WILLIAM INGE 1955
When William Inge’s play, Bus Stop, opened on Broadway March 2, 1955, it was an immediate commercial and critical success. Based on Inge’s earlier one-act play, People in the Wind, Bus Stop involves a pair of young lovers and their struggle to find love in the modern world.
Unlike his earlier two plays, Come Back, Little Sheba and Picnic, this work is not an in-depth study of relationships. Instead, it is considered a superficial romantic comedy. As most critics assert, Bus Stop simply lacks the depth of Inge’s earlier work.
Inge’s focus on the main couple—the nightclub singer, Cherie, and the brash cowboy, Bo—inspired more controversy. As critics complained that the other six characters in the play remain undeveloped and fail to hold the audience’s attention or sympathy, Inge reasserted his hope that the audience would be interested in every character. His aim was to portray the full spectrum of romantic relationships, from positive to negative, in his work.
William Inge was born on May 3,1913, in Independence, Kansas. He was raised by his mother, Maude; his father was a traveling salesman and was rarely at home. After graduating from the University of Kansas in 1935, Inge attended the George Peabody
College for Teachers, but left before completing his graduate program.
After a brief period teaching English at a local high school, Inge returned to college to complete his graduate degree. He also worked as a drama critic, and it was during this period that he met Tennessee Williams, who encouraged him to write drama. Inge completed his first play that year, and with the help of Williams, Farther Off from Heaven was produced in 1947.
In 1949, Inge wrote Come Back, Little Sheba, which was produced on Broadway in 1950 and earned the George Jean Nathan Award and Theatre Time Award. Three years later, Picnic won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, the Outer Circle Award, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and the Donaldson Award.
He had two more hits on Broadway in quick succession: Bus Stop and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. After so much early success, his next plays, A Loss of Roses, Natural Affection, and Where’s Daddy? were commercial failures, each closing after only a few performances.
Inge had more success with his first attempt at screenwriting, Splendor in the Grass, which received the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1961. Following this success, he moved to Los Angeles to concentrate on screenplays, but never repeated his early success.
Inge was deeply affected by negative reviews of his work. He struggled with depression and alcoholism much of his life. Several of his plays focus on the complexity of family relationships and deal with characters who struggle with failed expectations, depression, and addiction. His death in 1973 from carbon monoxide poisoning was ruled a suicide.
As the play opens, Grace and Elma anticipate the arrival of the bus and its passengers at the bus stop. The two women are waitresses at the diner, and as they wait for customers they discuss romance, or the lack of it: Grace has been married, but her husband left her; Elma is single and lonely. The sheriff, Will, comes into the diner and announces that the snowstorm has closed the roads and the bus and its passengers will be stuck at the diner until the road is cleared.
Almost immediately, the bus pulls in to the diner. A young blond woman, Cherie, enters. She is scared and trying to hide from a fellow passenger, Bo. Dr. Lyman and the bus driver, Carl, walk into the diner. It becomes obvious that Grace and Carl are interested in one another, and after a whispered conversation, they contrive reasons to leave and, presumably, meet secretly upstairs in Grace’s apartment. Meanwhile, Dr. Lyman is obviously drunk, circumspect, and suspicious.
Eventually, Bo and Virgil enter the diner. Bo believes that he is in love with Cherie; moreover, he has practically kidnapped her with the intent of marrying her. Act I ends with a confrontation between Will and Bo, who learns that Cherie has sought the protection of the sheriff. Bo is shocked to learn that Cherie, or any other woman, might be able to resist his charms.
Act II opens with Dr. Lyman beginning his seduction of Elma. He arranges to meet her later in Topeka, where she will be attending a symphony. Elma is too innocent to recognize that Dr. Lyman’s intentions are less than honorable.
Cherie reveals to Elma that she has had a long and unhappy history with men. She considers marrying Bo but asserts that she does not love him. Yet in the next breath, she contends that love is not that important, and she will probably just settle down at some point, irregardless of love.
Dr. Lyman overhears the last part of this conversation, and after Cherie walks away, he also begins to talk about love. Elma suggests that they all put on some sort of show to help pass the time and enlists Virgil, Cherie, and Dr. Lyman as participants. Virgil will play the guitar, Cherie will sing, and Elma and Dr. Lyman will enact a scene from Romeo and Juliet.
Meanwhile, Virgil has been advising Bo about women; he tells the young man that women want tenderness from men. During Virgil’s song, Bo begins to tell Cherie how tender he can be. She, however, is irritated that he would talk during his friend’s performance and pushes him away. Elma and Dr. Lyman’s performance ends abruptly when he has a moment of clarity and he sees himself for what he is: a drunk and a fake. Lyman collapses on the floor and is placed on a bench to sleep it off.
Next Cherie begins to sing, and Bo is so aroused by her performance that he begins to loudly declare his love. When Cherie stops singing and slaps him, Bo seizes her and declares that they will get married immediately. She is screaming for help as Bo carries her to the door.
Will enters and a fight ensues. Bo is knocked out and arrested. The scene ends with Virgil asking Cherie not to press charges. He also tells her that Bo was sexually innocent before he met Cherie and that she was his first sexual experience. Cherie agrees to not press charges after Virgil promises to protect her from his young friend.
Act III opens a few hours later, and almost all of the characters are waking from a few hours sleep. As the sun rises, the storm has passed and the roads are clear. After checking the conditions, Will enters the diner and forces to Bo to apologize to the women. Later, Cherie confesses to him that she has been with many other men; therefore, she thinks that he has had the wrong perception of her.
At the counter, Elma prepares breakfast for Lyman, who begins to admit his failures and suggests that perhaps he should go to Toledo to the hospital and sign up for psychiatric care. Carl, Will, and Virgil go out to put chains on the bus.
