Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 446

The playwrights with whom William Inge is most frequently and accurately compared are Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Inge’s early plays are the first in the United States to deal seriously with the Midwest. Aside from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (pr. 1943), based on Lynn Riggs’s Green Grow the Lilacs (pr. 1931), the Midwest had been dealt with more in novel and poetry form than in drama.

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It is not likely that William Inge would have written Come Back, Little Sheba had he not gone to see Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (pr. 1944, pb. 1945) in Chicago shortly after he interviewed Williams as part of his job as drama critic for the St. Louis Star-Times. When he saw The Glass Menagerie, Inge realized that moving drama could be written about the lives and concerns of ordinary, everyday people. Within three months, he had written his first play about the Midwest, Farther off from Heaven (pr. 1947), which Williams was instrumental in having produced at Margo Jones’s Little Theater Group in Dallas, Texas. Before he saw The Glass Menagerie in 1944, Inge had known that he had story ideas, but seeing the play and knowing its author spurred Inge into actually writing.

Shortly before Inge sent his first play to Broadway, Miller’s Death of a Salesman (pr., pb. 1949) engaged audiences with the pathetic character of Willy Loman, a common man the sum total of whose life was his family, his house, on which the mortgage had just been paid off, and his illusions. When Willy was robbed of his illusions, he could not go on living; he killed himself to avoid total disillusionment. Life for Inge’s characters is really no better than it was for Willy Loman, but Inge suggests a different solution to the problem—go on living, whatever the cost. Inge’s message is continuance: his characters are not the dreamers found in The Glass Menagerie and Death of a Salesman.

Inge had planned to write a one-act play based on his unpublished short story about Doc and Lola Delaney. By early 1949, his play was a full-length, two-act drama in six scenes. Inge had just been through a round of unsuccessful therapy in Alcoholics Anonymous and had gained from the experience an accurate view of alcoholism that he translated into his credible depiction of Doc Delaney. Inge read the play to Williams, who immediately wired his agent, Audrey Wood, about it. Within days, the Theatre Guild had taken an option on it. In less than a year, Come Back, Little Sheba was on Broadway, with Shirley Booth as Lola. It was remarkably successful for a first play by an unknown writer.

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Critical Overview