The Play (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
In Come Back, Little Sheba, Lola Delaney, fat, forty, and childless, has been married to Doc, a chiropractor whom she has driven to drink, for about twenty years. Doc seemingly had ahead of him a glorious future as a physician until he met Lola, a nubile beauty queen, whose father approved of few of her boyfriends. Doc was smitten but was slow to act; it took him a year to muster the courage to kiss Lola. Once he overcame his initial reticence, however, he promptly proceeded to impregnate her. Their marriage followed quickly, and Doc’s plans to become a doctor were scuttled for less ambitious ones.
Lola, too shy to go to a male obstetrician for her delivery, went instead to a midwife. The midwife botched the delivery, the baby died, and Lola was left barren. When the curtain rises, the main interest in Lola’s life has become her little white dog, Sheba, now lost. Lola looks for her and calls her, but Sheba does not return.
The Delaneys’ boarder, Marie, is an art student at a nearby college. Because her fiancé, Bruce, lives in another town, she has as well a casual sex partner, Turk, a brawny javelin-thrower, long on muscles and short on brains. Lola encourages Marie’s dalliance with Turk because she lives vicariously through their encounters.
Doc, replete with Oedipal hang-ups, is in love with Marie and uses her to feed his Madonna complex. He does not make any moves toward her, but he does pick up her scarf and...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Inge has been commended for the realism of his early plays, and Come Back, Little Sheba is a prime example of this realism. The play’s set is drab and, during most of the play, cluttered and sloppy. Lola’s dress and demeanor reflect that she has given up caring. The emotional tone of the play is reinforced by the set.
Inge has been criticized for the slow buildup to Doc’s drunk scene, which, to some viewers, is tiresome. Inge, however, planned this aspect of the play very deliberately. He likened the force of the drunk scene, which is the play’s center, to that of a tornado. He wanted the play to reflect that period of almost eerie quiet that precedes a storm. Then he wanted the “tornado” to burst forth in its incredible fury and to command the total attention that such a phenomenon does in nature. The drunk scene transfixes an audience almost lulled into lethargy by the preceding calm. As theater, this approach works well; Doc’s fury commands the full attention of the audience.
Some early critics questioned the psychological validity of the dream sequences. After he wrote them, Inge had them read by psychiatrists to check their psychological accuracy, and the scenes stood up to their scrutiny. They are now generally viewed as essential, psychologically convincing elements in the play.
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Post-World War II America was a period marked by the shift of populations from cities to suburbs. Thanks to the G.I. Bill (which provided government funding for the college education of men exiting the armed services), thousands of men who would never have been able to go to college found the way suddenly made easier A building boom meant that those better educated men marry and the families could buy the new houses being built on tracts all across suburban America.
The decade also marked the beginning of a period of domestic perfection. Television would turn the postwar ideal of perfect families in perfect homes surrounded by perfect white fences into the national image. Unfortunately for many families, failure to live up to this ideal resulted in depression and despondency—much like Doc and Lola in Come Back, Little Sheba. Darkness was also evident in the political events of the decade. It was the beginning of Joseph McCarthy's "red scare" during which the House Un-American Activities Committee persecuted numerous American citizens suspected of communism. In Korea, early skirmishes signaled America's involvement in yet another war
Despite the public emphasis on suburban existence, a large portion of America was still centered on a rural way of life. In Kansas, Inge's birthplace and the setting for Come Back, Little Sheba, there were fewer than one million people living in a state that serves as the exact geographical center...
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An act is a major division in a drama. In Greek plays the sections of the drama signified by the appearance of the chorus were usually divided into five acts. This is the formula for most serious drama from the Greeks to the Romans to the Elizabethan playwrights like William Shakespeare. The five acts denote the structure of dramatic action. They are exposition, complication, climax, falling action, and catastrophe. The five-act structure was followed until the nineteenth century when Henrik Ibsen (A Doll's House) combined elements into fewer acts. Come Back, Little Sheba is a two-act play. The exposition and complication are combined in the first act when the audience learns of Doc and Lola's disappointments, Doc's drinking problem, and Marie's affair with Turk. The climax occurs in the second act when Doc begins to drink again. Doc's drunken return in Scene 2 provides the falling action, and the catastrophe occurs in this act when Doc and Lola are forced to recognize that they must live with the choices they have made and that the past cannot be changed.
Scenes are subdivisions of an act. A scene may change when all of the main characters either enter or exit the stage. But a change of scene may also indicate a change of time. In Come Back, Little Sheba, the second scene of Act I occurs later on the same day, and thus, indicates the passage of time in the play.
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Compare and Contrast
1949: Blue Cross Insurance programs cover thirty-seven million Americans, more than six times the number insured only ten years before.
Today: Almost half of all Americans have no health insurance. In 1998, President Clinton and the U.S. Congress will once again consider anew health care package to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable health care.
1949: Auto registrations show one passenger car for every 3.75 Americans.
Today: Almost every American family has at least one automobile, with most owning two or three. The car has become an indelible symbol of life in America, with the majority of the population relying on the vehicles as their primary mode of transportation; autos have become personal statements, reflecting the personality and independence of their owners.
