The 1950s: Below the Surface


Mention of the 1950s is likely to inspire images of housewives rolling out pie dough, sock hops, white picket fences, and teenagers sitting in malt shops. However, we often forget that the ‘50s weren’t all about Doris Day and “Leave It to Beaver”. It was also the era of rock’n’roll music and the Beat Generation. This is the reality that the characters of William Inge’s Picnic inhabit. They may have a fenced-in yard, but it’s wildly unkempt. Teenagers may drive off to the malt shop, but they’re doing a lot more driving than they’re telling their parents about.

Below you will find several examples that illustrate the discrepancies between our modern-day preconceptions about the 1950s and the reality of the decade. It was an era more nuanced than stereotypes would have us believe.

1956 marked the release of Cecil B. DeMille’s Biblical epic, The Ten Commandments:

In the same year, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing premiered. Despite doing poorly at the box office, it gained critical success with its innovative cinematography and audacious dialogue:


The 1950 recording of “The Tennessee Waltz,” popularized by singer Patti Page, sold millions of records and remained at the top of the charts for several months:

In 1950, Muddy Waters’s “Rolling Stone” (an electric blues interpretation of a 1920s song, “Catfish Blues”) gained him recognition. British rock group The Rolling Stones and the Rolling Stone magazine both take their names from the song. Rolling Stone included it in their list of “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”:


Though not standardized until the late 1960s, color television became available in the United States in 1953 (the same year Picnic debuted on Broadway.)

Similarly enduring as color TV, Hugh Heffner founded Playboy magazine in the same year.


While critics called Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged an “homage to greed,” it remained on The New York Times’ bestseller list for 22 consecutive weeks in 1957-1958.

Written in 1951, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was finally published in 1957. Though it received mixed reactions from critics, it was an extremely influential work that propelled the Beat movement and changed the cultural landscape.


Kraft rapidly began to see commercial success in the 1950s with their Deluxe Processed Cheese Slices. However, their campaign included false advertising about the amount of milk used to make the product. Kraft was eventually required by the Federal Trade Commission to stop making these claims.

Jackson Pollock quickly acquired fame and success during his “drip period” (between 1947 and 1950) but with equal haste abandoned the technique for darker hues. The commercial success proved to be too much pressure for the artist, whose alcoholism only worsened from the demands being made of him by art collectors.


Many works of art from the 1950s made such a vital impact on our culture that we’re more likely to think of them as something residual that’s been adopted into contemporary culture rather than purely historic. It’s easy to forget their genesis. Muddy Waters’s “Rolling Stone,” helped change the sound of music forever. You can hear elements of his work in rock’n’roll music throughout every decade since the Rolling Stone album was released. There are readers today who feel as connected to On the Road as they did when Kerouac published it in 1957. Newer generations were also able to discover the story in its 2012 film incarnation.

Just like the stereotypes burned into our collective memory, the world of Picnic has a glossy surface. Below that surface, however, there is far more to discover.


Which of the above do you feel has had the most impact on American culture? Be sure to tell us in the comments!

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2012-2013 Season, Picnic

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A look back at Picnic on Broadway


Roundabout Theatre Company’s 2013 production of Picnic marks the third incarnation of Inge’s play on Broadway. This new staging, insightfully directed by Sam Gold, is performed by a talented ensemble that includes Academy Award® winner Ellen Burstyn, theatre veterans Reed Birney (The Dream of the Burning Boy) and Elizabeth Marvel (Other Desert Cities), rising stars Maggie Grace (“Lost”) and Sebastian Stan (“Gossip Girl”), Emmy® Award winner Mare Winningham (recently seen in Tribes), Madeleine Martin (August: Osage County) and Ben Rappaport (Hope Springs).

Ellen Burstyn, Sebastian Stan and Maggie Grace in Picnic, 2013.
Photo by Joan Marcus

First produced in the Music Box Theatre on Broadway in 1953, Picnic’s development was a highly collaborative one. Director Joshua Logan played a large role in helping Inge shape the piece. A product of two plays initially (one about a group of small-town women, and one about a drifter who shakes things up), which Logan insisted be combined, Inge was left unsatisfied with the finished product. He went on to write Summer Brave, a revised version of Picnic that ended on a far bleaker note. Summer Brave was not revealed to the public until after Inge’s death in 1973.

Janice Rule and Ralph Meeker in the 1953 production of Picnic.

The original Broadway production of Picnic was incredibly well-received, running for 477 performances and winning Logan a Tony Award. Not only was the script recognized by the New York Drama Critics' Circle with an award for Best American Play, it won Inge the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It also helped to launch the career of a very young unknown—Paul Newman.

Initially desirous of the Hal role, Newman was cast as newspaper boy Bomber—a part with comparatively less stage time. However, after seeing Newman in rehearsal, Logan decided to recast him as Alan, Madge’s sweet-but-not-spark-inducing, well-to-do boyfriend. Though he was allowed to understudy the role of Hal, Logan didn’t believe Newman had the sex appeal to portray the shirtless drifter. Through this Broadway appearance, not only was Newman’s personal life affected (he met and eventually married actress Joanne Woodward, who was understudying for Madge) but his professional career was impacted greatly when he was offered his first film role. He left for Hollywood and, after several smoldering screen roles, proved Logan wrong.

During the 1950s, Inge found great success on the Great White Way not only with Picnic, but also with Come Back, Little Sheba, Bus Stop and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Throughout this period, Inge was able to hold his own against other American playwriting greats, such as his muse and mentor, Tennessee Williams. (It was witnessing The Glass Menagerie in 1944 that inspired William Inge to seriously pursue his own playwriting career.) However, his work soon fell out of favor. After this initial stint, every subsequent attempt to mount one of his new plays ended in poor reviews and brief runs. It appeared that Inge had been largely forgotten by audiences who once championed his work. Four decades passed before Picnic found its way back onto the Broadway stage.

Ashley Judd in Picnic in 1994.
Photo by Carol Rosegg/Martha Swope Associates

As part of its commitment to enduring classics, Roundabout revived Picnic for the first time in 1994. It ran for 26 previews and 45 performances at the Criterion Center Stage Right (originally the Olympia Theatre, currently the Bond 45 restaurant.) The production was helmed by director Scott Ellis and the cast included Debra Monk, Larry Bryggman, Anne Pitoniak, Tate Donovan and Kyle Chandler. It also marked the Broadway debut of Ashley Judd, who stepped into the role of Madge, the prettiest girl in town.

Having found success in Ruby in Paradise, and having just finished filming Natural Born Killers, Judd decided to make the move to Broadway. As she explained to reporter Chris Smith in an April ’94 New York Magazine interview, she felt that “…theatre is the true genesis of acting.”

Being the daughter and half-sister of two very prominent country stars (Naomi and Wynonna respectively), Judd’s acting career was an attempt to carve out her own identity—not unlike pretty Madge, who desperately wants to be more than the label others have given her. This parallel was not lost on Smith, who continued in his article to assert that, “…Judd will be a more aggressive Madge, one aware of her wiles and aching to find her own way in the world.” Along with a more self-assured Madge, the 1994 production saw other departures from the original.

Instead of setting Picnic in 1953, Ellis decided to move the piece back to the 1930s when liquor laws would have been in place and the atmosphere of Depression-stricken Kansas would have been more taxing on its inhabitants. Not only was the period changed, the decision was also made to run all three acts consecutively. Without an intermission, the piece--which was meant to steadily turn from sparks to flames--was able to maintain momentum.

Ashley Judd and Kyle Chandler in Picnic, 1994.
Photo by Carol Rosegg/Martha Swope Associates

Another two decades have passed and Roundabout has brought Picnic back for a new generation of theatregoers. In this new incarnation, Sam Gold hopes to strip the script of any rose-tinted nostalgia and focus on the stark realities of this small-town world. In a recent interview with Roundabout Dramaturg, Ted Sod, Gold explained that Picnic's characters "...dream of romance, falling in love, getting on a train and going far away. You also see the older generation of characters who had similar dreams that did not necessarily work out. You see what it's like to give up your dreams and face the reality in these Midwestern towns at that time. I think Inge is speaking to the fire that burns in the young and what happens to that fire when you grow up."

Just as a startling train whistle can pierce the evening air, Gold and his cast remind us that under the quiet, simple exterior of these Kansas townsfolk beat hearts that are aflame.

Picnic plays at the American Airlines Theatre through March 10. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

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2012-2013 Season, Picnic


Interview with Lighting Designer: Jane Cox


"You can’t express intellectual ideas with light or music. You need words or images for that. Light is more like energy, and we connect to light in a physical way." - Jane Cox

Lighting Designer Jane Cox shared some of her insight and experience with Education Dramaturg Ted Sod.

Ted Sod: Tell me a little about yourself.

Jane Cox: I was brought up in Dublin, Ireland. I didn’t see much theater growing up, but I was interested in music, dancing, reading, painting—anything creative really—and most of all, in organizing imaginary games for my friends with complicated stories and characters. My parents took me to see the film of Ingmar Bergman’s Magic Flute when I was six years old, and it changed my perception of the world. It made me think I wanted to be a musician because of the magical flute and the glorious music. I loved music because it expressed things I was experiencing emotionally and energetically that I didn’t see expressed in any other way in the world I was living in, but I was always uncomfortable and nervous on stage. I watched the film of Magic Flute again a couple of years ago, and I realized that it is actually a movie for designers—most of the important information that isn’t told musically is told through the visuals. The film starts with a little girl watching the stage from the audience—I realized that it is also a film about audiences. A lighting designer is the first audience member in the rehearsal room, and then we try and get the audience to experience the performance in the same way that we do!

I fell into lighting when I was about nineteen, when I was asked to run the light board for a production of Oh What A Lovely War in college, where I was studying music. I fell in love with it. I realized immediately that lighting is the same medium as music, only visual. I hope it doesn’t sound too pretentious to say that, to me, lighting has always had melody, harmony, color, rhythm. It is a totally visceral medium. You can’t express intellectual ideas with light or music. You need words or images for that. Light is more like energy, and we connect to light in a physical way. I have always been interested in how we communicate with each other without words and images, and lighting is one of those ways.

TS: Picnic takes place mostly outdoors. What challenges does that present to you?

JC: The useful thing about the outdoor setting for me is that the scenes in Picnic take place at very particular times of day, in a world that has a very strong routine. Inge is very specific about time of day. The times of day have very particular meanings for the characters. Hal’s relationship to night time is very different from Madge’s, for example. Telling the story outside allows us to really use the energy of those times of day through lighting without having to use an abstract vocabulary. So the energy of morning, sunset, night and dawn as it reaches the porches and garden can help us to express the play. How light reaches an outdoor space explains a lot about the world the characters are in—are they living in a confined outdoor space or an open space? Are they closed in by other buildings, are there trees? All these details help us to understand how the characters feel, and the outdoor location gives us lots of tools to do that.

... Read More →

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2012-2013 Season, A Conversation with, Picnic