Bo tells Cherie that he loves the real her, not his idealized perception of her. As Carl announces the bus’s departure, Bo asks for a final kiss. Cherie shows him how to kiss her tenderly. Once again he asks her to marry him and she agrees, and the two embrace. As Bo and Cherie prepare to get back on the bus, Virgil announces that he will not be going with them. When Bo expresses his disappointment, Cherie reminds him that he cannot force people to do what he wishes.
As Carl boards the bus, he tells Elma that Lyman was wanted by the law in Kansas City for inappropriate behavior with young girls. Shocked, she realizes that Lyman was trying to seduce her.
Grace ponders the night’s events, and she is disappointed that Carl did not deny that he was married. The play ends with everyone leaving the diner, and Grace going upstairs to get some sleep.
Virgil is also a cowboy and Bo’s long-time friend. Significantly older than Bo, he functions as a father figure for the young man. Virgil has never been married, but he is more knowledgeable about women than Bo and advises him how to behave with women.
Carl is the bus driver. Grace is sweet on him and he seems to be interested in her, but only as a sexual tryst when he is in town. He declines to answer questions on his marital status.
Only nineteen, Cherie is dressed in sequins and sandals, clearly inappropriate for the weather and circumstances. Her makeup is overdone, with too much lipstick and eyeliner. She is on the bus because Bo is taking her to a Montana ranch. He plans on getting married, but Cherie claims that he has abducted her.
Forced to quit high school when she was twelve to cook and clean for her five older brothers and two younger sisters, Cherie grew up too fast. She has been involved with men since she was fourteen, but
she still has romantic ideas about love. In fact, her dream is fall in love and get married. Although she displays antipathy towards Bo, what she really wants is romance and tenderness from him. She also wants him to accept her as she truly is, not because he feels obligated or has idealized visions of her.
Bo is a cowboy from Montana. He is twenty-one and quite infatuated with Cherie. He is brash and aggressive toward others; in his initial appearance in the play, for example, he quickly announces that he owns his own ranch, has won a number of awards at the rodeo, had his picture taken for Life Magazine, and thus, deserves everyone’s respect and attention.
Bo and Cherie have been sexually intimate, and he mistakes that for love. He determines that they must get married, since it would be inappropriate otherwise. When it appears that Cherie has rejected him, Bo reveals to Virgil that he has been very lonely. Bo’s approach to women is one of loudness, strength, and obstinacy. He is too insecure about his image and his feelings and therefore acts like a bully. Yet by the time the play ends, Bo has matured enough to show his tender side to Cherie. As a result, she agrees to marry him.
A local high school student, Elma works at the diner as a waitress. A very bright but lonely girl, she becomes the object of Dr, Lyman’s attention when he arrives on the bus. Elma is too innocent and inexperienced to realize that Lyman is a duplicitous man with bad intentions. She is so starved for male attention that she is flattered by his interest in her. In the end, she learns that Lyman was trying to seduce her, as he has many other young women. She realizes that she has learned a valuable lesson about men and life.
Grace works in the diner. She is in her late thirties or early forties and lives alone above the diner. She was once married, but her husband left her. Lonely and single, she asserts that she is fine with the brief sexual encounters she has with Carl, the bus driver. Yet, when he declines to say if he is married at the end of the play, she realizes that she is dissatisfied with their relationship.
Dr. Gerald Lyman
Dr. Lyman is also a passenger on the bus. He is about fifty years old and has been drinking when the play opens. In fact, he is an alcoholic and has been married and divorced three times. He wants to get out of Kansas as soon as possible; later in the play, it is revealed that he is in trouble with the law for loitering around schools and young girls. This predilection for pedophilia explains his attempted seduction of Elma, the young waitress at the diner. As the play progresses, it becomes clear that he is in need of serious psychological help.
Will is the town sheriff, bent on maintaining order. A deacon at the Congregational Church, he is admired by Elma and Grace, who assure Cherie that the sheriff will protect her. He forces Bo to accept responsibility for his actions.
Change and Transformation
Initially, Bo is a loud and aggressive man; yet eventually with the help of Virgil and Cherie, he Page 59 | Top of Articlebegins to mature into a more sensitive, tender one. On account of his inexperience with women and his insecurity with himself, he does not know how to relate to people. His love for Cherie transforms him: only by losing her does he find the courage to confront his limitations and move forward with his life. Only then does Cherie accept his love.
Bo and Virgil’s friendship is a strong and long-lasting one. Older by twenty years, Virgil has taken care of Bo since the death of his parents and has become a father figure for the young man. During the course of the play, Virgil tries to restrain Bo, hoping to keep him out of trouble. He provides valuable advice on how Bo should act, especially with Cherie. With Virgil, Bo is able to finally express his loneliness. When Cherie accepts Bo’s proposal, Virgil bows out of Bo’s life so that he can build a life with Cherie.
Loneliness is an important theme in Bus Stop and propels most of the action in the play. In particular, Bo cannot bear the thought of returning to his lonely ranch. For this reason he mistakes his sexual relationship with Cherie for love and later mistakes love for ownership. Yet Bo cannot really love Cherie until he begins to acknowledge the depth of his loneliness and need. When he can really relate to her, with tenderness and caring, the young couple find common ground: their loneliness.
Grace is also motivated by loneliness. She tells Elma that she hates to return to her apartment above the diner alone. Her brief sexual encounters with Carl appear to offer her temporary respite from that emptiness, but it is only for a few hours and then she is alone again. Carl’s visits are limited to twenty-minute stops, and while that is enough time for a brief sexual tryst, it is ultimately dissatisfying.
