by William Inge
Picnic is a 1953 play by William Inge. The play premiered at the Music Box Theatre, Broadway on 19 February 1953 in a Theatre Guild production, directed by Joshua Logan, which ran for 477 performances.
The original cast featured Ralph Meeker, Eileen Heckart, Arthur O’Connell, Janice Rule, Reta Shaw, Kim Stanley and Paul Newman. Inge won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the work, and Logan received a Tony Award for Best Director. The play also won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play of the season.
Picnic was Paul Newman’s Broadway debut. An unknown at the time, Newman campaigned heavily for the leading role of Hal, but director Joshua Logan did not think Newman was physically large enough to convey the lead character’s athletic attributes. As a result, Ralph Meeker was given the role of Hal opposite Janice Rule as Madge. Newman played Hal’s former college roommate Alan Seymour while understudying the role of Hal. Newman eventually took over the lead role.
Opening & Closing Dates
Type & Version
Feb 19, 1953 – Apr 10, 1954
Play / Original
Music Box Theatre, NY, USA
Apr 21, 1994 – May 29, 1994
Play / Revival
Criterion Center Stage Right, NY, USA
In a small town in Kansas, everything is going calmly and according to plan for widow Flo Owens and her two daughters. Madge, the oldest, is on her way to being a trophy wife of Alan, a well-groomed college boy, while the younger, more rambunctious daughter Millie is getting ready to go to college on a scholarship. When Hal, a rough and handsome young bum and old friend of Alan, shows up and starts working for the neighbor next door, Flo starts to worry about the safety of her daughters.
It is Labor Day, and everyone is preparing for a neighborhood picnic. Since shy Millie does not have a date, neighbor Mrs. Potts suggests that Hal accompany her, much to the chagrin of Flo. Hal agrees, but he is much more interested in Madge. There is an undeniable attraction between the two, as much as they try to fight it. While getting ready for the picnic, the family and friends dance in Flo’s backyard to music playing nearby. Hal grows on each of the women, and they all vie for his attention. Several unfortunate things happen simultaneously: Millie gets sick from drinking too much whiskey while no one is paying attention. Hal accidentally offends Rosemary, the schoolteacher, who then screams at him, and Flo joins in criticizing him.
Hal sits in the shadows by himself while everyone leaves for the picnic. Rosemary and her boyfriend Howard decide to skip the picnic and go for a drive. Madge stays behind to change her dress. When she comes back outside and tries to console Hal, they kiss after a deep and revealing conversation. They run off together and spend the night in the car.
Howard brings Rosemary back to the house. As he leaves, Rosemary begs him to marry her. When Madge and Hal return, Madge is ashamed of what they did. Hal asks for one more kiss, and their “passion is revived”. Madge breaks away and says that she never wants to see Hal again.
In the morning, Flo is frantic because she sees Madge crying hysterically. Rosemary leaves with Howard to get married, and everyone goes to the street to see her off. When Madge is left alone in the backyard, Hal shows up to talk to her. The others come back into the yard, and Hal is forced to leave. Madge finally admits that she loves him after he’s gone, and she enters the house crying. Alan leaves, and it is obviously over between him and Madge. A little while later, Madge comes out of the house with a suitcase and tells her mother that she’s going after Hal. The play ends with Flo watching her daughter leave.
According to David Rush, there are two kinds of plot structures – linear and nonlinear. William Inge’s “Picnic” falls under the first category because the events are shown in chronological order. “Picnic” is also considered a “well-made play” by Rush since it adheres to a common standard in playwriting. This standard stems from the Freytag Pyramid developed by Gustav Freytag, and it is used to chart the dramatic action in a play. There are seven major parts to the pyramid, which are stated here:
- State of Equilibrium: In this play, the characters live in a typical small midwestern town during the 1950s. The women are behaving as the social conventions dictate, attending to the kitchen and housework, acting modestly and looking pretty. The men go to work in order to earn money; they are the dominant gender. There are hints that several of the characters wish to break out of these norms, which gives the opening part of the play’s excitement and appeal.
