You Can’t Take It with You
You Can’t Take It with You
GEORGE S. KAUFMAN AND MOSS HART 1936
You Can’t Take It with You opened in New York in December of 1936 to instant critical and popular acclaim. This depiction of a delightfully eccentric family, the third collaboration by playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, proved to be their most successful and and longest-running work. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1936, the comedy went on to run 837 performances on Broadway. Kaufman and Hart sold the film rights to Columbia Pictures for a record-setting amount, and the 1938 film won an Academy Award for best picture. Perenially appealing to audiences, You Can’t Take It with You has become an American classic, regularly produced by high schools, colleges, and community theaters around the country. Successful Broadway revivals in 1965 and 1983 also attest to the play’s timeless appeal.
You Can’t Take It with You relates the humorous encounter between a conservative family and the crazy household of Grandpa Martin Vanderhof. Grandpa’s family of idiosyncratic individualists amuse with their energetic physical antics and inspire with their wholehearted pursuit of happiness. Kaufman and Hart fill the stage with chaotic activity from beginning to end. Critics have admired the witty one-liners, the visual theatricalism, and the balanced construction of the play’s three acts. Although You Can’t Take It with You is undeniably escapist theater which prompts immediate enjoyment rather than complex analysis, it has clearly influenced American comedy. The formula originated by Kaufman and Hart—a loveable family getting into scrapes and overcoming obstacles—has been adopted as a format by most of today’s television situation comedies.
George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart are remembered as masters of comedic playwriting. Each made important contributions to the American theater on his own, but they are best known for the successful and influential comedies they wrote together in the 1930s.
George S. Kaufman was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on November 16, 1889, the descendent of early German Jewish immigrants. After graduating from high school in 1907, he briefly attended law school. Disenchanted with legal studies, he dropped out and proceeded to take on a series of odd jobs, ranging from salesman to stenographer. At the age of twenty he left Pittsburgh for New York City and began writing for the New York Evening Mail. After a stint as a columnist for the Washington Times—which ended when his editor objected to the young columnist’s harsh satire—Kaufman returned to New York and soon became a theater news reporter for the New York Times. Later he was promoted to drama editor, a post he never gave up, even when he attained success as a playwright.
Although he rarely smiled and sometimes appeared almost gloomy, he was famous for his devastating sense of humor, particularly his one-liners. His peers considered him to be, as his friend Alexander Woollcott described him in Brooks Atkinson’s Broadway, “the first wit of his time.” Kaufman began applying this wit to playwriting in 1917. He would eventually become known as the “Great Collaborator,” after a long career during which he collaborated on more than 40 plays. A gifted writer of dialogue, Kaufman had little interest in forming plots and left this up to his many writing partners.
Kaufman’s first big hit—Dulcy, written with Marc Connelly—was produced in 1921. Both Connelly and Kaufman were part of the influential and now famous intellectual group called the Algonquin Round Table. These literary friends, who lunched and exchanged witticisms weekly at the Algonquin Hotel, included Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Parker, and Robert Benchley as well as several Kaufman collaborators such as Woollcott, Edna Ferber, and Ring Lardner. But it was not until he was 40, that Kaufman teamed up with the partner with whom he would find his greatest success, Moss Hart.
Moss Hart, born October 24, 1904, was brought up in relative poverty by his English-born Jewish immigrant parents in the Bronx, New York. Inspired by an aunt who loved the theater, Hart was stagestruck at a young age. While still a teenager, he worked as an office boy for a theater manager; this manager produced Hart’s first dramatic effort, The Beloved Bandit, in 1923. The show opened in Chicago and immediately flopped—one critic wrote a review in the form of an obituary for the play—and Hart’s boss fired him after losing $45,000 on the production. Hart, still only nineteen, went on to take a job directing social activities at resorts in the Catskills. He gained somewhat of a reputation for the amateur theatricals he organized, but the six plays he wrote during this time were all rejected by producers.
Finally, in 1929, producer Sam H. Harris agreed to stage Hart’s comedy Once in A Lifetime on the condition that the young writer revise the play with the well-known Kaufman. The twenty-six-year-old Hart idolized Kaufman and was thrilled at the prospect of working with him. This initial collaboration proved difficult, but when Once in a Lifetime opened in September, 1930, it was an unqualified success. This play, a satire of the movie industry, introduced the elements that would reappear in future Kaufman and Hart productions: numerous characters, chaotic activity, and witty dialogue. In the next ten years Kaufman and Hart would collaborate on seven more plays. Their third effort, You Can’t Take It with You, (1936) was their most successful and longest-running work, claiming among its honors a Pulitzer Prize. (Kaufman’s second; in 1931 his Of Thee I Sing, written with Morrie Ryskind, had been the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama). Some critics consider the duo’s next play, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939)—another story about a house filled with charming eccentrics—to be their best work.
Kaufman and Hart ceased collaborating in 1940 but both men continued to find success in the theatrical world. Kaufman collaborated on numerous popular plays throughout the 1940s and 50s, though most critics find that these works do not match the quality of his earlier efforts. He died on June 2, 1961. Hart went on to write six more plays on his own, as well as four screenplays, including those for Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and A Star
Is Born (1954). He won a Tony Award—formally known as an Antionette (or “Tony”) Perry Award—in 1957 for directing the original production of Alan Jay Lerner’s My Fair Lady. Not long before he died, on December 20, 1961, Hart completed an autobiography, Act One, which was praised by critics for its candor and insight.
Act I, Scene i
You Can’t Take It with You takes place in the living room of Grandpa Martin Vanderhof’s home in New York City. The action begins on a Wednesday evening in 1936. The curtain rises on an eclecti-cally decorated room containing a solarium full of snakes, a xylophone, and a printing press in addition to more common furniture items like chairs and tables.
The first scene of the play introduces the members of the eccentric Vanderhof-Sycamore household as they come in and out of the living room. Grandpa’s middle-aged daughter Penny Sycamore sits at a rickety card table industriously typing a play. She is joined by her twenty-nine-year-old daughter, Essie Carmichael, who makes and sells candy but really wants to be a dancer. Essie wears ballet slippers and dances rather than walks from place to place. Next, Rheba, the family maid, comes in and listens to Penny explain that her play’s heroine has entered a monastery, and Penny can’t think of a way to get her out. Then, Penny’s husband Paul Sycamore emerges from the basement where he’s been making fireworks. He is soon followed by his assistant Mr. De Pinna, a sort of permanent house guest who came eight years ago to deliver ice and has never left. Essie’s husband, Ed Carmichael, comes in and goes to the xylophone and begins playing a tune. Essie is immediately up on her toes dancing to it. When the song is finished Ed goes to work at his printing press while Rheba’s boyfriend Donald enters, bringing flies to feed the snakes.
At this point, Grandpa, the family patriarch who gave up business thirty-five years ago and now does whatever he likes, enters the bustling living room. He has just returned from watching the Columbia commencement exercises, one of the many activities—such as stamp collecting and going to the zoo—which he pursues just because he enjoys them. Not long after Grandpa arrives, Penny’s younger daughter, Alice, enters. Alice is the one “normal” member of the family who has a secretarial job on Wall Street. After a few cheerful exchanges with her various relatives, she quiets down the group in order to tell them that her boss’s son, Tony Kirby, will be calling for her later in the evening. She asks them all to behave as normally as possible because she likes this young man. She then goes upstairs to change.
