Natural Affection’s Media


William Inge will forever be remembered as the playwright of the American Midwest. Yet the history of this celebrated author is far more complex than this title would perhaps imply. Inge was born in 1913 in a small but wealthy Midwestern town by the name of Independence, Kansas. Though not born into a rich family himself, the town’s affluence afforded him opportunities to see and participate in the arts growing up. Inge was passionate about theatre from an early age but did not truly blossom until a chance friendship with a playwright spurred him into action.

Inge studied at the University of Kansas at Lawrenceville, receiving a B.A. in Speech and Drama. He longed to make his way immediately to Broadway, but lacked the funds to do so. He was granted a scholarship to the Peabody College for Teachers.  Troubled and confused, he dropped out two weeks prior to completing his M.A. He worked as a manual laborer for the Kansas State Highway Department before becoming a radio newscaster. Inge then returned to Peabody to complete his Master’s and worked as both a high school teacher and college professor. By age thirty, Inge was working for the St. Louis Star-Times as a theatre and music critic, when he was assigned to do a feature on emerging playwright Tennessee Williams. A lifelong friendship between the two men began. Inge travelled to Chicago with Williams to see a production of The Glass Menagerie and was so inspired that he began to write a play. Within three months, Inge completed his first play, Farther Off from Heaven, which would eventually develop into The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. With encouragement from Williams, he kept writing. Within a few years, he made it to Broadway with Come Back, Little Sheba in 1950,where he was met with immense popular and critical success.

Independence proved to have a huge influence on Inge’s writing, providing the template for the backdrop of most of his work.  Inge was passionate about small towns and the people that came out of them. He quickly became known for his Midwestern characters, whose voices were rich with colloquialism and whose struggles were as painful as anyone from a big city. More than anything, Inge wrote real people who, despite (or maybe because of) their geographic specificity, struck a truthful chord with all who watched.

His other early work (Bus Stop, Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Picnic) were enormous successes and have since become American classics. Picnic (1953) won Inge a Pulitzer Prize, Drama Critic Circle Award, Outer Circle Award and Theatre Club Award. He also won the 1961 Academy Award for Best Screenplay for Splendor in the Grass. Inge seemed to be irreplaceable figure in American theatre.

However, like so many other artists (including friend Tennessee Williams), Inge’s success was impermanent. Theatre-makers rely on critics for their careers, and when Inge eventually and perhaps inevitably fell out of favor with critics, the blow was almost insurmountable. The lack of acclaim his next play (A Loss of Roses, 1959) garnered was a devastating for Inge personally, yet he continued writing.

Natural Affection opened on Broadway in early 1963 and had an unfortunately small run of 36 performances, due in part to the lack of publicity caused by the New York City newspaper strike. There was an intensely varied, yet always passionate response to the play.  Inge wrote a response titled “Why So Violent?” which was eventually published as the preface to the play. He admits the play was “contested, praised, disputed, and criticized,” but “won enough esteem to convince [him] that its writing was not a waste of time.”  Natural Affection showed a surprising shift from Inge’s other works that may have taken critics off guard; he abandons the bucolic small town in favor of the windy and grey Chicago. The play ripples with repressed sexuality and explodes with violence. It refuses to sugarcoat anything and instead reflects the harsh rawness of the word as Inge saw it. When reading critics’ responses to the play, it becomes clear that Inge was writing ahead of his time and suffered because of it.

Natural Affection is startlingly forward thinking in the presentation of its main character, Sue. She defies the stereotypical woman of the era in every sense. (Betty Friedan, whose groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique had not even been published, would have been proud.) But Sue is conflicted, pulled between the independent woman she is and the mother/wife she believes she should be. She supports her lover, Bernie, financially, yet is desperate for marriage. She is proud of her achievements in business, yet consumed by guilt for the sacrifices she has made. Donnie, her son trapped in the middle of her conflict, struggles to cope with rejection, and it is in this that the true tragedy of the play unfolds.

The play bears no mark of violence for violence’s sake. Instead, it reflects the anxieties of a playwright struggling to deal with emotional hardship and the ever-shifting world around him. “In writing Natural Affection, I tried to find some release from the tension I felt living in the late fifties and early sixties, when the newspapers were so full of violence that the morning headlines were an assault upon one’s breakfast digestion. Violence seemed to fill the atmosphere of American cities in outbreaks of the most bizarre and irrational killings and acts of desperation I had ever heard of. They shocked and horrified me; yet, I felt I understood them and felt a motivation for them. I felt some of the same violence when I tried to drive a car through a crowded New York street and ran into a senseless traffic block that defied unentanglement; and when I would have to give up my work at the typewriter in the morning because of the jarring sounds of automatic drills from the destruction going on across the street, a beautiful old building being destroyed to be replaced by something modern, cheap and ugly. It was a violence I felt in having to deal with the brutal fact that our life seems designed to gratify man’s greed instead of his happiness and that most of us, as a result, end up feeling rejected as people. Almost all violence, I believe, comes from our feeling of rejection in a world that continues to make man feel less and less important. The terror of rejection seemed to me the cause of all violence everywhere.” Inge’s personal sense of rejection and problems with alcoholism, depression, and homosexuality clearly influenced the themes of this play. His anxieties are mirrored in Vince’s second act cynicism: emotional turmoil mixed with a quickly changing world and a Cold War backdrop could cause a drinking problem in anyone.

However, the play is not without hope. Sue reminds us early on, “It’s hard to remember that sometimes [the world] can look beautiful too.” Inge does not intend for us to despair, but instead recognize, as he writes, “the atmosphere in our lives that creates violence.”

As time has passed, Inge has been remembered as one of our most important American playwrights, at the level of Williams or Miller. Yet Natural Affection has all but been forgotten. It is the epitome of a neglected work. It confused and shocked the audiences of its time, but only because of its striking modernity.

As a contemporary audience, we can look back on the early 60s. We can sympathize with Sue’s struggles and the impossible decision she must make between self-preservation and societal duty, as well as appreciate the strides we’ve made. We can also see Donnie more clearly – a victim of circumstance, traumatized by his past and irreparably damaged psychologically. Yet we can also look to the future; the violence of Natural Affection can serve as a lens through which to view our own time. It gives us an opportunity to look at our own environment and reassess our actions.

TACT has always prided itself on resurrecting unfairly forgotten works. Natural Affection is rich with meaning and poses important questions for our society to answer. How do we cope with violence? How do we balance our own wants with the need of others? How do we care for those who have been hurt by the people meant to protect them? Inge asked these questions to a world not ready to answer.

In 2013, the centennial of William Inge’s birth, TACT feels we are ready. The play is a bold piece of dramatic literature. Even Inge admitted it may be too much for some people’s sensibilities. “I have a similar sensibility,” he wrote. “It was a very difficult play for me to write. I wish I could have written a comedy, but I couldn’t at the time.” We are extremely excited to present this daring piece of work, and hope you find it as exciting and fascinating as we do.