- Inciting Incident: For the story as a whole, the appearance of Hal Carter in the town is the inciting incident. But within the confines of the play, the equilibrium is disturbed when Mrs. Potts suggests that Hal accompany Millie to the picnic. This event sets the play in motion, because the different attractions start to come out, Flo really begins blaming all the troubles on Hal, and the excitement starts growing faster.
- Point of Attack of the Major Dramatic Question: Will the picnic be a success? Who will end up with whom?
- Rising Action: The plot thickens, and the excitement grows as the Hal, Alan and Millie go swimming. Different couples dance in the backyard, and Millie gets sick from too much whiskey.
- Climax: There are two possible events that could be the climax. Rosemary gets drunk and lashes out at Hal, telling him that he is a womanizer and a pitiful gutter boy. Hal’s confidence immediately disappears, and he realizes that he might not be everything that he brags about. This causes him to make some rash choices that have monumental consequences. The second option is when Hal and Madge kiss and then run off together. Before this moment, both characters had been holding themselves back. Now they are able to let go of their inhibitions and be together, even though society decrees that they shouldn’t. They realize their true feelings for each other, even though Madge is unable to admit it at first. This causes a reversal in all the other characters’ feelings toward Hal.
- Resolution: When Madge and Hal return in the morning, everyone is distraught in their own way. Rosemary and Howard leave to get married. When Flo sees Hal approaching Madge, she screams at him to leave. Alan is very angry at his old friend as well. Madge is regretful and unwilling to make up her mind about how she feels. Hal leaves, and for the moment things seem to calm down. Then Madge runs outside with a suitcase and tells her mother that she is going after Hal because she loves him.
- New State of Equilibrium: Many of the characters are drastically changed. Madge has broken out of the stereotypes that go with being a beautiful young girl. She decides not to marry the rich man and instead pursue real passion. Millie is more confident and has made plans for the rest of her life as well. She wants to get out of the small town and go to college. She has grown out of her rambunctious, tomboy ways. Flo has started to understand that she cannot keep such tight reins on her children; she must let them breathe and make their own choices. The important thing to understand is that the stereotypes and conventions do not fit everyone. People need to be free to be what they want.
The original cast for the 1953 Music Box Theatre production (in order of appearance):
- Ruth McDevitt – Helen Potts – Flo’s neighbor
- Ralph Meeker – Hal Carter – Hired by Helen, an old college friend of Alan
- Kim Stanley – Millie Owens – Youngest daughter of Flo
- Morris Miller – Bomber – Neighborhood kid
- Janice Rule – Madge Owens – Oldest daughter of Flo
- Peggy Concklin – Flo Owens – Madge and Millie’s mother
- Eileen Heckart – Rosemary Sydney – Schoolteacher renting a room in Flo’s house
- Paul Newman – Alan Seymour – Madge’s boyfriend, an old college friend of Hal
- Reta Shaw – Irma Kronkite – Schoolteacher, a friend of Rosemary
- Elizabeth Wilson – Christine Schoenwalder – Schoolteacher, a friend of Rosemary
- Arthur O’Connell – Howard Bevans – Rosemary’s boyfriend
Flo Owens – Flo is a woman who has worked hard to keep her family alive. The father to her children is long gone, so she has to be both mother and father to her two girls. She raises them cautiously, almost overbearingly, as she tries to lead them on the right path and make sure they are more successful in life than she turned out to be. Flo has big dreams for her daughters, and seems to live vicariously through them. She is hesitant about accepting outsiders, because she is very comfortable with the way she leads her life.
Madge Owens – Madge is a beautiful girl growing gracefully into adulthood. Some call her materialistic and conceited because she spends quite a bit of time with makeup and beauty products. She is not as naive as she may seem; she definitely has some hidden knowledge about the world. Madge may not open herself to many people, but she is able to relate to others if she tries. On the outside, she wants to be wealthy and gorgeous all her life. But on the inside, she is sick of always being the pretty one, and she just wants to find her place in the world. Madge desperately wants to be loved, and at first she thinks that Alan is enough for her. But getting to know Hal changes her completely.
