The Playwright in the Basement:
The Life and Plays of William Inge
It’s the early
1940’s and a young college professor by the name of William Inge
sits in the back of a solitary bus rumbling along a US Route 40 to the Jazz
Mecca of the
Yet, despite the seemingly ho-hum surroundings, this bus trip is about to prove terribly inspiring for Inge. Laying down his newspaper, he catches sight of a young man as he leans over and attempts to strike up a conversation with a young woman sitting across from him. She doesn’t appear responsive. She doesn’t encourage the man. She doesn’t smile or laugh or even share more than a few words with him. But the man is not dissuaded. From roadside diner to roadside diner, he doggedly pursues the woman until, finally, the bus pulls into Kansas City and the two climb off, gather their bags, and leave together, disappearing into the smoke filled night of a city that moves to the relaxed and rhythmic pulse of the blues.
It’s not surprising that this brief courtship would stick with Inge for almost two decades and eventually develop into Bus Stop, his third in a string of Broadway hits. The image of this persistent, painful, and sometimes comic pursuit of love embodied in the characters of the play mirrored Inge’s own experience. A bachelor his whole life, Inge’s biography reveals a troubled man whose own personal demons concerning his sexuality brought him a lifetime of loneliness, depression, and alcoholism.
A Witness to Humanity’s Loneliness as a Child
Even as a boy
growing up in his mother’s boardinghouse in
Emptiness was a feeling Inge understood intimately. No matter what success he achieved, whether it was breaking into Broadway with Come Back Little Sheba, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Picnic, or receiving the Academy Award for his screenplay for Splendor in the Grass, Inge said he never felt like a success.
Director Elia Kazan on Inge
Director Elia Kazan
picked up on Inge’s psychic turmoil and recounted a
conversation the two had concerning the playwright’s depression in his
autobiography. While working on the Broadway premiere of The Dark at the Top
of the Stairs,
Inge’s “Coming Out” Play
The mystery that haunted Inge would not be a mystery for long. In 1962, Inge published a one-act play entitled A Boy in the Basement, which dramatized the struggle of a middle-aged mortician as he comes to terms with his mother’s discovery that he is homosexual. For a man who lived the majority of his life guarding his sexuality to protect his career as a high school teacher, college professor, and eventually a nationally acclaimed playwright, this was bold subject matter. Yet, whatever catharsis Inge was hoping to achieve through this and other later plays that dealt with the psychic turmoil created by closeted homosexuality never seemed to come.
years were spent living with his sister in his
When he was
laid to rest at