Sheba and the three plays that followed, Inge was plagued by self-doubts. In 1959 A Loss of Roses failed critically and financially, and Inge retreated to Florida and began work on his script Splendor in the Grass, for which he won an Academy Award in 1961. Inge returned to drama with Natural Affection (1963) and Where's Daddy? (1966), but both were unsuccessful, confirming his fears that he could not live up to his four Broadway plays of the 1950s. Inge then turned to fiction, hoping to avoid the negative criticism that devastated him. He published two novels, Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff (1970) and My Son Is a Splendid Driver (1971), but again his work was largely rejected. His earlier anxieties and depression, compounded by chronic alcoholism, left him with an overwhelming pessimism, and on June 10, 1973, in Los Angeles, he killed himself. Inge felt that he could no longer write, and without writing he did not want to live. Although some of his characters manage to settle for a qualified happiness, Inge was unable to make a similar compromise. He was buried in his hometown.

See also FILM: Splendor in the Grass.

Elizabeth A. Turner William Rainey Harper College

Shuman, R. Baird. William Inge. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

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