My Arthur Miller Story

March 31st, 2010

Since Kansas isn’t exactly a beehive of playwriting activity, beginning playwrights in this neck of the woods are almost always told that, if they write about what they know, and if they choose to chronicle their small-town roots,  they could be “the next William Inge,” the playwright from Independence, KS who couldn’t leave his birthplace fast enough but who, his entire life, gave voice in his plays to the people from Kansas in plays like Picnic, Bus Stop, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and Come Back, Little Sheba—many of them people who, like himself, lived lives of quiet desperation.

In 1982, nine years after Inge committed suicide in his Hollywood home, and after his surviving relatives donated the bulk of his papers to Independence Community College in Independence, KS, the college did something wonderful by starting The William Inge Festival, celebrated every year in late April, when stars of stage and screen come to town for three or four days, to honor Inge and, more significantly, to pay tribute to the work of other living American playwrights. And so, every year in late April, Independence, KS is suddenly transformed into a mecca for playwrights, a lovefest for the written word because, truly,  “In the beginning was the Word…”

I remember attending the first Inge Festival, back in 1982, staying at the Lamplighter Inn, which had no dining facilities. For food, one had to go to Eggbert’s, within walking distance of the motel.  I remember the first time I had breakfast at Eggbert’s.  All conversation stopped when I entered the tiny diner, and everyone turned to stare at me.  Although the moment was awkward, it passed quickly, and conversation resumed. Truthfully, I think they would all have turned to stare at any stranger in their midst, not just because I looked like a foreigner, an alien, the yellow peril, the lavender mafia.  Back in his day, growing up in Independence, would a homosexual like William Inge have been comfortable at a place like Eggbert’s?

Originally, the mission of the Inge Festival was to pay tribute to American playwrights who were Inge’s contemporaries, those writers who were still living, who were ready, willing and able to spend three or four days in the heartland of America, which for Inge also turned out to be his “hurtland.”  I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve been told that, in the early days of the Inge Festival, scholars who submitted academic papers for presentation and discussion at the festival were told not to call undue attention to Inge’s suicide, his alcoholism and, above all, his homosexuality.

Arthur Miller (1915-2005) is one of my gods.  Death of a Salesman is the only play that makes me cry everytime I see it.  When it was announced that the Inge Festival in 1995 would be honoring Arthur Miller, I decided to bring nine of my playwriting students from the University of Kansas to meet the man.  Luckily, we managed to book rooms at the same motel where he would be staying—not the Lamplighter Inn, but the Apple Tree Inn, newer and nicer, which also offered complimentary morning coffee and doughnuts so guests didn’t have to trek to Eggbert’s.

Two incidents stand out in my mind about the 1995 Inge festival.

First, there was the Independence Community College production of Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, a play which, among other things, deals with anti-Semitism among the country club set in small-town America.  The day after we saw the production, a fancy gala dinner was held at the country club. The president of the Chamber of Commerce in his welcoming remarks told everyone that this was the same country club Inge had written about in the play, but that times have changed.  He said the country club now had some Jewish members.

And then, the next night, back in the auditorium at Independence Community College, we were treated to reenactments of “scenes” from various plays by Arthur Miller, as the man himself and his wife, photographer Inge Morath, sat and watched in the audience. At the end of the evening, when he got up on the stage to accept his award, Miller seemed genuinely moved.  He was quiet for a while, and then he cleared his throat and spoke.  This is what he said: “I did not know William Inge well in life.  Our paths did not cross often. But, whenever I saw him, in New York or in Hollywood, he seemed to be a very sad man.  I wish this town could have honored him while he was still alive.”  And then he sat down.  The audience was stunned.  There was polite applause, and then people filed out of the auditorium, into the dark at the bottom of the stairs.

The next morning, unlike all the other mornings, there were no people hovering around Arthur Miller and Inge Morath as they sat quietly by themselves, in a corner of the lobby at the Apple Tree Inn, having their complimentary coffee and doughnuts.  I had been in awe of the man all week, indeed my entire life, had not dared to approach him, had been quite content just to be in his presence.  But, somehow, on this particular morning, I needed to say something when everyone else remained awkwardly silent.  I summoned up enough courage and went up to him.  I shook his hand and thanked him for his remarks the night before.  He was Arthur Miller, the same Arthur Miller who had remained courageously silent and had refused to name names during his testimony before Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, who now could not remain silent on other matters even if it should make him persona non grata, perhaps even a pariah.   Amidst all the hoopla of the Inge Festival in 1995, Arthur Miller had now said what needed to be said about William Inge and the town that rejected him in life but embraced him in death.

