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The Man Who Came to Dinner

The Man Who Came to Dinner is a comedy in three acts by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. It debuted on October 16, 1939 at the Music Box Theatre in New York City. It then enjoyed a number of New York and London revivals.

The play is set in the small town of Mesalia, Ohio in the weeks leading to Christmas in the 1930s. The exposition reveals that the famously outlandish radio wit Sheridan Whiteside of New York City was invited to dine at the house of rich factory owner Ernest W. Stanley and his family. However, before Whiteside enters the house, he slips on a patch of ice outside the front door and injures his hip. He is attended by Dr. Bradley, the absent-minded town physician, and Miss Preen, his frantic nurse.


Act One, Scene One

Radio personality Sheridan Whiteside is confined to the home of Mr and Mrs Ernest Stanley after slipping on ice on their sidewalk and breaking his hip. He intends to sue Ernest Stanley for $150,000 as well as occupy his home for the time required to heal. Whiteside insults everyone, including Dr. Bradley, Miss Preen, Ernest Stanley, his wife Daisy and teenage children Richard and June, and even his secretary of 10 years, Maggie Cutler. Maggie, however, is used to Whiteside's tirades and performs her duties with tact and reliance.

Whiteside meets the eerie Harriet Stanley, Mr. Stanley's sister. She presents him a holly branch as a present. Whiteside, though taken aback by her bizarre nature, is convinced that he has seen her before. Whiteside then meets young newspaper editor Bert Jefferson. Whiteside, initially disdainful of the newspaperman, soon respects Bert's brave charm and permits an interview. Whiteside explains that he cannot wait to leave Mesalia, and that he is a paid authority on famous murders.

Act One, Scene Two

Days Later. The napping Whiteside stirs from his sleep only to find Miss Preen, who informs Whiteside that Maggie went out hours ago. As the minutes pass, followed by more uncomfortable visits by Mr. and Mrs. Stanley as well as Harriet Stanley, Richard and June walk into the room, carrying ice skates. Whiteside apologizes for his rude behavior in the past, Richard and June tell Whiteside that Maggie was seen ice skating with Bert. Maggie walks in, and Whiteside immediately confronts her. Maggie is in love with Bert as well as his play, which includes a great role for a leading actress. Maggie tells Whiteside that she is going to marry Bert, and will resign from her position. She leaves the room, warning Whiteside not to play any of his tricks to break matters up with Bert.

Whiteside, after fuming over Maggie's planned departure, skims over Bert's play. He then contacts Lorraine Sheldon, his famous actress friend with a sleazy reputation, to visit Mesalia to convince Bert to give her the part in his play through any means necessary. Lorraine agrees.

Meanwhile, Dr. Bradley returns with the news that he confused Mr. Whiteside's X-Ray with old Mrs. Moffett's X-Rays, and that Mr. Whiteside isn't actually hurt at all. Dr. Bradley declares that Whiteside can leave the Stanley's home immediately. Whiteside, attached to his scheme to separate Maggie and Bert, convinces Dr. Bradley to conceal the "good news." In return, Whiteside promises to help edit Dr. Bradley's lengthy memoir, "Forty Years an Ohio Doctor."

Act Two

Christmas Eve. Whiteside prepares for his Christmas Eve radio broadcast. Maggie tells Whiteside that Beverly Carlton, their English thespian friend, is stopping by on his way to New York City. Bert informs everyone that he plans to interview Beverly, and also announces that he is getting Maggie a Christmas present. Whiteside is again visited by Harriet Stanley, who gives him a Christmas present. Whiteside asks Harriet if they have met before; she tells him that they have not. Some moving men deliver four penguins, a Christmas present to Whiteside from Admiral Richard E. Byrd. The penguins are ushered into the library.

Richard walks in, informing Whiteside that he wants to be a photographer, against his father's wishes. Whiteside says that Richard should do it. June enters and presents her boyfriend, Sandy, a labor-organizer in Mr. Stanley's factory, to Whiteside, informing him that they wish to get married. Whiteside advises them to get married that very night. Sandy quickly leaves, and June runs upstairs.

