Come Back, Little Sheba

by William Inge

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The Play

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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 fondle it, and his expression when he sees her reflects his love. (At such times, Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” 1825, is used by the playwright as background music to show Doc’s illusions of Marie’s purity.)

Much of the business of the play is accomplished during the slatternly Lola’s long talks with the neighbor, the milkman, and the mailman. Lola will talk to anyone who will listen, and because when she talks she tells everything, William Inge can use her as a one-woman chorus to provide necessary background information.

The play moves slowly but deliberately toward Doc’s drunk scene. Since he became a member of Alcoholics Anonymous a year ago, Doc has not been drinking. He chides Lola mildly because she has allowed Turk to spend the night with Marie just before Bruce is to visit; she has also allowed Turk to pose virtually naked while Marie sketches him. The breaking point comes when Doc arrives at his usually unkempt house and finds that Lola has spruced everything up, has the table set with the fine Haviland china his mother gave them as a wedding gift, and is preparing an exquisite dinner for Marie and Bruce.

Doc pulls the cloth from the table, sending the china crashing to the floor; that rash act leads to his drunken tirade, which in the Broadway production lasted seventeen minutes and became so violent that Sidney Blackmer, who played Doc in the first Broadway run, injured himself several times in acting the scene. Doc winds up in the drunk tank at a local hospital. Lola calls her mother and begs to be allowed to come home, but her mother makes it clear that she cannot. Lola has no place to turn. She also has no skills that would enable her to make a living if she did leave. When Doc is released from the drunk tank, he comes home and begs Lola not to leave him, promising never to drink again if she will stay. As in most of Inge’s plays, the solution represents a significant compromise between two people who...

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need rather than love each other.

Lola’s dream sequences in the play are particularly significant. Strongly phallic, they presage her inevitable reconciliation with Doc. More important, however, the dreams lead Lola to realize that Sheba is dead. She dreams of her dog lying in a field, mud discoloring her white coat. Lola gives up looking for Sheba; she has at last accepted the disappearance of her youth.

A turning point occurs when Lola straightens up her usually disheveled house. She fills out the order slip for the milkman instead of trapping him into having a tedious conversation with her when he rings the bell to take her order. The resolution of the play’s conflict suggests that the best that one can hope for in life is an interdependency that keeps people from being alone.

Dramatic Devices

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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.

Historical Context

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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 of the U.S By 1949, Kansas was still an agricultural center with one fourth of the nation's wheat grown there.

In cities across the nation, the women who had run factories and kept assembly lines running during World War II were out of men's slacks and once again back in aprons, domestically at work in their homes. By 1949, the baby boom of postwar America was well established. The emphasis, after years of depression followed by years of war, was on stability and family. Women lost the jobs they held during the war because war veterans needed work; instead, women were returned to the domestic sphere they had occupied before the war. The role of wife and mother was repeatedly portrayed in the media as the highest aspiration for a woman in postwar society. When Lola laments early in the play that she does not know what she is supposed to do in a childless house, she is giving voice to the dark underside of that perfect American family. In the midst of a baby boom, what is a woman without children to do? Lola tells the audience that Doc does not want her working, but he is only repeating the natural order of domestic life.

Few women were working outside the home in this era, but women were beginning to become a stronger force in society. With production of consumer goods at an all time high, women as consumers were beginning to have more power. In addition, their wartime participation in the American work force had given them a taste of independence and pride in workmanship. The postwar years marked the beginnings of the women's movement that would flower in the ensuing decades. For many women, the 1950s reinforced the belief that they should have the same opportunities as men in both domestic and business situations Yet due to the prosperity of the postwar business boom, many other women saw no reason to question the status quo. With increased money circulating in the economy, consumer spending was up and times were good.

A postwar production economy was trying to meet the demand for new cars, new washers, and the multitude of new items that television advertisements promised each family they would need. Auto manufacturer General Motors's profit in 1950 was nearly $636.5 million. The Gross National Product was $284 billion, a huge increase from 1940's $99 billion. The manufacture and sale of television sets also sharply increased to meet new demands. The acquisition of material goods was another symbol of the American Dream. If a family did not have a new home, new car, and completely modern new kitchen, then they were not living the good life.

Literary Style

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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.

The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The location for Inge's play is the downstairs of an old house in a midwestern city; the time is post-World War II. The action occurs over a period of two days. The proceedings are further reduced to one set, the downstairs of the Delaney home. This narrows the focus to Doc and Lola's home, both literally and figuratively. The setting is the result of their life choices, the sum of their actions. It is the battleground upon which they must resolve their differences and move forward.

This term refers to the pattern of events. Generally plots should have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but they may also sometimes be a series of episodes connected together. Basically, the plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of Come Back, Little Sheba the story of a husband and wife who find that their present is not commensurate with the dreams of their past. But the themes are those of loneliness, addiction, and lost opportunities.

A person in a dramatic work. The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual's morality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multi-faceted ones. Characters may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. "Characterization" is the process of creating a lifelike person from an author's imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation.