Millie Owens – Throughout most of the play, Millie is wild and tomboyish, yet she has a softer, more artsy side to her. Millie shows herself to the world as a tough kid, but she is really nervous about what other people think of her. She wants to be noticed, but in the right way. Millie wants to be somebody. She wants to experience city life and make a difference in the world.
Helen Potts – A bit past her prime, Helen longs for the days when she was a wild young girl. She used to love going against the conventions and challenging authority, which has given her much wisdom in her older years. She is easygoing, still loves fun and wants to share her knowledge with the young people around her.
Hal Carter – Hal is young, handsome, crazy, impulsive and has seen some harsh times. He has been to reform school, a few colleges, a part of a fraternity, been chased by the police and claims other things that may or may not be true. He is a confident fellow, and he loves attention. He is capable of crumbling though, as shown after Rosemary’s vicious words. Hal has a soft inner side that really wants to be accepted and fit in somewhere.
Alan Seymour – Alan is a rich young man looking to settle down with a beautiful girl. He loves Madge, whether their relationship is superficial or not. Alan is level-headed most of the time and tends to criticize those who make decisions without thinking them through.
Bomber – A small character in the play, he tends to reinforce Madge’s beauty as well as criticize Millie for being the oddball.
Rosemary Sydney – Rosemary is an aging schoolteacher who likes to call herself an independent. She brags about not having a man and doing whatever she wants. She tends to gossip with her friends and make eyes at Hal when he comes into the scene. She is rather unconventional for a schoolteacher, since she is not reserved and scholarly. She has a breakdown when she realizes that she is not as young as she’d like to be. Rosemary ends up begging Howard to marry her.
Howard Bevans – Howard is a businessman who is rather set in his way of life. He has accepted that this is all he can be and even decided that he may not get married and have a happy ending. He has been seeing Rosemary, but is not sure what she wants from him or where their relationship is going. He is easy to get along with but not extremely assertive of what he wants. Howard is a reasonable guy who does what he can to live each day. When Rosemary begs him to marry her, he is unsure what to say at first. He tries to tell her she is just drunk, but Rosemary is very persistent. He finally agrees to marry her and does his best to be happy about it even though he is unsure.
Irma Kronkite and Christine Schoenwalder – These two ladies are schoolteachers with Rosemary. They are slightly younger than Rosemary and definitely like gossip. Irma has known Rosemary for a bit longer, since Christine just moved to the town and started teaching there.
William Motter Inge was born on May 3, 1913 in Independence, Kansas. His father, Luther Clayton Inge, was a traveling salesman and his mother, Maude Sarah Gibson Inge, stayed at home. William was the youngest of their children. William’s childhood and family life is paralleled in his novel “My Son Is a Splendid Driver.” William was a good-natured child, mostly peaceful and smiling. His mother was very cautious and his father spent much time away on business trips, but his relationships with them were relatively good. He started school a year younger than is customary, and continued to be a very smart student throughout his educational career.
When William was seven, his only brother died of blood poisoning. This left a lack of male presence in his life, and so he was very influenced by the women around. His mother rented rooms to female schoolteachers, some of whom are reflected in Inge’s plays. Because of all the female company, William became known as a “sissy, a precocious momma’s boy who was quite different from the other boys in his class”. He didn’t play sports, and his mother was extremely overprotective of him, so he was harshly teased for many years. But William always found good favor from teachers and other adults. He also tended to retreat into his imagination in order to cope. He became very interested in acting and theatre. His experiences of being bullied and then consoled by his mother are represented in his first play Farther Off from Heaven, later known as The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.
