S, George. Kaufman
George S. Kaufman 1889-1961
American playwright, scriptwriter, journalist, and critic.
A member of the Algonquin Round Table, Kaufman collaborated on more than forty plays during his long career. He is best known for the sharp, scathing wit that informs most of his works. He satirized such diverse subjects as politics, the entertainment industry, and pretentious middle class values by using put-downs and comic one-liners.
Kaufman was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on November 16, 1889, and graduated from Pittsburgh Central High in 1907. While there he was encouraged to act by his rabbi. Kaufman joined a student group and later collaborated with a friend, Irving Pichel, to write a play. Kaufman briefly studied law at Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh), but still held an interest in working in the theatre. From 1909 to 1912 Kaufman worked as a ribbon salesman for the Columbia Ribbon Company in Paterson, New Jersey, where his father was a plant manager. In 1910 Kaufman enrolled in the Alveine School of Dramatic Art in New York, and from 1914 to 1915 he took courses on playwrighting and modern drama at Columbia. Kaufman began sending contributions to a popular newspaper column called “Always in Good Humour,” featured in the New York Evening Mail. Franklin P. Adams, who wrote the column, later suggested to Frank Munsey, the publisher of The Washington Times, that Kaufman could write a daily humor column for the newspaper. Kaufman was hired in 1912 and continued to write for The Washington Times until 1913 when Munsey fired him for being Jewish. Kaufman's first broadway credit came during the 1917-1918 season, when producer George C. Tyler asked him to revise the comedy Someone in the House.
While working as a drama reporter and critic for The New York Herald Tribune and The New York Times during the 1920s, Kaufman began to collaborate on plays with Marc Connelly. Kaufman and Connelly's first play, Dulcy (1921), was a commercial and critical success. The play revolves around a scatterbrained heroine whose unorthodox attempts to entertain her house guests result in ludicrous situations. Merton of the Movies (1922) clearly displays Kaufman's disdain for Hollywood in its story of an incompetent yet successful young filmmaker. Kaufman wrote one of his most ambitious plays, Beggar on Horseback, with Connelly in 1924. Based on the experimental drama Hans Sonnenstossers Hollenfahrt by Paul Apel, Beggar on Horseback centers on a young composer torn between artistic integrity and the financial security he could obtain by marrying into his girlfriend's wealthy family. During a dream sequence the protagonist becomes enraged at his fiancee's family and murders them. They come back to life to testify against him, and he is ultimately sentenced to work at an “Art Factory” where he is forced to produce only trite, commercial work. Kaufman's most enduring and accomplished plays were written with Moss Hart. Once in a Lifetime (1930), their first collaboration, introduces the multiplicity of characters and outrageous incidents that became a hallmark of their work. You Can't Take It with You (1936) concerns the eccentric Sycamore family and their friends, whose assorted activities include ballet, candymaking, manufacturing fireworks, playwriting, and painting. The contrast between the mad confusion of the Sycamore household and the staid behavior of a visiting family provides much of the play's humor; the determined individualism of the Sycamores is portrayed as the more fulfilling lifestyle. Kaufman and Hart also cowrote The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939). The play's protagonist, based on Alexander Woollcott, is an unpleasant, sophisticated man whose barbed wit is aimed at the conservatism of his middle-class hosts. Among Kaufman's most successful plays of the 1940s and 1950s are The Late George Apley (1944), written with John P. Marquand, and The Solid Gold Cadillac (1953), with Howard Teichman. One of Kaufman's last original productions, Silk Stockings (1955), coauthored with Leueen MacGrath and Abe Burrows, was a musical adaption of the film Ninotchka.
The musical comedy Of Thee I Sing (1931), written in collaboration with Morrie Ryskind, was the first musical to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Kaufman's direction of Abe Burrows's Guys and Dolls earned him the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award in 1951. Some critics, including Joseph Wood Krutch, conceded that Kaufman was a formidable comic craftsman, but objected to what they saw as coldness in his writing. Eleanor Flexner and William Sheed criticized Kaufman's plays as superficial, but funny. Kaufman's plays during the 1940s and 1950s, though well received, were generally criticized as not matching the quality or achievement of his earlier works.
