Come Back, Little Sheba
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
WILLIAM INGE 1949
Come Back, Little Sheba was to become William Inge’s most popular play. But the Broadway production did not create an immediate “smash hit.” In his foreword to Four Plays, published in 1958, Inge observes that the play was popular with only about half of its reviewers and that its Broadway run was less than six months. Inge also reveals that he took a cut in royalties, and the cast took a cut in salary to keep the play running after the audiences dwindled within a few weeks of its opening. But in spite of the lukewarm reviews, Come Back, Little Sheba brought Inge several honors, including the George Jean Nathan Award and the Theatre Time Award.
At the time of its writing, Inge’s play focused on subjects that were still controversial and not often discussed in public. Sexuality and pregnancy out of wedlock were shocking topics not usually portrayed in drama. Lola’s pregnancy, which forced a shotgun wedding, was the type of scandal that families went to great effort to hide. This was also true of alcohol addiction. Membership in Alcoholics Anonymous was not a topic for casual conversation, and the kind of drunken scene Doc creates in Act II was a seventeen minute revelation for most audiences
Many critics attacked Come Back, Little Sheba’s use of symbolism, which they felt was too obvious. Most often Lola’s dreams, Sheba the dog, and the blatant phallic symbolism of Turk’s javelin were Page 104 | Top of Articlesingled out for such criticism. Other reviewers noted that the characters were either flat or too contrived—or boring and repetitive. But reviewers who praised the play often found that Inge’s drama did accurately portray the suffering of ordinary people. In spite of the mixed nature of the reviews, most critics did agree on one topic, praising the performances of Shirley Booth as Lola, and Sidney Blackmer as Doc, which they felt transcended the material.
In the decades following Come Back, Little Sheba’s debut, the general consensus has been laudatory toward Inge’s work. The play is now considered a groundbreaking achievement in the genre of domestic drama. While its subject matter has become common fodder fueling the mundane storylines of countless soap operas, Come Back, Little Sheba was among the first dramas to skillfully address the confluence of such topics as alcoholism, failed marriage, and broken dreams. While the play is sometimes referred to as dated and melodramatic, it is nevertheless valued as a prototype for realistic contemporary social theater.
William Inge, born May 3, 1913, was the fifth and last child born to Maude and Luther Inge. He was raised in Independence, Kansas, by his mother; his father was a salesman and was rarely at home. After graduating from the University of Kansas in 1935, Inge attended the George Peabody College for Teachers but left before completing a master of arts degree. After a brief period teaching English at a local high school, Inge returned to college to complete his master’s program. He also worked as a drama critic, and it was during this period that he met noted playwright Tennessee Williams (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), who encouraged him to write. Inge completed his first play, and, with the help of Williams, Farther Off from Heaven was produced in 1947.
Concurrent with his rising success as a writer, Inge began to address shortcomings in his character. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1948, having already begun the process of Freudian analysis (a psychological practice designed to improve mental health) earlier. In 1949, he wrote Come Back, Little Sheba, which was produced on Broadway in 1950 and earned Inge the George Jean Nathan Award and Theatre Time Award. He scored another hit with Picnic (1952) which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the Outer Circle Award, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, and the Donaldson Award. Inge had two more Broadway hits in quick succession: Bus Stop (1955) and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957), which was an expanded and revised version of Farther Off from Heaven.
Following this early success, however, Inge’s subsequent plays, A Loss of Roses (1959), Natural Affection (1963) and Where’s Daddy? (1966) were commercial failures, each closing after only a few performances. Inge had more success with his first attempt at screenwriting, Splendor in the Grass (1961), which earned him the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1961. Following this success, he moved to Los Angeles to concentrate on script writing—although he never repeated his early success.
Inge was deeply affected by negative reviews of his work. He struggled with depression and alcoholism for much of his life. Many of his plays focus on the complexity of family relationships and deal with characters who struggle with failed expectations, depression, and addiction. His death in 1973 from carbon monoxide poisoning was ruled a suicide.
Act I, Scene 1
The scene opens with Doc entering the set, a cluttered and untidy downstairs kitchen and living room. Doc offers to prepare breakfast for the boarder, Marie, but she declines. When his wife, Lola enters, her disarray offers a distinct contrast to the other two character’s neatness. She begins by telling Doc that she has again dreamed of her dog, Little Sheba, who was lost twenty years earlier, and she wonders if she’ll ever find her lost pet. But Doc doubts that the dog will ever return. Both characters are nostalgic for a period more than twenty years earlier, when both were young and still dreaming of a different life. Lola was a popular beauty who longed for children before a botched midwife’s delivery ended their infant’s life and any hope of another child. Doc had planned on being a medical doctor before he was forced to marry and support a pregnant Lola; instead he became a chiropractor.
Lola applauds Doc for being sober a whole year. Doc then tells Lola that he will be at Alcoholics Page 105 | Top of ArticleAnonymous that evening helping other people resist the urge to drink. When Lola asks Doc if he drank from disappointment, he responds that to stay sober he needs to forget the past. Doc leaves for work after noting that Marie is too nice a girl to waste time on a man like Turk.
Marie then thanks Lola for taking such good care of her. Lola wants to hear about Marie’s romance with Turk, but the young man soon comes to pick up Marie. After she is left alone, an obviously lonely Lola tries to engage the postman, her neighbor, Mrs. Coffman, and the milkman in conversation. Lola finally turns to the radio for company when a messenger appears with a telegram for Marie. Lola cannot resist and steams it open to find that Marie’s fiance, Bruce, will arrive the next evening.