Of the 31 playwrights who have been honored thus far at the Inge Festival, one is a person of color (August Wilson); three are women (Betty Comden, Tina Howe, Wendy Wasserstein); and at least nine are homosexuals (Edward Albee, Fred Ebb, Christopher Durang, Arthur Laurents, Terrence McNally, John Patrick, Peter Shaffer, Stephen Sondheim, Lanford Wilson).  The honoree for 2010 is Paula Vogel, a playwright who also happens to be a lesbian.

I don’t know if there’s any special reason why the Inge Festival is always held in late April.  William Inge was born on May 3, 1913 and he died on June 10, 1973.  It would be wonderful if his life could be celebrated in June, the same month which saw the Stonewall Riots in New York in 1969, which gave birth to Pride Parades not just in America but indeed all over the world, perhaps even in Independence, KS.  If William Inge were alive today, he would be astonished, and proud, to see his old hometown embracing, even if only for three or four days each year, a gaggle of gays, a legion of lesbians, a pride of playwrights.

11 Responses to “My Arthur Miller Story”

  1. Zac Boatrighton 31 Mar 2010 at 12:04 pm

    I’ve heard you tell this story before, but I still enjoyed reading this post. Arthur Miller was amazing, and I can’t help but wonder if anyone else could have gotten up on that stage and said that to a community that was both honoring him, and honoring Inge.

    How poetic that those words should come from a playwright, and one as celebrated as Miller. It must have hurt the folks of Independence to hear those words. I believe it was something that needed to be said, but to what end did Miller’s statement serve? The people who really needed to hear that sentiment, those who were responsible for the environment that produced William Inge… they were likely not in attendance.

    ICC has done a lot of great things in the name of William Inge. I think that the Independence community has come a long way since the days of Inge’s youth.

    That being said… it still makes for one hell of a great story!

  2. Mary Davidsonon 31 Mar 2010 at 5:34 pm

    My Independence Kansas story. In 1984, I was the William Inge Humanist in Residence at Independence Community College where, with Margaret Goheen, I helped organize a larger festival than had occurred before. Among the guests that I invited were Shirley Knight, who had played Reenie in “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs,” and Robert Patrick. At the last minute, Robert Patrick decided not to come but he sent a paper to be read by Shirley Knight. It was called “The Inside-Outsider” and celebrated the advantages to a playwright of observing both straight and gay lives, by hiding inside heterosexuality. He included William Inge among playwrights who shared this advantage to the consternation of local sponsors. I have never been invited back to the Festival.

  3. Johnon 31 Mar 2010 at 7:07 pm

    I don’t know how Inge would have felt at Eggbert’s, but I can tell you I definitely feel uncomfortable in such places much of the time in my own hometown–a very small rural Kansas community. I can’t remember who said this or in what context–I’m fairly sure it wasn’t specifically about gay people–but someone once said to me that small towns are very accepting of their weirdos, as long as those weirdos are native to the town. Essentially, if you were brought up strange by us, we’ll take you, but no one else like you! I found that… somewhat comforting. But of course I’m much happier far away from there.

  4. Benjamin Smithon 31 Mar 2010 at 8:29 pm

    My grandmother attended Independence Community College, and my grandfather was born in Coffeeville in 1919. I myself grew up in Rose Hill, KS, just a 30-minute drive from Independence. Until the age of 18, I had never heard of the William Inge Festival. I look back now and realize had I known, I would have probably begged my parents every year to go and meet such renowned playwrights as Neil Simon and Edward Albee. While I cannot make any excuses for small-town Kansans, I would like to state that all bigotry in my experience spurs from ignorance.
    I was fortunate to attend the 2008 Inge Festival where Chirstopher Durang was the guest of honor. I did not talk very long with him as he was constantly swarmed with admirers, but I was able to share one bit of conversation with him about the actress Lauren Bacall. While waiting for a door to be opened to an auditorium where a lecture was to be given, the subject at large being discussed was old movies. I said my favorite old movie, just for its ability to drop names in the opening credits, was TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (Bogie and Bacall in a movie directed by John Huston, with a screenplay by William Faulkner based on a book by Hemingway with music arranged and performed by Hoagie Carmichael). I remember saying that with all that going for it, the only true gem in the picture was Betty Bacall; at 19 she was stunning and a dominating presence on the screen. Mr. Durang said, simply, “Yes.”
    While Durang’s homosexuality was never overtly discussed at the Inge Festival, his partner John Augustine (also a playwright) was present and more than usually to be found talking happily with anyone who stopped and said hello. I felt that the atmospher was positive at this festival. Even when Durang was interviewed onstage and became emotional about his relationship and remembrances of his mother, the audience was compassionate and not alienating. They were pleased to have him there.
    I believe that, little by little, the people of Independence have grown less prejudiced through exposure to alternative lifestyles. Perhaps they have not given up their backward Kansas ways entirely, but I think the annual festival has shown them a thing or two about accepting good people of artistic temperament without much regard for their gender, race, or sexuality.
    While, sadly, Inge may not have been accepted in Independence, KS in his own time, I do like to think that Independence tries a little more each year to be worthy of him and of the playwrights who come to be honored in his memory.