When the doorbell rings, however, it turns out to be, not Alice’s young man, but rather an Internal Revenue Agent named Henderson who has come to inform Grandpa that he owes twenty-two years’ worth of unpaid income tax. But Henderson is scared off by a firecracker explosion before he can even get Grandpa to admit that the government does anything worth paying taxes to support. Finally, Tony arrives and gets a brief glimpse of Alice’s family. As Alice whisks Tony back out the door, Essie’s dance instructor, a loud Russian named Mr. Kolenkhov arrives. Kolenkhov and the rest of the family then sit down to dinner and Grandpa says grace, asking God to let them all continue living life just as they like.
Act I, Scene ii
Scene ii takes place later that same night. Alice and Tony have returned to the house after their date. They begin a conversation confessing how much they love each other. Alice admits she loves Tony but does not think they can ever marry because his traditional family could never accept her unconventional relatives. Tony does not think this is necessarily the case and convinces Alice that all that matters at the moment is their love for one another. The two become engaged and Tony departs.
At different points during this conversation Alice and Tony are interrupted by various family members who demonstrate the very eccentric behavior Alice thinks the Kirbys will be unable to accept. Penny comes through in her bathrobe looking for her play, “Sex Goes on Holiday.” Essie and Ed return from the movies arguing about Ginger Rogers’s dancing skill and casually mentioning that Grandpa thinks they should go ahead and have a baby. Donald passes by in his nightshirt carrying his accordion, and Paul emerges from the basement where he has continued making fireworks.
Act II opens a week later. Penny is talking to a drunken actress, Gay Wellington, who soon passes out on the couch. Tony Kirby and his parents are coming for dinner the next night, and Alice is getting things ready, consulting a list of things that need to be changed and put away. The rest of the family engage in their various amusements. Penny decides to complete a painting of Mr. De Pinna as a discus thrower which she began years ago, so he puts on a Roman costume and poses for her. Kolenkhov arrives to give Essie a dancing lesson, and she energetically pirouettes and leaps through the room while Grandpa throws darts.
At this moment, the Kirbys, in full evening dress, arrive. Tony has brought them a night early by mistake. The Kirbys are as shocked by the chaotic scene as the Sycamores are surprised to see the unexpected guests, but everyone tries to make the best of the situation. Penny gives hurried instructions about dinner to Rheba and they send Donald running to the market while everyone tries to sit down and have a conversation. But everything goes laughably awry as the drunken actress arises from the sofa, Kolenkhov seizes upon Mr. Kirby in an attempt to wrestle, and Penny starts a word association game which embarrasses the guests. Just when the Kirbys decide they can’t stay for dinner after all and are about to leave, three F.B.I. agents show up and block the door. They have come to arrest Ed for the seemingly subversive circulars he has been printing. They search the house, and when they find the “munitions” (Paul’s fireworks) in the basement they arrest everyone in the house, including the astonished Kirbys. And to top it all off, Mr. De Pinna has left his lit pipe downstairs with the fireworks, resulting in a large explosion at the close of the act.
Act III opens the next day as Rheba is setting the dinner table and Donald is reading to her a newspaper report of last night’s arrests stating that all thirteen people were given suspended sentences for manufacturing fireworks without a permit.
Alice has broken off her engagement and is packed and ready to leave town. No one has called her a cab as she requested, and while she waits for one, Tony arrives to try and talk her out of leaving. At this point, Kolenkhov shows up with his friend, a former Grand Duchess named Olga who is now a waitress. He has brought Olga to make blintzes for the family and takes her into the kitchen to cook. Then, Mr. Kirby appears at the door looking for Tony. Alice is still trying to leave, but Grandpa stops her from going and gets everyone to stay and talk.
In the course of the ensuing conversation, everything gets resolved. It comes out that Tony purposely brought his parents to dinner on the wrong night because he wanted them to see Alice’s family as they really were. Tony has decided to leave his job at Kirby & Co. and instead do something he really likes. Grandpa helps persuade Mr. Kirby that he should let his son pursue his dreams, since there is more to life than accumulating money. After all, “‘you can’t take with you” when you die. To cap off the happy moment, a letter arrives from the I.R.S. saying that Grandpa’s tax problems are resolved. The play concludes with everyone happily sitting down to a bountiful meal of Olga’s blintzes.
Essie’s husband Ed, as the stage directions inform, is a “nonedescript young man” in his thirties. He is a musician and composer who likes to play the xylophone as well as ply his trade as an amateur printer. As a hobby, he uses his hand-press to print sayings which he comes across in the writings of the revolutionary Russian Communist Leon Trotsky, such as “God Is the State; the State is God.” Proud of his work, he encloses these printed bills in the boxes with Essie’s candy. Although Ed prints his slogans just for the fun of it, their political messages attract the attention of the F.B.I., who believe Ed is an insurrectionist attempting to undermine the United States government.
Mrs. Sycamore’s eldest daughter, Essie Carmichael, is a 29-year-old aspiring ballerina. She dances her way through the play, improvising steps to her husband Ed’s xylophone music and eagerly following the instructions of her dance instructor, Mr. Kolenkhov. She makes candy, naming her newest confections “Love Dreams,” but she never takes off her ballet slippers even when she dons her candy-making apron. Like the other Sycamores, Essie is both happily absorbed in tasks which amuse her and wholly undisturbed by the eccentricities of her family.
Mr. De Pinna
Described in the stage directions as a “bald-headed little man with a serious manner,” the middle-aged Mr. De Pinna arrived at the Vanderhof residence eight years ago to deliver ice and ended up moving in. Although a minor character, he shows how open and accepting the Vanderhof-Sycamore family can be: everyone is obviously welcome in this house. Mr. De Pinna has clearly taken to this family’s way of life. He helps Paul make firecrackers, poses in Roman costume for Penny’s painting of a discus thrower, and remains undisturbed by the chaotic household.
Rheba’s boyfriend, who, like her, is described in the stage directions in racist terms such as “a colored man of no uncertain hue.” Cheerful and at ease in the household, he is a minor comic character who willingly runs errands and occasionally offers amusing comments.
The three F.B.I. agents (G-men) who come to investigate the seemingly political papers Ed Sycamore has been enclosing in candy boxes.
Grand Duchess Olga Katrina
Henderson is the Internal Revenue Department agent who comes to collect twenty-two years’ back income tax from Grandpa Vanderhof.
Wilbur C. Henderson
Anthony Kirby, Jr.
See Tony Kirby
Anthony Kirby, Sr.
See Mr. Kirby
See Mrs. Kirby
Tony’s father, the middle-aged Mr. Kirby, is a successful Wall Street businessman. He is a traditional authority figure who represents the conventional worldview the Vanderhof-Sycamores reject. Conservative and repressed, he has perpetual indigestion
- Frank Capra produced and directed an Academy Award-winning film version of You Can’t Take It with You. The film stars James Stewart and Jean Arthur, Columbia, 1938; available from Columbia Tristar Home Video. The film adaption does alter the plot in some ways. Excerpts from Robert Riskin’s screenplay were published in Foremost Films of 1938, edited by Frank Vreeland, New York: Pitman, 1939. Copies of the unpublished screenplay are available at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the University of California, Los Angeles Theatre Arts Library.
