Notes on William Inge's "Picnic": The Force of Identity

Bill believed--fervently, I hasten to add--that death did not ensue when the brain or the heart failed to function or was assaulted. Death, the long, slow, public act of death, began when we ignored or denied or failed to recall our identity. The act of living, he believed, was the search for and the maintenance of our identity, and we need to have it affirmed and appreciated by our peers, that audience that arrives, most often uninvited, to the public performance we call our life. Watch me, love me, tell me how I'm doing. But please, don't get too close, either in detail or proximity.

Tennessee Williams on William Inge's Picnic

Inge wanted the porch to be front and center: It was, he told Elia Kazan, a man he hoped would direct the play, the stage on which these characters offered their auditions for an identity, one that was either new or refurbished or dramatically altered. It was also the place to which these lonely people could find company, some fresh or cool air, and a bored ear or two to hear what Inge called "the psychic weather report" of these "good but stilted people."

Kazan thought about doing the play, but he felt duty bound to work with Tenn on Camino Real, an experimental play he had fathered, encouraged, taught to walk. "Tenn was being told that he was playing it safe," Kazan said. "He needed to break out of his safe and successful stride and do something new. I liked Picnic, and I thought I could do something with it, but I went to the dance that Tenn had created, but I feel I had a relationship with Inge and with Picnic. I asked him, as I often do with playwrights, 'Which of these characters is Bill Inge?' and without hesitation he told me they all had pieces of Bill Inge, but more than any others, he was Helen, the older neighbor who harvests good will and cakes, and who is most shaken by the beauty of Hal, the wandering phallus. 'How is that you?' I asked. 'She is the witness,' Bill told me, 'and all of my life is on the side, watching, waiting, witnessing.''

The Characters

Helen Potts: You watch and you envy. You recall that once, long ago, you were sexual and sexually desired, but your hands and your back and whatever strength they still have are better used to clean up a sick parent's fluids and hoist trays of food to a sick bed. You long to touch warm skin again, but instead you turn your mother to avoid bed sores and wring laundry dry. You turn to the joys of sweet icings and afternoon reveries of what used to be. While you present yourself to the world as a good Baptist woman, an artist of pastries and heavy gravies, a kind woman ready to help anyone, you also peek and hope for some beauty on the dry horizon. You manifest men in the fields and the backyard, and you invite them in. It is Helen who voices what the others can't bring themselves to admit: A man is in their presence and has identified them. Hal has reminded her that she is and remains a woman, not the nursing husk on borrowed time. "Helen is tied to her mother as Bill and I were to ours," Tenn said. "Our mothers were not sickly; God knows we both believed they would bury us both. However, our mothers were the screens on which we projected our experiences and our impressions. We witnessed the world, and then we took our witness to our mothers, and they passed judgment on what we brought them. We owed them a story, a sermon, some adventure and color, so we positioned ourselves to see the players in the plays we wandered across. Bill was more of a lurker than I was: silent and sweet and furtive. I was drawn more to clamor and a hot lunacy."

"Bill has a character say that she hopes Heaven will be filled with women like Helen," Kazan said, "and we would all like to be surrounded by such sweet people, ready to help and to feed us and to give us second and third chances. But what Bill really wanted was to  himself be desired on earth and Heaven,  in any capacity. He felt always unwanted, so I guess Helen is a wish fulfillment for him."

