When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder? Analysis

Mark Medoff

The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

It is early morning in Foster’s Diner, in New Mexico, when the curtain goes up on When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? Two of the protagonists are enacting a daily ritual: Young Stephen Ryder is reading the morning newspaper, picking his teeth, and showing a 1950’s macho attitude as Angel, the chubby waitress, cleans up and tries to engage him in conversation. They are at cross-purposes; she wants him to stay in the dusty outpost, hoping that in time he will recognize her female charms, he wants to get out and make a success of himself in the big world. His distant goal is to be a waiter in a tuxedo and own a Corvette Sting Ray “the color of money.” She quarrels with his insistence on being called “Red,” arguing that it does not make sense since his hair is brown. He insists that “when I was a kid I had red hair.” He identifies with the cowboy hero Red Ryder, with whom he shares a last name. The routine continues as, in turn, Clark, the owner of the franchise, and Lyle, who owns the adjacent gas station and motel, make their entrances, doing and saying their usual things. Lyle is a man in his early sixties. He has a slight disability that forces him to walk with a crutch, and he has designs on the waitress Angel even though she is probably forty years his junior.

Emerging from one of Lyle’s motel rooms to descend on the diner are two symbols of big cities and life in the fast lane, Richard and Clarisse Ethredge. He is a successful businessman, and she is an equally successful concert violinist. She carries a violin case containing a Guarnerius violin. There is an aura about them of self-confidence and success. They settle in to have breakfast and listen to the idle, if somewhat hostile, chatter of the locals.

With the arrival of Teddy and Cheryl, a feeling of unease and danger enters the forlorn and dusty diner. Teddy is a forceful man in his early thirties, dressed in an army fatigue jacket; he switches back and forth between being jocular and quietly threatening. For much of the play, he affects a broad Western accent. Cheryl is pretty, slightly scared, and braless—the last causes some helpless staring by Stephen and Lyle.

The tenor of the action has changed. Where before Teddy’s arrival there was a feeling of constantly shifting focus and lazy morning activity, there is now a decided power center: Teddy. He forces all present to focus their attention on him and, under the guise of jovial horseplay, intrudes brutally into their lives and dreams. He is quick to recognize the tangled tensions of sex and...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The dramatic prescription used in When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? is common enough in the theater: A group of people’s normal lives and routines are destroyed by an outside catalyst who then forces them to face themselves as they really are. The immediate model for the play is Robert E. Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest (pr., pb. 1935), which is also set in a diner somewhere in middle America; it deals with people who dream and create myths about themselves until the firebomb of a violent criminal on the run drops into their midst, pushing them to sort out reality and myth.

In When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?, Medoff establishes a routine reality and a small group of characters whose myths, dreams, and illusions are bared for all to see. Once the audience has familiarized themselves with these characters and perhaps begun to care for them, the playwright introduces a troubled man whose own dreams and illusions are buried and forgotten in the memories of a person he can probably no longer believe he once was. The mixture of the dreaming innocents and the man whose dreams have died proves chemically unstable. Trying to understand where his own dreams and myths died, Teddy forces the other characters to face the schism between myth and reality in their lives.

Medoff also very consciously plays with a dramatic device from the cowboy movie genre, the strong, silent stranger who rides into town and solves all the...

(The entire section is 466 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Adams, Elizabeth. “Mark Medoff.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James, 1999.

Erben, Rudolf. “The Western Holdup Play: The Pilgrimage Continues.” Western American Literature, February, 1989, 311-322.

Gladstein, Mimi. “An Interview with Mark Medoff.” Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present, 1993, 61-83.

Gladstein, Mimi. “Mark Medoff.” In Speaking on Stage: Interviews with Contemporary American Playwrights, edited by Philip C. Kolin and Colby Kullman. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.

Medoff, Mark. “In Praise of Teachers.” New York Times Magazine, November 9, 1986, 72.

The Nation. Review. November 26, 1973, 572.

The New Yorker. Review. December 17, 1973, 99.

Stasio, Marilyn. “Mark Medoff: At Home on the Range.” New York Times, November 27, 1988, p. H7.