As Lola is reading this message, Marie walks in to ask if she can complete her drawing of a semi-nude Turk in the living room. After quickly hiding the telegram, Lola watches Turk pose for Marie. When Doc returns, he is angry that Turk is semi-nude in front of Marie, but Lola assures him that it is for an art class. When Lola confesses to Doc the contents of the telegram, he is angry that she is so nosy. But Lola dismisses his concern and tells him that she is planning a wonderful dinner for Bruce, Marie, and the two of them. Just before Doc leaves the room, he tells Lola that if something happens to Marie, he will never forgive Lola. But he does not see the passionate kiss that Marie and Turk share after he has gone upstairs.
Act I, Scene 2
When this second scene begins, it is clear that Lola has spent the day cleaning house. The rooms are neat and very clean. When Lola returns after borrowing silver polish from Mrs. Coffman, she asks Doc to show her some of his card tricks, and the two recall the happiness of their courtship. Lola observes that their youth has vanished like Little Sheba, and she regrets that she has gotten fat and slovenly. When Lola wonders if Doc regrets being forced to marry her, he replies that what’s done is done and must be forgotten. Lola cheers him by doing the Charleston, but the mood is broken when Marie returns and casually makes fun of Lola’s dancing.
Lola finally gives Marie the telegram announcing Bruce’s arrival the next evening. When Marie
goes into the next room, Lola watches her and Turk kissing. The two are engaging in some light-hearted sexual banter, and it is clear that their relationship has progressed beyond kissing. Doc is irritated at this spying, but Lola cannot see anything wrong with watching this bit of romance. After Doc leaves, Lola watches for a few more minutes, and then, when the couple leaves for a walk, Lola returns to the porch to call again to her lost dog.
Act II, Scene 1
It is the next morning, and Lola and Doc are at breakfast. Lola chats about Marie and Turk, but Doc tells Lola he would rather not talk. He says he did not sleep well and that he thought he heard a man’s voice in the house when Marie returned after midnight. Doc walks into the living room and thinks that he hears a man’s laugh coming from upstairs. He is forced to accept that Marie is not the virginal young women he had thought. A few moments later, Doc stumbles into Turk sneaking out the door. While Marie and Lola are getting the china for that evening’s dinner, Doc goes into the kitchen and takes the bottle of liquor that has sat untouched for the last year. He wraps it in a coat and leaves the house. The scene ends with Lola telling Marie what a gentleman Doc is.
Act II, Scene 2
It is 5:30, and Lola is finishing her preparation for the dinner celebration. When Bruce arrives, Lola offers him a drink and goes into the kitchen to get the bottle. She discovers that the liquor is missing, and, understanding immediately that Doc is drinking, she calls his Alcoholics Anonymous mentor, Ed Anderson, for help. The scene ends with Marie and Bruce eating alone at the candle-lit table.
Act II, Scene 3
Lola awakens on the sofa the next morning. She calls Ed to come over, and after she hangs up, Doc tries to sneak into the house, pretending to be sober. When Lola confronts him, his anger, resentment, and disillusionment come out in a horrifying verbal attack directed toward Lola. Doc is so out of control that he takes a hatchet and chases Lola, telling her that he is going to cut off all her fat and accusing her of only cleaning house when a young man is due to visit. He collapses when Lola reminds him of how pretty she was when they first met.
At this point, Ed and another AA member, Elmo, arrive. They convince Doc to go with them to the hospital for treatment. After they leave, Mrs. Coffman, who came over when she heard the noise of the fight, also goes home. Lola is alone when Bruce and Marie arrive, announce they are to be married, and tell Lola that Marie is moving back home with Bruce. They are gone within minutes. Lola calls her mother and asks if she can come home, but it is clear that her mother says no.
Act II, Scene 4
It is one week later. Mrs. Coffman enters to ask if Lola would like to go to the relay races with her family, but Lola declines, since Doc is to come home that morning. After Mrs. Coffman leaves, Doc enters and apologizes to Lola for his behavior and begs her not to leave him. Lola tells him of a recent dream she had. She tells him that she now realizes that Little Sheba is gone forever. Both Lola and Doc understand that this story is an agreement to put the past behind them and move forward.
With Elmo, Ed is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. Lola calls him frantic with worry when she discovers the bottle of alcohol is missing. She again calls him when Doc returns home drunk. It is Ed and Elmo who take Doc to the hospital.
Bruce is Marie’s hometown, clean-cut fiance. He provides the catalyst that finally moves Lola to clean house and prepare dinner when she eagerly anticipates his arrival. When he finally arrives, Bruce asks Marie to marry and move away with him.
Mrs. Coffman is the Delaney’s German neighbor. In the first act, she has little time for gossip with Lola and tells her that she needs to keep busy. They are not friends, as is evidenced when Lola wonders if Mrs. Coffman might have killed Sheba. But when Mrs. Coffman hears Doc attack Lola in Act II, she goes next door to check on her neighbor and offer comfort. By the final scene a friendship is forming between the two women, and Mrs. Coffman again returns to ask Lola to accompany her family to the relay games.