  5. Brian Blevinson 31 Mar 2010 at 9:55 pm

    When I was but a lad of 16 years, I tasted the theatre and its addictive call. I played the lead in a city musical called “The Legend of Windwagon Smith.” In the following two years a tug of war began to divide and conquer my soul. I fell victim to the destructive lusts of alcoholism. I spent the next 25 years in its grip, though always searching for an answer to the pain. About 6 years ago, I met a woman who saved my life, and led me to the light of freedom from the grip of a seemingly helpless state of being. It seemed like all of those previous hopes and dreams had died with the passing of time, and my love for the theatre with it. Somewhere in the back of my mind there flickered a small ember of a memory of my previous love, enough so that when I saw in the course curriculum, “Introduction to Playwriting,” I clicked the “enroll now” button as if drawn by a force unknown to me. I may never make Broadway, but I was honored, while I was yet alive, and I got honored because of a man I know, who believes that what Arthur Miller said was right, and Inge should have been honored while he was alive. You have honored Arthur Miller, William Inge, and every student that has felt the love of accomplishment and recognition, because you took the time to introduce their work to others. I can’t help but love you, Paul, for the wonderful gift you have given me, and every other student you have come in contact with. I pray the theatre has honored you, as much as you have honored it.

  6. Ioneon 01 Apr 2010 at 7:46 am

    Your story of Arthur Miller, William Inge and small towns such as Independence Kansas moves me in a way that doesn’t have anything to do with theatre or playwrights. In the summer of 1955 my family moved from a rather large California town to a very, very small rural town in Montana, population approximately 800 at the time. We were overjoyed to be in a place that offered us access to the beautiful mountains, fishing, hiking and what we thought would be a new and interesting relationship with our neighbors. It was not to be as we were considered from the start as the “outsiders”.

    High school is always somewhat painful for most children but for my sister and I it was more than that as we had to overcome the label that had been imposed on us. After graduation I escaped to the larger town holding the University and went into theatre. My class included many students from small, rural towns who had an interest in something that others in their towns never understood and so they were considered “outsiders” too but for a different reason. I was now with a group that I understood.

    What I learned from this was that most small groups of people, no matter where they are fear the “outsider” and the “different” and it will always be.

    The people of Independence were just normal, everyday people in a small town with small ideas, small thoughts and governed by fear of the unknown.

  7. Paulaon 01 Apr 2010 at 10:05 am

    I really enjoyed your post, as well as all the comments! Thanks, Paula

  8. Bretton 01 Apr 2010 at 11:11 am

    Thanks for sharing, Paul. It’s an excellent story. Oh, so many brains to pick!

  9. bethon 01 Apr 2010 at 11:28 am

    Thanks so much for sharing that, Paul. As was Miller’s, your mind and your life are so rich and so alive, and the goodness and creativity that ripples forward from each continue!

  10. Scott Pinkstonon 01 Apr 2010 at 11:35 am

    Paul, as someone who made that trip with you and who also considers Miller one of my gods, I, too, can barely begin to describe the thrill and sense of awe that accompanied sitting next to him at lunch, shaking his hand, and having him autograph my copies of “Salesman” and “A View From the Bridge,” as well as my working script for “The Crucible.” These remain among my most prized possessions.
    On a side note, I also had a blast lounging around and drinking wine with Shirley Knight in the hotel lobby one night, trying to harmonize with her as she sang “Down By the Old Mill Stream.” Good times. Thanks for bringing those memories back.

  11. Calebon 01 Apr 2010 at 2:57 pm

    I can’t believe you actually have been in the same room as “the” Arthur Miller. What an interesting story, and thank you so much for sharing.

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