- CBS produced a television adaption of the play featuring Jean Stapleton and Art Carney which aired May 16, 1979.
- A 1984 taped performance of the play featuring Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards is available from Columbia Tristar Home Video, Vestron Video, and Live Entertainment.
- The Moss Hart Papers at the Wisconsin Center for Theater Research include the script for an October, 1950, Pulitzer Prize Playhouse television adaption of the play, as well as an undated radio adaption by Tony Webster.
and tells his wife he thinks “lust is not a human emotion.” He is initially shocked by Alice’s family and says Grandpa Vanderhof’s idea of doing only what makes you happy is a “a very dangerous philosophy . . . it’s un-American.”
Tony’s mother, the middle-aged Mrs. Kirby, is the conservative female equivelent of her businessman husband. She, too, is shocked by the unconventional Vanderhof-Sycamores. She is affronted when Penny says spiritualism is “a fake” and seems to reveal she is dissatisfied with her marriage when in the word game she associates “honeymoon” with “dull” and almost admits that Mr. Kirby talks about Wall Street even during sex.
Tony Kirby is a Vice President of Kirby & Co., his father’s business. The stage directions tell us he is a “very nice young man” who has recently attended Yale and Cambridge. He has fallen in love with Alice Sycamore and wants to marry her. Now that he’s done with college he believes, as he tells Grandpa Vanderhof, that now “the fun’s over, and—I’m facing the world,” but his contact with Alice’s family teaches him that if he makes the right choices his fun may just be starting. He purposely brings his parents to the Vanderhof-Sycamore house on the wrong night because, as he says to his father, “I wanted you to see a real family—as they really were. A family that loved and understood each other.” Determined to do something that he wants to do, Tony rejects his father’s business and embraces the Vanderhof s philosophy of seeking happiness over wealth.
Boris Kolenkhov (ko-len-kawv)
Essie’s dance instructor Boris Kolenkhov is introduced in the stage directions as an “enormous, hairy, loud” Russian. A stereotypically-depicted comic character, he contributes to the chaotic activity in the Vanderhof-Sycamore home, encouraging Essie to dance and wrestling with the unsuspecting Mr. Kirby. He has a habit of conveniently arriving just in time for meals.
The Grand Duchess Olga is a Russian friend of Kolehnkov’s who has fallen on hard times following the Communist Revolution in Russia. She is now a waitress and has a talent for making blintzes. She prepares the bountiful meal of blintzes which everyone sits down to at the conclusion of the play.
Rheba is the Sycamore family’s efficient, practical, and adaptable “colored maid.” The stage directions introduce her in stereotypically racist terms—“a very black girl somewhere in her thirties”—common during the years preceding the Civil Rights movement. During the course of the play’s action, however, Rheba emerges as a distinct individual, speaking her mind and holding her own within the eccentric household.
Alice Sycamore is Penny’s attractive younger daughter. The twenty-two-year-old Alice has, according to the stage directions, “escaped the tinge of mild insanity” that pervades her relatives, but her “devotion and love for them are plainly apparent.” The only member of the family with a regular job, she is a secretary at a Wall Street firm and has fallen in love with the boss’s son, Anthony Kirby, Jr. Although she loves Tony, she fears his conservative parents will never accept her family’s eccentricities. Since Alice is a “normal” and likeable character, the audience is likely to sympathise with her and share her point-of-view.
Penny’s husband Paul Sycamore is in his mid-fifties. Quiet, charming, and mild-mannered, he never loses his composure, even when the fire crackers he makes in the basement with Mr. De Pinna unexpectedly explode. Like his wife and father-in-law, Paul possesses what the stage directions call “a kind of youthful air.” A complete contrast to a disgruntled businessman such as Mr. Kirby, Paul contentedly pursues his chosen activities, such as making new “skyrockets” and building things with an Erector Set.
See Penelope Vanderhof Sycamore
See Martin Vanderhof
Grandpa Vanderhof, as Kaufman and Hart describe him in the stage directions, is a 75-year-old “wiry little man whom the years have treated kindly.” One day thirty-five years ago he gave up his business career, since, as he explains to Mr. Kolenkhov, it struck him that he “wasn’t having any fun.” So he “just relaxed” and has “been a happy man ever since.” He now has “time enough for everything” and, as he tells Mr. Kirby, he no longer has “six hours of things I have to do every day before I get one hour to do what I like in.” Grandpa collects stamps, throws darts, attends the commencement speeches at Columbia University, and encourages his family to follow his example and do only what makes them happy. He hasn’t payed income tax in twenty-two years because he doesn’t think the government does anything useful with the money. He provides the philosophical center of the play, explaining the folly of seeking material wealth at the expense of personal fulfillment, and asking only, as he says while saying grace before dinner, that their family be allowed “to go along and be happy in [their] own sort of way.”
Penelope Vanderhof Sycamore
Grandpa Vanderhof s daughter, Penny Sycamore, is the first character on stage in You Can’t Take It with You. Kaufman and Hart describe her in the stage directions as an endearing “round little woman” in her fifties, who loves nothing more than writing plays. As eccentric as the other members of her family, Penny was an enthusiastic painter but gave up this hobby for writing when a typewriter was delivered to the house by mistake eight years earlier. Charmingly blunt, she causes some embarrassment during the Kirbys’ visit, first by calling Mrs. Kirby’s beloved spirtualism “a fake,” and then by proposing a word association game and asking what everyone associates with the words “sex,” “bathroom,” and “lust.” Penny’s enjoyment of life and direct speech are in marked contrast to Mrs. Kirby’s seeming discontent and reserved acceptance of social conventions.
Gay Wellington, described in the stage directions as “an actress, nymphomaniac, and a terrible souse,” comes to the Sycamore house to discuss a script with Penny but then passes out on the couch. She occasionally awakens, usually just in time to contribute to the chaos that erupts following the Kirbys’ unexpected visit.
You Can’t Take It with You contrasts the eccentric family of Grandpa Martin Vanderhof with the conservative Kirby family. Vanderhof s granddaughter Alice becomes engaged to her boss’s son Tony Kirby. Although a dinner party meant to bring the two families together ends with an explosion and a night in jail, by the play’s end both Tony and his father have come to appreciate Grandpa’s carefree philosophy. All obstacles to the young couple’s happiness are eliminated.
The two families in You Can’t Take It with You each represent different definitions (perceptions) of the American Dream. Mr. Kirby has attained financial success and a position of social and economic power. The play, however, asks its viewers to evaluate whether Americans should aspire to be like Mr. Kirby. His achievement is contrasted with Grandpa Vanderhofs’ version of the American Dream, earning just enough money so that one can survive and do exactly what one wishes. Mr. Kirby may initially think Grandpa’s ideas are “un-American,” but the Vanderhofs’ infectious happiness and love for one another encourages the audience to revise their definition of the American Dream to include attainment of both material success and personal fulfillment.
Success and Failure
Throughout the play, the Vanderhof-Sycamore way of life calls into question conventional definitions of success and failure. Although Essie and Penny might be called “failures” because they lack talent in dancing and painting/playwriting respectively, the play depicts them as successful because each clearly finds joy in what she does. Tony Kirby initially thinks that in order to be “successful” he must forget about the dreams he had in college and accept his position as a vice president at Kirby & Co. But his contact with Alice’s family convinces him that it is a mistake to give up one’s dreams, as his father did when he was a young man. In the world of the play, failure to follow one’s dreams and desires is the only genuine failure. The audience is encouraged to re-define “success” in terms of happiness rather than in terms of just money and status.