Doc is a chiropractor. He had planned to go to medical school, but when Lola became pregnant, he married her and settled for chiropractic school instead. Doc is an alcoholic who has been sober for one year; he relies on Alcoholics Anonymous for support. He is disillusioned and disappointed at the loss of his only child, who died at birth, the loss of his medical career, and the loss of his wife’s youth and beauty. Doc views Marie as the daughter he never had. His image of her is one of innocence and purity, but he lacks any fundamental ability to see her as she really is. Doc’s denial of Marie’s sexuality leads to yet another disappointment when he realizes that she is, in fact, having a sexual affair with Turk, although she has a boyfriend back home.
Doc’s sobriety is fragile, and to cope with yet another disillusionment in his life, he once again returns to alcohol for support. When he returns home the next morning, Doc lashes out at Lola, calling her a slut and accusing her of being a fat and lazy burden who cost him the dreams of his youth. Doc grabs a hatchet and tries to attack Lola, but he is too drunk to do any harm. After a stay in the hospital to dry out, Doc again returns to Lola. In the final scene, he appears to have come to terms with his life as it is.
Lola’s life is as full of disappointments as her husband’s. But rather than drink to deal with depression, Lola sleeps excessively, often not waking until noon. She was pregnant when she and Doc married, and to avoid gossip, the couple allowed a midwife to deliver the baby. The infant died, and Lola was unable to conceive again. Lola’s lost youth and beauty is symbolized by her lost dog, Sheba. Sheba is as irretrievable as Lola’s beauty and Doc’s dreams.
Lola has become fat and slovenly, and, in her boredom, she constantly accosts her neighbors and delivery people for conversation. She has no interest in housework or cooking, and instead, seeks escape through voyeurism. She encourages her young boarder’s affair with Turk, leaving them alone and establishing opportunities for the two lovers to meet and then spying on them. Lola is so interested in Marie’s love life that she secretly reads a telegram that announces the arrival of the girl’s fiance, Bruce. It is unclear exactly where Lola’s fantasies will lead, but she cleans the house to a nearly unrecognizable state and prepares a special dinner in anticipation of Bruce’s arrival. Doc correctly understands Lola’s role in what he considers to be Marie’s fall from innocence, and his return to alcohol and his attack upon her appears to shock Lola into reassessing her life.
Like Ed Anderson, Elmo is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. He helps Ed take Doc to the city hospital.
Marie is the Delaney’s boarder. She is an art student and serves differing roles for both Doc and Lola. Doc envisions Marie as virginal and identifies her with the Ave Maria he hears playing on the radio. But Lola, who was once a beauty queen and popular with boys, identifies with Marie as a younger version of herself. Marie serves as the catalyst for the action in the play. Her fall from innocence results in Doc’s return to drinking. She uses Turk to alleviate her boredom as she waits for Bruce to marry her. In the play’s conclusion, she quite merrily runs off to marry Bruce, completely unaware of the near tragedy she has caused. At the time this play was written, Marie’s open sexuality and her use of Turk as a sexual diversion would have been quite shocking to audiences.
The milkman is another of Lola’s objects of attention. Although she has been asked to leave a note telling him what she needs delivered, Lola repeatedly tries to engage him in conversation. It’s a harmless flirtation for Lola, but causes a small delay for the milkman. However, he is charmed by her eagerness and clearly warms up to the short conversation.
The postman seems genuinely sympathetic to Lola’s loneliness. He takes the time to come in and drink a glass of water with her and lingers long enough to exchange a few words. But when Lola tells him that her husband is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, he seems almost uncomfortable with receiving this confidence. But after Lola presents him with a small toy for his grandchild, the postman cheerfully tells her that he will write her a letter if no one else does.
Turk is a stereotypical athletic stud. He throws the javelin, a clearly phallic symbol that reveals his purpose in the play. He poses for the art students, Page 108 | Top of Articleand Lola is excited at the prospect of seeing him nearly unclothed as he poses for Marie. He is interested in only one thing, and most of his time on stage is spent playing sexual games with Marie. Their banter is heavy with sexual import. Turk’s departure in the morning after a night spent with Marie is witnessed by Doc and leads to his fall from sobriety.
At the time that Come Back, Little Sheba was first produced on Broadway, few people spoke openly about addiction. Alcohol abuse was, and remains, a common domestic problem, but families rarely spoke to outsiders about alcoholic family members. Membership in Alcoholics Anonymous was not a topic for the kind of casual conversation that Lola engages in with her milkman and postman.
Inge’s play demonstrates how destructive alcohol can be. When Doc chases Lola with a hatchet in the second act, the audience is meant to feel horrified. The entire seventeen minute sequence of Doc’s alcoholic breakdown is disturbing to watch, and when he is taken away to the psychiatric hospital, it is Inge’s intention that the viewer feel both relief and disgust. Yet he also sought to illustrate to his audience the circumstances that lead to such addictions. While clearly showing the destructiveness of dependency, Inge seeks to foster understanding for why depressed people turn to alcohol for solace or escape.
Change and Transformation
The lives that Doc and Lola planned more than twenty years earlier have not come to fruition. Lola longs for her past happiness, for the time when she was young and beautiful and Doc was jealous of the other young men who also courted her. She wants to capture again the happiness of their early courtship and marriage and the anticipation of a baby. Instead, Lola has become fat and sloppy. Her appearance is careless and their house messy and dirty, and the children she longed for did not come. The baby died when Doc and Lola were forced to go to a midwife to avoid gossip about her premarital pregnancy. As a result of complications from that experience, Lola was unable to conceive again.