More than Grace and Carl’s casual sexual relationship or Cherie’s checkered history, the most egregious moral corruption in the play takes place between Lyman and Elma. His history of seducing young girls into a sexual relationship is known as pedophilia; in fact, he is fleeing the police for seducing underage girls. When he first enters the diner, Lyman is attracted to Elma and devotes much of the play to arranging a secret meeting. He contrives
business in Toledo and attempts to seduce her with a romantic scene from Romeo and Juliet.
Bo’s identity is largely defined by pride. In fact, his initial appearance underscores this theme as he loudly describes his accomplishments to the people in the diner. His relationship with Cherie is negatively affected by this trait too. When she rejects him, he cannot believe that Cherie might not love him; the very idea is inconceivable. Therefore, he tries to force her to love and accept him.
Moreover, after Bo loses his fight with the sheriff, he is humiliated and unable to apologize to Cherie for his behavior. When Bo is finally able to put aside his pride and tell her that he loves her for who she truly is, he is able to form a bond with Cherie.
Dramas are divided into different acts. In Greek plays the drama was usually divided into five acts. This is the formula for most serious drama from the Greeks to the Romans and to later playwrights like William Shakespeare. The five acts denote the structure of dramatic action: exposition, complication, climax, falling action, and catastrophe. This five-act structure was standard until the nineteenth century, when Ibsen combined some of the acts.
Bus Stop is a three-act play. The exposition and complication are combined in the first act when the audience first learns of Cherie’s abduction and of Bo’s plans for a wedding. The climax occurs in the second act when Bo fights with Will, is arrested, and Cherie learns why Bo feels so committed to her. The catastrophe fails to occur in the third act—Bus Stop is comedy, not a drama. If this had been written as drama, Cherie would not have changed her mind and Bo would have boarded the bus, alone and heartbroken.
The audience is defined as the people for whom a drama is performed. Many authors write with an audience in mind. Inge states in the forward to Four Plays that he wanted his audience to observe several different portrayals of love and to be interested in all the characters. This is unusual; in general, authors never tell their audience what reaction they expect.
Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multifaceted ones. They may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. The actions of the characters drive the play.
Characterization is the process of creating a character, replete with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation. For instance, Grace is lonely. The audience knows this because she tells them so on several occasions, but also because as she leaves the stage at the end of the play, her wistful glance reveals how much she dreads the loneliness upstairs.
The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The location for Bus Stop is a small diner. All of the action occurs between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning in this same setting. The limited setting forces all the action to occur within a small space and all the characters to interact.
Booming 1950s Economy
In the post-World War II years, the nation was economically prosperous. The G.I. Bill provided the means for returning soldiers to get a better education. More importantly, it funded a program whereby each soldier could buy a house. This spurred a boom in new home construction, which led to increased production of all the appliances, furniture, and automobiles. All of this production led to an increase in employment and in the gross national product. With World War II behind them, and extra money to spend and more time to spend it, Americans turned to entertainment in increasing numbers.
Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe
Bus Stop might very well have been art imitating life. The year before the play’s debut on Broadway, Joe DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe. It was not a marriage between a lonely cowboy and a cabaret singer, but the union between DiMaggio, one of the best athletes of all time, and Marilyn Monroe was almost as unlikely. Accordingly, it became front-page news as the world was captivated by their marriage. In many ways, their union represented a joining of two of the most visible forces of the 1950s: baseball and Hollywood.
Marilyn Monroe was one of the biggest stars of the 1950s. She had appeared nude in the very first issue of a new men’s magazine, Playboy, in 1953. More than fifty thousand copies of the magazine sold, indicating the strength of her appeal. The role of Cherie in Bus Stop seems written for her, and indeed, she starred in the film version of the play when it was released in 1956.
Monroe was popular for her ability to appeal to different audiences. A beautiful woman, she represented sexuality—and therefore attracted so many of the budding teenagers of the fifties. It is little wonder that audiences perceived Monroe’s marriage to DiMaggio as unlikely. This star of the New York Yankees represented the benefits of hard work
and good character. He was a private, quiet man that shunned media attention; she was a vibrant, media-savvy movie star that craved attention.
Bus Stop opened on Broadway March 2, 1955, for the first of 475 performances. If the reviews are any indication, this play was a success with both critics and audiences. Robert Coleman of the Daily Mirror summed it up when he advised that Bus Stop “should prove a popular terminal for playgoers for months to come.” In this “endearing, though deceptively simple, comedy,” the audience can find “magical warmth and humor,” according to Coleman. In wrapping up his review, Coleman advised readers to make reservations right away, since the play “has heart, compassion, wisdom, and loads of laughs.”
Another positive assessment was provided by Walter F. Kerr of the Herald Review. While citing the strengths of the cast, Kerr also praised Inge’s writing. Kerr stated that, “the fascination of the
funny and very touching evening lies not in its surprises but in its sharp, honest, down-to-earth eye for character.” He observed that Inge “has not set out to write an epic, just a warm and sensible little scrap between a couple of stranded, stubborn, appealing people.”
A mixed review was offered by Richard Watts, Jr. of the New York Post, who stated that “in a day when there is reason to worry about the state of American playwriting, he [Inge] brings to the theatre a kind of warm-hearted compassion, creative vigor, freshness of approach and appreciation of average humanity that can be wonderfully touching and stimulating.” Watts deemed Bus Stop a “romantic comedy about ordinary people that is at once humorous, simple, steadily entertaining and vastly endearing. It is also splendidly acted.”
However, Watts maintained that it lacked “the poignant dramatic sturdiness and the tragic implications that were present in Come Back, Little Sheba and Picnic. It is unashamedly sentimental in its viewpoint. And I suppose it was written chiefly as entertainment, if you regard that as bad.” But Watts clearly did not see entertainment as a bad thing, and noted that Inge’s play is “set down with all of Mr. Inge’s skill and warmth.”