William attended the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where he excelled in English and drama. After his first year, Inge was forced to leave the University and go back home because of the Great Depression of the 1930s. He attended community college, but eventually was able to go back to the university, where he continued acting as much as possible. He graduated and then went to George Peabody College in Nashville to pursue a master’s degree in English. While there, William lost enthusiasm and rarely performed in plays. Due to a breakdown and intense depression, Inge was unable to complete his degree. He went back to Independence to live with his parents in 1936. After a few odd jobs, Inge was offered a teaching job at a high school in Columbus, Kansas. A few years later, he accepted a job at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. Here he gave up acting, but began to write more and more. He moved to St. Louis, Missouri to write as a theatre critic. William wrote his first play after coming into contact with Tennessee Williams and seeing his work on The Glass Menagerie. Inge continued to write, but he also continued to have emotional troubles. He tended to drink alcohol quite a bit, which led to some serious medical issues. But through it all, he kept writing plays and getting them produced. William moved to New York in 1949, just in time for Come Back, Little Sheba to open on Broadway. It was a great success, and Inge was wealthy for the first time in his life. Inge had a string of successful plays during this time, and his friendship with Tennessee Williams faltered because of their rivalry. Inge sold the rights to several of his plays to Hollywood so they could be turned into movies.
William began to stay out of the public eye more and more as he grew older. By the 1970s, he stopped teaching completely and retreated into solitude. He had many “self-destructive tendencies” such as alcohol and various medications that brought him down further. William’s last play, “The Love Death,” could be called his suicide note. He was taken to the hospital after an overdose in 1973, but he hated the idea of being in a hospital long-term. He checked himself out, and soon slipped back into his life-threatening tendencies. Inge killed himself a few days later by letting the car run in the garage while he sat in it.
Picnic has aspects of several genres. First of all, it can be seen as a tragedy. The tragic hero, Madge (or even all the women collectively), is fighting against a restrictive and in some ways oppressive society. There is an assumed moral code at the beginning that everyone thinks they need to obey. Madge commits an act of shame, sleeping with Hal, and then falls into suffering and depression. In the end, it is questionable as to whether or not she redeems herself by running away to him. Perhaps one could say that she is hoping to make herself an honest woman by marrying him. Conversely, this play can also be seen as a comedy. At the beginning, the society is flawed because no one is allowed to be who they truly want to be. There are jokes and moments of awkwardness that make the audience laugh. Several of the comedic character types are present, such as the “blocker” – a person of some authority who stops other characters from reaching their goals. In the end, the society of the play is more open to new and different things, and there are several marriages to take place. There are two genres that combine tragedy and comedy – tragicomedy and drama. “Picnic” is a drama, because, according to David Rush, it is “about a private struggle, a family situation, or a character grappling with some form of social injustice or another”. He also mentions that the characters are “people like us, of the same social status and with the same kinds of needs, problems, and personalities that we more or less average folks have. The characters in this play are not extreme peasants or royalty; they are simple, common people with desires similar to the common people of any time or place.
According to David Rush, there are nine different aspects of style to consider.
1.The Concerns of the Author: In his play “Picnic,” Inge focuses on the society and what it does to his characters. This is an important aspect of Expressionism, where the characters are pitted against this inhuman force that is culture and social expectations. This could also be seen as sociopolitical concerns, which is an aspect of Realism. The play is very character driven, which shows Inge’s love of analyzing people and how they react to different situations.
2.The Point of View of the Author: This aspect refers to where the author places the audience in the action. If the audience is watching from a distance, that means they are objective. If they are in the middle of everything that is going on, seeing the action from one person’s point of view, then they are subjective. In “Picnic,” the audience is outside the events, merely observing them. This means that the point of view of the author is objective. This is where the play falls closer to Realism. In Realistic plays, the audience is purely objective, whereas in Expressionistic plays, the audience is seeing a particular person’s inner state.
3.The Comprehensibility of the World: Inge shows us a world that is relatively normal for its time period. Most of the characters behave as the audience would expect them to, with a few exceptions. The world is logical – outlandish and abnormal things do not happen. This makes for a Realistic play.
4.The Construction of the Plot: As discussed above, the events in this play are in chronological order, which leans decidedly toward Realism. One thing leads to another, and the audience is able to follow along relatively easily.
5.The Substance/Texture of the Characters: Most of Inge’s characters in “Picnic” are what Rush calls “three-dimensional” because they are “fully textured human beings, with ideas, feelings, personalities, passions, and foibles that are very similar to ours”. They pursue certain things, avoid certain things, and have many different tactics in order to do both of these. They are relatable and real, hence this play seems to be more Realistic.
