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The Writing of Come Back, Little Sheba

William IngeWhen William Inge began writing Come Back, Little Sheba in the summer of 1948, he was thirty five years old. Six foot tall, blond haired, blue eyed, he was working as a largely anonymous professor at Washington University in St. Louis with dreams of becoming a successful playwright. The spark of that desire came three years earlier after a chance encounter with another then unknown playwright, Tennessee Williams. Inge interviewed Williams for a local Missouri paper, and after seeing Williams’ initial production of The Glass Menagerie in Chicago months later, Inge went home and quickly wrote the play Farther Off From Heaven.

Heaven was produced in Dallas by director Margo Jones – also one of Williams’ early supporters – but by 1948, Inge grew anxious that the play would never garner significant interest from New York producers. He decided to burrow into two of the play’s accessory characters that were based on his aunt and uncle. “It’s something like a geologist looking for oil,” Inge described of feeling the potential for deeper exploration. “I don’t know exactly how he goes about it, but I think he senses a spot of ground that feels productive and so he starts drilling. I start off writing with the feeling that I’ve got something that I need to get out of my system – something to bring form to.”

“I had this curious aunt and uncle,” Inge further expands on the source of Sheba. “They were a childless pair, and she, my mother’s sister, was really an eccentric woman. I used to think of her a lot and their relationship kind of fascinated me. The 

first thing I ever did with them was a little story, which had a closeness to me that nothing else I attempted did. And when I worked with it a bit, it suddenly began to grow into shape and the characters developed separate existences. [...] I guess any good novel or play writes the author. He doesn’t write it.”

Spring of 1948 also marked a turning point in Inge’s struggles with alcoholism, when he joined A.A. for the first time. A.A. was a revelation for Inge, both personally and spiritually. “I saw for the first time in my life something of what Christ stood for,” he said in a 1958 interview with Esquire Magazine. “I’d never felt it in church. I had once in a while in the theatre. But there was A.A. – a part of life – and I really saw men brought back from the dead. [...] I consider myself a religious man, although I’m not affiliated with any church. If you’ve ever fought for life and come through, you just automatically have faith in something higher than yourself.”

When Inge finished the manuscript for Sheba, he became convinced it was his last shot at launching a national career as a writer. “I have written my heart out,” he wrote to a friend. “If this play doesn’t make it, I’m through.” Though it took another year for agent Audrey Wood to find backers, the play was produced at the Westport County Playhouse in September 1949 and then transferred to Broadway. The initial production and transfer was a source of constant raw vulnerability for Inge, who found little joy in bringing the play to life. “During that period, the playwright comes to realize, maybe with considerable shock, that the play contains something very vital to him, something of the very essence of his own life,” Inge says of the psychic drama of producing a play. “If it is rejected, he can only feel that he is rejected too. Some part of him has been turned down, cast aside, even laughed at or scorned. If it is accepted, all that becomes him to feel is a deep gratefulness, like a man barely escaping a fatal accident, that he has survived.”

Sheba became a breakout hit; Brooks Atkinson wrote for The New York Times that the play was “terrifyingly true” and that Inge had written with “a simple honesty that is pitiless and overwhelming.” Inge delivered on his ambition, and became the most consistently successful playwright of the ‘50s. Sheba was followed by three consecutive Broadway hits: Picnic, which also won the Pulitzer Prize, Bus Stop, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Inge’s personal demons, on the other hand, followed him in spite of the personal success and accolades. “Other people, friends and acquaintances, couldn’t imagine why I had started being psychoanalyzed at this time,” Inge recalled. “‘But you’re a success now,’ they would assure me. ‘What do you want to get analyzed for?’ As though successful people automatically became happy and psychoanalysis were only a remedy for professional failure. But if the personal rewards of my success were a disillusionment to others, they also were to me. My plays since Sheba have been more successful, but none of them has brought me the kind of joy, the hilarity, I had craved as a boy, as a young man, living in Kansas and Missouri back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Strange and ironic. Once we find the fruits of success, the taste is nothing like what we had anticipated.”

– CHARLES HAUGLAND, Artistic Programs & Dramaturgy, Huntington Theatre Company


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