Henry Drummond was working over Matthew Harrison Brady, arguing for the insights of Darwin over literal belief in the stories of scripture. And I got the feeling that much of the audience was on Brady’s side. Karen Carpenter, the artistic director of the William Inge Festival, acknowledged this was probably true.
The Drummond-Brady scene, a key confrontation in Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit the Wind, was part of a presentation featuring excerpts from works written by many of the writers who have been honored at earlier editions of the Inge Festival. The festival is an annual event that draws theatre artists from around the country to Independence, Kans.—a small, friendly city you have to really want to visit to get there. (No trains or buses stop there, and the nearest airport is out of state.)
The Inge Festival is named for the dramatist who is the town’s chief claim to fame. Is there any other modern dramatist whose characters have been rendered as a series of sculptures in a public park? (I don’t recall a Willy Loman statue in Brooklyn, or a Ruth Younger statue in Chicago.) It is a town Inge fled, as did (and do) many gay people treated unkindly (or worse) by their neighbors. When he later visited Independence as an acclaimed playwright, the attitude changed some. People tend to respect success, even if it’s attached to that guy they used to call “that funny little Billy Inge.”
Thirty-five years ago Independence Community College, which Inge attended, decided to create this annual event to honor his memory. (By that time, the writer had committed suicide after years of struggling with alcohol and depression.) The central idea was to both salute Inge and to invite an important living playwright to Independence each year for a celebration that would include staging excerpts of work, as well as a series of workshops, lectures, speeches, and parties.
And so for the past three and a half decades, a parade of major writers have come to this corner of the prairie to be honored in a community where the majority of its citizens—though hospitable—have largely been oblivious to the writing of both Inge and the honorees. But part of the college’s mission has been to chip away at that obliviousness. After all, attending salutes to August Wilson and Wendy Wasserstein might lead to reading some of their scripts or keeping an eye out for a production of theirs during the next visit to a town hosting a theatre.
But this year there was no single honoree. Carpenter decided to use the occasion of the event’s 35th anniversary as an opportunity to salute the prior honorees and to direct a rare production of Inge’s 1966 effort, Where’s Daddy?
The play concerns a young couple—Tom and Teena—living in a shabby apartment in New York. He’s hoping to make it as an actor. She’s pregnant, and they get married so that the child won’t be illegitimate. But he is also determined that the child be put up for adoption so their future options won’t be limited. Teena, understandably, has some doubts. A black couple—Razz and Helen—live down the hall. The cast of characters also includes a middle-aged gay man named Pinky and with him comes backstory: Tom had lived a tramp-like existence when he was a teenager until Pinky gave him a home and insisted he go to school. (Whether or not there was a physical component to this relationship is left ambiguous.) Joining this ensemble is Teena’s mother, Mrs. Bigelow, who is goodhearted but the product of a very insulated life. She confesses to Razz, “You’re the first Negro I’ve ever talked to.” (He takes this in stride.) And she seems not to know what to make of Pinky. Mrs. Bigelow, Pinky, Razz, and Helen have been summoned by Inge to bring their varying perspectives to bear on the choices Tom and Teena face.
Knowing that Inge was a closeted gay man, it is natural to guess that Pinky is an autobiographical character. But Pinky is ebullient and filled with bright chatter, while Inge was reportedly withdrawn and chronically depressed. I think the autobiographical character is Mrs. Bigelow, a woman who emerges from a sheltered existence, blinking in this new bohemian world as if looking into a harsh light, trying to adjust to the unfamiliar types in her daughter’s apartment. Inge never came out of that closet, and the characterization of Pinky strikes me as just short of standard-issue gay caricature. Inge also seems to strain in writing his black characters. With the exception of one startling moment when Razz flares with resentment at Mrs. Bigelow’s naïveté, he and Helen feel more like Inge’s hypothetical idea of what black people would be like than persuasive individuals.
The play is of interest not just for itself but for what it reveals about its author. At the point at which he wrote Where’s Daddy?, Inge, like Mrs. Bigelow, was having trouble adjusting. He had turned away from the rueful portraits of small-town life that established his fame and was trying to engage new subjects. (Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had made a splash a few years earlier, and writers like Arthur Kopit and Murray Schisgal were bringing Off-Broadway sensibilities to Broadway houses.) Like his friend Tennessee Williams, Inge experimented with new forms and tones in his final years, but these later works didn’t find sufficient audiences to achieve extended runs. He grew increasingly bitter and bewildered and fell into despair. At the end of the play, Mrs. Bigelow engages our sympathies, but there is little sense that she will ever make peace with the changes the ’60s ushered in, and there is scant evidence that Inge did either.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the Independence production of Where’s Daddy? was that Barbara Dana—the original Teena on Broadway 50 years ago— played Mrs. Bigelow. She was also, of course, a resource for the impulses behind the original production. One memory she shared at the festival was of Harold Clurman, whom she had so admired as a drama critic. He was the director of the premiere of Where’s Daddy?, and she was thrilled by the prospect of working with the legendary figure who had been one of the founders of the Group Theatre. That exhilaration suffered on the first day of rehearsal when Clurman interrupted one of her fellow cast members to give him a line reading. It turned out that the great theatrical thinker was not much of director, being disappointingly result-oriented in his orientation.
Not long before he took his life, Inge authored a letter that can’t help but make a reader wince. Responding to playwright Jean Kerr’s request that he contribute money to New Dramatists, he wrote, “The best help I can think of giving aspiring new dramatists would be to find them some other livelihood that would give them a feeling of respect and human dignity…Isn’t helping new dramatists a little like helping people into hell?”
If he felt this way, he surely would have disapproved of something else Carpenter scheduled: PlayLab, the first of what she expects will be an annual feature. The readings of 30 short pieces (each 30 minutes or shorter) by developing writers were followed by responses from panels of more established writers. In addition to Carpenter and myself, the merry band of visiting eminences were Beaufield Berry, Lee Blessing, Catherine Butterfield, Darren Canady, Marcia Cebulska, David Henry Hwang, Caridad Svich, Catherine Trieschmann, Adrienne Thompson, Mac Wellman, and Ron West.
As might be expected, the work varied in effectiveness (I responded to 12 pieces, a few of which shimmered with real promise), but it’s not appropriate to comment specifically on unfinished scripts in a public forum. I can, however, share one opinion of many of my fellow panelists: The ensemble invited to perform by the producer of the readings, the Living Room Theatre, suggests that Kansas City has a superb resident population of actors.
As for the future, Carpenter says the festival will return to honoring individual writers next year. She hopes to lure Beth Henley to Independence next April.