Dulcy [with Marc Connelly] 1921
Merton of the Movies [with Marc Connelly] 1922
To the Ladies [with Marc Connelly] 1922
The Deep Tangled Wildwood [with Marc Connelly] 1923
Helen of Troy, New York [with Marc Connelly; music and lyrics by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar] 1923
Be Yourself [with Marc Connelly] 1924
Beggar on Horseback [with Marc Connelly] 1924
Minick [with Edna Ferber] 1924
The Butter and Egg Man 1925
The Cocoanuts [music and lyrics by Irving Berlin] 1925
The Good Fellow [with Herman J. Mankiewicz] 1926
The Royal Family [with Edna Ferber] 1926
Animal Crackers [with Morrie Ryskind; music and lyrics by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar] 1928
The Channel Road [with Alexander Woollcott] 1929
June Moon [with Ring Lardner] 1929
Once in a Lifetime [with Moss Hart] 1930
Strike Up the Band [with Morrie Ryskind; music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin] 1930
The Band Wagon [with Howard Dietz; music and lyrics by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz] 1931
Of Thee I Sing [with Morrie Ryskind; music and lyrics by...
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Criticism: General Commentary
SOURCE: Quinn, Arthur Hobson. “The New Decade.” In A History of the American Drama from the Civil War to the Present Day, pp. 220-25, 284-86. New York: Harper & brothers, 1927.
[In the following essay, Quinn examines the Kaufman/Connelly collaborations and argues that neither wrote as well on an individual basis. Quinn also praises Kaufman's work with Edna Ferber in Dinner at Eight and with Hart in Merrily We Roll Along.]
George S. Kaufman (1889- ) and Marcus Cook Connelly (1890- ), both born in Western Pennsylvania and both newspaper men, first attracted attention by their clever comedy Dulcy (1921). It was natural that they should dramatize the material of the newspaper and they selected a character created by Franklin P. Adams, then a columnist for the New York Tribune. Dulcy celebrated the stupid, well-meaning married woman, who almost wrecks her husband's prospects by her plans and revelations during the week-end party which has been given to secure them. The two playwrights recognized that dullness can be made entertaining, if it is constantly contrasted with cleverness, so they provided one of the best character parts in her young brother, and they aroused, in an inimitable scene, a responsive chord in all who have suffered from the recital of the plot of a moving picture.
To the Ladies (1922) is an improvement upon Dulcy because...
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SOURCE: Mersand, Joseph. “George S. Kaufman: Master of the Technique of Good Theatre.” In Traditions in American Literature: A Study of Jewish Character and Authors, pp. 14-24. New York: Kennikat Press, 1968.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1939, Mersand discusses Kaufman's ability to satirize American character and culture.]
George S. Kaufman's The American Way (1939) is his thirty-second play written in collaboration. Though critics may argue as to the ultimate value of his plays in the history of American drama, they almost unanimously agree that he is the most successful collaborator working in our theater. His associates have included Irving Pichel, Larry Evans, Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, Katherine Dayton, Alexander Woollcott, Moss Hart, Ring Lardner and Morrie Ryskind. The only play he wrote alone was The Butter and Egg Man (1925). Superlatives of various kinds have been used with Kaufman. He is generally recognized as the most successful master of stage technique in our contemporary theater. He is acknowledged as our outstanding satirist, one of our best directors, one of the best writers of dramatic dialogue, and as our most capable “play-doctor.”
The surprising thing about his wizardry on the stage is that he had already been credited with it in 1927 when he wrote The Royal Family with Edna Ferber. Since that time, when critics...
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SOURCE: Lembke, Russell W. “The George S. Kaufman Plays as Social History.” The Quarterly Journal of Speech, 33, no. 3 (October 1947): 341-47.
[In the following essay, Lembke argues that Kaufman's plays offer an important survey of the American social history of his time.]
It is time that we took another look at the thirty-four plays written in the years between 1920 and 1946 which bear the name of George S. Kaufman as author or collaborator. They have been smugly passed over by drama critics; but as social history alone, as vivid pictures of the life, particularly the city life, of the times, they do not deserve such treatment. There is an economy, a consciously painstaking selectivity, in the technique of writing which is not only good but which can be identified as Mr. Kaufman's own. These plays form an important and an independent body of drama even though twenty or more collaborators have been involved in their production; they deserve re-examination as in large measure the work of one of our most successful theater men.
A survey of the Kaufman plays will reveal that they present American social history with vividness, economy, and thematic significance—qualities which are present to such a degree that the lack of critical appreciation is difficult to understand. At least the critics who seem to stress the importance of social consciousness might have been expected to...