6.The Setting: What the audience sees onstage in this play could be an actual place – it is not distorted or dreamlike, but rather a typical backyard of a house in a small town in the Midwest. Inge meant for the setting to be something tangible and real. It stays constant, so the audience can focus more on what is happening with the characters. This is even more evidence that “Picnic” falls under the category of Realism.
7.Language: As will be discussed below, the language of this play is natural and easy to understand. This signifies a Realistic piece.
8.Form – Presentational/Representational: Rush discusses form in that it is “the relationship between the people on the stage (actors/characters) and the people watching (audience)”. A presentational play might have some of the characters speak directly to the audience, and help them on their way through the story. A representational play, like “Picnic,” leaves the “fourth wall” intact and simply ignores the audience while the events are played out. Realistic plays are often representational.
9.The Playwright’s Definition of the World: By using a certain style, the playwright is able to show the audience just how he or she feels about the world. Inge uses Realism to show that society’s rules are not always the best, and that people will live happier, more fulfilling lives if they are able to break out of the restraints.
As mentioned above, the language in this play is realistic and easy to understand. Like setting, it is not distorted and does not try to misguide or confuse the audience. It stays constant and serves to facilitate understanding. The language of this play, when performed, would also reflect the setting with dialects and accents. There are colloquial phrases and slang involved, which make the language feel more real.
Some themes in the play are explained below.
-Loneliness: The women in “Picnic” are all looking for that perfect relationship. Several of them see their desires personified in Hal, which causes a bit of conflict. Each of the women are alone in their own way. Flo’s husband is gone, which is not explained in the play, so she is without a man to help her run the house. Mrs. Potts’ mother forced her to annul her marriage when the old woman did not approve of her daughter’s choice in men. Madge, though she is with Alan, secretly wants more and is not able to be her true self around him. Millie is hidden in the shadow of Madge’s beauty and does not have a beau.
-Gender roles: According to Jeff Johnson, Inge experiments with gender roles in this play. Women of the time were typically quiet, modest, and submissive, but what about the domineering side of Flo or Rosemary? Men were typically dominant, strong, and straightforward, but what about the weak and self-conscious side of Hal?
-Beauty: Different ideas of beauty are tossed around in the play, but the term is mostly defined within Madge. She is so beautiful that some people only see her for her looks. This worries Madge throughout the play, especially since her mother lectures her on marrying the rich man now since her beauty will not last forever. Flo says that she may not have anything left after it’s gone. Millie and Rosemary are jealous of Madge’s beauty, Alan is in awe of it, and it is what originally attracts Hal to Madge. Hal is another type of beauty. He has his shirt off for a bit of the play, and the women fawn over him. But his handsomeness is also seen as a danger, especially by Flo. Different characters in the play see beauty as good and bad.
-Youth: This theme is in some ways connected with the theme of beauty. The characters that have youth do not appreciate it, and the older characters wish they had it. The cause of Rosemary’s breakdown before the picnic is her desire to be young again, and the realization that she never will be. Helen loves telling wild stories about her youth and making sure the young people in the play appreciate what they have.
The setting for Picnic was argued over by Inge and director Joshua Logan, so the play is typically presented with the original scenery of the two back porches. This allows for little to no set changes and is a bit ironic in the fact that the play is called Picnic, but there are no picnic scenes. The houses are typically shown as a bit rundown and as naturalistic as possible.
In this play, there are several instances where the characters reference piano music somewhere nearby. It is especially important in the dancing scene, where different characters dance together, get to know each other better, and some major conflict begins. Millie is the one that usually mentions the music when it is present in the play, and it seems to have some importance to her. She is a lover of art and changing the world, which can be done with music. Millie explains that the music is coming from a band called “Ernie Higgins and his Happiness Boys. The name suggests happiness, and brings with it a sense of freedom.
“Picnic” opened on Broadway at The Music Box Theatre in New York City on February 19, 1953. It was produced by The Theatre Guild and directed by Joshua Logan. The play’s original cast included Ralph Meeker as Hal, Janice Rule as Madge, Kim Stanley as Millie, Peggy Concklin as Flo, and Paul Newman as Alan. After that, the play toured throughout 1954 and 1955. In 1955, “Picnic” was produced in several different states, including Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania on May 30, the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California on July 28, and the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts in August. “Picnic” opened in England at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry on April 14, 1958.
