Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 996
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 Lorraine Sheldon, who is sailing to New York on the Normandie. He assures “Blossom Girl” that the lead in this excellent new play is hers if she can arrange a visit to Mesalia and vamp the handsome playwright.
Act 2 begins one week later, with the arrival of another of Whiteside’s exotic Christmas presents, four live penguins from Admiral Richard E. Byrd. While waiting for Lorraine’s arrival, Whiteside entertains himself by advising the Stanleys’ son to hop a tramp steamer and their daughter to elope with a young man who has been organizing the workers in Mr. Stanleys’ factory. When Lorraine finally arrives in a cloud of silver fox, she informs Whiteside of the latest London gossip and her schemes to trap Lord Bottomley into marriage.
Maggie returns with Bert, who somehow ends up dropping “Blossom Girl” off at her hotel. Sensing Whiteside’s plot, Maggie persuades the next celebrity guest, English writer Beverly Carlton, to get rid of Lorraine by pretending to be Lord Bottomley calling from England to propose. After Bottomley’s supposed proposal, Lorraine begins making elaborate plans for a hasty return to England, until Whiteside deduces that Lorraine’s caller was only Carlton. Discovering that Maggie is the instigator of the plot, Lorraine redoubles her efforts to get herself cast in Bert’s play. Amid this commotion, Whiteside’s Christmas Eve broadcast begins with a boys’ choir singing “Silent Night” in the background. About that time, Nurse Preen dashes in shrieking that she has just been bitten by a penguin, and the curtain falls.
Act 3 begins on Christmas morning with Whiteside in a bad mood, for Maggie has not changed her mind about quitting, and Bert is going to Lake Placid with Lorraine to work on his play. Whiteside’s ill humor soon dissipates, however, with the arrival of his next guest, the irrepressible Hollywood actor Banjo, who makes his entrance kissing the sour-faced Miss Preen. Forgetting himself, Whiteside gets up out of his wheelchair and begins pacing. He has been all right for weeks but only pretended to be lame in order to stay in Mesalia and get Maggie away from her newspaperman. While the two men try to devise a way to undo Whiteside’s meddling, Mr. Stanley produces an eviction notice and announces that both of his children have been found and are returning.
On her way to Lake Placid, Lorraine comes to say good-bye, but she is interrupted by the arrival of a huge mummy case from the Khedive of Egypt. As Lorraine dramatically steps into the mummy case, Banjo and Whiteside get an idea. Locking Lorraine inside, Banjo promises to take the mummy case with him to Nova Scotia. The problem of Lorraine solved, Whiteside takes advantage of the lull to puzzle over the picture that Harriet has given him of herself. He has thought all along that her face seems familiar. Finally, he recognizes her as a notorious New England ax murderess of twenty-five years before; her exploits had prompted the following jingle:
Harriet Sedley took an axeAnd gave her mother forty whacks,And when the job was nicely done,She gave her father forty-one.
Threatening to inform his radio audience of the identity of Mr. Stanley’s sister, Whiteside extracts from Stanley a promise to let Richard wander around the world and June marry her union leader. The only consolation for the Stanleys is that Whiteside is leaving. Just as the Stanleys breathe a sigh of relief, however, a loud crash and a curse are heard offstage. Whiteside is carried back into the Stanley living room; the curtain falls as Mrs. Stanley faints.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479
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 comment to Kaufman—that the only experience worse than Woollcott’s weekend visit would be Woollcott’s breaking his leg and being forced to stay longer—provided the central situation of The Man Who Came to Dinner.
Most critics have assumed that the prototype for the flamboyant Lorraine Sheldon is Gertrude Lawrence, but an occasional writer has suggested that Woollcott’s friend Tallulah Bankhead is the original. Beverly Carlton is clearly based on English actor and playwright Noel Coward. “What Am I to Do?,” the song that Beverly plays for Whiteside, was actually written by Cole Porter in parody of the Coward style. Banjo’s outrageous behavior, such as putting his foot in John’s hand, recalls the antics of Harpo Marx, with whom Kaufman became friendly while he was writing the screenplay (with Morrie Ryskind) for the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera (1935).
Though the pacing of the play seems frantic, with a new character being introduced every time that the action threatens to flag, Whiteside functions as a static presence around whom the other characters revolve, since he is confined to a wheelchair for most of the play. Also, the love story between Bert Jefferson and Maggie Cutler offers a lyrical contrast to the other, more swiftly paced subplots. The second-act ending, with Whiteside preparing for his Christmas Eve broadcast amid a swirl of activity, builds to an exciting crescendo in a signature Kaufman and Hart climax.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 225
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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 181
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.