Come Back, Little Sheba

by William Inge

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Social Preconceptions Regarding Marriage and Success in Postwar America

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When Come Back, Little Sheba made its first appearance on Broadway, many reviewers dismissed it as a boring domestic soap opera. Others focused on the psychological complexities of the two lead characters. But Jane Courant argued in Studies in American Drama that audiences should, instead, appreciate Inge's drama for its revolutionary exploration of social and cultural ideas. Courant noted that Inge "confronted sexual stereotyping, social conformity, and especially the cultural media that reinforced these values." Earlier, when Inge was still a drama critic for the Saint Louis Star-Times, he had criticized Hollywood films for creating only passive, accepting women.

Accordingly, said Courant, when Inge wrote Come Back, Little Sheba it was with the intent of creating a woman as rich and complex as any male character, who "coexisted with men as fully developed characters with strong physical and spiritual needs." Thus, Lola states early in the play, "When I lost my baby and found out I couldn't have any more, I didn't know what to do with myself." Lola is haunted by this loss, which she channels into her plaintive calls for her lost dog, Sheba. Doc, of course, is haunted by the loss of his career. When he was forced to give up his dreams of medical school, Doc also lost the economic and social prestige that came with the medical license.

Both their losses come at a point in postwar America where the baby boom signals the importance of family and a consumer-driven economy propels the prosperity of the nation. But the Delaneys have neither children nor prosperity. Courant declared that the "postwar American environment placed enormous value on social status and material success," and these values were "unabashedly proclaimed by the expanding electronic media, anxious to sell a vast array of consumer goods." In an early draft of Come Back, Little Sheba, Courant stated that Inge has Lola enter in Act I as the radio plays an ad for a cream to restore a woman's youth. Since the symbolism of Inge's play is so heavily focused on the loss of youth's beauty and promise, the connection to media influence is readily apparent.

The importance of media, especially Hollywood movies, is apparent in Lola's justification for watching Marie and Turk kissing. When Doc criticizes Turk and warns Lola that the young man is probably forcing Marie to Mss him, Lola replies that Marie "is kissing him like he was Rudolph Valentino." When Doc tries to stop his wife's description of Marie's and Turk's embrace, Lola replies that Doc thinks "every young girl is Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette." And in Lola's reply to Doc's accusation of spying, she compares what she is doing to watching actors kiss in a movie. Lola is unable to separate the reality of what Marie and Turk are doing from the beguiling images created in Hollywood. Courant argued that this exchange has different meanings for Lola and Doc. For Lola, "a fascinating movie is going on in her own home, and with no meaningful purpose in her own life, she passively accepts a role of observer with no notion of interfering." But Doc, "inappropriately places responsibility for Marie's behavior on his wife." Neither husband or wife seem aware that both are confusing illusion with reality.

Inge was ahead of his time when, through Lola, he points out the inequities between women and men. When Mane tells Lola that the female models in her art class can pose nude, but men must be covered, Lola is shocked at the inequity, and she exclaims,' 'If it's alright for a woman,...

(This entire section contains 1503 words.)

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it oughta' be for a man." But there is a double standard governing the behavior of men and women. This discrepancy is again noted when Doc automatically assumes Marie is pure and virginal, even identifying her with the Virgin Mary when he hearsAve Maria; but he naturally assumes that Turk is another debauched male, only interested in one thing—sex.

The reality that Inge makes clear is that Mane is as sexually charged as Turk Thus, the social implications of Inge's characterizations are important. The contrast between Doc and Turk is even more interesting. Doc is as sexually repressed as the illusion he creates about Marie. And Turk, whom Doc thinks of as a seducer of young virgins, is himself being used by the sexually liberated Mane. All of this reversed role-playing predicts the sexual revolution and women's rights movements that will explode in the 1960s Inge's drama is nearly fifteen years ahead of its time. Given the potential for misunderstanding the playwright's intentions, it is little wonder that 1950 theatre critics provided such mixed reviews when Come Back, Little Sheba opened.

Marie has been the focus of much of the play's critical review. Her open sexuality and the easy manner m which she dismisses Turk when her fiancé, Bruce, appears, is a incongruity for the cultural milieu in which Inge was writing. Marie does not easily fit into any grouping. She is neither pure nor tainted. And, she is more complex than she initially appears. For instance, when Marie first enters the stage she is described as wearing only a sheer dainty negligee. Mane seems genuinely unaware of Doc's infatuation with her or of the appropriateness of her clothing. And yet, as she "starts dancing away from him," as the stage direction requires, there is a hint of flirtation. This is even more evident when Marie returns to the stage after she has dressed After Lola kisses Doc goodbye, Mane jokes, "Aren't you going to kiss me, Dr. Delaney?"

