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 Midwest: Kansas City, Missouri. Although the destination inspires excitement— a happening city full of night clubs, rowdy music, and loose morals—the view from the window certainly leaves something to be desired. Mile after mile of tall grass stretches on forever under a boundless blue sky with maybe an occasional farmhouse, silo or tractor plowing the fields to break up the monotony.

            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 Kansas, Inge was struck by the turbulent love lives and tragic loneliness of those around him. “There were three women school teachers living in the house,” he once said. “I saw their attempts to reach out and, even as a child; I sensed each woman’s failure. I began to understand the sorrow and emptiness in their lives, and it touched me.”

            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, Kazan would visit Inge’s Manhattan apartment and the two formed a strong friendship. It was during this time that Kazan not only learned that Inge was treated for depression  at Austen Riggs Institute in Stockbridge, but that he also had suicidal tendencies. “I noticed that his apartment in New York was on the second floor, just one floor above the concrete backyard of the apartment building, and had no other view. One day I asked why he didn’t change for another apartment, one with an attractive view, high above the dirt and noise. We were good friends by then, and he told me that because where he was now, no matter how depressed he became, he would not ever be tempted to suicide.”

 

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. 

His final years were spent living with his sister in his Hollywood home. On June 10, 1970, the ominous remarks he had made to Kazan thirteen years earlier finally came to pass. He went into his garage, turned on the car, and took his life by carbon monoxide poisoning. “Death makes us all innocent,” Inge once said. “(It) weaves all our private hurts and griefs and wrongs into the fabric of time, and makes them a part of eternity.”

 

When he was laid to rest at Mount Hope Cemetery in Independence, Kansas, his tombstone only included one word under his epitaph:

Playwright.