The Play

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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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1881 words.)

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