William Inge’s Kansas boyhood is reflected in many of his works. Born in Independence on May 3, 1913, he was the second son of Luther Clay Inge and Maude Sarah Gibson-Inge and the youngest of five children. His boyhood home at 514 N. 4th Street in Independence still stands. His siblings were Lucy, Luther Jr., Irene (died at 3 years of age), and Helene. His father was a traveling salesman and Inge had a close relationship with his mother.
Independence, Kansas in the 1920’s was a wealthy white-collar town and the home of Alf Landon, Harry Sinclair, and Martin Johnson. Until the depression, Independence was said to have had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the country.
Inge’s fascination for the theatre began early. In the 1920’s Independence had many cultural events as top artists and shows stopped over for one night stands between performances in Kansas City, Missouri, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Although Inge was not from a well-to-do family, he did get to see many shows as a member of a local Boy Scout Troop. The troop met in the Civic Center, a ground floor meeting room of Memorial Hall, a large 2,000 seat theater where these shows were held. The scouts were regularly invited to sit in the balcony after their meetings to watch the performances.
The small town of Independence had a profound influence on the young Inge and he would later attribute his understanding of human behavior to growing up in this small town environment. “I’ve often wondered how people raised in our great cities ever develop any knowledge of humankind. People who grow up in small towns get to know each other so much more closely than they do in cities,” said Inge. Inge would later use this knowledge of small town life in many of his plays, most of which revolve around characters who are clearly products of small towns like Independence.
In 1930, Inge graduated from Independence High School and went on to attend Independence Junior College (now Independence Community College). At that time the high school and college were located across the street from each other at 10th and Laurel streets.
In 1935, Inge graduated from the University of Kansas at Lawrence with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Speech and Drama. He said once that at this stage in his life he had wanted to plunge into Broadway but felt that he lacked the necessary funding. When the George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, Tennessee, offered him a scholarship to work on a master’s degree he accepted. He later dropped out of Peabody. “I sort of based my life on the theatre,” said Inge. “Having given up the theatre I had given up the basis that I’d set for my life upon. I was terribly confused. I went home to Kansas and began to flounder.”
Back in Kansas, he endeavored to define a clearer direction for his life. He found physical exhaustion helpful and that summer worked as a laborer on the state highway. After that he went to Wichita where he worked as a news announcer. In 1937-38, Inge taught high school English and Drama in Columbus, Kansas and in 1938 he returned to Peabody to complete his Master of Arts Degree. From 1938-1943, Inge was a member of the faculty at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri.
In 1943, he moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he worked as the drama and music critic for the St. Louis Times. It was while he worked as a drama critic that Inge became acquainted with Tennessee Williams. He 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.’” Within three months he had completed FARTHER OFF FROM HEAVEN, which was produced by Margo Jones in Dallas. Inge returned to a teaching position at Washington University in St. Louis and began serious work on turning a fragmentary short story into a one act play. This work evolved into a play that earned Inge the title of most promising playwright of the 1950 Broadway season. The play was COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA.
In 1953, PICNIC opened at The Music Box Theatre in New York City. The play is set in a small Kansas town on Labor Day. Rosemary, the spinster school teacher fears she will continue to live her life without someone to take care of her. Inge recalled the genesis of this character profile. “When I was a boy in Kansas, my mother had a boarding house. There were three women school teachers living in the house. I was four years old and they were nice to me; I liked them. I saw their attempts and, even as a child, I sensed every woman’s failure. I began to sense the sorrow and the emptiness in their lives and it touched me.” PICNIC won Inge a Pulitzer Prize, The Drama Critic Circle Award, The Outer Circle Award, and The Theatre Club Award.
It was in 1952 that Paramount Pictures released the film version of COME BACK LITTLE SHEBA directed by Daniel Mann and starring Shirley Booth and Burt Lancaster. Shortly after, in 1956, Columbia Pictures released the film version of PICNIC directed by Joshua Logan and starring William Holden, Kim Novak and Rosalind Russell.
Inge’s next success came in 1955 when BUS STOP opened at The Music Box Theatre in New York City. Directed by Joshua Logan, 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 fame continued to grow as THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, a reworking of his first play FARTHER OFF FROM HEAVEN opened on Broadway in 1957. DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, considered to be Inge’s finest play, is one in which he draws most directly from his own past. He confessed the play was his “first cautious attempt to look at the past, with an effort to find order and meaning in experiences that were once too close to be seen clearly.” It was released as a film starring Dorothy McGuire, Robert Preston, Shirley Knight, Eve Arden, and Angela Lansbury in 1960.
Inge’s mother, Maude Sarah Gibson Inge, died in 1958 at the age of 86 in Independence.
In 1959, A LOSS OF ROSES opened to poor reviews and closed after a three week run. Inge was devastated by the criticism. In 1960 he announced plans to teach at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. These plans and all subsequent plans to return to his native state fall through even though he later purchased property in Lawrence.
In 1960, Inge’s first screenplay, Splendor in the Grass was filmed in New York. It starred Natalie Wood, Pat Hingle and newcomer Warren Beatty. It also featured the only screen appearance of Inge himself, who played the part of Reverend Whitman. He is shown giving part of a sermon and bidding farewell to his parishioners as they leave the church. Splendor in the Grass was a triumph for Inge and won him an Academy Award for Best Screenplay.
His next two plays were NATURAL AFFECTION in 1963 and WHERE’S DADDY? in 1965. Both were unsuccessful. This prompted him to leave New York in 1963 at the age of fifty and move to California. In 1968, he resumed his teaching career at the University of California at Irvine but, becoming increasingly depressed, he quit in 1970.
Inge died by suicide on June 10, 1973 at his home in Hollywood, where he lived with his sister, Helene. He was 60 years old. He was buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery in his hometown of Independence, KS. His headstone reads simply, “Playwright.”