Doc also longs for the past. Before he was forced to marry and support a pregnant Lola, he planned on attending medical school and a subsequent career in medicine. Instead, he became a chiropractor, and, to forget the past, he also began to drink. The dissonance between Doc and Lola’s youthful dreams and their unfulfilled present is the central conflict of the play. Their transformation from nostalgic longing to final acceptance is the work’s thematic resolution.
Limitations and Opportunities
Doc drinks because he is disappointed and disillusioned at the loss of opportunity in his life. As a young man, he wanted to go to medical school and become a doctor. In place of his dream, however, he had to settle for less, becoming a chiropractor. The woman for whom he gave up his dream career has become fat and slovenly. Lola’s hopes for a family and fulfilling marriage were dashed when their baby died at birth. Society prescribed that a woman’s primary role was that of mother and wife. Unable to perform even this limited role, Lola sees no place for herself in postwar society. She is subsequently more interested in the lives of others who have a better chance of fulfilling these expectations—such as Marie and Turk or Marie and Bruce—than she is of her own. The play’s resolution, with Doc and Lola finally coming to terms with their lot in life, offers the hope that they may finally transcend the disappointments in their lives and, together, discover new opportunities.
Lola spends her days trying to fill the time. She is lethargic and disinterested in keeping her home clean. She wants to sleep away half the day and fill the rest with idle gossip or voyeuristic pursuits; her primary pleasure comes from vicariously enjoying Turk and Marie’s romance and cornering strangers into mindless conversations. Lola’s loneliness is also evident in her invitation to cook dinner for Bruce and Marie, whose company she needs to assuage the emptiness in her life.
Memory and Reminiscence
Much of Inge’s drama is centered on the time Lola and Doc spend dwelling on their past. Both remember the time when they were courting, when they were both happy and carefree. Lola remembers her beauty and how the boys all swarmed around her. She remembers Doc’s jealousy and how much he loved her. Doc remembers his plans to go to medical school and his dreams of a brilliant career Page 109 | Top of Articlein medicine, but his membership in Alcoholics Anonymous has taught him that such memories are best forgotten. He tells Lola that the past is behind them and recites the AA prayer. It is important to note that when Doc is out of control and in a drunken rage, it is Lola’s reminder of her past beauty that calms him and ends the danger. Inge clearly shows the couples’ nostalgia as a refuge from the regret of their present circumstances. Their memories are an oasis to which they can retreat when their real lives become too depressing. That they are able to dispense with their reliance on such memories—an addiction as real and dangerous as Doc’s drinking—represents a major turning point in their lives.
Marie’s sexuality is the catalyst for Doc’s return to drinking after a year of sobriety. Such overt sexuality was a new subject for the theatre; nice girls from good families did not engage in premarital sex as Marie so openly does. Those who did were the shameful objects of quickie marriages or back room abortions. Lola’s early sexuality is seen by Doc as a bellwether to their later unhappiness; their premarital sex led to an unplanned pregnancy, marriage, and, ultimately, the loss of their dreams. Doc thus views such behavior as wrong and dangerous. When he is drunk, Doc accuses Lola of sexual impropriety. And now Marie, who is engaged to the nice boy back home, is having sex with Turk, a boy she does not love and who she has no intention of marrying. But Doc, who feels both sexual and paternal desires toward Marie, associates the young woman with the Virgin Mary. When he discovers that she is bedding a stereotypical jock whom she does not love, Doc’s illusions are shattered, and he suffers a breakdown.
Sexuality in the 1950s was a taboo subject. There existed a great discrepancy between what was preached and what was practiced—as evidenced by Doc’s participation in premarital sex and later condemnation of such behavior. Inge’s use of sex in Come Back, Little Sheba is primarily as a tool to allow Doc to confront reality. His realization that a “virginal” woman such as Marie possesses carnal desire sends him into a tailspin, yet the realization also enables him to eventually deal with the mistakes of his past and face the consequences. For Lola, sex offers entertainment in the form of the lovemaking she witnesses between Marie and Turk. Doc’s breakdown brings her to the realization that such behavior is unhealthy. She also understands that she must deal with reality and that sex must play a more personal role in her life.
An act is a major division in a drama. In Greek plays the sections of the drama signified by the appearance of the chorus were usually divided into five acts. This is the formula for most serious drama from the Greeks to the Romans to the Elizabethan playwrights like William Shakespeare. The five acts denote the structure of dramatic action. They are exposition, complication, climax, falling action, and catastrophe. The five-act structure was followed until the nineteenth century when Henrik Ibsen (A Doll’s House) combined elements into fewer acts. Come Back, Little Sheba is a two-act play. The exposition and complication are combined in the first act when the audience learns of Doc and Lola’s disappointments, Doc’s drinking
problem, and Marie’s affair with Turk. The climax occurs in the second act when Doc begins to drink again. Doc’s drunken return in Scene 2 provides the falling action, and the catastrophe occurs in this act when Doc and Lola are forced to recognize that they must live with the choices they have made and that the past cannot be changed.
Scenes are subdivisions of an act. A scene may change when all of the main characters either enter or exit the stage. But a change of scene may also indicate a change of time. In Come Back, Little Sheba, the second scene of Act I occurs later on the same day, and thus, indicates the passage of time in the play.
The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The location for Inge’s play is the downstairs of an old house in a midwestern city; the time is post-World War II. The action occurs over a period of two days. The proceedings are further reduced to one set, the downstairs of the Delaney home. This narrows the focus to Doc and Lola’s home, both literally and figuratively. The setting is the result of their life choices, the sum of their actions. It is the battleground upon which they must resolve their differences and move forward.
