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William Inge

Touching Greatness

As Theatre Three opens William Inge's Picnic, dramaturg Brandi Andrade looks at Dallas' significant theatrical history and the relationship between Inge, Margo Jones, Audrey Wood and Tennessee Williams.



published Thursday, October 29, 2015

Photo: Courtesy
Margo Jones and Tennessee Williams during a 1948 production of Summer and Smoke

 

Dallas — Margo Jones—or the “Texas Tornado,” as Tennessee Williams would later call her—was hatching plans in the early 1940s to bring professional theater to the whole country, starting with Dallas. She had been involved with theater productions while in college at Texas Women’s University in Denton, and had been inspired by reading about the Provincetown Players (who, in their quest for authentically American playwrights, had discovered Eugene O’Neill in 1917). By the end of the 1930s, she had been to Russia’s Moscow Art Theatre Festival, seen the Group Theatre’s stirring production of Clifford Odet’s Waiting for Lefty in New York, and had started her own branch of the Federal Theatre Project in Houston. In 1936 she started a community theatre in Houston, and one of the company members was a young woman, new to town, named Nina. In 1939, Jones was named one of the best little theater directors in the country, the only woman on the list. In 1942, while directing a play on Long Island, she met theatrical agent Audrey Wood.

Audrey Wood specialized in representing playwrights. By the end of her career, she had represented many of the most significant playwrights in the second half of the 20th century. She brought plays by Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and Preston Jones to Broadway—after their successful runs right here in Dallas. She was an honest and hardworking agent, who took chances on and believed in “her” playwrights, mothering them when necessary. She successfully negotiated all of the movie deals for Inge’s four Broadway hits, and even managed his money for him until his estate became too complex for her to have the time to oversee it. Her own play, Mr. Williams and Ms. Wood: A Two-Character Play focuses on her 30-year relationship as Tennessee Williams’ agent. Audrey Wood and Margo Jones hit it off in 1942, and when Jones asked Wood about interesting new plays, Wood gave her something from one of “her” new playwrights named Tennessee Williams.

Photo: Courtesy
William Inge

Margo Jones (the namesake for the website you're reading) was so thrilled with the play (Battle of Angels, which later became Orpheus Descending and the 1959 film The Fugitive Kind) that she became an enthusiastic supporter and lifelong friend of the playwright. While teaching at the University of Texas at Austin, she started dreaming of her own professional theatre where she could produce plays like the ones Williams was writing. When The Glass Menagerie started on the road to Broadway in 1944, Williams was anxious for Jones’ support and vision. He and Audrey Wood worked to get her on as assistant director of the Broadway-bound play—an opportunity few women were (nor are) afforded. When the producer got nervous and requested a different, happy ending for the play, it was Jones who stood up to the men in the meeting, insisting that the ending was perfect and must not be altered in any way. She got her way, and the play had a successful opening in Chicago, followed by a Broadway run that led to a Drama Critics’ Circle Award in 1945.

William Inge had dreamed of an acting career all through his years at Kansas University, but upon graduation in 1935 was too nervous to take the plunge and move to New York. Instead, he worked on a Masters degree in English and eventually got a job as a teacher. This “plan B” job never fulfilled him, though he would come back to it a few more times over the years. In 1943 he got the chance to take a job as the arts critic for the St. Louis Star-Times, and, in 1944, went to Chicago for that publication to review The Glass Menagerie and interview the playwright. This experience changed the course of his life. In Williams he made a lasting friend—and occasional rival—and in The Glass Menagerie he found his calling:  he wanted to write plays. Inge went back to St. Louis and wrote his first play, Farther Off from Heaven (an early version of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs), and his new friend Tennessee Williams introduced him to Margo Jones and to his literary agent in New York, Audrey Wood. These three people would become the most stalwart supporters William Inge would ever know.

In 1947, Margo Jones flew to New York for a whirlwind three weeks, where Audrey Wood helped her find and audition the actors who would make up the 8-person acting company for her summer season at Theatre ’47. The 198-seat stage in the Gulf Oil building in Fair Park was the first professional arena theatre in the country. The summer season featured Inge’s Farther Off from Heaven and Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke. Brooks Atkinson, critic at the New York Times wrote to his readers that “something of consequence” was happening in Dallas. Inge, Williams, and Wood were all in Dallas that summer to attend Theatre ’47.

While Summer and Smoke was in rehearsals in Dallas, Tennessee Williams was working with Audrey Wood to get his newest play, A Streetcar Named Desire, ready for its Broadway opening later that fall. With its triumph and Pulitzer Prize win, Williams’ place as one of the most important American playwrights of the 20th century was assured. Margo Jones brought Summer and Smoke to Broadway the following year (though it took nearly a decade for critics to see the beauty in it that she and Dallas audiences had), and in the early 1950s, Audrey Wood negotiated Hollywood movie deals for both The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire (as she would do for most of his plays). In 1955, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened on Broadway and won Williams another Pulitzer.