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SOURCE: Hecht, Ben. Saturday Review 44, no. 25 (24 June 1961): 5.
[In the following tribute, Hecht laments that by the time of Kaufman's death, the kind of irony and satire he wrote had become passé.]
In the last ten years of his life George S. Kaufman found himself as obsolete as a Smithsonian exhibit. He was a practitioner of irony and satire, with a side line of bon mots. The USA, hell-bent on making the whole world as noble as itself, had no welcome mat out for tricky-minded fellows poking fun at it.
Such a one was Kaufman. He was almost the last of the Broadway breed of iconoclasts, a breed that indulged in derision rather than breakage. It also preferred to lampoon American flaws under its nose, rather than clobber the cockeyed behavior of far-off Russians and Chinese.
Kaufman's writings for the stage and magazines varied in excellence but seldom in purpose. They investigated human clownishness and offered Americans a look at themselves in a sort of fun-house mirror.
After World War II, when the pontificators took over, when Social Consciousness drove sociability from the dinner board, and sex became a new kind of toothache for psychologists' probing—in the time of our emergence as the Leader of the World, Kaufman and his kind went into mothballs.
In the early Thirties I never understood what George was so glum about, and...
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SOURCE: Kaplan, Charles. “Two Depression Plays and Broadway's Popular Idealism.” American Quarterly 15, no. 4 (winter 1963): 579-85.
[In the following essay, Kaplan explores the similarities between You Can't Take It with You and Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing.]
It is a truism that, as the most public of the arts and the one therefore most immediately responsive to the pressures of its times, the drama may be considered a reliable indicator of current popular thought and sentiment. For the social and cultural historian, the ideas, subjects and themes presented onstage in any era provide useful clues to the states of mind prevailing in that era. This topicality of the theater, which is at once one of its most appealing qualities and a major source of its weakness, holds true whether we are dealing with Aristophanes or Albee. In the hands of a second-rate playwright, where topicality is all, the play sinks rapidly into its earned oblivion, to be exhumed only by scholars prowling dusty stacks; in the hands of more gifted writers, the topical issue is merely the point of departure for an examination of more lasting and general concerns. No one today remembers a 1934 play by Philip Barber entitled The Klein-Orbach Strike; but somehow The Cherry Orchard manages to remain alive.
Prior to World War I, however, the American theater seemed to be an exception to the...
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SOURCE: Freedley, George. “George S. Kaufman, 1889-1962.” Modern Drama 6, no. 3 (December 1963): 241-44.
[In the following obituary, Freedley reviews Kaufman's career from his early days as a newspaperman through his collaborations with Moss Hart.]
This little essay will only be concerned with the earlier section of George Kaufman's long career as a playwright and director in one of the most exciting periods of our theater when American drama came of age in the period between the World Wars, roughly 1918-1939. All of Kaufman's serio-comic genius came to flower in that period. There is nothing of real significance after that if you disregard the dramatic recrudescence of John P. Marquand's brilliant novel of Boston society, The Late George Apley (1944) and the delightful spoof of big business provided by The Solid Gold Cadillac, written in collaboration with Howard Teichmann (1953).
Kaufman was the born collaborator. He wrote only one play alone and one adaptation from the French early in his career before he found success. He was a shrewd and demanding collaborator as has been evidenced by such distinguished writers as Edna Ferber and Moss Hart, in their memoirs, and by lesser commentators in newspaper columns. He had tremendous inventiveness and many original ideas, but he worked best in tandem. He soared in proportion to the abilities of his co-writers, but this does...
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SOURCE: Gould, Jean. “Some Clever Collaboratos.” In Modern American Playwrights pp. 135-167. Dodd, Mead & Company, 1966.
[In the following excerpted essay, Gould describes how Kaufman and Hart worked when they collaborated.]
For exactly a decade, from 1930, with Once in a Lifetime, to 1940, with George Washington Slept Here, two masters of comedic playwriting, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, contributed their combined wit and humor to the American theater in the form of six plays and two musicals. Three of the plays were outstanding works, one of which captured the Pulitzer prize. Their initial effort was an achievement in high comedy that ran for two years and won the Rio Cooper McGrue prize.