The positive portrayal of eccentric and singular behavior in You Can’t Take It with You also reflects the American belief in individualism. Many works in American literature celebrate individuals who rebel against the restraining conventions of society at large. All the Vanderhof-Sycamores could be classified as “rugged individualists” who follow the dictates of their own hearts and disregard those in the majority who disapprove.
The Vanderhof-Sycamores not only stand apart as “different” from the conventional world around them, but they also are willing to accept others who are different. Their openness is reflected—through humorous exaggeration—in the way that they allow anyone to move into their house or sit down at
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Look up a classic discussion of comedy—such as Aristotle’s Poetics, Charles Baudelaire’s On the Essence of Laughter, Sigmund Freud’s Jokes and the Comic, or Northrop Frye’s The Mythos of Spring: Comedy—and evaluate the form and content of You Can’t Take It with You according to your chosen theorist’s definition of comedy.
- Read either Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” (1841) or the chapter “Economy” from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854). Consider how the ideas in your chosen text are reflected in You Can’t Take It with You.
- Compare and contrast Frank Capra’s film adaption of You Can’t Take It with You with Kaufman and Hart’s original play. What alterations did Capra make which reflect his definition of family and community? How do the depictions of the business world in the play and film differ? Do the two versions emphasize the same political, economic, and social philosophies?
- Research the living and working conditions of minority groups—such as African Americans and Eastern European immigrants—in mid-1930s New York. What would life have been like for a real African American domestic worker or a Russian escaping persecution? Find authentic accounts to compare with the joking stereotypes presented in Kaufman and Hart’s play.
their dinner table. And although the play’s ethnic characters are depicted in a stereotypical manner which might offend late-twentieth-century sensibilities, the acceptance of African-American and Russian characters as part of the family was seen as quite liberal and open to the value systems of most 1930s audiences. The play’s happy ending also reveals that differences may only be superficial, since Mr. Kirby, who once had dreams of being a trapeze-artist, may be more like Grandpa than anyone suspected.
Much of the humor in You Can’t Take It with You derives from the clash between the lifestyles of the two families. The Kirbys might be seen to reflect mainstream upper-middle-class American culture, while the Vanderhof-Sycamores resist the conventions of that same culture, making up their own rules. While themes of culture clash can often be used to show how divergent groups can come to understand each other, this is a secondary concern in Kaufman and Hart’s play. The primary purpose of introducing a straight-laced family such as the Kirbys into the wacky world of the Vanderhof-Sycamores is to watch the sparks fly. The first act clearly establishes the goofy nature of the family and raises audience expectation as interaction with citizens of the “real world” approaches. Laughs are generated from both the eccentric behavior of Grandpa Vanderhof and his family and the shocked reactions the Kirbys have to this oddball group.
You Can’t Take It with You has three well-balanced acts. Act I introduces the members of the eccentric Vanderhof-Sycamore family and sets up the play’s central conflict: Alice Sycamore becomes engaged to her boss’s son, Tony Kirby, but she does not think his family can accept hers. Act II depicts the laughably disastrous encounter between the two families when the Kirbys arrive for a dinner party on the wrong night. Act III then resolves all the problems that confront the family and the young couple.
You Can’t Take It with You employs many elements of farce, which is defined most simply as broad comedy mixed with a healthy dose of improbability. Farce typically takes highly exaggerated characters and places them in unlikely situations. Key elements include witty wordplay and physical humor for broad comic effect to provoke simple, hearty laughter from the audience. Clearly, the dancing, xylophone-playing, firecracker-making members of the Vanderhof-Sycamore household are exaggerated, make witty verbal jokes, and engage in physical horseplay.
The basic plot of You Can’t Take It with You is that of a romantic comedy, a story of a love affair in which the couple must overcome obstacles—usually with comic results—before they can marry. Like many young lovers in Shakespearean comedy, Kaufman and Hart’s Alice and Tony face difficulties on the path to their eventual happy ending. While straight-up romantic comedy is often derided by critics for being too cute or overly sentimental, Kaufman and Hart balance this element of their play with frequent interuptions from the loony family members.
Satire typically attacks political or social philosophies, showing them to be false or misguided through mockery and ridicule. Although You Can’t Take It with You is not a harsh satire, it does gently ridicule the American tax system, welfare, and market capitalism through its ludicrous presentation of Henderson the I.R.S. agent, Donald and Ed’s comments about “relief,” and Grandpa’s anti-materialist views. It also pokes fun at the typical perception of the Amercian Dream—one that encourages individuals to exert themselves in the pursuit of money and status without any regard for happiness and leisure activity.
In the mid-1930s when Kaufman and Hart wrote You Can’t Take It with You, Americans were suffering through one of the worst economic periods in the history of the United States, an era known as the Great Depression. Many Americans lost their life savings, homes, and jobs in the stock market crash of 1929 and the numerous bank failures which followed. Unemployment rose to record heights for the time, reaching over 20% in 1935. Hopes raised by an apparent upturn in the economy in 1936 were dashed when the recovery collapsed in 1937.
After his election in 1932, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt instituted his “New Deal” legislation, a series of liberal reforms which put in place welfare, social security, and unemployment benefits. These relief efforts dramatically changed Americans’ relationship with their government, which now provided many with a living either in the form of a job in a federal program or through welfare benefits. The nature of the presidency changed at this time as well; the executive branch gained powers no president since Roosevelt has seriously attempted to invoke.
Although the New Deal eased the effects of the Depression, the 1930s were an exceptionally tough time for the majority of Americans. The enormous hardships endured by ordinary people led many to question free market capitalism. Left wing ideas, such as socialism, gained in popularity during this decade, and labor unrest led to strikes across the country.
Not surprisingly, these political and economic factors influenced American popular culture. The art and literature of the 1930s gave rise to both works intended to argue political ideas and works intended to provide escape from the rigors of daily life. Newspapers contained more editorial columns than ever before and politically oriented magazines such as the Nation and the New Republic flourished; yet papers also included more comic strips and serialized stories than they had previously, and pulp detective and mystery fiction—prime escapist fare—flourished. Radio offered frequent news reports but also gave listeners lighthearted comedy programs such as Amos ‘n’ Andy and Fibber McGee and Molly. In the theater, propaganda plays such as Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty (1935) were balanced by farces such as Kaufman and Hart’s plays.
Movies, too, touched on the harshness of the times with films like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1936). More frequently, however, films offered optimistic escapism. Hollywood produced excellent slapstick and screwball comedies starring actors like Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and Cary Grant, as well as classic animated features such as Walt Disney’s The Three Little Pigs (1933)
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1930s: During the Great Depression unemployment reaches a high of 20% in 1935. In 1938, unemployment is at 19.1%, which means 10.39 million Americans are unemployed.
Today: In the mid-1990s unemployment runs as low as 5%. With 66% of Americans in the labor force, a larger proportion of Americans are working than ever before. Yet the disparity between the wealthiest 10% and the poorest 10% of the population is greater in the United States than in any other industrialized country except Russia.