This term refers to the pattern of events. Generally plots should have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but they may also sometimes be a series of episodes connected together. Basically, the plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of Come Back, Little Shebais the story of a husband and wife who find that their present is not commensurate with the dreams of their past. But the themes are those of loneliness, addiction, and lost opportunities.
A person in a dramatic work. The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individu-al’s morality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multi-faceted ones. Characters may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. “Characterization” is the process of creating a lifelike person from an author’s imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation.
For instance, in the beginning of Come Back, Little Sheba, Doc is sober, although his evasive Page 111 | Top of Articleanswers to Lola indicate he is not happy or even accepting of the life he is living. As the play progresses, it becomes clearer that Doc is in a great deal of emotional pain. He is using Marie’s purity to represent all the lost opportunities in his life. When he realizes that she is not what he thought, he cannot deal with even one more disappointment in his life. These sequences define the character of Doc as a broken, disillusioned man. The traits Inge assigns to him identify him as such and his actions are therefore plausible to the audience.
A drama is often defined as any work designed to be presented on the stage. It consists of a story, of actors portraying characters, and of action. But historically, drama can also consist of tragedy, comedy, religious pageant, and spectacle. In modern usage, drama explores serious topics and themes but does not achieve the same level as tragedy. Drama is also applicable as a term to describe a storyline that is serious in nature and theme. Come Back, Little Sheba represents both definitions of the term.
Catharsis is the release of emotions, usually fear and pity. The term as first used by Aristotle in his Poetics to refer to the desired effect of tragedy on the audience. The final act of Come Back, Little Sheba is cathartic because the tension has been building as the audience has watched the affair of Marie and Turk progress, understanding of course, that its lack of concealment will lead to a climax when Doc realizes that Marie is not pure and virginal. When Doc finally explodes in rage at Lola, the audience also feels the eruption of this tension as a catharsis. For the audience, Doc, and Lola, this catharsis brings clearer understanding and, it is Inge’s hope, change for the better.
Symbolism is the use of one object to replace another. It is an important tool in literature. The symbol is an object or image that implies a reality beyond its original meaning. This is different from a metaphor, which summons forth an object in order to describe an idea or a quality. For example, the dog Little Sheba is a symbol of Lola’s lost youth. She searches for the dog, just as she searches for her lost beauty and youth. The javelin that he throws is a symbol for Turk’s role in the play. He is a sexual plaything for Marie. The javelin is clearly identified with male sexual genitalia and sexuality. Likewise, Doc’s idealized perception of Marie represents his desire to correct the mistakes of his past. He wants to believe that Marie will behave in a pure fashion and thus not suffer the fate that Lola has.
Post-World War II America was a period marked by the shift of populations from cities to suburbs. Thanks to the G.I. Bill (which provided government funding for the college education of men exiting the armed services), thousands of men who would never have been able to go to college found the way suddenly made easier. A building boom meant that those better educated men marry and the families could buy the new houses being built on tracts all across suburban America.
The decade also marked the beginning of a period of domestic perfection. Television would turn the postwar ideal of perfect families in perfect homes surrounded by perfect white fences into the national image. Unfortunately for many families, failure to live up to this ideal resulted in depression and despondency—much like Doc and Lola in Come Back, Little Sheba. Darkness was also evident in the political events of the decade. It was the beginning of Joseph McCarthy’s “red scare” during which the House Un-American Activities Committee persecuted numerous American citizens suspected of communism. In Korea, early skirmishes signaled America’s involvement in yet another war.
Despite the public emphasis on suburban existence, a large portion of America was still centered on a rural way of life. In Kansas, Inge’s birthplace and the setting for Come Back, Little Sheba, there were fewer than one million people living in a state that serves as the exact geographical center of the U.S. By 1949, Kansas was still an agricultural center with one fourth of the nation’s wheat grown there.
In cities across the nation, the women who had run factories and kept assembly lines running during World War II were out of men’s slacks and once again back in aprons, domestically at work in their homes. By 1949, the baby boom of postwar America was well established. The emphasis, after years of depression followed by years of war, was on stability and family. Women lost the jobs they held during the war because war veterans needed work;
instead, women were returned to the domestic sphere they had occupied before the war. The role of wife and mother was repeatedly portrayed in the media as the highest aspiration for a woman in postwar society. When Lola laments early in the play that she does not know what she is supposed to do in a childless house, she is giving voice to the dark underside of that perfect American family. In the midst of a baby boom, what is a woman without children to do? Lola tells the audience that Doc does not want her working, but he is only repeating the natural order of domestic life.
Few women were working outside the home in this era, but women were beginning to become a stronger force in society. With production of consumer goods at an all time high, women as consumers were beginning to have more power. In addition, their wartime participation in the American work force had given them a taste of independence and pride in workmanship. The postwar years marked the beginnings of the women’s movement that would flower in the ensuing decades. For many women, the 1950s reinforced the belief that they should have the same opportunities as men in both domestic and business situations. Yet due to the prosperity of the postwar business boom, many other women saw no reason to question the status quo. With increased money circulating in the economy, consumer spending was up and times were good.