Jordan Miller ignored this flirtation and the stage direction that Inge has supplied, and asserted in the Kansas Quarterly that Mane's role in Doc's fall is inadvertent. After first describing Mane as a "bubbly ... classic stereotype of the oh-so-enthusiastic coed, eager to get her education in her own free way," Miller later refined to Mane as a complication to "Doc's trial." But Miller did not blame Marie for what happens to Doc and Lola; he blamed Lola Miller excused Doc's infatuation with Marie by describing her as ''the picture to Doc of the Lola that might have been," and so, "his infatuation with her is entirely understandable." Miller argued that Doc's enjoyment in Mane is to be expected in the face of Lola's appearance and he observed that "in Doc's enjoyment of Marie's fresh daintiness as a Lola substitute, as well as his intense pleasure at her very nearness, the conflict he is enduring within himself involving his loyalties to his repulsive wife is all the more obvious."

Later. Miller excused Doc's fall from sobriety, as "appropriate" and "effective." When he placed the blame for Doc's behavior on Lola, Miller assigned a meaning to the play that Inge never intended and, in fact, denied. Courant quoted an early article that Inge wrote for Theatre Arts in which he stated that Lola is "childish rather than slovenly" and that "she possesses enough human warmth and compassion to make her his (Doc's] equal."

Lola is more than a symbol of Doc's lost dreams or her own discarded hopes. And she is much more complex than Miller admitted when he described her as "childish. . . land) infantile," with an "arrested emotional development." However, when Miller acknowledged that Lola is the "picture of a thousand, of ten thousand women whose lives have descended to just such meaningless routines.'' he was articulating a social problem that Inge illuminates in this play. During World War II, women assumed many of the roles that men had traditionally held. Women worked in factories, on assembly lines, and in support of the war effort. When the war ended, and the men returned, women were fired to ensure employment for the returning veterans. Doc's insistence that Lola not work was all too common, but Inge's focus on the emptiness of her life illuminates the results of such actions. Lola has spent twenty years in the emptiness of her house. Il is little wonder that she wants to sleep until noon or that she has little interest in cleaning her prison.

An interesting contrast is offered by Mrs. Coffman, who has seven children and a spotless home. Her house is not empty; she has the challenge of caring for a large family to fill her days. Lola, though, has nothing to fill her days. Lola's loneliness, manifested in her eagerness to gossip and chatter with whomever comes to her door, is clearly obvious. Her life is a "meaningless routine," but it is because of a social standard that creates two distinct spheres for men and women. Doc works in the public sphere; the work is not the career he wanted, but it is a way to escape into the world. It is ironic that Doc has relegated Lola to the domestic sphere and an unfulfilled existence when his drinking is in reaction to his own unfulfilled dreams.

Source: Sheri Metzger, for Drama for Students Gale, 1998. Metzger is a professional writer who specializes in literature and drama.

The Laureate of Longing

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When Come Back, Little Sheba opened on Broadway in 1950, critics hailed its author, William Inge, as an authentic voice of the plain people west of the Mississippi. He burnished his reputation for passionate simplicity with Picnic (winner of a 1953 Pulitzer Prize), Bus Stop (1955) and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957). Never a master of plot or construction, Inge was incomparably tender, a poet laureate of adolescent sexuality and middle-aged longing. An honored place in theater history seemed assured. Then all went sour. Flop followed flop; drink and depression overtook him. When he committed suicide in 1973, the New York Times obituary appraised him as a man who had "lost his gift." Gift there was, however, and after near oblivion, Inge is being rediscovered: last week the Roundabout Theater in New York City mounted a powerful Come Back, Little Sheba, the first major Manhattan production since its premiere. The Berkshire Theater Festival in Stockbridge, Mass., is currently staging A Loss of Roses with Elizabeth Franz and Shaun Cassidy. A musical version of Bus Stop and a West Coast stage revival of Picnic are pending, and Washington Post Drama Critic David Richards is writing an Inge biography.

Like all of Inge's best plays, Sheba is slight of plot but musky with atmosphere An alcoholic chiropractor (Philip Bosco) and his slatternly wife (Shirley Knight) live in a dreary house in the Midwest, diverted from maudlin introspection only by their boarder, a sprightly college student (Mia Dillon). Doom seeps through every dusty curtain. Although the husband is supposedly recovered, it is apparent that he is looking for an excuse to take a drink. Although the college girl is beloved as a surrogate for the couple's baby daughter who died 20 years before, it is evident that she will, however inadvertently, add to the wreckage of the marriage. The title refers to the wife's calling for a lost puppy, yet it is clear that hers is in truth a cri de coeur for the unbearable pain of growing old before she has even grown up. If this is the heartland, it is as seen by Freud: the husband lusts after the girl and fantasizes about her as the virtuous virgin that his wife was not; the wife acts kittenish even with the milkman; the girl selects lovers, then discards them. Middle age is portrayed as a time of aching sexual frustration, made more acute by the close-at-hand vision of youth. Some of Inge's kitchen-sink exposition seems dated and clumsy in its mix of naturalism and artifice. But Sheba remains a showcase for poignant acting. Knight attains a lumpish sweetness but does not sentimentalize her character as a victim. Bosco has little to do until his whisky-sodden storming, but radiates the disappointment that beclouds the house. Dillon blends coy charm with unhesitating selfishness. And as her beau of convenience, Kevin Conroy is boisterously funny yet pathetic, reveling in his self-image as "a brute," never realizing that it is he who is being overpowered Inge did not transform his characters: they end where they began. But he understood them. In their interplay was genuine life, often blunted but ever resilient.