- 1930s: Starting in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation combats the economic hardships of the Great Depression, introducing social security, acts creating jobs in the public sector, welfare, and unemployment benefits.
Today: Social Security funding is endangered and economists warn that the system could collapse in the near future. Congress passes a Welfare Reform Act in 1996 limiting lifetime benefits to five years and requiring all welfare recipients to participate either in job training or employment programs.
- 1930s: Beginning in 1938, Joseph Stalin, the communist dictator of the Soviet Union, kills 8 to 10 million people in an attempt to eliminate all his political enemies in an event later called the “great purge.” In this same year, fascist general Francisco Franco starts a revolt in Spain which leads to a three-year civil war.
Today: In Europe, genocidal slaughter takes place in Bosnia-Herzegovina during a civil war in the 1990s; thousands of people are killed in the name of “ethnic cleansing.” In Africa, during the civil war in Rwanda, mass killings also take place in 1995 as two ethnic tribes attempt to eliminate one another.
- 1930s: In 1930, life expectancy for American men was 58.1 years; American women were expected to live 61.6 years. By 1940, life expectancies for American men and women had risen to 60.8 years and 65.2 years respectively.
Today: In 1990, the average life expectancy for men in the United States was 71.6 years, for women it was 79.2 years.
- 1930s: In 1933, Frances Perkins becomes the first woman cabinet member when she accepts the post of Secretary of Labor.
Today: Madeline Albright becomes the United States’s first female Secretary of State in 1997.
- 1930s: According to census records, the population of the United States rose from 123, 202, 624 in 1930 to 132, 164, 569 in 1940, an increase of approximately 7%.
Today: In 1980, the U.S. population was 226, 504, 825. It grew to 248, 709, 873 by 1990, an increase of approximately 9%.
and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937). Also enormously popular were upbeat films featuring the child actress Shirley Temple, including Little Miss Marker (1934) and Heidi. With little money to spend on entertainment, Americans also embraced a series of amusing “fads,” often activities which were inexpensive (dance marathons, chain letters) or could be done at home (jig-saw puzzles, bridge).
The decade of the Great Depression is thoroughly documented both by still photography and motion pictures. Late-twentieth century society is familiar with images—for example the Dust Bowl, bread lines, and sit-down strikes—captured by 1930s photojournalists such as Margaret Bourke-White and Walker Evans. Magazines such as Life and Fortune published these photos and gave Americans a new perspective on themselves and their nation.
During this time of struggle and societal stagnation, ironically, a few women found their opportunities in the public sector expanding. The rapid growth of New Deal offices in Washington D.C. led to unconventional appointments and brought women into such government positions as the cabinet, treasury, and higher courts. Occasionally, as would be the case during World War II, women stepped into men’s traditional role of family breadwinner—especially given that many men refused to work in clerical and secretarial positions that were typically identified with women. And despite open discrimination against married women (because many people believed wives shouldn’t be allowed to work if their husbands already had jobs) the number of women in the labor force increased throughout the decade. Although the basic cultural assumptions about “women’s place” in the home remained largely unchallenged in the 1930s, some women were drawn into newly active roles in government and the workplace.
Unfortunately, many ethnic minorities in America did not find even slightly increased in opportunities in the 1930s. At the start of the decade, three-fourths of all African Americans in the United States lived in rural areas. Existence for farm workers had already been harsh in the agriculturally depressed 1920s; conditions deteriorated during the depression of the 1930s. In urban communities as well, unemployment, worsened by discrimination, made life severely difficult for black workers. African-American leaders protested that New Deal programs did not offer equal relief or eliminate discrimination against black citizens. Although a legally supported system of segregation stayed in place in the Southern states and racist bias was in evidence throughout the country, some reform did begin in 1935 when President Roosevelt banned discrimination in the federal relief programs and African Americans made some gains in attaining their deserved rights and recognition during the second half of the decade.
The 1930s were a time dominated by economic and political concerns. Americans faced difficulties at home and saw unrest abroad, as civil war waged in Spain (1934-1936), Joseph Stalin exercised totalitarian power in Russia, and Hitler installed a fascist dictatorship in Nazi Germany. At the end of the decade the United States faced the frightening prospect of going to war as diplomacy throughout Europe and Asia failed and political tensions rose.
On its opening night in December of 1936, You Can’t Take It with You became an instant commercial hit. Since then, the play’s popularity has never waned; it has been successfully staged by theaters of all sizes for over six decades. Yet even while praising the skill with which Kaufman and Hart constructed their clever comedy, critics have generally categorized the play as an escapist farce, enjoyable yet lacking any significant content. When the play won the Pulitzer Prize in 1936, some questioned the choice, saying judges played it safe, choosing a popular work rather than a more controversial drama with greater depth and artistic merit.
In his New York Times review, Brooks Atkinson described You Can’t Take It with You, as “a spontaneous piece of hilarity” composed with “a dash of affection to season the humor” by two writers with “a knack for extravagances of word and episode and an eye for hilarious incongruities.” Most other reviews of the first production were equally positive, though some expressed surprise that the play was less satirical than Kaufman’s earlier works. But perhaps because its humor was gentle and its message palatable, You Can’t Take It with You appealed to audiences all across the country and touring companies shared the success of the Broadway production. The strong ticket sales were all the more remarkable considering the tough economic conditions of the Great Depression—and speak volumes of the play’s appeal as escapist fare.
Over the years, critics’ comments regarding You Can’t Take It with You have been remarkably consistent. Frank Hurburt O’Hara, in his 1939 collection of essays Today in American Drama, praised Kaufman and Hart for creating a play that despite being “hilariously preposterous” still manages to be “more persuasive to audiences than most farces.” Almost thirty years later, Richard Mason, in a 1967 Theater Annual article, would still admire the imagination and warmth in this play where “neither satire not any weighty preoccupation with issues is allowed to get in the way of the comedy . . . any metaphorical values possessed by the play are quite overshadowed by its farce exuberance.”
Pleasantly escapist, You Can’t Take It with You is, as Ethan Mordden wrote in his 1981 book The American Theater, “one hit whose popularity is easy to understand.” First opening in a decade when, as Mordden puts it, many “plays dealt with disoriented characters—alienated either by epic environmental pressures they don’t understand or because they understand and dislike their environment,” You Can’t Take It with You offered audiences an amusing reversal: “the screwballs have their world in order; it’s everyone else who’s disoriented.” And most critics would, along with Mordden, attribute the play’s enduring appeal to the fact that although “very much of its time” Kaufman and Hart’s comedy is “not dependent on timely allusions;” we can still easily understand Grandpa’s message to “do what you want before it’s too late.”
In the 1990s, more criticism has been written on Frank Capra’s 1938 film version of You Can’t Take It with You than on Kaufman and Hart’s original play. This reflects the burgeoning of popular culture and film studies, fields more interested in the 1930s Hollywood screwball comedies than the Broadway stage of the same era. But the lack of recent criticism may also indicate that many late-twentieth century scholars agree with Mason’s judgement of all Kaufman and Hart’s comedies: they “are there to be thoroughly enjoyed on the stage, but it is fatal to think about them.”
In this essay Kreger places Kaufman and Hart’s play within the context of the Great Depression, noting that the work served as a welcome escape from the trials of 1930s America.
In the 1930s, Americans needed to laugh. The United States was suffering through the harsh economic times of the Great Depression and people went to theaters and movie houses to forget their troubles. So it is not surprising that in 1936 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s You Can’t Take It with You was a commercial success. This screwball farce filled the stage with eccentric characters who did silly things and made witty remarks while fireworks literally went off in the background. Both frantic and funny, the play gave audiences just the sort of escapist entertainment they wanted.
You Can’t Take It with You not only pleased Depression-era theater-goers, it went on in the decades which followed to become a classic American comedy, continually produced by theater companies of all kinds. Why has this play enjoyed lasting popularity when many other clever farces from the same era have been forgotten? Perhaps this well-constructed work endures both because it skillfully employs classic comedic techniques and because it celebrates individualism, reiterating ideas Americans have embraced since the country’s inception. Without exaggerating the philosophical importance of Kaufman and Hart’s loveable bunch of screwballs, it is safe to say that You Can’t Take It with You repackages, in the congenial form of Grandpa Vanderhof s worldview, the individualistic and anti-materialist ideals of American thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. As the idiosyncratic Vanderhof-Sycamores amuse, they also encourage the viewer to resist conformity, question the dominant culture’s social and economic values, and seek personal fulfillment. The play fulfills its obligations as a farce, delivering verbal and physical comedy aplenty, but it also offers, with an appropriately light-touch, a message Americans want to hear.
But, as many critics have pointed out, any message You Can’t Take It with You delivers is secondary to its main purpose: producing laughs. From the moment the curtain goes up, Kaufman and Hart keep audiences amused with sight gags and witty lines. Act I introduces the wacky Vanderhof-Sycamore family. They all follow their dreams, making the best of what life and chance have presented them: Penny writes plays because a typewriter was once delivered to the house by mistake, Essie dances and makes candy, Ed plays the xylophone and prints circulars on a hand-press, Paul make fireworks with the assistance of Mr. De Pinna, and Grandpa collects stamps and attends commencement exercises. None of them seems of mind that young Alice actually has a job as a secretary on Wall Street. In fact, no one seems to mind much of anything at all. No explosion is so loud and no behavior so strange as to disturb this family’s balance.
Kaufman and Hart begin their play in a liberated realm—Grandpa Vanderhof s living room. This is a reversal of the traditional comic model literary critic Northrop Frye once proclaimed, where, as in many Shakespearean romantic comedies, the protagonists must escape a world of hypocrisy and habit and create their own new society of truth and freedom. In You Can’t Take It with You, there is no need for Alice and Tony to run away and make a new community, for they start out in a fully formed alternative society. The “real world” remains safely off stage, and the Vanderhof-Sycamore world order—no jobs, no taxes, no formalities—holds sway. The humor and fun, of course, comes from watching the conservative Kirby family at first
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Harvey, Mary Coyle Chase’s 1944 comedy. This play, like You Can’t Take It with You, won a Pulitzer Prize, and tells the story of another classic American eccentric, a charming man who keeps company with a huge, imaginary rabbit named Harvey.
- Act One, Moss Hart’s well-received 1959 autobiography. This work offers insight into both the Broadway theater at mid-century and the Hart-Kaufman collaboration.
- The Man Who Came to Dinner, Kaufman and Hart’s 1939 play. This fourth Kaufman-Hart collaboration, like You Can’t Take It with You, depicts a crazy family and a rambunctious social occasion. Some critics consider this to be Kaufman and Hart’s best work.
- Ah Wilderness!, (1933) by Eugene O’Neill. This nostalgic play, the only comedy O’Neill ever wrote, looks at family life in 1906 Connecticut.
- Dorothy Parker’s essays, book reviews, and drama reviews from the 1930s can be found in The Portable Dorothy Parker as well as other anthologies of her work. Parker’s famous satirical wit reflects the tone of the Algonquin Round Table, an intellectual group which influenced Kaufman.
- The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, (1895) a play by Oscar Wilde. This well-constructed comedy filled with famous witty lines is about the complicated courtship and betrothals of two upper-class English young men.
clash with and later attempt to adapt to this unorthodox world. The overall structure of the play, however, is quite traditional; three balanced acts, in turn, set-up, complicate, and resolve the humorous situation.
After Act I has introduced the unconventional cast of characters and made clear the problem of the play, that Alice and Tony want to marry but fear that their families are incompatible (a lighter version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet), Act II generates hilarious complications by bringing Tony and his parents to dinner at the Vanderhof-Sycamore house on the wrong night. (This formula of a likeable but unusual family placed in ludicrous circumstances is a familiar one. Many critics credit Kaufman and Hart with originating this scenerio so often adopted by television situation comedies such as The Addams Family and The Simpsons.) This second act illustrates the broad comic techniques of farce, which place exaggerated characters in awkward physical positions and silly costumes. Kaufman and Hart start off with Essie, in her tutu, leaping through the living room, the balding Mr. De Pinna dressed like a Roman discus thrower, and Penny in the caricatured costume of “the artist.” All funny sights even before the Kirbys show up in full evening dress (formal gown and tuxedo) to provide contrast. And the physical comedy continues throughout the scene, with Mr. Kolenkhov accosting the uptight Mr. Kir-by in an attempt to wrestle, Donald running in and out to the store, and finally the chaotic arrival of the F.B.I., which is capped by a fireworks explosion and pandemonium. When reading a comedy (as opposed to actually seeing it produced), it is easy to overlook the importance of the visual and physical elements which are a crucial part of the humor. Kaufman and Hart certainly intended You Can’t Take It with You to entertain both eye and ear; Kaufman in particular was well-known for adroitly choreographing the on-stage mayhem in productions he directed.
The play is filled not only with clever sight gags but also with great one-liners. Audiences never fail to laugh when Penny muses about her play’s plot (“you know, with forty monks and one girl, something ought to happen”) or when Grandpa sums up his sense of the government’s value (“well, I might pay about seventy-five dollars, but that’s all it’s worth”). The caricatured Russian Kolenkhov energetically delivers some of the silliest lines in the play (“Life is chasing around inside of me, like a squirrel”) and performers love the part. As the actor Gregory Peck said in A Celebration of Moss Hart about playing Kolenkhov, “it had that marvelous line—‘Confidentially she stinks’—in it. I had the privilege of saying that, I think, four times at every performance, and for the first time in my life hearing an audience just tear the joint up. That was the surest-fire laugh line that any actor ever had.” Hart and Kaufman’s verbal wit shows up throughout the play, but perhaps a particularly good example of their ability to get big laughs from short lines is Penny’s word game, where Mrs. Kirby’s associations of bathroom—Mr. Kirby, honeymoon—dull, sex—Wall Street, are revealingly suggestive.
You Can’t Take It with You might stand as a model for aspiring comedic playwrights, illustrating balanced structure as well as a skillful blend of physical and verbal humor. But its enduring appeal more likely can be credited to the other lesson it has to offer, that of Grandpa Vanderhofs life philosophy. Living out Grandpa’s notions, the Vanderhof-Sycamores illustrate Ralph Waldo Emerson’s idea, famously expressed in his 1841 essay “Self-Reliance,” that to be an individual one must be a “nonconformist” and reject the “joint-stock company” of society which asks citizens to sacrifice their “liberty and culture.” As Alice says about her family, “they do rather strange things” but “they’re fun, and . . . there’s a certain nobility about them.” American audiences raised on individualistic beliefs are inclined to agree that there is something noble about folks who “just don’t care about things that other people give their whole lives to.” Society demands conformity, but in the world of Kaufman and Hart’s play, those who follow society’s dictates get little satisfaction from life, while those who make up their own rules find contentment. Echoing Emerson, You Can’t Take It with You emphasizes the pleasure of following one’s bliss. In this comedic world, nonconformists have fun. It really is a play about “play,” in the sense of games and entertainment.
Grandpa laments the fact that most people have forgotten about having fun: they work because they are supposed to but no longer know what they are working for. He asks, “why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” Grandpa himself used to “get down to the office at nine o’clock sharp, no matter how [he] felt” and “lay awake nights” worrying about contracts. He had been “right in the thick of it—fighting and scratching, and clawing”; the working world was a “regular jungle.” Then one day he realized he “wasn’t having any fun” so he “just relaxed” and has “been a happy man ever since.” Grandpa’s experience and realizations echo the well-known statements of Emerson’s contemporary Henry David Thoreau, who in his 1854 book Walden, declared that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Thoreau argued that people “labor under a mistake.” Even when they try to have fun, an “unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called. . . games and amusements . . . there is no play in them, for this comes after work.”
As theorist Stanley Cavell suggested in his discussion of 1930s film comedies, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, characters with individualistic and anti-materialist ideals like the Vanderhof-Sycamores underscore the difference between those who know what has true value in life and those who have forgotten what really counts. In Cavell’s words “happiness is not to be won just by opposing those in power but only, beyond that, by educating them, or their successors.” We see this in You Can’t Take It with You where the happy ending depends upon Mr. Kirby and Tony learning to share Grandpa’s ideals. In “screwball comedies” like this, as Cavell argued, fulfillment “requires not the fuller satisfaction of our needs as they stand but the examination and transformation of those needs.” Grandpa wants Tony to make such a reassessment so that he will not “wake up twenty years from now with nothing in his life but stocks and bonds.” Grandpa’s advice to the Kirbys is very much in the tradition of Thoreau—who wrote that he went to live at Walden Pond so that he would not “discover that I had not lived.” “You’ve got all the money you need,” Vanderhof tells Mr. Kirby, “you can’t take it with you.” So now is the time to consider what will bring happiness. As Grandpa goes on to say, “how many of us would be willing to settle when we’re young for what we eventually get? All those plans we make. . . what happens to them? It’s only a handful of the lucky ones that can look back and say they even come close.”
Certainly the Vanderhof-Sycamores are just such a “handful of lucky ones.” They all seem to have followed the approach to life put forth in Walden, which encourages its readers to “simplify, simplify,” to get back to the basics, and to relax like Thoreau for whom “time is but a stream I go a-fishing in.” Although the disasters of Act II cause some doubts about this philosophy at the opening of Act III—when Paul wonders if he’s been wrong to have “just been going along, enjoying myself, when maybe I should have been thinking more about Alice” and Alice herself wishes her family “behaved the way other people’s families do”—the play’s happy resolution affirms that Grandpa’s way really is best.
Given the economic hardships of the 1930s, we can see why audiences of the time would want to believe Grandpa when he says “life is simple and kind of beautiful if you let it come to you.” Of course Kaufman and Hart, through occasional satiric moments, point out the impracticality of their philosophy with quips like Kolenkhov’s reminder that “you cannot relax with Stalin in Russia. The czar relaxed and what happened to him?” Reminders of Depression-era reality aren’t totally absent either, although they are always played for laughs. Donald’s remark that going to pick up his relief check “breaks up his week,” the peculiar dinner menus, Kolenkhov’s just-in-time-for-a-meal arrivals, and the F.B.I.‘s investigation of Ed’s seemingly subversive circulars bring to mind welfare, hunger, and bureaucratic paranoia respectively. But You Can’t Take It with You does not aim for political satire but rather hopes to generate mirth, to, at least temporarily, help the audience forget the trials of the real world. The satire here is gentle and the hint of “bad times” only emphasizes the light-hearted good times we see depicted on the stage.
Comedy traditionally affirms the possibility of change and growth. There is always a new and better day to come. As Thoreau wrote, “it is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof.” So even the older Mr. Kirby can learn to change his mind and see the world through Grandpa’s eyes. When considered in the context of traditional American individualism, as expressed in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, the Vanderhof-Sycamore philosophy which Mr. Kirby initially thinks is “dangerous” and “un-American” seems just the opposite: distinctly American. You Can’t Take It with You deserves recognition not only as an excellent farce but as a classic celebration of American individualism. As Moss Hart said, “I do not look down my nose at comedies; they are an ancient and honorable form of making certain truths palatable
“IN A WORLD IN WHICH THE SANITY USUALLY ASSOCIATED WITH SUNSHINE IS SADLY OVERVALUED, YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU IS SOMETHING TO BE PRIZED”
with laughter, and an age can be understood as well by its comedies as by its tragic dramas.”
Source: Erika Kreger, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.
John Mason Brown
In this review that first appeared in the New York Evening Post, December 15 & 19, 1936, Brown praises the lighthearted nature of You Can’t Take It with You.
Brown was an influential and popular American drama critic who wrote extensively on British and American drama.
In a world in which the sanity usually associated with sunshine is sadly overvalued, You Can’t Take It With You is something to be prized. It is moonstruck, almost from beginning to end. It is blessed with all the happiest lunacies Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman have been able to contribute to it. The Sycamore family is the most gloriously mad group of contented eccentrics the modern theatre has yet had the good fortune to shadow. Its various members comprise a whole nest of Mad Hatters. They are daffy mortals, as lovable as they are laughable. Their whims are endless. So, too, for that matter, is the fun they provide, except when Cupid is foolish enough to force his way into the family circle.
The Sycamores, bless them, live uptown in New York. They are, however, not nearly so far removed from Wall Street as they are from the rent-day worries to which most of us are heir. Grandfather Vanderhof. . . has for some years now refused, on very sensible grounds, to pay his income tax. More than that, though he still has some money, he has long ago retired from business in order to seek happiness in attending commencements, visiting zoos, and collecting snakes and stamps. All the members of his demented household have hobbies of their own and practice the gospel of relaxation which he preaches. His daughter, Mrs. Sycamore. . ., has abandoned painting, to which she temporarily returns, for playwriting because eight years ago a typewriter was delivered by mistake to the Sycamore bedlam, (pp. 177-78)
The quiet lunacy of the family is established by . . . Grandfather Vanderhof, [who] is as lovably gentle as he is unworldly. . . . Old though he is, he is happy because he has been able to remain a child of impulse in a sternly coercive world. He is more than strange. His strangeness is the measure of his wisdom and the point of his philosophy. His is a serenity and a goodness which make it possible for him, when saying “grace,” to speak directly to his Creator with a reverent simplicity such as has not been equaled hereabouts since The Green Pastures and such as should be the property of all bishops and archbishops in a Panglossian universe, (p. 179)
[Mrs. Sycamore’s] head may be light, but her heart is filled with the same kindness which floods Grandfather Vanderhof s. She, too, sets about the business of being flighty and foolish with a blessed unconsciousness of how laughable she succeeds in being. So, also, does . . . her amiable husband. And so, for that matter, do the rest of the agreeably demented Sycamores.
It is only when workaday reason invades the Sycamore home; when dull normalcy makes its appearance; when an orthodox Cupid bursts into this inspired bedlam, that You Can’t Take It With You suffers. The Sycamores . . . are too fortunate in their nonsense ever to be disturbed by something as illogical as ordinary common sense, (pp. 179-80)
Source: John Mason Brown, “The Sensible Insanities of You Can’t Take It with You” (1936) in his Two on the Aisle: Ten Years of the American Theatre in Performance, W. W. Norton & Co., 1938, pp. 177-80.
In a review that first appeared in the New York Times on December 15, 1936, noted critic Atkinson related the simple pleasures of Hart and Kaufman’s play, particularly its eagerness to please an audience.
Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman have written their most thoroughly ingratiating comedy, You Can’t Take It With You, which was put on at the Booth last evening. It is a study in vertigo about a lovable family of hobby-horse riders, funny without being shrill, sensible without being earnest. In Once in a Lifetime, Mr. Hart and Mr. Kaufman mowed the audience down under a machine-gun barrage of low comedy satire, which was the neatest trick of the season. But you will find their current lark a much more spontaneous piece of hilarity; it is written with a dash of affection to season the humor and played with gayety and simple good spirit. To this column, which has a fondness for amiability in the theatre, You Can’t Take It With You is the best comedy these authors have written.
To people from the punctilious world outside, the Vanderhof and Sycamore tribes appear to be lunatics. For thirty-five years, grandfather has done nothing but hunt snakes, practice dart throwing, attend commencement exercises and avoid income tax payments. His son-in-law makes fireworks for a hobby in the cellar; various members of the family write plays, study dancing, play the xylophone and operate amateur printing presses. Being mutually loyal they live together in a state of pleasant comity in spite of their separate hobbies. If Alice Sycamore had not fallen in love with the son of a Wall Street banker there would be no reason for this comedy. The contrast between his austerely correct world and their rhymeless existence in a cluttered room supplies the heartburn and the humor. By the time of the final curtain even the banker is convinced that there is something to be said for riding hobbies and living according to impulse in the bosom of a friendly family.
Not that You Can’t Take It With You is a moral harangue. For Mr. Hart and Mr. Kaufman are fantastic humorists with a knack for extravagances of word and episode and an eye for hilarious incongruities. Nothing this scrawny season has turned up is quite so madcap as a view of the entire Sycamore tribe working at their separate hobbies simultaneously. When Mr. Kirby of Wall Street and the Racquet Club walks into their living-room asylum his orderly head reels with anguish. The amenities look like bedlam to him. What distinguishes You Can’t Take It With You among the Hart-Kaufman enterprises is the buoyancy of the humor. They do not bear down on it with wisecracks. Although they plan it like good comedy craftsmen, they do not exploit it like gag-men.
And they have assembled a cast of actors who are agreeable folks to sit before during a gusty evening. As grandfather, Henry Travers, the salty and reflective one, is full of improvised enjoyment. Josephine Hull totters and wheedles through the part of a demented homebody. As a ferocious-minded Moscovite, George Tobias roars through the room. Under Mr. Kaufman’s direction, which can be admirably relaxed as well as guffawingly taut, every one gives a jovial performance—Paula Trueman, Frank Wilcox, George Heller, Mitzi Hajos, Margot Stevenson, Oscar Polk. Well, just read the cast. The setting is by Donald Oenslager, as usual.
When a problem of conduct raises its head for a fleeting instant in the Sycamore family, grandfather solves it with a casual nod of philosophy, “So long as she’s having fun.” Mr. Hart and Mr. Kaufman have been more rigidly brilliant in the past, but they have never scooped up an evening of such tickling fun.
Source: Brooks Atkinson, review of You Can’t Take It with You (1936) in On Stage: Selected Theater Reviews from the New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, pp. 182-83.
Atkinson, Brooks. “The Giddy Twenties” in his Broadway, MacMillan (New York), 1970, pp. 227-37.
In this chapter from his book-length history of Broadway, Atkinson describes New York theater at the time George S. Kaufman came on the scene, discusses the influence of the Algonquin Round Table, and touches on the beginnings of Kaufman’s collaborations with Moss Hart.
Cavell, Stanley. Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, Harvard University Press, 1981, pp. 1-42.
Cavell’s introduction provides a useful interpretation of the film version of You Can’t Take It with You, and his discussion of screwball comedies in the body of the book illustrates strategies for analyzing farce in both film and theater.
Frye, Northrop. “The Mythos of Spring: Comedy,” in his The Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton University Press, 1957, pp. 163-186.
Frye’s classic analysis of comedy does not deal with Kaufman and Hart specifically but offers a useful overview of the development of comic form from the Greeks through Shakespeare to the Victorian era.
Goldstein, Malcolm. George S. Kaufman: His Life, His Theater, Oxford University Press (New York), 1979.
In this detailed and readable biography, Goldstein examines both Kaufman’s life and work. Chapter 15, “The Birth of a Classic,” explains the development of You Can’t Take It with You offers a reading of the play, and considers its influence on both collaborators.
Gould, Jean. “Some Clever Collaborators” in Modern American Playwrights, Dodd, Mead & Co. (New York), 1966, pp. 154-167.
“MOSS HART AND GEORGE S. KAUFMAN HAVE WRITTEN THEIR MOST THOROUGHLY INGRATIATING COMEDY, YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU”
Gould provides concise biographical sketches of Kaufman and Hart, then moves on to a discussion of their most successful plays, devoting several paragraphs to You Can’t Take It with You.
Hart, Moss. “No Time for Comedy . . . or Satire: My Most interesting Work” in Theatre Arts, Vol. 38, no. 5, May, 1954, pp. 32-33.
An article written by Hart that discusses a number of his better-known works and presents his philosophy toward drama.
Mason, Richard. “The Comic Theatre of Moss Hart: Persistence of a Formula” in Theatre Annual, Volume 23, 1967, pp. 60-87.
Mason discusses all of Moss Hart’s comedies, examining closely the structure of each and arguing Hart contributed important comic elements to the farce form.
Mordden, Ethan. The American Theater, Oxford University Press, 1981.
Mordden’s book provides an excellent overview of the history of American theater. He charts the development of comedy as well as serious drama and offers an insightful discussion of Kaufman and Hart.
O’Hara, Frank Hurburt. “Farce with a Purpose” in Today in American Drama, Greenwood Press (New York), 1969, pp. 190-234.
O’Hara includes a brief, complimentary discussion of Kaufman and Hart in this chapter dealing with 1930s farcical comedies.
Pollack, Rhoda-Gale. George S. Kaufman, Twayne (Boston), 1988.
Pollack devotes a chapter of her brief biography to “The Years with Moss Hart.” She discusses the critical response to You Can’t Take It with You and its impact on Kaufman’s life rather than attempting any analysis or interpretation of the play itself.
Atkinson, Brooks. Review of You Can’t Take It with You in the New York Times, December 15, 1936.
A Celebration of Moss Hart, University of Southern California, April 12, 1970, p. 16.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, Bantam, 1989, p. Ill, 172-73, 178.