Spousal Abuse in Nostalgic America

Come Back, Little Sheba (Play, 1950, and Film, 1952)

By Willian Inge

While Come Back, Little Sheba may strike modern audiences as somewhat dated, nonetheless it remains a very good look at lives gone awry due to the errors of youth. Its strength still lies in character, specifically Lola, a tortured mid-20th century wife.

Lola, based on an alcoholic woman Inge got to know attending AA meetings for his own alcohol problem, is riven with insecurities. A premarital pregnancy, disownment by her father, a miscarried child, her husband Doc’s emotionally forced marriage to her, and his subsequent embitterment at lost innocence and opportunity, manifesting in alcoholism and failure, these keep her a bundle of tormented insecurity, a victim, and a woman missing and constantly yearning for what might have been. Little Sheba, a dog she and Doc once owned but that “Just vanished one day … vanished into thin air” (act 1, sc. 1), never seen but always present, serves as the grand metaphor for what both she and Doc sacrificed. And in her case, for her hope that one day perhaps they might regain a bit of what brought them together years ago. Her immediate concern, however, is a reoccurrence of Doc’s binge drinking, in abeyance for a year at the opening of the play/film.

It’s this sense of Lola walking on eggshells coupled with Doc’s controlled and passive behavior, the feeling he is working at containing his true emotions, that provide the tension driving the entire first act, and finally released in an explosive second act.

Shirley Booth played Lola on Broadway and in the film version. She won a Tony and an Oscar for her performances.

In the second act, the true Doc reveals himself, when all the anger, resentment, and hatred he keeps bottled up spills forth. He falls off the wagon as he comes to realize that Marie, their college boarder, is not the flower of innocence he imagines her to be. Her dalliance with Turk, the young track star, stirs up his anger with Lola and what she cost him, at his own impetuousness mirrored by Turk, and by what he sees as the betrayal of her fiancé Bruce that translates into Lola’s betrayal of Doc’s young love.

Sidney Blackmer portrayed Doc on Broadway, winning a Tony for his performance. Burt Lancaster played Doc in the film. (Though his performance tends to skew too much to passive, leaving Doc one dimensional. Also, despite some obvious makeup, he appears too young for Booth.)

Modern audiences might wonder why Lola stays with Doc, who clearly has psychologically, and probably physically, abused her, and himself, for years, and, by extension, why women abused by spouses return to their husbands. In the case of Lola and Doc, they are a couple married to the pain and failure of their lives. Doc needs Lola to care for him and Lola needs Doc to feel wanted, and both need each other to allay the loneliness and emptiness of their lives and their shared loss. For these reasons, it continues to be a story worthy of your reading and viewing time. c/w

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