Broadway Features and Reviews
William Inge's Broadway Demons
A former student of William Inge remembers his celebrated Broadway professor.
By Christopher Moore, Broadway Magazine
In the current Broadway season rich with great playwrights living and dead, the triumph of William Inge’s "Come Back, Little Sheba" possesses a unique beauty to admirers of the abandoned American playwright. "I think he’d be surprised at how successful that play is in 2007," observes Dr. Jack Wright, who studied with Inge as a graduate student at the University of Kansas in the fall of 1966. "Inge seemed to believe the critics who said he was all washed up," remembers Wright.
In the fall of 1966, Jack Wright was enrolled in a playwrighting class with William Inge as the instructor. For the first six weeks, the group would meet, but Inge did not show up. Dr. Lewan Goff, the head of the theatre department, would explain to the group that the playwright was "not feeling well" and had not made the trip from L.A. yet. Then one day, the celebrated playwright arrived. It was a meeting Jack Wright would not forget. "You’ll have to excuse me," Inge told the class, "I’m very depressed." He then went on to talk about the New York theatre critics’ response to his play "Where’s Daddy?". According to Wright, Inge would mention a critic by name (Stanley Kauffmann, Walter Kerr, Douglas Watt); and then Inge would talk about what the critic had said about him, quoting the words of the negative reviews. "The longer he talked, the sadder he got…and then, finally, he just got quiet," remembers Wright. For approximately the next 30 minutes, the group sat in silence. Nobody said a word. The playwright quietly wiped his tears. Then, Inge recovered. "Well, let’s see what you’ve got written," he said to the students. Wright says from that point on there was never another emotional episode in the classroom, and Inge was a gifted teacher.
In class, William Inge didn’t talk much about his own work, Wright recalls. From time to time he might talk about his script for Splendor In The Grass, or the little place in Tonganoxie, Kansas "up the road" that provided the inspiration for his hit play Bus Stop. On Come Back, Little Sheba, Wright remembers Inge talking about Doc and saying, "he really loved Lola a lot…he just couldn’t help himself."
The last time Jack Wright saw William Inge, it was in California in 1972. During a theatre conference in Los Angeles, Wright’s mentor Lewan Goff asked if he wanted to come along and see Bill Inge. When they arrived at the house, Inge’s sister opened the door and told the pair, "This is not a good time. This is not a good time." As they began to walk away down the long drive, Inge’s sister rushed after them saying "Bill said it is ok". She brought them into the house. Inside, Inge had a shot glass in one hand and a beer in the other. Wright remembers that his former teacher seemed depressed and forlorn. Later, when he first heard that Inge had committed suicide, Wright was saddened, but not surprised.
Today, the student is now a distinguished professor and a director at the University Of Kansas. Dr. Jack Wright retains a fondness for the work of William Inge, "He has a special gift for the Midwest, for the people of the Midwest. He was a sad figure, but he really had insight, especially with strong women characters. He really touches something true about the human condition." Occasionally, Dr. Wright will visit the library at the University of Kansas where Inge’s later, unproduced scripts reside. When possible, he attends the yearly William Inge Festival in Independence, Kansas that has honors living theatre artists like Stephen Sondheim. The festival is a fitting tribute to a playwright who survived the scorn of critics in the past, and continues to move audiences today. For Dr. Jack Wright, seeing the newest Broadway triumph for his troubled teacher is an undeniably remarkable experience.