Paul Osborne was chosen to turn “Picnic” into a musical in the 1960s. It was called “Hot September” and instead of going to the Alvin Theatre on Broadway in October 1965, the musical premiered in Boston and closed within a few weeks. Another rewrite of “Picnic,” done by Inge himself in the early 1970s, was titled “Summer Brave.” It opened at the Equity Library Theatre in New York in 1973, two months before Inge committed suicide. The play only lasted 14 performances, but it was revived two years later at the ANTA Theatre. This time it lasted 18 performances.
“Picnic” was made into a film by Columbia Pictures, released in December 1955. It was directed by Joshua Logan. It was nominated for six Academy Awards and won two. There was also a television special called “Picnic – Broadway on Showtime” that aired on November 10, 1986. It was produced by Catalina Production Group, Ltd.
The University of Kansas’ operatic version of the play premiered April 8, 2008. Librettist and stage director Tim Ocel recalled, “When Forrest Pierce knocked on my door during the fall of 2006 and said he’d like to compose something for KU Opera, I jumped at the chance. The voice/opera division was just beginning to consider what our contribution to the 50th Murphy Hall celebration would be. I thought maybe we should create something; William Inge is the playwright and dramatic storyteller of 1950s Kansas, so why not explore the possibility of turning one of his plays into an opera? We both agreed that Picnic was the play that lent itself best to an operatic treatment. The libretto formed over the next six months, and by June 2007 Forrest was composing. The opera is a domestic comedy of sorts. Inge calls the play “A Summer Romance.” It’s about everyday people… you and I… who have to figure out what it means to be alive and connected and useful in this world. It attempts to show the truth and the possibility of our everyday lives.” 
Most recently, Inge’s “Picnic” was used as the basis for an opera by the same name, composed by Libby Larsen on a commission from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Larsen’s “Picnic” was premiered Thursday, April 2, 2009 by UNCG, in Aycock Auditorium.
- Inge, William. Four Plays. New York: Grove Press, 1958. p.133.
- Rush, David. A Student Guide to Play Analysis. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005. pp. 7, 37.
- Voss, Ralph F. A Life of William Inge. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989. p.17.
- Voss, Ralph F. A Life of William Inge. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989. p.265.
- Voss, Ralph F. A Life of William Inge. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989. p.267
- Rush, David. A Student Guide to Play Analysis. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005. p.97.
- Rush, David. A Student Guide to Play Analysis. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005. p.173.
- Rush, David. A Student Guide to Play Analysis. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005. p.172.
- Rush, David. A Student Guide to Play Analysis. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005. p.184.
- Rush, David. A Student Guide to Play Analysis. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005. p.187.
- Rush, David. A Student Guide to Play Analysis. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005. p.189.
- Voss, Ralph F. A Life of William Inge. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989. p.128.
- Voss, Ralph F. A Life of William Inge. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989. p.129.
- Inge, William. Four Plays. New York: Grove Press, 1958. p.117.
- Inge, William. Four Plays. New York: Grove Press, 1958. p.73.
- Marill, Alvin H. . More Theatre: Stage to Screen to Television, Vol II (M-Z). Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993. p.944.
- Hawkins-Dady, Mark (Editor). International Dictionary of Theatre – 1: Plays. Chicago: St. James Press, 1992. p.613-614.
- Marill, Alvin H. . More Theatre: Stage to Screen to Television, Vol II (M-Z). Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993. p.945.
- Marill, Alvin H. . More Theatre: Stage to Screen to Television, Vol II (M-Z). Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993. p.946.
- “KU Opera celebrates Murphy Hall 50th Anniversary with world premiere of William Inge’s Picnic”. KU Connection (KU Alumni Association) (73). April 2008.Retrieved 2008-07-19.
- “Putting on a ‘Picnic’”. UNCG Alumni & Friends e-newsletter (UNCG Alumni Association). February 2009.. Retrieved 2009-04-04.