Source: William A. Henry III, "The Laureate of Longing'' in Time, Volume 124, no 4, July 23,1984, pp 103.

The Dream and the Dog

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In the last scene of Come Back, Little Sheba, at the Booth, the forty-year-old heroine tells her husband about a dream she had the night before. She was, it seems, a spectator at a track meet, watching the javelin throw. At first, it appeared to her that the star performer was a young athlete who had stirred her powerfully in her waking life, not only by posing for a drawing in his running trunks but also by seducing a pretty student who happened to be boarding in her house. Rapidly, however, he turned into a succession of other young men, whose muscular physiques and fetching ways had appealed to her rather strongly, too. The confusion was finally resolved when this multiple personality was disqualified from further competition by her father, who chanced to be an official at the meet, and the event was won by her husband, who threw the javelin so high that it disappeared in the sky. The dream ended with her discovery of the body of her little dog, Sheba, who had run away one night and never come back and whom, in some mysterious way, she had come to identify with everything she had lost in life. It is doubtful whether so much elementary and perhaps slightly preposterous symbolism has ever been crowded into one dream before m the history of the theatre, and the fact that the author, William Inge, thinks enough of it to employ it as a sort of official key to the meaning of his play may partially explain why Come Back, Little Sheba, for all the true and touching things it has to say, is on the whole much less satisfactory than it ought to be. The story so conscientiously diagrammed by the dream is a fairly simple one. When the elderly hero was a young man, he had hoped to be a great doctor. However, a youthful romance with a girl somewhat beneath him had resulted in pregnancy and a hasty marriage, and he had been obliged to give up his medical studies and take to the science of chiropractic. When the child was born dead, the couple's frustration was complete, and by the time the play opens, he is a temporarily reclaimed drunkard, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, and she is a hopeless slattern, indifferent to her own appearance and that of her house, and even unwilling to get up and cook his breakfast. Her only surviving interests, in fact, are popular radio programs; conversations with the deliverymen, especially if handsome; the love affair being conducted by her boarder, from which she obviously gets a strong vicarious excitement; and, of course, the loss of her dog It is a dismal existence, a nightmare of suburban domesticity, but the unhappy pair are at least resigned to it until the husband, identifying the boarder with the daughter he never had, is infuriated by what he takes to be an attempt of his wife to debauch her and goes back to his bottle. There is a genuinely shocking scene in which, after reproaching her with ruining his life and turning their home into a bordello, he attacks her with a hatchet, but fortunately he falls down in a drunken stupor before any blood is shed. Nevertheless, the situation is still alarming, and everybody is rather relieved when two envoys from Alcoholics Anonymous come and take him away to a hospital. When he returns, a week later, he is naturally a chastened man, and the two are reconciled. It is apparently Mr. Inge's contention that since they have nothing but each other, they had better forget the past (there is some talk about getting a new dog to replace little Sheba) and try to make the best of things as they are. I found it rather hard to believe that conditions wouldn't be precisely as bad, if not worse, within a couple of months, but it is quite possible that I am underrating the power of good resolutions, made under great emotional tension, not to mention that of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Though I have a good many misgivings about the play, which strikes me as a peculiar mixture of effective realism and psychiatric claptrap, I have none at all about the performances given in it by Shirley Booth and Sidney Blackmer. Mr. Inge's heroine is an unusually taxing part, since she could readily seem only a silly and graceless woman, amply deserving everything her husband says about her, but Miss Booth achieves the difficult feat of arousing both pity and sympathy for her. It is a considerable accomplishment, calling for acting qualities, for a range of emotion, that I hadn't been aware she possessed. Mr. Blackmer's job is easier, long-suffering husbands and dipsomaniacs being among the few almost foolproof assignments the stage has to offer, but the transition between these two conditions certainly presents its problems, and I think he handles them admirably. Of the others, I especially liked John Randolph, as a physical-culture addict, and Olga Fabian, as a busybody living next door, and there were sound contributions by Joan Lorring, Lonny Chapman, and Daniel A. Reed. Howard Bay's set, described in the program as "an old house in a run-down neighborhood," has a fidelity to these specifications that would drive almost any man to drink.

Source: Wolcott Gibbs, "The Dream and the Dog" in the New Yorker, Volume XXVI, no 1, February, 1950, pp 68, 70.


Critical Overview