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.
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.