John McClain of the Journal American also expressed some reservations about Bus Stop, noting that “the whole thing stops dead in the middle of the second act.” Yet McClain contended that “Bus Stop will be with us as long as the road to The Music Box is open.”
There is no hesitation in the review by Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times. Atkinson deemed Bus Stop “an uproarious comedy that never strays from the truth.” He also asserted that “once it gets started it flows naturally and sympathetically through the hearts and hopes of some admirable people.”
He was especially complimentary of Inge’s writing. Atkinson pointed to the dialogue and stated that there are “some moving conversations about Page 63 | Top of Articlethe nature of love and the generosity that makes it possible.” This, according to the reviewer, was because Inge “has more than an evening’s entertainment in mind. He has ideas and principles... [and] he says a number of simple truths that give height and depth to his writing.” To sum up his review, Atkinson recommended “both the writing and the acting... [as] a memorable achievement.”
The one dissenting voice was that of John Chapman of the Daily News, who declared that Inge had “written a scenario instead of a play.” He deemed the play as “make-believe, and not very exciting at that.” He concluded: “I couldn’t get myself to care very much about the romance between the young cowboy and the slightly soiled lady. I just didn’t believe in it—and if one doesn’t believe in something it is a scenario and not a play.”
Sheri E. Metzger
Metzger is a Ph.D. specializing in literature and drama at the University of New Mexico. In this essay, she discusses the changing perceptions of Inge’s romanticism.
In 1955, Americans were watching | Love Lucy, The Adventures ofOzzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and Davy Crockett. In these programs, life was easy; jobs were plentiful, and the American Dream appeared as a tangible reality. It was an idealized image of an America that only existed on television—and on the stage.
In Bus Stop, William Inge attempts to create a story that is, according to him, “a composite picture of varying kinds of love, ranging from the innocent to the depraved.” This was his intent, as stated in the forward to Four Plays, published in 1958. This very sentiment recalls a time in American social history when love and sexuality could be neatly defined and classified. Inge’s play was meant for an America defined by picket fences, perfect families, and romantic infatuations that could be resolved in thirty minutes.
It is now clear that the world was not so perfect. The Cold War raged, women were marginalized, and the fight for civil rights was escalating; but for two hours audiences could escape and find solace in a small Midwestern town—even if it was not real.
Inge features three romantic situations in Bus Stop —Bo and Cherie, Grace and Carl, and Elma and Lyman. While Inge may have hoped that the audience would find each couple equally interesting, it is clear that Bo and Cherie take center stage. And although they are obviously unsuited for one another, the romantic ideal is that love conquers all.
In the 1950s, television audiences knew that all the differences, problems, and conflicts would be neatly resolved before the last commercial aired. Strong parents, mostly fathers, could set any problem straight. Viewers rarely questioned this formula, and indeed, there was something comforting about its very predictability. Critics who reviewed Bus Stop noted that whether Bo and Cherie ended up together was never a question. What held the audience’s interest was how the couple would reach the end goal.
In this respect, romantic comedy, whether it appeared on television, film, or theater, provided the same comforting resolution. As Gerald Weales notes, “it is proper that Cherie and Bo exit together for a Montana ranch where, according to the conventions of the theater, they will live happily ever after.” This is the ultimate goal of the writer whose plot embraces romantic love.
If, as Inge states, he wanted to portray varying kinds of love, how can Cherie and Bo’s romance be classified? Consider that Bo’s sole goal in finding a wife is to assuage his loneliness. He barely knows Cherie, never ask if she loves him, and indeed, does not seem to want the answer to that question. Her choice to leave with him appears to be based as much on opportunity and lack of choice, as it is on genuine affection, if in fact, she actually loves him. For most of the play she does not even like him.
Thus, their union at the end of the play is formulaic and unrealistic. It is, however, in keeping with romanticized visions of ideal love, which insists that sex should end in marriage.
Inge’s goal of portraying depraved love might be defined by any of the three couples, since at least one member of each pairing also defies the mores of the 1950s. In the puritanical atmosphere of the period, illicit sexuality, as Inge demonstrated in Come Back, Little Sheba and Picnic, is always cause for public concern. In Bus Stop, Cherie admits to a sexual history. She has had many partners, beginning at age fourteen with her cousin and continuing even when she met Bo. That is, in fact, how they
first got together; the problem for Cherie is that Bo mistakes sex for love.
According to the values of the 1950s, Cherie must love Bo, since she cannot simply walk off insisting that it was only sex—even if it was. She must love him, or she must be provided with a reason for her sexual freedom, as is Grace.
The older, more experienced Grace is as lonely as Bo, but marriage is not the answer. She states that she is only looking for a temporary or momentary encounter. Her denial of marriage as a goal contradicts the accepted premise that unmarried sex should lead to love. In Picnic Rosemary’s sexual encounter forces a marriage to her seducer. And like Grace, Rosemary, is not a young girl. Grace’s acceptance of her occasional need for a man, without marriage, could establish her as a female lead with questionable morals.
But neither Cherie nor Grace, although representing questionable morality in the repressed and repressive 1950s, really fits a depraved definition of love. No doubt Inge meant for Lyman’s planned seduction of Elma to be viewed as depraved, as it would have been in 1955.
Elma is, after all, still in high school; therefore, Lyman’s flirtation appears quite perverted. Yet this seduction also reveals several ambiguities. Although Elma’s age is never revealed, the audience knows she is still in high school; however, she is old enough to be working in a diner at 1 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Thus, Elma is probably only a year or two younger than Cherie, who is nineteen.
Also, Hollywood films have traditionally presented young women, many just out of school, who become involved in romances with older men. This is the staple of romantic comedies of the 1930s and 1940s.