Lorraine Sheldon arrives and chitchats with Whiteside over gossip as well as the plan to seduce Bert. Maggie and Bert enter and Lorraine immediately starts flirting with Bert. Bert offers Lorraine a ride to her hotel, and they depart together. Maggie suspects Whiteside's involvement. She prepares to confront him when Beverly Carlton walks in. After delighting Whiteside and Maggie with an impersonation of Lorraine's latest fling, the English aristocrat Lord Bottomley, Beverly plays a song on the piano, his own composition entitled "What Am I To Do?" After the song, Maggie wheels Whiteside into the library, seizing a moment with Beverly. Maggie informs Beverly of the situation involving Bert, Lorraine and Whiteside. Beverly offers to help, and Maggie whispers a plan into Beverly's ear. Beverly accepts the challenge and leaves.

After radio men arrive to prepare for Whiteside's broadcast, June and Richard leave with their luggage. Lorraine enters and the telephone rings; it is a trans-Atlantic call from Lord Bottomley. Over the phone, Lorraine accepts Lord Bottomley's marriage proposal. Bert arrives and informs the group that he got a two-minute interview with Beverly Carlton at the train station, but Beverly stood in a phone booth most of the time, "making....faces for about five minutes." Bert leaves the room to prepare cocktails. Whiteside realizes that Beverly mimicked Lord Bottomley at the behest of Maggie, proving this to Lorraine with the records from the telephone operator. Lorraine, embarrassed, cancels her plans. After realizing it was Maggie's fault, Lorraine vows to break up her relationship with Bert.

The radio men enter the living room to set up equipment. Bert enters and Lorraine informs him that she is staying, and wants to read his play. Maggie storms out; Bert follows her. Mr. and Mrs. Stanley enter and walk upstairs as choir children are ushered into the home, but quickly rush back down with letters from their departed children. The letters inform them that Whiteside recommended their decisions. Whiteside attempts to read his Christmas address with the backing of the choir singing "Silent Night," but is interrupted when Miss Preen bursts out of the library after a penguin bites her. The penguin follows and panic ensues.

Act Three

Christmas Day. Maggie tells Whiteside that she is taking the 1:00 PM train out of town. Bert staggers in, drunk. He tells the pair that he and Lorraine discussed the play all night long. Lorraine plans on taking him to her cabin in Lake Placid to work on the play for three weeks. Dr. Bradley enters, and follows Whiteside's recommendation to get Bert some black coffee and breakfast. They leave, and Maggie flees into the library, sobbing.

Harriet Stanley enters to watch Whiteside open her present to him, an old photograph of Harriet taken in her twenties. Whiteside is still convinced that he has seen her face before. The doorbell rings; it is the zany Banjo, Whiteside's Hollywood comedian friend. Banjo fondles Miss Preen, who quickly runs into the library. Whiteside informs Banjo of the situation involving Maggie, Lorraine and Bert. He feels guilty, and wants to make it up to Maggie by getting Lorraine out of town. The pair are unable to come up with a realistic plan. Miss Preen exits the library, carrying her luggage. She informs Whiteside that she is so disgusted with him that she is walking out on this case as well as the nursing profession, and leaves.

Mr. Stanley enters with June, having found her before she got married; Richard has been apprehended in Toledo and is being brought back home. Mr. Stanley invites two deputy sheriffs into the home, who tell Whiteside they have a warrant to forcibly eject him from the Stanley residence if Whiteside does not leave within fifteen minutes. Richard is brought in by a detective, and Mr. Stanley informs Whiteside that he has ten minutes remaining.

Lorraine enters, explaining that she loves Bert's play and that she is deliriously happy with Whiteside. She sets her muff on the sofa and sits down. Banjo enters; an uncomfortable moment passes as Lorraine detests Banjo for publicly embarrassing her some years back. Things become even more uncomfortable when Maggie enters looking for a copy of the New Year's Eve broadcast. Lorraine mentions to Maggie that she will be hearing the broadcast in Lake Placid with Bert. Maggie exits.

The moving men bring a mummy case into the living room. It is a Christmas present to Whiteside from the Khedive of Egypt. Whiteside begins to show desperation as Mr. Stanley announces the five minute mark. Lorraine, taken with the case, opens it, stands inside, and recites a few lines of poetic dialogue. Whiteside gestures to Banjo to close the case and trap her inside. Maggie briefly re-enters the room, handing Whiteside the photograph he received from Harriet. After taking another look at the picture, Whiteside informs Banjo that he recognizes Harriet, and knows how to get Lorraine and the mummy case out of the house.