A postwar production economy was trying to meet the demand for new cars, new washers, and the multitude of new items that television advertisements Page 113 | Top of Articlepromised each family they would need. Auto manufacturer General Motors’s profit in 1950 was nearly $636.5 million. The Gross National Product was $284 billion, a huge increase from 1940’s $99 billion. The manufacture and sale of television sets also sharply increased to meet new demands. The acquisition of material goods was another symbol of the American Dream. If a family did not have a new home, new car, and completely modern new kitchen, then they were not living the good life.
When Come Back, Little Sheba opened on Broadway in February of 1950, it was to mixed reviews. Most critics cheered the performances of Shirley Booth and Sydney Blackmer in the lead roles. But all too many deplored the actors’ waste in a play described as “dramatic trivialities” (Howard Barnes in New York Theatre Critics’ Reviews) and “underwritten to the point of barrenness” (Brooks Atkinson in his second New York Times review two weeks after the play’s opening). Barnes and Atkinson were not alone. Commonweal’s Kappo Phelan labeled Inge’s drama “a poor play on all counts,” and in a review written for the New Yorker, Wolcott Gibbs called attention to the play’s mix of “realism and psychiatric claptrap.” Yet not all critics hated the play; many liked it and many more had mixed reactions. Atkinson, in his first review for the New York Times, noted the play’s topics as “terrifyingly true” and its story as “straightforward and unhackneyed.”
The play’s reception when it was released as a film in 1952 was similarly mixed. Booth’s reprised performance was again noted as excellent, but critics still attacked the film, though in fewer numbers. The critic for Theatre Arts, Robert Hatch, complimented Booth’s performance and said that Inge’s play is an “acute and compassionate statement of the horror implicit in wasted lives.” Also noting the excellence of Booth’s performance was Philip Hartung, whose review in Commonweal praised the play’s “repeated plea for compassion and understanding of one’s fellow man.”
Come Back, Little Sheba was the first of four Broadway hits for Inge. But, this drama could not be described as a smash hit. It played for less than six months. Inge himself observed in the forward to the play that his work “did good business for only a few weeks and then houses began to dwindle to the size of tea parties.” Inge admitted that he took a cut in royalties and the actors took salary cuts to keep the play on stage. Yet based on Come Back, Little Sheba’s Broadway debut, Inge was voted the most promising new playwright by the Drama Critics Circle. And Booth and Blackmer each won Antionette (“Tony”) Perry Awards for their performances. The work was more successful financially as a film.
Inge’s depiction of midwestern life provided a new setting for Broadway theater patrons. Prior to Inge’s string of plays, most works focused on northeastern urban characters or the southern characters of Tennessee Williams. The topics portrayed in Inge’s drama were also new to Broadway. The frank manner in which Inge presents alcoholism and addiction in the play was shocking to many viewers. And the audience would have also been horrified by the scene of Doc’s drunken attack on Lola; domestic abuse, especially as it related to alcohol, was a subject discussed only in hushed whispers in the 1950s. Inge’s depictions, however, opened the door for further dramatic discussion of the topics. In subsequent decades the matter become a popular topic for film and theater, with works such as Lost Weekend and Leaving Las Vegas presenting stark and realistic visions of addiction.
As with the topic of abuse, Inge innovated open portrayals of sex. One reviewer of Come Back, Little Sheba, Catholic World’s Euphemia Wyatt, found the scenes between Marie and Turk embarrassing. Certainly other members of the audience may have felt the same way. Marie makes only the slightest effort to be discrete as she sneaks Turk up to her bedroom after the Delaneys have gone to bed. Her sexual bantering with Turk offers no indication that she is embarrassed, only that she and Turk are interested in casual sex. In fact, Marie makes clear that Turk is being used as a diversion until she can marry her boyfriend back home. This was a shocking revelation in that many believed a woman should only have sex after marriage and, further, that the act serve only as a method of procreation. Addressing such topics may have earned Inge initial criticism, but by portraying them so realistically in his play he paved the way for a new contemporary theater. Later appraisals of Inge’s work invariably include Come Back, Little Sheba, citing it as a seminal work of modern drama.
Metzger is a professional writer who specializes in literature and drama. In this essay she discusses Inge’s exploration of social preconceptions regarding marriage and success in postwar America. She concludes that Inge was ahead of his time in addressing inequities in the expected social roles of men and women.
When Come Back, Little Sheba made its first appearance on Broadway, many reviewers dismissed it as a boring domestic soap opera. Others focused on the psychological complexities of the two lead characters. But Jane Courant argued in Studies in American Drama that audiences should, instead, appreciate Inge’s drama for its revolutionary exploration of social and cultural ideas. Courant noted that Inge “confronted sexual stereotyping, social conformity, and especially the cultural media that reinforced these values.” Earlier, when Inge was still a drama critic for the Saint Louis Star-Times, he had criticized Hollywood films for creating only passive, accepting women.
Accordingly, said Courant, when Inge wrote Come Back, Little Sheba it was with the intent of creating a woman as rich and complex as any male character, who “coexisted with men as fully developed characters with strong physical and spiritual needs.” Thus, Lola states early in the play, “When I lost my baby and found out I couldn’t have any more, I didn’t know what to do with myself.” Lola is haunted by this loss, which she channels into her plaintive calls for her lost dog, Sheba. Doc, of course, is haunted by the loss of his career. When he was forced to give up his dreams of medical school, Doc also lost the economic and social prestige that came with the medical license.
