The Life of William Inge, Playwright

William Inge was one of the most successful playwrights of the 1950s. He had a run of noted Broadway productions with Bus Stop and the Pulitzer Prize winning Picnic being his signature works. Inge, born in Independence, Kansas, brought well-constructed portraits of midwest characters to audiences in New York and then to film audiences around the country.

Inge’s fascination for the theatre began early. In the 1920s, Independence boasted many cultural events as top artists and shows played one night stands between performances in Kansas City, Missouri, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. The small town of Independence had a profound influence on the young Inge. He would later use this knowledge of small town life in many of his plays, most of which revolve around characters who are products of small towns like Independence.

“Well, I’ve got to write a play.”

In 1930, Inge graduated from Independence High School and later earned a degree in Speech and Drama from the Uiversity of Kansas at Lawrence. From 1937 to 1938, Inge taught high school English and Drama in Columbus and then moved St. Louis, Missouri, where he worked as the drama and music critic for the St. Louis Times. It was while he worked at the paper that Inge became acquainted with Tennessee Williams.

Inge accompanied Williams to a performance of his play The Glass Menagerie in Chicago. “I was terrifically moved by the play,” said Inge. “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.’”

With William’s encouragement and within three months, Inge had completed Farther Off from Heaven. Inge next turned a short story into Come Back, Little Sheba, which earned him the title of the most promising playwright of the 1950 Broadway season.

Success and Failure

In 1953, Inge’s Picnic opened at The Music Box Theatre in New York City. Along with the Pulitzer Prize, Picnic earned a Drama Critic Circle Award, The Outer Circle Award and The Theatre Club Award.

Inge’s next success came only two years later in 1955 when Bus Stop opened at The Music Box Theatre in New York City. The film version of Bus Stop was released by Fox in 1956 with Marilyn Monroe, Don Murray and Eileen Heckart in starring roles. Inge’s success continued as The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, a reworking of his first play Farther Off from Heaven, opened on Broadway in 1957.

In 1959, the Broadway production of A Loss of Roses suffered numerous cast and script changes, opened to poor reviews and closed after three weeks. Inge was said to be devastated by the criticism. Yet in 1960, Inge’s first screenplay, “Splendor in the Grass,” was filmed in New York starring Natalie Wood, Pat Hingle and newcomer Warren Beatty. “Splendor in the Grass” was a triumph for Inge and won him an Academy Award for Best Screenplay.

His next two plays, however, were not successful and he fell into a deep depression. Inge moved to California and wrote two novels while teaching playwriting at the Irvine campus of the University of California. He committed suicide on June 10, 1973 at his home in Hollywood. He was 60 years old. Inge was buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery in his hometown of Independence. His headstone reads simply, “Playwright.”

Since 1982, Independence Community College’s William Inge Center for the Arts has sponsored the annual William Inge Theatre Festival to honor playwrights. The “William Inge Collection” at the college is the most extensive collection in existence, including 400 manuscripts, films, correspondence and other items related to Inge’s work.