Ellen Burstyn, Ben Rappaport, Maggie Grace

Flo Owens and her daughters Madge and Millie:  Flo is the mother of the two girls, who were, in Tenn's estimation "dueling examples of burgeoning sexual identity." Madge, the prettiest girl in town, recognizes the gift she has been given, and she cares for and preserves and protects her beauty with creams and an inviting expression. An academic failure, she nonetheless has the intelligence to understand that her beauty is expiring, and whatever reward it might bring needs to be grabbed soon. Millie, her younger sister, is an ungainly but preternaturally bright young girl. Gawky and angry, she dreams of moving to New York City and writing transgressive novels that will expose and humiliate those who now find her so lacking. Kim Stanley created the part of Millie and confessed that she would have thought that Bill Inge was performing an act of autobiography with her. "I thought he was the angry, teased kid who had grown up to write this play that threw a hot, harsh light and wind on what really was going on when he was growing up," Stanley told me. "These are lives that are so hungry for attention and energy and a reason to get up and face the flat, hot, forever horizon that they manufacture picnics and banquets and dances and bible clubs. They welcome strangers into their lives and hope to be mentally and sexually lubricated--before the canning needs to be done or the car detailed or the trash burned. I know these people, and I thought I knew Bill, but he told me lacked the strength and the courage of Millie, who was going to leave, and who wasn't afraid to show people her work--her art--and who wasn't afraid to defend herself, to talk back. Bill never talked back, and he could never comfortably show his work to anyone, except Maude, his mother, and Tennessee, when they were first lovers. Oh, Lord, to watch him bring you his work! Like a whipped dog. And then he'd watch you read the pages, shifting in his seat and dying a little. He wanted Millie's strength, but he admitted that he was more like Helen, watching and hoping to gain the attention he craved by means of sweetness and efforts that made people comfortable. You write plays or you bake cakes, and people may notice you or love you. He thought Flo was the public Bill Inge, the playwright, but also Maude Inge: Bill wrote his plays, his children, and he put them out for people to judge and desire or reject, and something was dramatically changed when those kids, those plays, left home and walked into the lives of others. He wanted Flo to be feral, protective, unable to open her mind to what her children might want or need. And that was Maude Inge: Boy, you better keep away from her boy. Her lovely, sweet, talented boy, whom she would then humiliate in a manner you wouldn't believe."

Mare Winningham, Maggie Grace

"Here's the thing," Kazan said. "The mother in that play, and the mother in Bill Inge's life--in Tennessee's life--would rather keep their child smothered and small, in a dime store or at the factory, than away with others. Those women--Maude and Edwina--needed the players and the audience that their children provided, and, I think, so did the mother in Picnic. When the play ends, you learn that the mother and Helen, the watchful neighbor, have lost the most, have seen the most. Their plays, to stretch a metaphor, haven't closed, but the actors have quit, so the playing space, the porch, now has a sad echo."

Elizabeth Marvel, Reed Birney, Madeleine Martin, Sebastian Stan

Rosemary Sidney and Howard Bevans: Victims trapped in the knots of time and need. The people you meet at dance clubs and mixers and lingering a bit too long and with too much interest at last call. People who shove the truth of their needs either deeply within themselves or place them prominently and garishly on their sleeves. 

"Bill never could have begged for what he wanted or needed as Rosemary does," according to Stanley. "God he loved that woman, who could be so supportive but could then decimate, with a serpent's tongue, someone who had what she lacked or who had achieved what had been denied to her. Millie and Rosemary aren't afraid to stake their claims and define their needs."

"You can find comfort even in those roles that are limiting or demeaning," Kazan said. "You hate the role, but you know what time your call is; you know the lines. The devil you know; the hell whose contours you've designed to your liking. Bachelors like this man [Howard] are lonely, but there is a vineyard of scared, old women who will give him their time, attention, and what is left of their virtues. You can silently stroll through life with these small gifts, and that is what he appears prepared to do."

"That sad salesman is eroticized by virtue of his proximity to Hal, who can and does arouse everyone," Tenn said. "Hal reminds everyone of either a past and great carnal encounter, or one that was dreamed of. Bill and I first knew the joys of men through pornography, then dangerous viewings at gyms and in locker rooms. That is when we learned the power of male attraction. I poured all of this memory and longing into Stanley [Kowalski] and asked that it be understood that these were men who pushed otherwise sane and sensible women into dire and mendacious circumstances. Bill gave us Hal, a man who traveled, leaving a trail of desire and frustration.  I didn't show the effect of Stanley on anyone but Blanche, but Bill shows us what a man, a man almost mythic in sexual power, can do to a community, male and female, and, we gather, predominantly heterosexual."

"I think the salesman gets a lot of emotional and lady baggage--you see him weighed down by both as he is pursued and caught and claimed," Kazan said. "I don't think he knows what he's in for, but I think he realizes that Rosemary is likely to be thinking of the stud when she settles in their little house over the supply store and she's going to get the old, tired guy."