Mr. Stanley enters, telling Whiteside the time is up. Whiteside asks for a favor from Mr. Stanley: to have the sheriffs help Banjo take the mummy case to the airport. Mr. Stanley refuses, whereupon Whiteside stands up and confronts Mr. Stanley. Whiteside reveals that Mr. Stanley's sister is the infamous Harriet Sedley, who murdered her mother and father with an axe twenty-five years prior in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Whiteside will inform his radio audience of Mr. Stanley's sheltering of his murderous sister unless Mr. Stanley does what Whiteside has requested. Mr. Stanley grudgingly complies.

Maggie enters, and Whiteside hands her Lorraine's muff as a "Christmas gift". Maggie realizes what Whiteside has done, and is surprised and touched by Whiteside's compassion. Whiteside takes Maggie's train ticket so that he can return to New York as quickly as possible, leaving Maggie to pursue her romance with Bert. Bert enters, and Whiteside gives him some intimidating parting words. Whiteside also tells Bert that he (Whiteside) will be sending Bert's play to Katharine Cornell. Whiteside lastly tells Mr. Stanley "good-bye," along with a request that Mr. Stanley allow June and Richard to follow their dreams, "or else". Maggie and Bert embrace, and Mrs. Stanley descends the stairs as Whiteside is heard slipping and screaming from outside. Dr. Bradley and Bert carry Whiteside back into his wheelchair. Whiteside exclaims that he is going to sue Mr. Stanley for $350,000, and the play ends.

Influence of Alexander Woollcott

Kaufman and Hart wrote the play as a vehicle for their friend Alexander Woollcott, the model for the lead character Sheridan Whiteside. At the time the play was written Woollcott was famous both as the theater critic who launched the career of the Marx Brothers and as the star of the national radio show The Town Crier. Woollcott was well liked by both Kaufman and Hart, but that did not stop him from displaying the obnoxious characteristics displayed by Whiteside in the play. Kaufman and Hart had promised a vehicle for Woollcott but had been unable to find a plot that suited them until one day Woollcott showed up, unannounced, at Hart's Bucks County estate, and proceeded to take over the house. He slept in the master bedroom, terrorized Hart's staff, and generally acted like Sheridan Whiteside. On his way out he wrote in Hart's guest book, "This is to certify that I had one of the most unpleasant times I ever spent." Hart related the story to Kaufman soon afterwards. As they were both laughing about it, Hart remarked that he was lucky that Woollcott hadn't broken his leg and become stuck there. Kaufman looked at Hart and the idea was born.

Woollcott was delighted with the play and was offered the role for its Broadway debut. With his busy schedule of radio broadcasts and lectures he declined and Monty Woolley played the part. Woollcott did play Whiteside in the West Coast version of the play, and was even joined by Harpo Marx, who portrayed his own referenced character, Banjo.

The printed edition of the play starts with the inscription "To Alexander Woollcott, for reasons that are nobody's business."

Other influences

Beverly Carlton was modeled after Noel Coward.

Banjo was modeled after Harpo Marx, and there is a dialogue reference to Marx's brothers Groucho and Chico. When Sheridan Whiteside talks to Banjo on the phone, he asks him, "How are Wackko and Sloppo?"

The song "What Am I To Do" was written by Cole Porter specifically for the play.

Harriet Stanley, the alias for Harriet Sedley, is an obvious reference to the famed Massachusetts murderer Lizzie Borden. The popular jump-rope rhyme referencing Borden, with her name replaced with that of Harriet Sedley, is repeated in the play.

Original cast

The original cast is listed below, as billed.

