Inge's Picnic

February 19: William Inge's Picnic premiered on this day in 1953, running on Broadway for almost 500 performances and winning a Pulitzer for Inge. With a string of other hit plays and movies during the fifties—Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), Bus Stop (1955), The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957), the screenplay for Splendor in the Grass (1961)—Inge was one of the most famous mid-century playwrights. His biographers attribute his 1973 suicide to his despair over feeling unable to move on from his 50s hits, and to his deeply repressed homosexuality.

 

Hal, the bad boy-hero of Picnic, is a young drifter who has done some time, but he hopes to "settle down, read all the better books, and listen to all the better music." Plus, he can jitterbug like nobody's seen in this small Kansas town. When everyone piles into the cars with the casseroles and watermelons, heading to the Labor Day picnic, he is an option Madge can only pretend to resist:

MADGE: I … get so tired of being told I'm pretty.

HAL: (Folding her in his arms caressingly) Baby, baby, baby.

MADGE: (Resisting him, jumping to her feet) Don't. We have to go. We have all the baskets in our car and they'll be waiting. (Hal gets up and walks slowly to her, their eyes fastened and Madge feeling a little thrill of excitement as he draws nearer) Really—we have to be going. (HAL takes her in his arms and kisses her passionately. Then MADGE utters his name in a voice of resignation) Hal!

HAL: Just be quiet, baby.

MADGE: Really . . . We have to go. They'll be waiting.

HAL: (Picking her up in his arms and starting to go off. His voice is deep and firm) We're not goin' on no goddamn picnic.                                                              

                                                               CURTAIN

Picnic was Paul Newman's Broadway debut. He had hoped to play Hal, but the producers doubted he had the physical presence or the talent. Also in the cast was Joanne Woodward—the two first met at the Picnic rehearsals—who was sure on the second count: "When I first saw him act, I thought he was terrible. And he was. Just a pretty face." But the two started to spend time together, and if he was no bad boy Marlon Brando (whom Woodward was also dating at the time), she was no bad girl: "The fashion was for little, dark neurotic girls from the wrong side of the tracks. The boys wouldn't go out with anybody else. I tried to turn myself into that type, but it didn't work."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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