George S. Kaufman, the older of the two by some fifteen years, was born in 1889, the son of Joseph and Nettie Kaufman, in Pittsburgh. There seems to have been little out of the ordinary in his background or upbringing. He went through high school and studied law for two years, but decided the intricacy of legal lore was “too hard” for his particular mind. He drifted from one job to another for a couple of years, discovering that he was an indifferent traveling salesman, but a rather good stenographer. Wherever he worked, he had a knack for entertaining his colleagues with an unexpected wisecrack, a dry wit, delivered in a laconic tone, which completely surprised them. He...
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SOURCE: Harrison, A. Cleveland. “Of Thee I Sing, Baby!” Players: Magazine of American Theatre 47, no. 6 (August 1972): 275-79.
[In the following essay, Harrison argues that there are many similarities between Of Thee I Sing and the comedies of Aristophanes.]
Presidents come and Presidents go, but Of Thee I Sing goes on forever, baby! A musical satire about the making of the President, the product of two playmakers collaborating with two music-making brothers, Of Thee I Sing remains forty years after its opening the touchstone for musical satire on federal government and the national election process. The approaching Presidential election once again calls it to mind and once again questions arise about the sources of its resurgent power. I want to suggest that George S. Kaufman and his collaborators were artistic descendants of Aristophanes, that Of Thee I Sing was a re-emergence of Old Comedy in the New World, and that the play's vitality issues from its Aristophanic parallels in function, form, and substance.
Although serious American drama of social criticism in the 1930's was usually somber in tone, with playwrights like Elmer Rice and John Howard Lawson convinced that social criticism was the primary function of the theater, there were many efforts in the period toward satire of a kind seldom attempted before or since. During the Great Depression,...
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SOURCE: Sheed, Wilfrid. “The Wit of George S. Kaufman and Dorothy Parker.” In The Good Word and Other Words, pp. 159-63. New York: Dutton, 1978.
[In the following discussion, Sheed argues that the wit of Kaufman and Parker should not be thought of as a compensation for or expression of a psychoneurosis, but that as writers they deliberately created recognizable and marketable brands of wit.]
The lives of the wits make grim reading these days. To judge from John Keats's You Might as Well Live, Dorothy Parker had a wretched loveless childhood, got her own back at the world with some fine wisecracks, and came to a miserable end. According to Howard Teichmann's George S. Kaufman, little George was coddled and frightened into helplessness, learned to fight back with some splendid wisecracks, and came to a pitiable end.
Both stories may be true for all I know. The odds on any intelligent person having an unhappy childhood are better than fair, and the odds on a sad ending are practically off the board. However, there are a couple of things that bother.
First of all, there is the sheer ease and speed with which these conclusions are reached. Teichmann needs only a few pages to wrap up the Kaufman case. George's guilt over an older brother's death, his lifelong fear of sickness, his inability to play baseball—no wonder he had to be witty. It's all a bit...
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SOURCE: Shyer, Laurence. “American Absurd: Two Nonsense Plays by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, and Ring Lardner.” Theater 9, no. 2 (spring 1978): 118-21.
[In the following preface, Shyer discusses “nonsense plays” and Kaufman's contribution to the genre.]
The next few pages … are devoted neither to the presentation nor discussion of contemporary plays; rather they look back at another era in the American theater, specifically, at two of its practioners: George S. Kaufman, who spent a long and phenomenal career on Broadway as playwright, director, producer and drama critic, and Ring Lardner, whose stories and satires recorded the oddities of American life and language during the first few decades of this century. Although both the works presented here were written in the 1920's, we might, with some justification, call them new plays for both are coming before a contemporary audience for the first time—Lardner's The Gelska Cup has never been reprinted or collected (in fact it has even escaped detection by the satirist's bibliographers) and Kaufman and Ryskind's Something New is being published here for the first time.
We might even extend this aspect of contemporaneity a bit further; these two nonsense or “Dada” plays—the spirit of which, if not the exact form, is with us today in the creations of Kenneth Koch and Charles Ludlam—have at their core...
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SOURCE: Mason, Jeffrey D. “The Fool and the Clown: The Ironic Vision of George S. Kaufman.” In Farce, pp. 205-217. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
[In the following essay, Mason examines Kaufman's use of fools and clowns, with particular focus on his use of the Marx Brothers in his comedies.]
Theater suggests two coextensive worlds. An actor is both himself and the character he plays; a stage is both a platform and an illusion. While all art engages in the creative interpretation of the human condition, theater actually re-enacts life, introducing the constant, tantalizing risk that the distance and the distinction between art and life will diminish to the vanishing point.
