"Bus Stop" article header

 

The idea for the playwright William Inge's 1955 hit Bus Stop percolated for some time. Years earlier, Inge had noticed an unusual courtship between fellow passengers on a bus from Missouri to Kansas. "There was a man pursuing a woman on the trip," Inge recalled. "They were not sitting together, nor was she giving him much encouragement. But the romance progressed a little at each diner stop en route. When we got to Kansas City, they went away — together."

Inge imagined their backstory, turning the man into Bo, a blustering, inexperienced rodeo rider, and his intended into Cherie, a sultry nightclub singer from the Ozarks. Beyond the pair, the play expanded to other heartaches and foibles of their fellow travelers on the bus and a few people of the town where they stop. "I meant the play as a composite picture of varying kinds of love," Inge wrote. "The cowboy's eagerness, awkwardness, and naivete were interesting only when seen by comparison, in the same setting with the amorality, the drpavity, the casual earthiness, the innocence, or the defeat [of the other characters]." Inge mines his comedy out of the sheer juxtaposition of this motley crew, stranded in a roadside diner to wait out a snowstorm.

Great drama, Inge knew, wasn't born out of the characters' immediate or lasting joy, but instead out of the desire and search for it. Time Magazine later dubbed him, "The Laureate of Longing," a fitting title for a playwright who celebrates both vivid happiness that may soon fade and sadness that is interrupted by small flashes of hope. Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times of Inge's "wistful awareness of the loneliness of human beings, of the hunger people have for companionship and understanding. He lets us see that simple truth is an astonishing truth."

Inge wrote four Broadway hits during the 1950s, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Picnic and his early success Come Back, Little Sheba. Several were set in Kansas, where Inge was born in 1913. Inge would live both there and in Missouri until success drew him to New York, and the prairie vistas, violent weather, and sweet people of his home state were touchstones for Inge throughout his life. "Maybe we find beauty only in what we know," Inge reflected. "Mountains have never intrigued me. They have none of the mystery of the prairie, where one can always feel close to some eternal truth concerning man and his place in the universe."

The level, expansive character of the prairie is present in the plays that he wrote. Though Inge was a mid-century realist, his plays eschew the extreme highs and lows that mark those of his contemporaries Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, playwrights whose careers would eclipse his by the 1960s. (Inge, feeling his genius was forgotten, committed suicide in 1973.) Inge's plays instead capture ordinary people in near mundane situations with a sense of the hidden passion and deep humanity that bubbles up within us all.

Bus Stop is a comedy in the sense that laughter is frequence, but also in the sense of delicate, surprising optimism; we watch as an unlikely couple edges closer together, an innocent girl inches toward confidant womanhood, and a corrupt man decides once to do the right thing. As Time Magazine wrote on the play's opening night, "Bus Stop, for all its outward laughs, catches an inner glow."

Charles Haugland


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