So what makes the situation between Lyman and Elma depraved? It is the very lack of love. Although Inge is looking to reveal depraved love, Lyman is, as the audience learns in the play’s last act, a seducer of young girls. He has a history of loitering outside schools in order to meet them. Lyman’s carefully orchestrated seduction of Elma is not love, but in fact a pathological perversion.
Although, she is flattered at the attention of an older, educated man, Elma’s naive acceptance of his attentions is based on flirtation and on an innocent misunderstanding of his intent. Elma fails to see Lyman as a “disillusioned eastern intellectual,” as Rudolf Erben describes him. Although he has a record of failed relationships and a disastrous career, Lyman glosses over his failures. He describes himself as free from responsibility and ready to explore the world. This is attractive to a small-town Page 65 | Top of Articlegirl, whose intelligence and knowledge is alienating to her contemporaries. But it is no more than a flirtation, and when Lyman’s history is revealed, Elma is shocked to find that she has been the object of a planned seduction.
In the end, Inge cannot resist saving Lyman from his own cardinal desires. The “play within a play,” designed as entertainment but appropriated by Lyman as a means of seduction, provides an epiphany for Lyman, who suddenly realizes that he is no young, romantic Romeo. William E. H. Meyer Jr. observes that Dr. Lyman is “forced to come to terms with his dubious and dark penchant for young girls.” The audience is promised that Lyman is about to be reformed of his deviant ways. This resolution is in keeping with the television sitcom model, except that Lyman is the father who resolves all conflict.
As the play concludes, Lyman rejects his past behavior, Grace accepts a twice-weekly sexual tryst in place of love, and Cherie accepts the isolation of a Montana ranch in place of the dance halls of Kansas City. Is any of this love? Or is it the easy resolution that audiences accept? In this sense, the romance between Bo and Cherie fits Inge’s stated intent to present innocent love—except that he is truly the innocent participant.
Bus Stop is enjoyable; it is humorous and entertaining, but to a modern audience, jaded by the depravity of television that focuses on sexual crime, violence, and confession, Inge’s play is innocent flirtation. Even Lyman appears as only disgusting and not depraved when compared to the criminals encountered on the news. Forty years after Bus Stop, Inge reveals himself to be the true innocent romantic.
Source: Sheri E. Metzger, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
Hayes offers a mostly favorable review of Inge’s play, but the critic laments that Bus Stop lacks the spark of the playwright’s earlier works, notably Picnic and Come Back, Little Sheba.
A vaudeville of personality, picturesque and vivid: thus might one suggest the flavor and quality of Mr. William Inge’s new play. For in this bleached and seedy café, poised carelessly on a wasteland of snowbound prairies, an American Symposium is mounted; it is the nature of love with which Mr. Inge is concerned. The light of his sensibility flickers with active indolence over the theme, catching its many faces of truth; the director, Harold
Clurman—with his special talent for modulation—faultlessly places each of these small private epiphanies in a seamless texture of dramatic experience. Everything is common about the raw matter of “Bus Stop” but the taste and feeling with which it has been elevated to human worth. How delicately drawn, indeed—and played with such rightness and exactitude by Phyllis Love—is the young girl, burgeoning uneasily into love; how subtly, too, does Mr. Inge convey the initial stirrings into dignity of his two major characters: the lumpish, not-yet-housebroken cowboy, all bullying rush and bravado, and his soundlessly vapid victim, this night-club hostess with her scrappy and pathetic tags of gentility. The subject could not (in the human sense) be less promising, yet out of such shapeless moral anarchy—only the comic face of which is kept in the foreground—Mr. Inge and Mr. Clurman have extracted the truth of the grotesque, modest and vague, but within its small and limited world, legitimate. And the production bodies forth this accomplishment: with their superbly developed realistic techniques, Kim Stanley and Albert Salmi bring wit and wry tenderness and an interior veracity to these two central roles; indeed, the ensemble performance is a superior illustration of the power and ease with which American players inhabit the theater of realistic conventions. It is superfluous, of course, to note that however gratifying and congenial, this is but one of the major modes of dramatic experience.
Pleasure, then, I have recorded; permit me now a reservation. In a notice of Mr. Inge’s earlier “Picnic,” I observed that his was a talent in which sensibility exceeded the dispositions of the intellect—that is, one in which the power to order and clarify experience was as yet inadequate to the Page 66 | Top of Articleimaginative apprehension of it. Now “Bus Stop” would seem to suggest that Mr. Inge has sought to dissolve the impasse by developing a vein of domestic comedy, a genre for which he has most considerable gifts. One may commend the resolution of the problem, yet there has been a concomitant loss: what I miss in “Bus Stop” is that numinous sense of personality, a bleakly exquisite poetry of solitude which fleetingly brushes the grey actualities of “Picnic” and “Come Back, Little Sheba.” The imaging here is as secure and lucid as in the earlier plays, but there is, behind it, a diminished pressure of intellectual and emotional energy. Mr. Inge is thus limited in his attempt to deal increasingly with serious experience; to its evaluation, he can bring only standards which, however humane, are ultimately provincial. (Would not, for example, a more penetrating mind have reached to the truth of the essential disastrousness of love in America?) Again: a haze of sentimentality obscures those characters which, as it were, sustain the moral weight of the play: the complaisant mistress of the cafe (a good performance by Elaine Stritch, though excessively mannered), and the alcoholic middle-aged intellectual. Anthony Ross’ brilliant control of the latter role mutes its slushy banalities, but surely there is something disturbing symptomatic and how typically American, in the fact that the Socrates of this particular agape should be a boozy professor of literature, whose irregular amorous interests have more than occasionally invited the serious attention of the local instruments of law?