Both their losses come at a point in postwar America where the baby boom signals the importance of family and a consumer-driven economy propels the prosperity of the nation. But the Delaneys have neither children nor prosperity. Courant declared that the “postwar American environment placed enormous value on social status and material success,” and these values were “unabashedly proclaimed by the expanding electronic media, anxious to sell a vast array of consumer goods.” In an early draft of Come Back, Little Sheba, Courant stated that Inge has Lola enter in Act I as the radio plays an ad for a cream to restore a woman’s youth. Since the symbolism of Inge’s play is so heavily focused on the loss of youth’s beauty and promise, the connection to media influence is readily apparent.
The importance of media, especially Hollywood movies, is apparent in Lola’s justification for watching Marie and Turk kissing. When Doc criticizes Turk and warns Lola that the young man is probably forcing Marie to kiss him, Lola replies that Marie “is kissing him like he was Rudolph Valentino.” When Doc tries to stop his wife’s description of Marie’s and Turk’s embrace, Lola replies that Doc thinks “every young girl is Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette.” And in Lola’s reply to Doc’s accusation of spying, she compares what she is doing to watching actors kiss in a movie. Lola is unable to separate the reality of what Marie and Turk are doing from the beguiling images created in Hollywood. Courant argued that this exchange has different meanings for Lola and Doc. For Lola, “a fascinating movie is going on in her own home, and with no meaningful purpose in her own life, she passively accepts a role of observer with no notion of interfering.” But Doc, “inappropriately places responsibility for Marie’s behavior on his wife.” Neither husband or wife seem aware that both are confusing illusion with reality.
Inge was ahead of his time when, through Lola, he points out the inequities between women and men. When Marie tells Lola that the female models in her art class can pose nude, but men must be covered, Lola is shocked at the inequity, and she exclaims, “If it’s alright for a woman, it oughta’ be for a man.” But there is a double standard governing the behavior of men and women. This discrepancy is again noted when Doc automatically assumes Marie is pure and virginal, even identifying her with the Virgin Mary when he hears Ave Maria; but he naturally assumes that Turk is another debauched male, only interested in one thing—sex.
The reality that Inge makes clear is that Marie is as sexually charged as Turk. Thus, the social implications of Inge’s characterizations are important. The contrast between Doc and Turk is even more interesting. Doc is as sexually repressed as the illusion he creates about Marie. And Turk, whom Doc thinks of as a seducer of young virgins, is himself being used by the sexually liberated Marie. All of this reversed role-playing predicts the sexual revolution and women’s rights movements that will explode in the 1960s. Inge’s drama is nearly fifteen years ahead of its time. Given the potential for misunderstanding the playwright’s intentions, it is little wonder that 1950 theatre critics provided such mixed reviews when Come Back, Little Sheba opened.
Marie has been the focus of much of the play’s critical review. Her open sexuality and the easy manner in which she dismisses Turk when her fiance, Bruce, appears, is a incongruity for the cultural milieu in which Inge was writing. Marie does not easily fit into any grouping. She is neither pure nor tainted. And, she is more complex than she initially appears. For instance, when Marie first enters the stage she is described as wearing only a sheer dainty negligee. Marie seems genuinely unaware of Doc’s infatuation with her or of the inappropriateness of her clothing. And yet, as she “starts dancing away from him,” as the stage direction requires, there is a hint of flirtation. This is even more evident when Marie returns to the stage after she has dressed. After Lola kisses Doc goodbye, Marie jokes, “Aren’t you going to kiss me, Dr. Delaney?”
Jordan Miller ignored this flirtation and the stage direction that Inge has supplied, and asserted in the Kansas Quarterly that Marie’s role in Doc’s fall is inadvertent. After first describing Marie as a “bubbly . . . classic stereotype of the oh-so-enthusiastic coed, eager to get her education in her own free way,” Miller later referred to Marie as a complication to “Doc’s trial.” But Miller did not blame Marie for what happens to Doc and Lola; he blamed Lola. Miller excused Doc’s infatuation with Marie by describing her as “the picture to Doc of the Lola that might have been,” and so, “his infatuation with her is entirely understandable.” Miller argued that Doc’s enjoyment in Marie is to be expected in the face of Lola’s appearance and he observed that “in Doc’s vicarious enjoyment of Marie’s fresh daintiness as a Lola substitute, as well as his intense pleasure at her very nearness, the conflict he is enduring within himself involving his loyalties to his repulsive wife is all the more obvious.”
Later, Miller excused Doc’s fall from sobriety, as “appropriate” and “effective.” When he placed the blame for Doc’s behavior on Lola, Miller assigned a meaning to the play that Inge never intended and, in fact, denied. Courant quoted an early article that Inge wrote for Theatre Arts in which he stated that Lola is “childish rather than slovenly” and that “she possesses enough human warmth and compassion to make her his [Doc’s] equal.”
Lola is more than a symbol of Doc’s lost dreams or her own discarded hopes. And she is much more complex than Miller admitted when he described her as “childish. . . [and] infantile,” with an “arrested emotional development.” However, when Miller acknowledged that Lola is the “picture of a thousand, of ten thousand women whose lives have descended to just such meaningless routines,” he was articulating a social problem that Inge illuminates in this play. During World War II, women assumed many of the roles that men had traditionally held. Women worked in factories, on assembly lines, and in support of the war effort. When the war ended, and the men returned, women were fired to ensure employment for the returning veterans. Doc’s insistence that Lola not work was all too common, but Inge’s focus on the emptiness of her life illuminates the results of such actions. Lola has spent twenty years in the emptiness of her house. It is little wonder that she wants to sleep until noon or that she has little interest in cleaning her prison.
