National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science No. 80: Tennessee Williams’ Shadow, Part 3: ‘Splendor in the Grass’

The American playwright William Inge (1913-1973) was so tight with Tennessee Williams that scholars speculate they might have been lovers at some point. He was in the intimate gay literary circles of Williams, Christopher Isherwood, Gore Vidal and others, and among the most successful, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his 1953 play, “Picnic,” and an Academy Award for his 1961 film, “Splendor in the Grass.”

But in his “Eminent Outlaws: Gay Writers Who Changed America” (2012), author Christopher Bram mostly overlooks Inge and generally he has not enjoyed the same stature as his gay literary colleagues of that era, possibly because he insisted on remaining more closeted than they were.

The important interconnections between Inge, Williams and the others (“Williams and His Contemporaries: William Inge,” the transcript of a panel moderated by Annette Saddik at the 2006 Tennessee Williams Scholars’ Conference) helps define the impact all these great literary figures had collectively on post-World War II American culture.

It was a life-changing, transformative impact with a bang in the case of what Inge’s film, “Splendor in the Grass,” did to me when I saw it in my late teens. It was a powerful punch to my psychic gut like none I’ve experienced before or since. It contributed to big decisions I made and the world view I carried with me my entire adult life, informing of my contributions to the gay liberation movement among other things.

Tennessee Williams brought a similar theme to his earliest and most important explicit contribution to the early gay liberation dialogue (in his play, “Small Craft Warnings,” 1972), confirming that Inge’s work was an offspring of discourses within those tight gay literary circles of the 1950s.

I saw “Splendor in the Grass” – written by Inge, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty (in his first film) – when I was roughly the same age, maybe a couple years older, as the main characters, as I was looking the rest of my life in the face with some big decisions to make.

The characters of Wood (Wilma Dean) and Beatty (Bud) were passionate high school sweethearts in a small town in Inge’s home state of Kansas about the same age as Inge was in 1928-29 when the story took place, subsuming the great stock market crash of October 1929.

The long and short of the story is contained in its title, a line from a lengthy poem by English poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) entitled “Ode: Imitations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” (1807):

“What through the radiance which was once so bright/Be now forever taken from my sight,/Though nothing can bring back the hour/Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower/We will grieve not, rather find/Strength in what remains behind;/In the primal sympathy/Which having been must ever be…”

In the movie, the power and passion of Wilma Dean’s and Bud’s young love is beaten down by convention and parental expectations, ripping them apart, driving Wilma Dean to a mental institution and Bud, pressured by his father, to Yale.

The market crash wiping out his father’s fortune, Bud returns to Kansas married to a pizza parlor waitress he met in college to work a small farm. Wilma Dean leaves the mental institution after two and a half years and, coming home, decides to look in on Bud. She hides her surprise at discovering Bud’s wife and young child.

“Are you happy, Bud?,” Wilma Dean asks in monotone. “I guess so. I don’t ask myself that question very much,” Bud replies.

“I don’t think too much about happiness, either,” Wilma Dean then says, and Bud responds, “You have to take what comes.” That was it.

I was deeply troubled by that film, and can remember coming home to take a very long look at myself in the living room mirror. I had no words to verbalize my feeling, but I have come to realize that my resolve from that night was to not allow the deadening of the human spirit I had just witnessed to happen to me.

Little did I know it was the gay literary circle of Williams, Isherwood, Inge and others that had just drilled down into my gay soul.

If a life of monotony and passionless mediocrity was to be the fate of most people as they grew out of their childhood idealism, it would be even more deadly to a closeted gay boy, pressured to conform in those ways to cover up and deny himself to himself and everybody else.

As my life had begun to trend toward that kind of mediocrity, it soon began to take a dramatically different course. Settled as I was in my home town, with a solid career ahead and assurances by my powerful boss that I would not be drafted for Vietnam, instead I decided to leave for a graduate theological seminary in Berkeley, Calif.

To be continued.