Audrey Wood brought Inge’s second play, Come Back, Little Sheba, to Broadway in 1950—and it became the first of his four Broadway hits that, with her help, would also become successful Hollywood films. Picnic, the second of these, garnered him a Pulitzer Prize and a Drama Critics’ Circle Award. Before its Broadway debut in 1954, two drafts of the play (the earlier one called The Front Porch) had been sent to Dallas for Margo Jones’ comments. Picnic was followed by Bus Stop in 1955 (Jones saw both it and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof shortly before her death, on a trip to New York to oversee the production of Inherit the Wind that was about to open after its successful run in Dallas); and then the reworked Farther Off From Heaven, now titled The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, opened in 1957.

Meanwhile, inspired by Margo Jones and to fill the void left by her departure from Houston, Nina Vance had started her own arena theater in 1947. It was called the Alley Theatre, and with Jones’ encouragement and whatever help she could offer, it became Houston’s professional theater (now one of the leading regional theatres in the country and the only Texas theater so far to win a Regional Tony Award), and Vance became an acclaimed director and producer.

A young Dallasite named Norma Young went to Houston to work at the Alley as a stage manager, teacher, and actress, returning to Dallas inspired to start a theater company with some friends and her fiancé, Jac Alder, in 1961. Theatre Three, just as Margo Jones had noted about the earlier theaters that had arisen in her wake, was shaped by the aesthetic philosophy of the woman who ran it (and yes, all those pioneering theaters were run by women!); for Norma Young, it was to be a communion of playwright, production, and audience (the “Three” in the name), and would include a varied season of new and old, American and European. A new play by Tennessee Williams was offered within the first few seasons—featuring Jac Alder in one of the roles.

Photo: Columbia Pictures
William Holden and Kim Novak in the movie Picnic
Photo: Lois Leftwich
Theatre Three's Picnic stars Haulston Mann and Grace Montie, foreground, and John Ruegsegger, background

Fast Forward:  In 2015, Jac Alder, now the longest-serving founder/producer in the country, programmed Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (in August 2015) and William Inge’s Picnic (opening this week) as part of Theatre Three’s 54th season, in a building located less than half a mile from the apartment in the Stoneleigh Hotel where the playwrights had sent them to Margo Jones to read some 70 years ago.

The history related here is made especially poignant by the fact that Jac Alder will not be around to see the productions of these plays; with his death, we’ve lost another enthusiastic champion of theater in Dallas. The connections celebrate and validate Jones’ and Alder’s belief that Dallas is a vital part of the national theater scene. Neither one of them was nearly as interested in the past as in the future, though. So this history can also serve as a reminder that the rest of us are “standing on the shoulders of giants” as we head into that future.

However, what strikes me as the most important part of this history is not the way Texas and Texans keep popping up in some of the signal moments of 20th century American theatre history (although I definitely think that’s cool); it’s that it reveals perhaps the most important quality that Jac Alder, Margo Jones, and Audrey Wood had in common:  they didn’t just champion the theater, they championed its artists. Margo Jones, Audrey Wood, Tennessee Williams, and William Inge didn’t know they were going to make theater history. They were just hardworking artists who turned to each other for help and encouragement (well, and the playwrights needed someone to pay for the beers they wanted to cry into—at least at first). In fact, the intertwining of these stories suggests that each of these artists achieved greatness only through the helping hands of the others.

The crowd at Jac Alder’s memorial in July at the Dallas City Performance Hall was testimony to his 53-year mentorship of Dallas artists both great and small. With his loss, we must mentor one another. Let’s look back at our history with pride; let’s stand on the shoulders of those giants and look forward with the inspiration they give us. But I submit to you that the most important place their lives taught us to look is around us, in the present, to see whom we might make great by holding out our hand. (Or buying the beer.)

 

Reading List:

Lahr, John. Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh

Sheehy, Helen. Margo: The Life and Theatre of Margo Jones (which is now available for Kindle download)

Voss, Ralph F. A Life of William Inge: The Strains of Triumph

Wood, Audrey and Max Wilk. Represented, A Memoir by Audrey Wood

 

» Brandi Andrade holds a PhD in Theatre and American Women’s History from UT Dallas, and is a Senior Lecturer in the Women's Studies and Theatre Arts Departments at UT Arlington.  She has worked at many of the area's theatres over the years, as actress and as dramaturg—most recently (in both capacities) at Theatre Three. She recently retired from an 11-year stint with Echo Theatre as producing partner and company member. In addition to acting and dramaturgy, she has directed productions at Echo Theatre and at UTA, and will be directing for Theatre Arlington in 2016.  Thanks For Reading





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Touching Greatness
As Theatre Three opens William Inge's Picnic, dramaturg Brandi Andrade looks at Dallas' significant theatrical history and the relationship between Inge, Margo Jones, Audrey Wood and Tennessee Williams.
by Brandi Andrade

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