The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

In The Man Who Came to Dinner, Sheridan Whiteside, famous critic and authority on sensational murders, condescends to dine at the prosperous home of Mr. and Mrs. Earnest W. Stanley while he is in Mesalia, Ohio, on a lecture tour. Whiteside injures his hip, however, when he slips on a piece of ice on the Stanley doorstep; he is then confined to their residence for an indefinite period of time. Except for Mr. Stanley, who resents Whiteside’s demands and threats of a lawsuit, the household goes to extraordinary lengths to keep Whiteside comfortable. Son Richard runs all over town searching for Whiteside’s special brand of cigarettes; daughter June keeps busy answering the telephone and doorbell; John, the manservant, scurries about with pillows and packages; and Sarah, the cook, concocts delicacies to tempt the portly Whiteside. Two members of Mesalia’s medical community, Nurse Preen and Dr. Bradley, personally attend to Whiteside’s every whim.

When Whiteside finally makes an appearance onstage, he repays the solicitude of one and all by carefully looking over the expectant group and announcing acidly, “I may vomit.” Describing Nurse Preen’s hands as “fishhooks” and referring to Dr. Bradley as a “quack,” he orders the Stanleys to refrain from using the telephone and the front stairway. Only Harriet Stanley, Mr. Stanley’s strange sister who drifts in and out with little presents for Whiteside, escapes the great man’s snarls.

Insisting that his normal routine not be interrupted even in so remote a town as Mesalia, Whiteside continues to place and accept long-distance telephone calls from the likes of Walt Disney and Arturo Toscanini as he arranges dinner engagements and guests for his radio show. In addition, a series of Whiteside’s friends pay him quick visits, the first one being entomologist Professor Metz, who presents Whiteside with Roach City, a planned community consisting of ten thousand cockroaches.

The great man’s exciting life-style is threatened, however, when his secretary, Maggie Cutler, falls in love with local newspaperman Bert Jefferson and plans to quit her job. Determined to bring Maggie out of her “Joan Crawford fantasy,” Whiteside thinks of a way to break up the couple. Bert has written a play that Maggie thinks would be a perfect starring vehicle for Katherine Cornell. Instead, Whiteside places a transatlantic call to stage and screen actress...

(The entire section is 996 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

An important source of the comedy in The Man Who Came to Dinner is the series of one-liners delivered in rapid-fire succession. Whiteside’s complaint to Maggie that he cannot locate her, “not knowing what haylofts” she frequents, Maggie’s admitting that she is “a hard-bitten old cynic, behaving like True Story Magazine,” and Beverly’s reference to “La Sheldon” as “that little boudoir butterfly” are only a few examples.

Another dramatic device is the litany of allusions, more than eighty-five of them, to accomplished people. Part of the fun for the audience is trying to figure out just what each person is famous for. Although the Mesalia characters are fictitious, all the celebrity characters are based on friends and acquaintances of George Kaufman and Moss Hart. The part of Whiteside was written for and about Alexander Woollcott, a radio personality of the 1930’s for whom the brandy Alexander was named. Those who knew Woollcott personally were often irritated by his ill-tempered insults and childish behavior. Indeed, the concept of the play evolved out of a disastrous weekend at Hart’s country home in the Poconos during which Woollcott insisted on taking over his host’s bedroom and exasperated the household staff by accusing them of being dishonest. Woollcott then repaid Hart’s hospitality by writing in the guestbook that his visit to the Hart farm was one of the most unpleasant he had ever spent. Hart’s offhand...

(The entire section is 479 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Stanley home

Stanley home. Moderately affluent home of the Stanley family in a small, unnamed Ohio town. Representing a kind of normalcy or upper-middle-class standard, the house is furnished tastefully. The play is set during the 1930’s, when the living room was the center of the typical American home; callers were greeted and entertained there, and families relaxed together there. The Man Who Came to Dinner is about an invasion and transformation of a typical American living room. Soon after the larger-than-life Sheridan Whiteside is confined to the Stanleys’ house because of his accident, he takes over the room to broadcast his weekly radio show and conduct his business as if he were living in New York. The generous proportions of the living room and its gracious furnishings and decorations soon become a shambles, overrun by exotic and famous visitors and strange gifts—such as penguins and a mummy case.

George S. Kaufman’s play exaggerates the bizarre and exotic and juxtaposes them against the middle-class environment in which they are presented. This juxtaposition creates the play’s comedy, as Whiteside fills the Stanley’s living room to overflowing, and the identities of the Stanleys themselves are absorbed as their possessions are relegated to other places in their home, replaced by an avalanche of objects and artifacts pouring in from Whiteside’s friends and admirers.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Goldstein, Malcolm. George S. Kaufman: His Life, His Theater. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. An excellent critical biography of Kaufman with insightful discussions of his plays.

Goldstein, Malcolm. The Political Stage: American Drama and Theater of the Great Depression. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. An important study of the theater in America in the Kaufman-Hart era of collaboration. Helpful for understanding the political, social, and artistic context of their work.

Mason, Jeffrey D. Wisecracks: The Farces of George S. Kaufman. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1988. Most helpful monograph on the comedies of Kaufman as farce, including those written with Hart. Apt discussion of Whiteside as “clown” and “master of the revels.”

Pollack, Rhoda-Gale. George S. Kaufman. Boston: Twayne, 1988. A critical biography with a chronology and select bibliography. Gives helpful background information on allusions to Woollcott and others in The Man Who Came to Dinner.

Teichmann, Howard. Smart Aleck: The Wit, World, and Life of Alexander Woollcott. New York: William Morrow, 1976. Intimate biography of the real person behind Sheridan Whiteside, with a significant chapter on The Man Who Came to Dinner.