A few days ago, my friend, “Susan” and I were discussing a mutual acquaintance. I said that I liked this person, but I said, “She’s just so desperate.” Susan chortled and said, “Well, I feel pretty desperate myself sometimes.” It kind of surprised me because I do not think of Susan as desperate. She is one of the most beloved people I know and I know she knows it. But her statement made me think a little about what desperation is and how we are all a little desperate. And if we are artists, I think we want to be desperate. Forgive me for being obsessed with William Inge, but so many times last weekend, I thought about how desperate Inge’s characters are. Lola in Come Back, Little Sheba is desperate to feel vital again. Hal in Picnic is desperate to find his way in the world. Elma in Bus Stop and Millie in Picnic are desperate to leave their small Kansas towns. Sammy in Dark at the Top of the Stairs is desperate to make friends. And of course, my favorite desperate Inge character is Rosemary Sidney who gets on her hands and knees begging her boyfriend to marry her because the thought of another year as an unmarried schoolteacher living in a rented room is too much for her to bear. I’ve seen the scene in skilled hands and less skilled hands, but every time I’m moved to tears by the, well, the desperation. And I think about how desperate William Inge was . One of the interviews from the Saturday night program included one with a niece who recounted a conversation she’d had with Inge where he told her his life had been a failure. This is a man who won an Oscar, a Pulitzer and wrote four of the most successful, profitable, beloved plays of the 1950s. Perhaps he always had a voice telling him he was a failure and that made him desperate to create the characters and stories that touched our lives so deeply. In the last couple weeks, I’ve thought so much about why I’ve started this blog. It’s fun to get compliments and see which stories get the most traffic, but I also feel so vulnerable at times, even foolish. I’ve had close friends make fun of the blog. Granted, there is something desperate about a 44 year old man plunking away on a keyboard, offering his hopes, revealing his shames. And I do feel like Rosemary. With every awkward sentence, I’m beseeching a reader who may or may not be reading this, “Marry me, Howard. Please, please marry me.” Here are Rosalind Russell and Arthur O’Connell in that scene from the original movie of Picnic.
Yesterday, at the Festival, someone was telling an anecdote about the actor Ralph Meeker. The anecdote itself is not worth repeating but the takeaway for me was that Ralph Meeker, according to this person’s mother, was gay and struggled with playing the course, virile Hal in the original Broadway production of Picnic. Obviously, as an actor who often plays heterosexuals (though usually less course, virile ones) I was reminded of the on going challenge for the gay actor playing straight. I suppose in some ways it was easier and then in some ways more difficult. And then, I thought I would do a little google sleuthing to find out more stories about Meeker’s sexuality. I found nothing. Nothing on IMDB, nothing on Wikipedia, even gayorstraight.com said he was heterosexual. So, who knows. I will say that looking at old pictures, I do wish he was gay, he is a heartthrob. Maybe it’s a little inappropriate to out an actor who does not seem keen on being outed from his grave, but I suppose at the end of the day, Ralph Meeker was an actor. I’m sure he’s just glad people are still talking about him.
It’s 1:30 am and I’m in bed, trying to go to sleep but I can’t turn my brain off. I spent the day and evening taking in the William Inge Festival here in Independence. It’s an annual theatre festival and I have not attended one for over 15 years. There were several highlights but the big one for me was a talk with the actress Elizabeth Wilson. You might not know her by name but she was Ralph Fiennes’ mother in Quiz Show, Dustin Hoffman’s mother in The Graduate and is perhaps best known as Roz in Nine to Five. Most recently, at 91, she was in Hyde Park on Hudson as Franklin Roosevelt’s mother. There’s not a scene she’s in that doesn’t belong to her. I’m still thinking about something she said today. She was talking about working with Kim Stanley in the original Broadway production of Picnic. She said Ms. Stanley revealed so much that it was like she had no skin. As she said it, she grabbed her arm and pinched her skin. She told us that Inge was the same way, giving everything he had inside of him. Another woman in the panel, actress and writer Barbara Dana talked about how magical it had been to watch Elizabeth play Sonia in Uncle Vanya in the early 70s. And because I’m always thinking about age, I did the math and realized she was over 50 when she played her. Sonia is around 20. I have such a habit of limiting myself, doubting what I am capable of and there’s something so brave about a 50 year old playing a 20 year old. It reminded me to always see the possibilities. She also was told us a piece of information about Dolly Parton that surprised me and no, it’s not what you think. Anyway, it’s now 2:30 and I’m even more tired, but I wanted to share a little about my day. And if you ever see a 47 year old me playing Tom in The Glass Menagerie, you have Elizabeth Wilson to blame.
I went to see the Broadway revival of William Inge’s Picnic a couple months ago. The reviews had not been great, but I wanted to see it because I love William Inge. I grew up in Independence, Kansas, Inge’s hometown. In the spirit of full confession, I must admit that though I love him now, I hated his plays when I was growing up. When I was Jelly Beamis in a local production of A Loss of Roses, I complained to the director that Inge’s plays were depressing, that the endings were all too sad. She did not say much, gave me an odd smile and we never discussed it again. I remember sitting in symposiums every year at the Inge Festival, listening to Inge scholars dissect the choices that Lola and Madge and Cherie and Bo and Hal and Deanie and Howard and Rosemary could have made that would have altered the trajectory of their lives. Particularly with Picnic, I found it so sad that Madge would run off to Tulsa to join a man who would be a likely failure. I thought it pitiful that Rosemary found herself on her knees, pleading a man she may not even love to marry her. And then a couple months ago, on Broadway, I watched it again with a Madge that really seemed like a pretty high school girl that I might have grown up with. I saw things in the short scenes with the other old maid school teachers that I’d never noticed before. It occurred to me that perhaps Irma Kronkite, played by the wonderful Maddie Corman, was the Inge stand-in because she was a teacher in this small Kansas town, but she lived for her summer studies in New York where she could be unleashed, not unlike what Inge did while he was a teacher in the Midwest before his success as a playwright. And mostly, I was affected by how HAPPY I was to see Rosemary and Howard go off to get married and begin a life together. I saw love there that I had not seen before and I saw hope that, while it may not be the fairy tale ending one dreams of as a child, I thought, they are going to get used to living with each other and they will keep each other warm at night and it will be okay, maybe even better than okay. As I watched the last few moments of the play beside my partner, whom I met when we were both already in our early 40s, I thought about how surprised I had been to find love again as a middle-aged man. There is a thread of hope that runs through Inge’s plays, some thin, some a little thicker, but there is always hope. It took me a few years to see it, but it was there all along.