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William Inge: The Cost Of Disregard

April 06, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN

It seems an idyll. Yet "Picnic" wasn't meant to be a Norman Rockwell magazine cover. Its basic subject is the monotony that a small-town picnic relieves only briefly; the loneliness that will lead a spinster schoolteacher (remember Roz Russell?) to grovel at the feet of the dull storekeeper who doesn't particularly want to marry her.

There's a lot of pain in "Picnic" and if Inge had had his way there would have been more. In his original ending, the pretty Madge doesn't dare run off with the drifter but goes back to her job at the dime store--having lost, as well, her wealthy boyfriend. Inge thought that was what would really have really happened.

But director Joshua Logan thought this was too depressing. He induced Inge to devise an ending where Madge at least gets somebody, if only for a few months. Inge didn't buy it. But he wrote it. And, as Logan has noted, the playwright didn't turn down the fame, the prizes and the checks that the play and the movie brought him.

But he brooded about the ending, and in the late 1950s wrote a new version of the play, called "Summer Brave." It ends with Madge trudging off to work the day after the picnic, with a carful of teen-age boys hooting at her like the canaille mocking a deposed queen:

"Hey, beautiful--

"Hey, gorgeous--

"Where you goin'?--

"C'mon, get in--"

Inge wasn't, in his own mind, the Midwest optimist. It could be, however, that Logan read him better than he read himself. For "Bus Stop" and "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" also end on a note of provisional hope, and by that time Inge was calling his own shots.

(It can also be argued--and Logan did, at the time--that Madge's future with the rootless Hal is provisional indeed. It's easier to image her back home for the next Labor Day picnic with a baby, and no husband. It will be interesting to see how director Marshall Mason tips the last scene at the Ahmanson.)

Inge's sister Helene remembers "Picnic" fondly, not only as the play that proved to her brother that he could make a living as a writer, but as a humorous, loving portrait of a town that was, after all, home--even if Bill and she couldn't wait to get out of it.

If "Picnic" rings true, that's because a good deal of it is true, according to Helene. Independence's big event really was the autumn Neewollah Pageant--"Hallowe'en" spelled backwards. Her mother really did board schoolteachers, just as Madge's mother does, and one of them was exactly as man-hungry as Rosemary is. Helene recognizes herself as the younger sister and her older sister as Madge. (The drifter is imaginary.)

For a portrait of little Billy Inge, she says, look at the boy in "The Dark at the Stop of the Stairs," the one who collects movie stars' pictures and who "speaks pieces" for his mother's friends--the boy the other boys call a sissy.

"Bill always knew he was different," she says today. "And, finally, he told me that he was gay. It must have been the hardest thing he ever had to do--I just kissed him. I think it gave him a tremendous empathy for people, especially for down-and-outers.

"It was so sad when he said he didn't have anything to write about, because there were so many stories he could have written. He made the people in that town seem so interesting."

More interesting than they really were?

She smiles. 'There might be some truth in that. Of course, I never had Bill's insight."

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