William Inge understood both the people and the social order of the Midwest, particularly the matriarchal family structure common to much of the area. Inge’s midwestern plays reverberate with authenticity. His first four Broadway plays depict their commonplace characters with extraordinary sensitivity, building through accounts of their prosaic lives toward a pitch of frustration that is communicated to audiences with enormous impact. By capturing so deftly this pervasive sense of frustration, Inge presents the universal that must be a part of any successful drama. Audiences left Inge’s early plays with an internalized sense of the gnawing isolation and conflict that his characters experienced. This is his legacy to American drama.
Come Back, Little Sheba
All Inge’s best instincts as a playwright are at work in Come Back, Little Sheba, the story of Doc and Lola Delaney, who are twenty years into a marriage that was forced on them when the eighteen-year-old Lola became pregnant while the promising young Doc was a medical student. Their hasty marriage was followed by Doc’s dropping out of medical school and becoming a chiropractor as well as by the loss of the baby through the bungling of a midwife, to whom Lola went because she was too embarrassed to go to an obstetrician. Lola ends up sterile and, as the action of the play begins, fat and unattractive. Doc has become an alcoholic, but as the play opens, he has been dry for a year.
Come Back, Little Sheba is a study in contrasts. It presents thesis and antithesis but seldom any satisfying or convincing synthesis, which makes it a sound piece of realistic writing. Little Sheba is Lola’s lost puppy, who “just vanished one day—vanished into thin air.” More than representing a surrogate child, Little Sheba represents Lola’s lost youth, and only when Lola stops looking for Sheba is it clear that some resolution has taken place, even though the resolution is not presented as a cure-all for Doc and Lola Delaney’s problems.
The play revolves largely around four characters: Doc; Lola; Marie, their boarder; and Turk, the recurring priapic figure whom Inge later used to keep the action moving in Picnic and in other of his plays. Marie, although she is engaged to someone else, is having a brief affair with Turk (significantly, a javelin thrower) before the arrival of her fiancé from out of town. Lola is titillated by this tawdry affair and actively encourages it, even though she is planning to fix a special meal for Marie’s fiancé, Bruce, when he arrives. Doc, who sees Marie as the daughter he never had, is appalled by the whole misadventure. He falls off the wagon and gets roaring drunk. The dramatic climax of the play is his drunk scene, in which he threatens passionately to hack off all of Lola’s fat, cut off Marie’s ankles, and castrate Turk, but falls into a drunken stupor before he can accomplish any of these vile deeds and is taken off to the drunk tank. So terrified is he by the drunk tank that he returns home chastened, but not before Lola has attempted to go home to her aging parents, only to be rebuffed when she telephones them with her request that they allow her to come home for a while.
As the play ends, Doc pleads with Lola, “Don’t ever leave me. Please don’t ever leave me. If you do, they’d have to keep me down at that place [the drunk tank] all the time.” Doc and Lola are back together, not for very positive reasons, but rather because neither has any real alternative.
The characterization and the timing in this play are superb; the control is sure and steady. The business of the play is well taken care of early in the action as Lola, a lonely woman unhappy with herself and with what she has become, talks compulsively to anyone who will listen—the milkman, the postman, the next-door neighbor, and Mrs. Coffman, who in contrast to Lola is neat, clean, and well-organized, as a woman with seven children needs to be. Lola tells the audience all they need to know about her history while convincing them of her loneliness by reaching out desperately to anyone who comes into her purview. The resolution for Lola comes in the last act, when she begins to clean up the house, pay attention to her appearance, and write a note for the milkman rather than lurk to engage him in conversation.
Lola’s dream sequences, which hold up quite well psychologically, are skillfully used to handle more of the necessary business of the play. The final dream has to do with Turk and the javelin, which Turk has already described as “a big, long lance. You hold it like this, erect.” In Lola’s dream, Turk is disqualified in the javelin throwing contest and Doc picks up the javelin “real careful, like it was awful heavy. But you threw it, Daddy, clear, clear, up into the sky. And it never came down.” Inge’s exposure to Freudian psychoanalysis certainly pervades the dream sequences.
Inge does not give the audience an upbeat or hopeful ending in Come Back, Little Sheba; rather, he presents life as it is. Perhaps Lola has matured a little. Perhaps both she and Doc have gained some insights that will help them to accept their lives with a bit more resignation than they might otherwise have, but nothing drastic is likely to happen for either of them. They will live on, wretchedly dependent on each other. If their marriage lasts, as it probably will, the mortar that holds it together will be dependence more than love. At least Lola has faced reality sufficiently to say, “I don’t think Little Sheba’s ever coming back, Doc,” and to stop searching for her.
Inge’s second Broadway success, Picnic, started as a fragmentary play, “Front Porch,” that Inge wrote shortly after Farther Off from Heaven. The original play consisted of little more than character sketches of five women in a small Kansas town. The play grew into Picnic, a much more fully developed play, and finally into Summer Brave, which is little different from Picnic except in the resolution of the Madge-Hal conflict.
Four of the five women in Picnic live in one house. They are Flo Owens; her two daughters, Millie, a sixteen-year-old tomboy, and Madge, the prettiest girl in town; and their boarder, Rosemary Sydney, a schoolteacher in her thirties. Madge is engaged to marry Alan Seymour. Their next-door neighbor is sixty-year-old Helen Potts, who also participates in the action of the play. These women are all sexually frustrated; although Madge and Rosemary both have suitors, the relationships are specifically delineated as nonsexual.
Into this tense setting is introduced an incredibly handsome male animal, Hal Carter, who exudes sexuality. As insecure as he is handsome, Hal is down on his luck and has arrived in town looking for his friend Alan Seymour, who might be able to give him a job. Hungry, he exchanges some work in Helen Potts’s yard for a meal. He works bare-chested, much to the consternation of the women, whose upbringing decrees that they feign shock at this display but whose natural impulses are in conflict with their conservative upbringing.
Hal, reminiscent of Turk in Come Back, Little Sheba, causes chaos, as might be expected. The play focuses...
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