Source: Richard Hayes. Review of Bus Stop in the Commonweal, Vol. LXII, No. 1, April 8, 1995, p. 14.
William E. H. Meyer, Jr.
In the following essay, Meyer compares Inge’s view of American ideals, as represented in Bus Stop, with that of other notable authors. The critic also addresses claims that Inge’s play lacks depth, arguing that Bus Stop actually offers profound insight into small town America.
Bus Stop —both the play and the movie—is an attempt to dramatize what is pre-eminently undra-matic, viz., the evolution of small-town hyperverbality into American hypervisuality. This shift in sensibility or revolution in “taste” is an extremely difficult phenomenon to depict—the playwright, William Inge, here choosing to employ the more demonstrable theme of love/sexuality in order to express or encompass this New-World evolution. Indeed, so vital but protean and mercurial is this problem of the shift from ear to eye, from traditional authority to self-reliance, that such well-known anthologists of American culture as Blair, Stewart, Hornberger and Miller, in their The Literature of the United States, have missed the contribution of Inge altogether and have dismissed his work as “popular” and “lacking depth.” Yet, Bus Stop remains a profound portrait of the Emersonian/American “transparent eyeball” in transit—the superseding of “small-town” values for Ishmael’s passion “to see the world” or the Stevensesque ephebe’s command to rise above any municipality in order to “see the sun again with an ignorant eye.” All the characters of Bus Stop —from Bo to Grace—are confronted with this American hypervisual rite de passage, no matter whether they are “lucky” or “unlucky” in love.
Act 1, then, introduces us to the “bus stop” or small-town restaurant where the hyperverbal smalltown crew and also the little band of travelers must confront the wider concerns of hypervisual America—where such cliches as “March comes in like a Lion” or the later-employed famous Shakespearean rhetoric of the Old World must face the New-World “great window” and be still before “the sweeping wind and flying snow.” Not for nothing does the curtain rise upon Elma standing and “looking out the large plate-glass window, awed by the fury of the elements”; and not for nothing are the first words uttered directed to the play’s ensuing dangerous command—“You should come over here and look out, to see the way the wind is blowing things all over town” (p. 6, italics mine). Grace, however, prefers to concern herself with the tele-phone—not tele-vision—and she will be one of those characters destined, at the play’s end, to fail to grasp the necessity to transcend local talk via national vision.
The storm itself, of course, represents the awesome and ungovernable power of America itself—what Emerson called “Nature” as he was confronted by the god-like power of the wilderness wherein he felt himself both diminished and aggrandized: “I am nothing; I see all;... I am part or parcel of God.” Here, Will, the “local” authority or smalltown sheriff, can only fume at his own impotence: “A storm like this makes me mad.... It’s just like all the elements had lost their reason... I like to see things in order” (p. 8). In the face of this awesome display of power observed through the “large plate-glass window,” all Will can do is fall back upon the above cliché of how “March comes in like a Lion.” And all Elma, the young waitress, can do is rely upon parental security: “Nights like this, I’m glad I Page 67 | Top of Articlehave a home to go to” (p. 6). Yet, indeed, in the early lines that Elma speaks—“I shouldn’t think anyone would take a trip tonight unless he absolutely had to” (p. 6)—we find the primary thrust or ironic “theme” of the drama—the absolutely necessary hypervisual rite de passage which every American is forced to make at some point in his or her life. Walt Whitman put it thus: “You must travel that road for yourself.” And Emerson clarified the nature of that journey with the reprimand: “Do we fear lest we should outsee nature and God, and drink truth dry!” (italics mine). Here the passengers and the small-town locals are rendered equals by the storm—by the irrational but ultimately vivifying power of our “genius in America, with tyrannous eye.”
As I noted above, the quintessential shift from small-town word to American vision is most difficult to “portray” and certainly cannot be accomplished by means of any traditional or Aristotelian notions of plot, character or even theme. Thus Inge has chosen the more “popular” topic of human love and sexuality in order to “suggest” the deeper dilemma going on within the restaurant or what Hemingway called his small cafe, “a clean, well-lighted place.” Here Man and Woman come to act out the “play within a play,” the voyeur and exhibitionist coming to terms with the essence of American reality and passion. Here, then, it is most important that the “love affair” at the center of the drama be that between Bo and Cherie, between Mr. and Miss America—between two “beautiful people” who can represent “amber waves of grain” and “purple mountains’ majesty” or the fruitfulness of our Emersonian “incomparable materials” from “sea to shining sea.” The sexual encounter between Carl and Grace or the flirtation between Dr. Lyman and Elma are also important as variations on the theme of voyeur and exhibitionist or of genuine and spurious love; but the driving force in the play is the pursuit of seductively-dressed and prettily-blond Cherie by Bo—another Brom Bones in hot pursuit of his buxom Miss America, Katrina Van Tassel. Of course, what Bo has to learn about the actual capture of his “voluptuous” hypervisual ideal forms the tension of the second and third acts. But the quest of the Montana rancher for the Ozark beauty is the sine qua non of Bus Stop —and, indeed, of the whole of American literature, from Cooper’s Hawkeye to Vonnegut’s more ironic Deadeye Dick. These small-town lovers will have to discover in their romance the more serious problem of the American Dream—of what it means to be either a
spot-lighted Hester Prynne or a spotlighted Miss U.S.A. or even a spot-lighted chanteuse under the almost unbearable scrutiny of “the public gaze.” It does no good for Cherie to exclaim, “Is there some place I kin hide?” (p. 9). For the Woman, there is no escape except into the hypervisual maturity and responsibility of “America is a poem in our eyes.” For the Man, there is no conquest except by the self-abnegation which confesses the utter destitution of the “transparent eyeball”: “I just never realized... a gal might not... love me” (p. 29).