"Josh Logan [the eventual director of Picnic] told Bill to lose a lot of dialogue about typing and stenography in Rosemary's scenes," according to Kim Stanley. "Bill had a good idea about showing how Rosemary teaches her students--her girls--all about precision and speed and getting the messages right and fast, but she is never moving, never going anywhere. I think Josh was right  to cut it, because we see that Rosemary isn't going anywhere, and Heckie [Eileen Heckart] so beautifully had her motor revving and sputtering and then taking off. You got the point. You got the sad, sad point."

Hal Carter and Alan Seymour: Dueling images of burgeoning male sexuality. "Hal, I think, is what you hope for," Kazan said, "and Alan is often what you wind up with. Hal is the dream fuck, the man who can take care of the car and the house and the lubricious needs of the lady of the house. However, the bills will never be paid on time and his eye will forever wander. Still, there are women always willing to enter this contract. Alan is the man the mother wants you to marry: He comes from good people; the homes and the cars are impeccable and get attention; the children and the future will glisten. But, but...there is no sparkle, no click, no passion. Daughters will always go where their hearts--or some other organ--take them. Poems and lives are not crafted from common sense, in love or anything else."

Sebastian Stan

"There is a power that comes from physical beauty, from sexual superiority" Tenn told me. "Few things are as arousing as those who possess an amplitude of amorous tools and can't understand the kismet of placement. It is terribly, terribly charming and addictive. What is more menacing--and far less attractive--is the knowledge of some of just how lucky and glorious they are. That would be Stanley: He knows you're looking at and wanting what the gods have hung from him. I don't think this of Hal: I think Hal is befuddled by everything, unlucky in everything. I think the love he feels for Madge unsettles and surprises him: It's not another fuck on the tuck-and-roll seat at the local drive-in. This is real. Hal knows he's trash, but he wants a redeemer, and women love to redeem their men, and both Madge and Rosemary will redeem their men, make them better. No one on earth can or will change Stanley: He feels infallible and will swing an arm or his cock at any impediment that may arise. Hal wants someone to calm and clean him; pour some unguent on the wounds--physical and psychic--that litter the Grecian form."

"Tennessee didn't always like or respect Picnic," Kazan said. " Bill and Tennessee fought a lot about the play and how it ends. But in later years, he told me loved the play, understood it."

"Oh, listen, Tennessee cried a lot over that play," Stanley said. "He never forgot that the play ends with no guarantees of anything but the possibility of heartbreak. Let me tell you what Tennessee said to me one night about that play: He said the road--which is to say life--always runs out, turns into a dead end, washes out from floods, whatever. The road is not eternal, but you know what? You can have a fine walk or ride while you're on it. You can ride real fast and feel the wind in your hair, or you can take a sweet Sunday ride and smell the lupine or the night-blooming jasmine. You can walk at a brisk pace and get the heart and the sweat glands going, or you can poke along and pick some flowers. You can get run over and killed by the dangerous folk, or you can strike up a conversation with some other folks who are out for air and company. The road is life and that play--Picnic by William Inge--was time on the road with people going at all speeds and finding all sorts of different things. And for some the road has some additions and detours, and for others it just cracks and dries up. But it's a ride, dammit, it's a ride."

All that a writer wants, prays for, is that his plays be witnessed by people--actors, directors, audiences-- who understand it and appreciate it and learn from it, who take it to people, like a gift, and say 'Take this. I think you'll get something out of it.'   Tennessee Williams.

William Inge--and his play Picnic--is currently at the American Airlines Theater, produced by the Roundabout, and it has been beautifully witnessed by its cast and by its director. I don't write reviews; I am not a critic. But I have an assignment from Tennessee Williams--and from Elia Kazan--to remind people of what William Inge wrote and felt and wanted to share, and it is on that stage, and I urge you to see it, and I would like to talk to you about it.

These are the witnesses who have made this Picnic possible:

The director is Sam Gold.

The Helen Potts is Ellen Burstyn.

The Flo Owens is Mare Winningham.

The Madge Owens is Maggie Grace.

The Millie Owens is Madeleine Martin.

The Hal Carter is Sebastian Stan.

The Alan Seymour is Ben Rappaport.

The Rosemary Sidney is Elizabeth Marvel.

The Howard Bevans is Reed Birney.

Ellen Burstyn, Sebastian Stan, Maggie Grace

All photographs on this page are courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown and Joan Marcus.


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