'Picnic': A Play by William Inge

Love, Desire, and Regrets Unfold Onstage

Empty stage

Ed Schipul/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

"Picnic" is a three-act play written by William Inge, the author of "Bus Stop" and "Come Back, Little Sheba." Set in a small town in Kansas, Picnic details the lives of "ordinary" Americans, from hopeful widows and embittered spinsters to idealistic teenagers and restless wanderers.

The play was first performed on Broadway in 1953 and was adapted into a motion picture in 1955, starring William Holden and Kim Novak.

The Basic Plot

Mrs. Flora Owens, a widow in her forties, runs a boarding house with the help of her two teenage daughters, Madge and Millie. Madge is constantly admired for her physical beauty, but she longs to be acknowledged for something more substantial. Her younger sister, on the other hand, has brains but not a boyfriend.

A young stranger (who at first seems like a vagrant) is passing through town, working for food at the neighbor's house. His name is Hal, a strong, shirtless, sometimes shifty hero of the play.

Nearly all of the female characters are entranced by him, especially Madge. However, (and here's where the conflict starts to come into play) Madge has a serious boyfriend named Alan, an up-and-coming college student who leads a life of privilege.

In fact, Hal has breezed into town hoping that Alan (his old college buddy) will be able to use his connections to land him a job. Alan is happy to help, and for a short time, it seems that Hal might be able to give his aimless life direction.

Although handsome, Hal isn't the most cultured of young men. During the Labor Day festivities, he feels very awkward while socializing with others. Mrs. Owens and her tenant Rosemary, an aging school teacher, do not trust Hal, maintaining their first impression that deep down he is merely a bum.

The community's perception of Hal worsens when he allows Millie to drink whiskey. (Although in Hal's defense, the illegal booze is supplied by Rosemary's boyfriend, Howard the traveling salesman. While Millie is getting drunk, Rosemary (also under the influence) makes a move on Hal while dancing. When he is uncomfortable with the school teacher's advances, Rosemary viciously insults Hal. Millie then becomes sick and Hal is blamed, incurring the wrath of Mrs. Owens.

The Plot Thickens: (Spoiler Alert)

The increasing animosity toward Hal softens Madge's heart. She feels both empathy and desire. When Alan isn't around, Hal steals a kiss from Madge. Then, the two lovebirds (or lust birds?) have sex. The copulation doesn't occur onstage, of course, but a sudden natural portrait of premarital sex demonstrates how Inge's dramatic work was a harbinger of the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

When Alan finds out, he threatens to have Hal arrested. He even throws a punch at his ex-friend, but Hal is too fast and strong, easily defeating the book-wormish college boy. Realizing that he must catch the next train (hobo style) and leave town before the cops toss him in jail, Hal departs — but not before announcing his love for Madge. He tells her:

HAL: When you hear that train pull outa town and know I'm on it, your little heart's gonna be busted, 'cause you love me, God damn it! You love me, you love me, you love me.

Moments later, after Hal has caught the train headed for Tulsa, Madge packs her bags and leaves home for good, planning to meet up with Hal and begin a new life together. Her mother is shocked and despondent as she watches her daughter head off into the distance. The wise neighbor Mrs. Potts consoles her.

FLO: She's so young. There are so many things I meant to tell her, and never got around to it.
MRS. POTTS: Let her learn them for herself, Flo.

The Sub-Plots

As with other plays by William Inge, an ensemble of characters deal with their own squashed hopes and wistful pipedreams. Other storylines that run throughout the play involve:

  • Rosemary and her reluctant boyfriend: By the end of the play she coerces Howard into marriage, allowing her to shed her "old maid" lifestyle.
  • Mrs. Potts and her elderly mother: Surprisingly optimistic about life, Mrs. Potts is often tied down by the demands of her severely debilitated mother.
  • Millie and Alan: After Madge's relationship with Alan falls apart, Millie finds the courage to admit that she has always had a crush on the young man. (And who can blame her? The original Alan was played by Paul Newman.)

Themes and Lessons

The prevailing message of "Picnic" is that youth is a precious gift that must be savored instead of squandered.

In the play's beginning, Flo speculates that her daughter might be working at the town's dime store well into her 40s, a depressing idea for Madge. In the play's conclusion, Madge embraces adventure, thwarting the convention wisdom of older characters.

Throughout the play, the adult characters envy the young. During her tirade aimed at Hal, Rosemary vehemently declares: "You think just 'cause you're young you can push people aside and not pay them any mind... But you won't stay young forever, didja ever thinka that?"

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Your Citation
Bradford, Wade. "'Picnic': A Play by William Inge." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/picnic-by-william-inge-overview-2713439. Bradford, Wade. (2020, August 28). 'Picnic': A Play by William Inge. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/picnic-by-william-inge-overview-2713439 Bradford, Wade. "'Picnic': A Play by William Inge." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/picnic-by-william-inge-overview-2713439 (accessed June 7, 2023).