Act 2 begins with the “courting” of Elma by Dr. Lyman and also with Dr. Lyman’s jaded talk about “higher education.” Although this dialogue seems almost too peripheral to the main thrust of the play, this commentary about love and wisdom is really essential to what follows. Here, ideal love is to be neither the seduction of the naively young by the old (“people might not understand”); nor is it to be the simple abduction or rape of the Woman by the Man (“Ya cain’t force a gal to marry ya,” p. 33). Somehow there has to be an elevation of love wherein both Man and Woman can feel themselves participating in a destiny transcending “what ya might call a sexual attraction” (p. 34). Hawthorne called this the long-awaited “brighter period” in Male-Female relations: and Emerson called it the “sublime vision” that elevates the “chaste” soul. Perhaps Father Edward Taylor, the early Puritan divine, summed it up best by indicating the merger of sublime sexuality with divine hypervision when he shouted—“Oh! if his Glory ever kiss thine Eye.” In Bo, this is the impulse behind his “most Page 68 | Top of Articlefervent love” for his Miss America—“Ain’t she beautiful, Virge?” (p. 47)—but an impulsive adoration that must find itself molded by patience and tenderness or by what Bo reveals in confessing to Cherie that “I jest couldn’t kill them ’sweet li’l deers with the sad eyes’” (p. 43). Here Bo is beginning to learn something of the congenial power of what we might call “The America Religion of Vision.”
Of course, too, the most “dramatic” moments of Bus Stop come here in Act 2, in the “floor show” and in the fight between Bo and Will. When Elma suggests the display of talents, Dr. Lyman erroneously supposes it to be an idea “straight from Chaucer” (p. 40). Rather, this is an American “demonstration” and has as its central purpose the hypervisual display of Cherie in her costume, not the hyperverbal recitation of Shakespeare. Elma and Dr. Lyman may repeat some of the lines from Romeo and Juliet, but this only serves to reveal the distance between Shakespearean rhetoric and American vision. Juliet-Elma may well be “like the sun”; but this is the New-World Revolutionary Light wherein, as Jonathan Edwards noted, the former laws of nature were superseded: “The Sun shall rise in the West.” Shakespearean language, with its “winged messenger of heaven,” can no longer be the American model and is impotent, like Dr. Lyman, in the face of the New-World “great window” and “great awakening”: Emerson writes—“When I see the daybreak I am not reminded of these Homeric, or Shakespearean, or Miltonic, or Chaucerian, pictures”; nor of “Pope and Johnson and Addison [who] write as if they had never seen the face of the country’” (italics mine). However, Dr. Lyman is enough of an “American Scholar” to at least realize something of his aesthetic, as well as moral, failure in asserting that he can’t “continue this meaningless little act!”—when he realizes that he has betrayed the American Dream and thus his “name... is hateful” to himself (p. 46).
Bo, of course, as the All-American “hero,” immediately senses the falsity of the Shakespearean enactment, culminating in Dr. Lyman’s breakdown: “If thass the way to make love... I’m gonna give up” (p. 46). Instead, Bo attempts to win his Miss America by the only means he knows—by physical battle with the small-town authority, the sheriff. It matters little that he is finally whipped and taken to jail; in fact, this “humiliation” of lover and artist is necessary to demonstrate to the Woman that the Man’s ego is sublimated, at her feet. This spectacle of battle and defeat, in fact, gives the Woman the opportunity to experience the voyeur’s role, to feel the power of observation: Cherie tells Bo “... and if I was a man, I’d beat the livin’ daylights out of ya, and thass what some man’s gonna do some day, and when it happens, I hope I’m there to see” (p. 47, italics mine). During the fight itself, Elma, Cherie and Grace all “hurry to the window to watch” (p. 48). Moreover, in the midst of all this exhibitionism and voyeurism, Dr. Lyman points to the crucial evolution occurring—the aesthetic American Revolution generated by New-World pioneers and “smalltown folk”:
It takes strong men and women to love... People big enough to grow with their love and live inside a whole, wide new dimension (p. 49, final italics mine).
D. H. Lawrence called this the new consciousness arising upon the continent of America and no where else—a cultural upheaval which would cause condescending Europeans (and American critics) to “open new eyes” (italics mine). Emily Dickinson simply called it our “new Circumference” or “new Equation given”—our “very Lunacy of Light.” Dr. Lyman here rightly laments his inability to give his “most private self to another” (p. 49); for this “self’ is none other than the “transparent eyeball” and its reduction or elevation of the other to hypervision. The most profound and ironic truth that Bus Stop has to offer is Dr. Lyman’s assertion that “I’ve nothing in my heart for a true woman” (p. 50, italics mine)—the same “nothing” that drove James’s John Marcher into a loveless existence as “the man to whom nothing was to happen,” as this voyeur cannot “love” but only “see.” Unless American hypervision can unite Man and Woman into an idealization wherein both feel power and worth—both experience “sexuality” and “tenderness”—the only result can be the loneliness which encompasses all the characters, from time to time, in Bus Stop. This “theme,” of course, as has been insisted upon above, is no easy matter for any playwright or “word-smith” to incorporate into either words or what Blair, et al., have called Inge’s “popular drama.” Hence the “small town” with its “small talk” must finally find itself without anything to say—what Emerson intuited in declaring that “speech becomes less and ceases in a nobler silence.” O Say, then, Can YOU See why America has no lyrical Lion or growling Bear as its national symbol—but the “eagle-eyed” American Eagle of 6X vision! O Say, Can YOU See why the American Liberty Bell ominously cracked upon its first ringing—a breach with the courtly muses of Europe and a disfunction which the hyperverbal English would no doubt have immediately repaired, while the Page 69 | Top of ArticleAmericans left the bell in silence and are now quite content merely to go and view this national symbol. O Say, Can YOU See why the American harbor greets its visitors and immigrants with no chiming “Big Ben,” cognizant of lyricality and time—but with the upheld torch of Miss Hypervisual American Liberty and her “Battle Hymn,” “Mine EYES Have SEEN the Glory!”