For instance, in the beginning of Come Back, Little Sheba. Doc is sober, although his evasive answers to Lola indicate he is not happy or even accepting of the life he is living. As the play-progresses, it becomes clearer that Doc is in a great deal of emotional pain. He is using Marie's purity to represent all the lost opportunities in his life. When he realizes that she is not what he thought, he cannot deal with even one more disappointment in his life. These sequences define the character of Doc as a broken, disillusioned man. The traits Inge assigns to him identify him as such and his actions are therefore plausible to the audience.

A drama is often defined as any work designed to be presented on the stage. It consists of a story, of actors portraying characters, and of action But historically, drama can also consist of tragedy, comedy, religious pageant, and spectacle. In modern usage, drama explores serious topics and themes but does not achieve the same level as tragedy. Drama is also applicable as a term to describe a storyline that is serious in nature and theme. Come Back, Little Sheba represents both definitions of the term.

Catharsis is the release of emotions, usually fear and pity. The term as first used by Aristotle in his Poetics to refer to the desired effect of tragedy on the audience. The final act of Come Back, Little Sheba is cathartic because the tension has been building as the audience has watched the affair of Mane and Turk progress, understanding of course, that its lack of concealment will lead to a climax when Doc realizes that Marie is not pure and virginal. When Doc finally explodes in rage at Lola, the audience also feels the eruption of this tension as a catharsis. For the audience, Doc, and Lola, this catharsis brings clearer understanding and, it is Inge's hope, change for the better.

Symbolism is the use of one object to replace another. It is an important tool in literature. The symbol is an object or image that implies a reality beyond its original meaning. This is different from a metaphor, which summons forth an object in order to describe an idea or a quality. For example, the dog Little Sheba is a symbol of Lola's lost youth She searches for the dog, just as she searches for her lost beauty and youth. The javelin that he throws is a symbol for Turk's role in the play. He is a sexual plaything for Mane. The javelin is clearly identified with male sexual genitalia and sexuality. Likewise, Doc's idealized perception of Mane represents his desire to correct the mistakes of his past. He wants to believe that Mane will behave in a pure fashion and thus not suffer the fate that Lola has.

Compare and Contrast

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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.

1949: The age of mass media begins; the nation now has more than one hundred television stations broadcasting in thirty-eight states. Five million homes have sets, but forty-five million homes still have radios.

Today: Television sets occupy almost every home, with most domiciles having more than one set. Families that used to be grouped around the radio in the evening have been replaced by families that spread out in different rooms to watch programming on different sets. The internet becomes a new media venue for entertainment and information.

Media Adaptations

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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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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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.

Miller, Jordan. "William Inge: Playwright of the Popular" in Proceedings of the Fifth National Convention of the Popular Culture Association, Bowling Green University Press (Bowling Green, OH), 1975, pp 37-50.

Phelan, Kappo "The State" in Commonweal, March. 3, 1950, p. 558.

Sarotte, Georges-Michel "William Inge- 'Homosexual Spite' in Action" in Like a Brother, Like a Lover. Male Homosexuality in the American Novel and Theater from Herman Melville to James Baldwin, Translated by Richard Miller, Doubleday, 1978, pp 121-23.

Weales, Gerald "The New Pineros" in American Drama since World War Two, Harcourt (New York), 1962, pp. 40-56.

Wyatt, Eupherma Van Renssalaer. Review of Come Back, Little Sheba in Catholic World, April, 1950, p 67.

Further Reading
Courant, Jane. ''Social and Cultural Prophecy in the Works of William Inge" in Studies in American Drama, Vol. 6, no. 2, 1991. Courant is a professor at die University of California, Santa Cruz. Her critical reading of Inge is based on cultural-historical theory and seeks to examine the motivations and intents of Inge based on social influences. Her primary argument is that with the distance of several years and the events of the 1960s, it is easy to see how Inge was anticipating social change

Inge, William "The Schizophrenic Wonder" in Theatre Arts, May, 1950, pp. 22-23. In this article, Inge is responding to the harsh criticism of the female characters in his play He defends them by stating that critics are unable to "separate low morals from low incomes "

Leeson, Richard M William Inge. A Research and Production Sourcebook, Greenwood Press, 1994. This is a thorough critical overview of Inge's plays with information about reviews and critical studies

McClure, Arthur F. Memories of Splendor The Midwestern World of William Inge, Kansas State Historical Society (Topeka), 1989. This book contains production information and photographs of Inge and his work

Miller, Jordan. "William Inge Last of the Realists" in Kansas Quarterly, Vol 2, no 2,1970, pp. 17-26. Miller is a professor at the University of Rhode Island Miller is from Kansas, and he finds that Inge's settings are very realistic and that he accurately portrays Kansas—and midwestern—life. In this article, Miller praises Inge's realistic portrayal of his characters

Shuman, R. Baird William Inge, Twayne (Boston), 1989 This is a critical examination of all of Inge's plays.

Voss, Ralph F A Life of William Inge The Strains of Triumph, University of Kansas Press (Lawrence), 1989 This is a critical biography of Inge's life.


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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.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide