Monday, November 30, 2009

A Loss of Roses - by William Inge

A flop on Broadway in 1959, Inge revised the script for publication. In his preface he describes this play as always feeling like a sure thing to him and when it was going up there was a horrible moment where he saw that the play on-stage was nothing like the play that was in his head - but that the revisions would correct this.

This past fall I got to stay at William Inge's house in Independence, KS as a writer in residence and read most of his plays there. There wasn't a copy of this play, but there was a poster for the Broadway production, starring a young Warren Beatty. I loved the title and as I got to know Inge's writing I wanted to find this one too...

And, reading it this afternoon, its fallen short of my high expectations. It's a two act play. In the first act we meet Helen and her son Kenny. They both work and contribute to the household expenses, lucky to have jobs during the depression. Kenny is attached to his mother and doesn't want to leave, recently having turned down a good job outside of Wichita. Helen doesn't want him to get too comfortable, wanting him to strike out on his own and get married someday - at the moment he's drinking and running around with the trashiest girls in town. Helen's getting ready for Lila, who used to help her around the house and with baby Kenny when she was a girl and who is now an actress with a travelling show. The show's gone under and the show people drop her off at Helen's while they look for work in Kansas City.

Later that night, Kenny puts some moves on Lila when he's drunk. The next morning, Lila tries hard to be good and impress Helen, and cover for Kenny. Somewhere in there we also learn that Lila was hospitalized after she tried to commit suicide after running away from her husband & his father - there's also a whisper of sexual abuse in her past - a past that Helen helped her to get away from. The Act ends with Lila resisting any flirtation with Kenny and him thinking he could get used to having her around.

In the second act, a month later, Kenny and Lila have some drinks and Kenny puts the moves on her. She likes him - maybe loves him but turns him down. Helen comes home and Kenny throws a fit and threatens to move out after his mother refuses to take an expensive present from him - a watch to replace the watch his father gave her. We also learn that Kenny's father died saving Kenny's life. Lila's show friend, who she's in love with, comes back with a promise of work - $100 a week. It comes out that the work is a for a sex show - and some blue movies possibly. Lila refuses and goes to Kenny for help and comfort. They spend the night together after he asserts his seriousness about her and his plan to marry her. The next morning Helen senses something's up and confronts Kenny, Lila's a wreck and tries to slash her wrists, Kenny decides its time for him to move out and he heads off to work. Lila sees a girl going to school carrying roses. She remembers her first day of school, giving roses to the teacher and getting whacked later for talking - and asking for her roses back. Her show friend pulls up and Lila goes off to her future with him.

The loss of innocence, the hushed tones when discussing girls with bad pasts, the committment in mental institutions, the longing for a man to come and save the girl - and the realization that he's not coming... these hallmarks of theatre in the late 50s/60s - or maybe just William Inge and Tennessee Williams - I'll need to read more to make an accurate generalization.

This one though - it's interesting to me that Inge would be more sure about this one than any other - perhaps because it is structurally pretty clean, the action/images/intentions dove-tail together and it is containable in the mind... and then its the ones that are messier - that make you afraid to share them - that are uncertain that have that thing that makes them bigger than themselves.


  1. I read this synopsis because this play is on our city's local calendar for mid 2012. Unfortunately, nothing I've read to date, including this recap, have hooked me enough to want to spend the time and money to see this play. The story is a depressing one and real life provides large doses of that to all of us free of charge.

  2. I agree with anonymous. I go to our local theater to be entertained (and they ordinarily do a wonderful job),not thrown into a suicidal depression. Tonight's play is "A Christmas Carol" that is also a psychosocial study but it ends with hope and joy--stop there! If Inge could not get his stuff together, why dump his melancholia on the rest of the world? Many of us are struggling with our own demons.

  3. Dear First Anonymous,

    Might you be talking about Arkansas Rep?