Act 3, then, finds the small-town restaurant under the vital, but quiet, “dawn’s early light”: Inge directs us to the following—
Early morning... the storm has cleared, and outside the window we see the slow dawning, creeping above the distant hills, revealing a landscape all in peaceful white (p. 52).
Bo, addressed by the authority of the sheriff, simply says: “I don’t feel like talkin’” (p. 53). However, when later pressed into “apologizing” and musing upon his lonesome homestead, Bo has not forgotten his “beautiful angel”; he tells Virgil, “I ain’t int’rested in no school marm.... I want Cherry” (p. 57). Although Cherie was a “chan-teuse” who sang of “That Old Black Magic” of Word and Music, her real attraction for Bo is her appealing vision; he tells her, “You was so purty, and ya seemed so kinda warmhearted and sweet” (p. 59). In the face of this “tender” hypervisual confession and kiss, and in the face of her realization that Bo is offering her the chance to participate in the regenerating of the “Virgin Land”—Bo tells her that he’s “virgin enough” for both of them—Cherie can be “won” by this adoring Brom Bones of Montana: she encourages him, “Bo—ya think you really did love me?” (p. 59). Bo can then fully possess his “pearl of great price,” conceived in the spot-light or what Hawthorne called “A Flood of Sunshine”: Bo holds her “cautiously, as though holding a precious object that was still a little strange to him” (p. 60). Even Dr. Lyman is now, in the “dawn’s early light,” forced to come to terms with his dubious and dark penchant for young girls: he no longer wishes to seduce Elma but engages in the aesthetically and morally elevating experience of having simply enjoyed her presence and friendship—of having seen her for what she really is.
From now on, then, all the travelers from this small-town depot will find the road “clear” but “awful slick”—what Robert Frost called the dangerous “road not taken” into American hypervisuality. Emerson referred to it as the painful challenge to “bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day.” From now on, Cherie will find consolation in lonely Montana from the fact that her “love” has transcended small-town values for American fortitude and adventure. Here, Inge has simply given Bo and Cherie the direction: “They... embrace. All look” (p. 63)—the only time that all the characters have been united in a single meaningful act. In Moby-Dick, Melville had expanded this direction via the New-World paradigm: “I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look.” Moreover, from now on, Elma will find her status and self-esteem enhanced by the fact that a man—even a questionable one—has found her beautiful and hypervisually valuable: “Just think, he wanted to make love to me” (p. 66). However, from now on, Virgil and his guitar will be “left out in the cold”—bereft of that Love which offers the highest American consummation in vision, not music. And, finally, Grace will continue to long for, but not receive, the “true marriage” of exhibitionist and voyeur under the aegis of our “genius in America, with tyrannous eye.” All she can do is to “[cast] her eyes tiredly over the establishment” (p. 67). This is the “establishment” of “America the Hypervisual”—the small-town locus where all American buses must finally stop for illumination, where all hyperverbal midnights of the soul are revivified in the cold, clear and hard-won “dawn’s early light.” The curtain merely falls on an empty stage awaiting the next convoy of what Emerson called our” foolish traveling Americans.”
O Say, Can YOU See why Bus Stop will have to be reread—not as “lacking depth” but as profoundly indicating the supersession of the small town and its hyperverbal traditions by the broader hypervisual concerns of what Walt Whitman called the dazzling panorama of “these United States.”
Source: William E. H. Meyer, Jr. “Bus Stop: American Eye vs. Small-Town Ear” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXXV, no. 3, September, 1992, pp. 444-50.
Atkinson, Brooks. A review of Bus Stop in The New York Times, March 3, 1955.
Chapman, John. A review of Bus Stop in Daily News, March 3, 1955.
Coleman, Robert. A review of Bus Stop in Daily Mirror, March 3, 1955.
Courant, Jane. “Social and Cultural Prophecy in the Works of William Inge.” Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1991, pp. 135–51.
Erben, Rudolf. “The Western Holdup Play: The Pilgrimage Continues.” Western American Literature, Vol. 23, No. 4, February, 1989, pp. 311–22.
Kerr, Walter F. A review of Bus Stop in New York Herald Tribune, March 3, 1955.
McClain, John. A review of Bus Stop in New York Journal American, March 3, 1955.
Shuman, R. Baird. William Inge, Twayne Publishers, 1996.
Watts Jr., Richard. A review of Bus Stop in New York Post, March 3, 1955.
Weales, Gerald. “The New Pineros.” American Drama Since World War II, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1962, pp. 40–56.
Leeson, Richard M. William Inge: A Research and Production Sourcebook, Greenwood Press, 1994.
A critical overview of Inge’s plays with information about reviews and critical studies.
McClure, Arthur F. Memories of Splendor: The Midwestern World of William Inge, Kansas State Historical Society, 1989.
Contains production information and photographs of Inge and his work.
Shuman, R. Baird. William Inge, Twayne Publishers, 1996.
This book is primarily a biography of Inge’s work. It also contains a detailed discussion of each of his works.
Voss, Ralph F. A Life of William Inge: The Strains of Triumph. University of Kansas Press, 1989.
A critical biography of Inge’s life and work.
Wager, Walter. “William Inge.” The Playwrights Speak. Delacorte Press, 1967.
Wagner presents interviews with several contemporary playwrights. This book presents an opportunity to “hear” each writer express his or her thoughts about the art of writing.