  • Mrs. Ernest W. Stanley ....... Virginia Hammond
  • Miss Preen ................... Mary Wickes
  • Richard Stanley .............. Gordon Merrick
  • June Stanley ................. Barbara Wooddell
  • John ......................... George Probert
  • Sarah ........................ Mrs. Priestley Morrison
  • Mrs. Dexter .................. Barbara Adams
  • Mrs. McCutcheon .............. Edmonia Nolley
  • Mr. Stanley .................. George Lessey
  • Maggie Cutler ................ Edith Atwater
  • Dr. Bradley .................. Dudley Clements
  • Sheridan Whiteside ........... Monty Woolley
  • Harriet Stanley .............. Ruth Vivian
  • Bert Jefferson ............... Theodore Newton
  • Professor Metz ............... LeRoi Operti
  • The Luncheon Guests .......... Phil Sheridan, Charles Washington, William Postance
  • Mr. Baker .................... Carl Johnson
  • Expressman ................... Harold Woolf
  • Lorraine Sheldon ............. Carol Goodner
  • Sandy ........................ Michael Harvey
  • Beverley Carlton ............. John Hoysradt
  • Westcott ..................... Edward Fisher
  • Radio Technicians ............ Rodney Stewart, Carl Johnson
  • Banjo ........................ David Burns
  • Deputies ..................... Curtis Karpe, Phil Sheridan
  • A Plainclothes Man ........... William Postance

Film adaptation

The production was adapted for a 1942 feature film by Philip G. Epstein and Julius J. Epstein. Starring Monty Woolley, Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Billie Burke, Jimmy Durante, Mary Wickes and Richard Travis, it had its world premiere at the Capitol Theater in Paragould, Arkansas.

Radio adaptation

In 1949, The Man Who Came to Dinner was produced for CBS Radio for The Hotpoint Holiday Hour. The production starred Charles Boyer, Jack Benny, Gene Kelly, Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, and Rosalind Russell.

Musical adaptation

The play and subsequent film served as the basis for the 1967 musical Sherry!, with a book and lyrics by James Lipton and music by Laurence Rosenthal.

Television adaptation

A Hallmark Hall of Fame production, adapted by Sam Denoff and Bill Persky and directed by Buzz Kulik, was broadcast by NBC on November 29, 1972. The production starred Orson Welles, who was "a marvelous friend" of Woollcott's and had been offered the role of Sheridan Whiteside in both the original stage production and the 1942 film; he later said he was "very smart [to have declined]; because if you've seen the film you'll know it was awful and there was no way for anybody to be good in it. Welles's costars were Lee Remick (Maggie Cutler), Joan Collins (Lorraine Sheldon), Don Knotts (Dr. Bradley), and Marty Feldman (Banjo). The New York Times criticized Denoff's updating of the original play (Welles's Whiteside was a television personality competing with Johnny Carson) and listed the production in its 1972 "Worst of Television" list.

Broadway revivals

A 1980 revival directed by Stephen Porter ran for 19 previews and 85 performances at the Circle in the Square Theatre. The cast included Ellis Rabb, Roderick Cook, Leonard Frey, Carrie Nye, and Jamey Sheridan. Drama Desk Award nominations went to Cook for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play and Nye for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play.

A 2000 revival, which ran for 85 performances, was produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company and directed by Jerry Zaks. The cast included Nathan Lane (Sheridan Whiteside), Jean Smart (Lorraine Sheldon), Harriet Sansom Harris (Maggie Cutler), and Lewis J. Stadlen (Banjo). In an interview prior to the opening, Lane said, "There's a danger in playing Whiteside. In the movie, Monty Woolley's portrayal at times came across as mean for mean's sake. It's when it gets nasty or bitchy that it goes off in the wrong direction." He suggested that his performance was influenced by Woollcott's repressed sexuality, stating, "He had a lot of...things he didn't want to deal with."

The 2000 production received mixed reviews. Variety, The Advocate and Talkin' Broadway reviewed it positively, and Entertainment Weekly gave the production a B+, calling it "as fresh a send-up as an SNL sketch and [with] an even more inspired plot" and singling out Smart's "swanning demonstration of ultimate showbiz phoniness" for praise. In The New York Times, however, Ben Brantley disliked the production, writing that "What should be a buoyant balloon of an evening [is] more often an exercise in deflation." Brantley praised Stadlen but found most of the acting, including Lane's, to be "a series of flourishes that sell individual jokes and epigrams without being anchored to character. Smart was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play and Stadlen was nominated for the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play, though neither won. The production was broadcast by PBS on October 7, 2000, three days after the New York production closed, and was released on DVD.


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