An interesting contrast is offered by Mrs. Coffman, who has seven children and a spotless home. Her house is not empty; she has the challenge of caring for a large family to fill her days. Lola, though, has nothing to fill her days. Lola’s loneliness, manifested in her eagerness to gossip and chatter with whomever comes to her door, is clearly obvious. Her life is a “meaningless routine,” but it is because of a social standard that creates two distinct spheres for men and women. Doc works in the public sphere; the work is not the career he wanted, but it is a way to escape into the world. It is ironic that Doc has relegated Lola to the domestic sphere and an unfulfilled existence when his drinking is in reaction to his own unfulfilled dreams.
Source: Sheri Metzger, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.
William A. Henry III
In this review of a 1984 revival production of Come Back, Little Sheba, Henry offers a favorable appraisal of the play and reaffirms Inge’s place among America’s best playwrights.
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Source: William A. Henry III, “The Laureate of Longing” in Time, Volume 124, no. 4, July 23, 1984, pp. 103.
Gibbs reviews the original Broadway production of Come Back, Little Sheba, awarding plaudits to the cast yet finding Inge’s text short on substance. Despite his mixed feelings, Gibbs still finds several portions of the play fascinating and one scene in particular “genuinely shocking.”
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Source: Wolcott Gibbs, “The Dream and the Dog” in the New Yorker, Volume XXVI, no. 1, February, 1950, pp. 68, 70.
Atkinson, Brooks. Review of Come Back, Little Sheba in the New York Times, February 16, 1950, p. 28.
Atkinson, Brooks. “Two Actors” in the New York Times, February 26, 1950, section 2, p. 1.
Barnes, Howard. “Good Acting Squandered” in the New York Theatre Critics’ Reviews, Critics’ Theatre Reviews, 1950, p. 350.
Burgess, Charles E. “An American Experience: William Inge in St. Louis 1943-1949” in Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature, Vol. 12, 1976, pp. 438-68.
Gibbs, Wolcott. “The Dream and the Dog” in the New Yorker, February 25, 1950, p. 66.
Hartung, Philip T. Review of Come Back, Little Sheba in Commonweal, December 26, 1952, p. 308.
Hatch, Robert. Review of Come Back, Little Sheba in Theatre Arts, December, 1952, p. 29.
Herron, Ima Honaker. “Our Vanishing Towns: Modern Broadway Versions” in Southwest Review, Vol. 51, 1966, pp. 209-20.
Inge, William. Introduction to Four Plays, Random House (New York), 1958.
Leeson, Richard M. William Inge: A Research and Production Sourcebook, Greenwood Press, 1994.
Lewis, Allen. “The Emergent Deans: Kingsley, Inge, and Company” in American Plays and Playwrights of the Contemporary Theatre, Crown (New York), 1965, pp. 143-63.
Miller, Jordan. “William Inge: Playwright of the Popular” in Proceedings of the Fifth National Convention of the Popular Culture Association, Bowling Green University Press (Bowling Green, OH), 1975, pp. 37-50.
Phelan, Kappo. “The State” in Commonweal, March 3, 1950, p. 558.
Sarotte, Georges-Michel. “William Inge: ‘Homosexual Spite’ in Action” in Like a Brother, Like a Lover: Male Homosexuality in the American Novel and Theater from Herman Melville to James Baldwin, Translated by Richard Miller, Doubleday, 1978, pp. 121-23.
Weales, Gerald. “The New Pineros” in American Drama since World War Two, Harcourt (New York), 1962, pp. 40-56.
Wyatt, Euphemia Van Renssalaer. Review of Come Back, Little Sheba in Catholic World, April, 1950, p. 67.
Courant, Jane. “Social and Cultural Prophecy in the Works of William Inge” in Studies in American Drama, Vol. 6, no. 2, 1991.
Courant is a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her critical reading of Inge is based on cultural-historical theory and seeks to examine the motivations and intents of Inge based on social influences. Her primary argument is that with the distance of several years and the events of the 1960s, it is easy to see how Inge was anticipating social change.
Inge, William. “The Schizophrenic Wonder” in Theatre Arts, May, 1950, pp. 22-23.
In this article, Inge is responding to the harsh criticism of the female characters in his play. He defends them by stating that critics are unable to “separate low morals from low incomes.”
Leeson, Richard M. William Inge: A Research and Production Sourcebook, Greenwood Press, 1994.
This is a thorough critical overview of Inge’s plays with information about reviews and critical studies.
McClure, Arthur F. Memories of Splendor: The Midwestern World of William Inge, Kansas State Historical Society (Topeka), 1989.
This book contains production information and photographs of Inge and his work.
Miller, Jordan. “William Inge: Last of the Realists?” in Kansas Quarterly, Vol. 2, no. 2, 1970, pp. 17-26.
Miller is a professor at the University of Rhode Island. Miller is from Kansas, and he finds that Inge’s settings are very realistic and that he accurately portrays Kansas—and midwestern—life. In this article, Miller praises Inge’s realistic portrayal of his characters.
Shuman, R. Baird. William Inge, Twayne (Boston), 1989. This is a critical examination of all of Inge’s plays.
Voss, Ralph F. A Life of William Inge: The Strains of Triumph, University of Kansas Press (Lawrence), 1989.
This is a critical biography of Inge’s life.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2692800016