The Man Who Came to Dinner

by George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart

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Critical Evaluation

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George Kaufman and Moss Hart dedicated The Man Who Came to Dinner to their friend, the renowned drama critic and radio personality Alexander Woollcott, after whom they modeled the character of Sheridan Whiteside. He is a delightfully outrageous character, a comic parody of Woollcott’s traits, especially his notorious gormandizing, cruel wit, and graceless behavior as a houseguest. With the exception of Maggie Cutler, Whiteside dominates everyone around him, using acerbic wit, saccharine cajolery, or threats as the situation seems to call for it. Since he is a massive egotist, he is so caught up in his own conceit as to be completely blind to the harm he can and does do.

The plot of the play is a well-worn one, that of the unwanted intruder who disrupts the normal life and peaceful equanimity of a household. The premise presents a tense situation fraught with comic possibilities that can be mined as long as the intruder remains the play’s central figure and driver of the plot. Whiteside is the master of comic bluster and an outrageous manipulator who has no qualms about riding roughshod over anyone who stands in his way.

It is hard to sympathize with Whiteside’s victims, for the comedy is nonsensical farce, and most of his targets deserve at least some of the comic derision to which they are subjected. Mr. Stanley, for example, is so staid and proper that he is easily intimidated by legal threats. Daisy Stanley, his wife, is one of those society matrons who patronize the arts to bolster their own esteem and be able to crow over their friends. Dr. Bradley and Lorraine Sheldon deserve their treatment because they have an inflated sense of their own talents, Bradley as a writer and Sheldon as a serious actor.

The rapid pace of the play and the stream of oddball characters who flit on and off stage serve to mitigate any real concern the audience might feel for the victims. Only Maggie and Bert Jefferson, who refuse to be cowed or cajoled by Whiteside, can command much respect. Maggie deftly penetrates Whiteside’s bluster, and she is, as he knows, his match. Paradoxically, this is the reason he values her. She is like a daughter to him, and even when he addresses her in insulting terms such as “repulsive” and “sex-ridden hag,” his affection for her shapes the insults’ subtext.

Most other people are mere toys to Whiteside, and many of them, like Banjo and Beverly Carlton, he values simply because they delight him by being unpredictable or clever. The impression of Whiteside as a rich, willful, spoiled child is reinforced by the physical debris that accumulates during the play as the Stanleys’ first floor is turned into Whiteside’s personal romper room. Throughout the comedy, gifts for Whiteside pour in from scores of real and fictitious celebrities. By the beginning of the second act, piles of gifts collect under an imposing Christmas tree, put there for Whiteside’s exclusive amusement. In the last act, the comic proliferation of things and people includes a radio production crew that turns the Stanleys’ living room into Whiteside’s private broadcast studio.

Because the play is rich with topical materials and allusions, it has gradually become a bit dated. Whiteside talks to or about real personalities of his day, from the great actor Katharine Cornell to the early master of science fiction, H. G. Wells. The frenetic name-dropping is part of the fun, and some of the play’s characters are even based on well-known celebrities of the day—Banjo, for example, was inspired by Harpo Marx, Lorraine Sheldon by Gertrude Lawrence, and Beverly Carlton by Noël Coward. As pure entertainment, however, The Man Who Came to Dinner is hard to fault. It is one of those sparkling, witty, Depression-era comedies that seemed designed to make audiences forget their troubles.

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Critical Context