1949: Tranquilizer drugs that eliminate anxiety and excitement without making users too drowsy are developed by Wallace Laboratories and by Wyeth Laboratories. The drug Valium becomes a common accessory for high-strung personalities.
Today: Tranquilizers, anti-depressants, and other anti-anxiety drugs are heavily advertised in all publications and readily available to almost everyone. Valium has been supplanted in the public consciousness by such "mental aids" as Prozac and Halcion. Still more turn to illegal drugs such as marijuana for relaxation and stress relief.
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Topics for Further Study
Research the history of Alcoholics Anonymous Most people did not speak freely of addictions in 1950. Consider whether Inge's play breaks any new ground in its portrayal of an alcoholic's relapse and recovery.
Some critics have criticized Come Back, Little Sheba for its lack of depth. Yet the play was very popular both on stage and as a movie. How do you account for its popularity?
At the conclusion of this play, both Doc and Lola appear to have accepted the reality of their lives and both seem ready to move forward together. The dog, which had symbolized Lola's lost beauty and youth, is no longer the object of Lola's search. Explore the symbolism in the play and decide if you think that Inge relies too heavily on symbolism to carry his plot.
Research the American post World War II experience The early 1950s are often identified with isolation and repressed sexuality. In what ways do the Delaneys represent this repressed and inhibited ideal?
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Come Back, Little Sheba was adapted as a film in 1952 It was produced by Hal B. Wallace for Paramount Pictures and stars Shirley Booth as Lola, Burt Lancaster as Doc, Terry Moore as Marie, and Richard Jaeckel as Turk. Booth won an Academy Award for her performance.
A made-for-television version was presented on NBC in 1977. The cast includes Lawrence Olivier, Joanne Woodward, Carrie Fisher, and Nicholas Campbell. It was produced by Granada Television.
A musical adaptation titled Sheba opened in 1974 in Chicago. It starred Kay Ballard, George Wallace, Kimberly Farr, and Gary Sand.
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What Do I Read Next?
Published in 1953, Picnic is Inge's second Broadway play to be set in the Midwest. The play is concerned with the relationship between a sexually attractive man and a group of lonely women.
Bus Stop, also by Inge, was published in 1955. Instead of a drama, Inge has used Kansas as a setting for a romantic comedy about a small group of people stranded in a snow storm The happy ending of this play is not typical of Inge.
Look Homeward, Angel, a 1929 novel by Thomas Wolfe, is also a realistic depiction of a family relationship, with the central character, Eugene, the son of an alcoholic.
Edward Albee's 1962 play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, examines the brutal and sometimes violent relationship between a husband and wife. As with Inge's play, broken dreams play a pivotal role in the story.
The Lost Weekend, a 1945 film starring Ray Milland, and Leaving Las Vegas, a 1995 film starring Nicholas Cage, are uncompromising examinations of alcoholism and the destruction it brings.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Atkinson, Brooks Review of Come Back, Little Sheba in the New York Times, February 16,1950, p 28.
Atkinson, Brooks "Two Actors" in the New York Times, February 26,1950, section 2, p 1.
Barnes, Howard. "Good Acting Squandered" in the New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Critics' Theatre Reviews, 1950, p 350
Burgess, Charles E. "An American Experience William Inge in St. Louis 1943-1949" in Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature, Vol. 12,1976, pp 438-68.
Gibbs, Wolcott. "The Dream and the Dog" in the New Yorker, February 25, 1950, p 66.
Hartung, Philip T Review of Come Back, Little Sheba in Commonweal, December 26,1952, p 308.
Hatch, Robert Review of Come Back, Little Sheba in Theatre Arts, December, 1952, p 29.
Herron, Ima Honaker "Our Vanishing Towns. Modern Broadway Versions" in Southwest Review, Vol 51, 1966, pp 209-20.
Inge, William Introduction to Four Plays, Random House (New York), 1958.
Leeson, Richard M. William Inge: A Research and Production Sourcebook, Greenwood Press, 1994.
Lewis, Allen. "The Emergent Deans Kingsley, Inge, and Company" in American Plays and Playwrights of the Contemporary Theatre, Crown (New York), 1965, pp 143-63.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Burgess, Charles E. “An American Experience: William Inge in St. Louis, 1943-1949.” Papers on Language and Literature 7 (1976): 438-468.
Diehl, Digby. “Interview with William Inge.” Behind the Scenes: Theater and Film Interviews from the Transatlantic Review, edited by Joseph F. McCrindle. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1971.
Herron, Ira Honaker. “Our Vanishing Towns: Modern Broadway Versions.” Southwest Quarterly 51 (Summer, 1966): 209-220.
Inge, William R. A Rustic Moralist. Manchester, N.H.: Ayer, 1977.
Kansas Quarterly 18, no. 4 (1986).
Leeson, Richard M. William Inge: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
McClure, Arthur F. William Inge: A Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1982.
Miller, Jordan Y. “William Inge: Last of the Realists?” Kansas Quarterly 2 (Spring, 1970): 17-26.
Mitchell, Marilyn. “William Inge.” American Imago 35 (1978): 297-310.
Shuman, R. Baird. William Inge. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
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