Every adversity in life is a test of one's fortitude, the occasion of which, as proved invariably in the past, man is capable of defying destiny, of reversing the inexorable course to which life is doomed to tend. Too often we sympathise with the travails of the dogged, indefatigable fighter, whose hard-on victory we shed tears of relief and admiration, and whose stories and examples we evoke when in need of a boost of morale or motivation, that our notion of heroism has come to be hallowed with a glow of divinity peculiar to those who triumph in their fights. Those who fail – the martyrs who labour for nothing, who die without fulfilling what they die for – they are regarded with no less sympathy, but to recount their stories we averse, refusing to be reminded of what ultimately makes us humans – our inherent and infinite capacity to fail.
To face up to one’s failures, especially with the forlorn hope that such failures can ever be remedied, requires a special kind of courage. William Inge’s 1950 play, Come Back, Little Sheba, suggests that such courage hinges on an almost implausible light of positivism in the midst of a demoralising gloom. “Doc” Delaney is a former alcoholic who resigns to life’s perennial discontents, giving up a promising career in the medical to be yoked to a faded belle, Lola, whom he married out of obligation for their child, conceived out of wedlock and soon died. Their unhappy marriage subsists on an affectatious ritual of referring to each other as “daddy” and “baby,” and a false cheerfulness supplied mainly by Lola’s interminable prattle, often provoking nothing more than a monosyllabic response from her apathetic listener.
The pretense does not hold long. A college art student Marie, whose bobby-soxer image belies a simmering lustfulness that mesmerises those around her, comes to stay at the Delaney’s as a boarder. Friction begins to show between Doc and Lola, who clash with their differing opinions as of whether Marie, already bespoken, is allowed to play fire with another man. For Marie reminds both of their youths, Lola a beguiling coquette pursued by myriads dashing young men, and Doc a consummate academic with a bright future ahead.
Daniel Mann’s 1952 film adaptation rightly centers on the sterling performance of the actors, Shirley Booth and Burt Lancaster, who bring subtlety and resonance to a kitchen-sink drama whose pathos verges on the platitudinous. The couple’s ruggedness in the wake of Doc’s relapse attests to the moral of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, published around the same period as the play, that “man can be destroyed but not defeated,” and conveys a tenderness that reveals their love to be steadfast despite their mutual rancour. There is a sadness when Booth, moving and endearing in her enforced verbosity, announces to Doc, returning from the hospital dazed but gratified, that it is time she ceases dreaming that Sheba, her missing little dog, would ever come back to her life, and they should face the reality with their chins up; this is a sadness that may be temporarily assuaged by an inspired positivism but is never completely removed from doubt.