Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 699

When Come Back, Little Sheba opened on Broadway in February of 1950, it was to mixed reviews. Most critics cheered the performances of Shirley Booth and Sydney Blackmer in the lead roles. But all too many deplored the actors' waste in a play described as "dramatic trivialities" (Howard Barnes in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews) and "underwritten to the point of barrenness'' (Brooks Atkinson in his second New York Times review two weeks after the play' s opening). Barnes and Atkinson were not alone. Commonweal's Kappo Phelan labeled Inge's drama "a poor play on all counts," and in a review written for the New Yorker. Wolcott Gibbs called attention to the play's mix of "realism and psychiatric claptrap." Yet not all critics hated the play; many liked it and many more had mixed reactions. Atkinson, in his first review for the New York Times, noted the play's topics as "terrifyingly true" and its story as "straightforward and unhackneyed."

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The play's reception when it was released as a film in 1952 was similarly mixed. Booth's reprised performance was again noted as excellent, but critics still attacked the film, though in fewer numbers. The critic for Theatre Arts, Robert Hatch, complimented Booth's performance and said that Inge's play is an ''acute and compassionate statement of the horror implicit in wasted lives." Also noting the excellence of Booth's performance was Philip Hartung, whose review in Commonweal praised the play's "repeated plea for compassion and understanding of one's fellow man."

Come Back, Little Sheba was the first of four Broadway hits for Inge. But, this drama could not be described as a smash hit. It played for less than six months. Inge himself observed in the forward to the play that his work ''did good business for only a few weeks and then houses began to dwindle to the size of tea parties." Inge admitted that he took a cut in royalties and the actors took salary cuts to keep the play on stage. Yet based on Come Back, Little Sheba! Broadway debut, Inge was voted the most promising new playwright by the Drama Critics Circle. And Booth and Blackmer each won Anuonette ("Tony") Perry Awards for their performances The work was more successful financially as a film.

Inge's depiction of midwestern life provided a new setting for Broadway theater patrons. Prior to Inge's string of plays, most works focused on northeastern urban characters or the southern characters of Tennessee Williams. The topics portrayed in Inge's drama were also new to Broadway The frank manner in which Inge presents alcoholism and addiction in the play was shocking to many viewers. And the audience would have also been horrified by the scene of Doc's drunken attack on Lola; domestic abuse, especially as it related to alcohol, was a subject discussed only in hushed whispers in the 1950s. Inge's depictions, however, opened the door for further dramatic discussion of the topics. In subsequent decades the matter become a popular topic for film and theater, with works such as Lost Weekend and Leaving Las Vegas presenting stark and realistic visions of addiction.

As with the topic of abuse, Inge innovated open portrayals of sex. One reviewer of Come Back, Little Sheba, Catholic World's Eupherma Wyatt, found the scenes between Marie and Turk embarrassing. Certainly other members of the audience may have felt the same way. Marie makes only the slightest effort to be discrete as she sneaks Turk up to her bedroom after the Delaneys have gone to bed. Her sexual bantering with Turk offers no indication that she is embarrassed, only that she and Turk are interested in casual sex. In fact, Marie makes clear that Turk is being used as a diversion until she can marry her boyfriend back home. This was a shocking revelation in that many believed a woman should only have sex after marriage and, further, that the act serve only as a method of procreation Addressing such topics may have earned Inge initial criticism, but by portraying them so realistically in his play he paved the way for a new contemporary theater. Later appraisals of Inge's work invariably include Come Back, Little Sheba, citing it as a seminal work of modern drama.

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