The farceur revels in reducing that distance to an excruciating minimum, forcing the audience to accept a double vision that will never quite come into focus. All theater employs artifice, contrivance and convention, but while comedy and tragedy might ask their audiences to suspend disbelief, farce embraces the separation between object and representation. Farce challenges the spectator, vacillating between an apparent depiction and a travesty—between what seems to be and what lurks, leering gleefully, just beneath the surface. The farceur acts on the knowledge that probability necessarily implies an improbability which carries a license for wild nonsense.
Both the form and...
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SOURCE: Sauer, David K. “George S. Kaufman's Exploitation of Women (Characters): Dramaturgy and Feminism.” American Drama 4, no. 2 (spring 1995): 55-80.
[In the following essay, Sauer gauges Kaufman's development as a dramatist by the development of his skill in drawing characters.]
George S. Kaufman's successes in the theater mark him as a theatrical genius: he wrote more than forty plays which appeared on Broadway (all but one with a collaborator), and he directed most of those plays, as well as 20 others, working simultaneously as director and “play doctor.” But because his work is collaborative, it is difficult to say what exactly was his contribution to a given play. As a result, lacking a single auteur to give credit or blame, until recently scholars have not paid much attention to his contributions to American drama.1 The purpose of this paper is to take a further step towards defining part of that contribution by examining Kaufman's earliest successes in sequence, to see what he learned, and how his dramaturgy changed through his first five plays: Dulcy (1921), To the Ladies (1922), Merton of the Movies (1922), Beggar on Horseback (1924), and Butter and Egg Man (1925). The first four were written with Marc Connelly; the fifth is Kaufman's only play written alone.
In order to give shape and meaning to the pattern discovered in...
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Criticism: The Man Who Came To Dinner
SOURCE: Krutch, Joseph Wood. “What Nothing Succeeds Like.” The Nation 149, no. 18 (October 28, 1939): 474-75.
[In the following review, Krutch objects to what he sees as a lack of warmth and merriment in The Man Who Came to Dinner although he recognizes that it is funny and skillfully crafted.]
Not even the obvious virtues of farce as the Messrs. Kaufman and Hart have learned to write it seem quite adequate to explain the boundless enthusiasm with which their successive works are received. A very large and very mixed audience has taken them to its heart in some special way and greets them with a warmth seldom exhibited upon any other occasion, grave or gay. The glow begins at the first hint that a new piece is to be expected, and as the great night approaches, the elect assemble in the best of their good clothes ready to greet one another with happy smiles which say, “This is going to be good.” When the curtain goes down upon the first act, the applause which breaks forth is as unanimous and as inevitable as the plaudits of the Reichstag, and yet it is not from the members of any single party. One touch of something—it probably isn't nature—has made the giddiest of debutantes and the tiredest of tired business men one with the critic. This, they all say, is what we really like. And thereby they confound the gloomiest critics of our civilization. Who says that the modern world...
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SOURCE: Eustis, Morton. “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” Theatre Arts 23 (November 1939): 789-98.
[In the following essay, Eustis describes Kaufman at work directing The Man Who Came to Dinner.]
‘All Right, Mr. Kaufman?’ the stage manager asks … ‘Yes, any time you're ready.’ … George S. Kaufman has a whispered colloquy with Monty Woolley. He stands centre stage surveying the green living-room-hall in Mesalia, Ohio, which Donald Oenslager has designed for The Man Who Came to Dinner. He marks the spot where he wants Woolley's wheel-chair to rest, opens and closes the big doors leading to the library on the left to see that they slide smoothly, and rubs the edge of the stair bannisters in the centre to see that they are smooth enough for someone to slide down. Then he walks down the ramp which connects stage and auditorium during rehearsals and flops in an orchestra seat with his legs dangling over two of the chairs.
The scene is the Music Box Theatre. The time, 2 p.m., one Tuesday afternoon eight days after the Kaufman-Hart comedy has been in rehearsal. The first four days were passed sitting around a table, reading. Today a run-through of the entire play is to be attempted. Although the actors are still fumbling for their lines, none of them carry their ‘sides’, except Monty Woolley, who, in the Woollcottian role of Sheridan Whiteside—litterateur,...
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Criticism: Fancy Meeting You Again
SOURCE: Nathan, George Jean. “George S. Kaufman.” In The Theatre in the Fifties, pp. 67-69. Alfred A. Knopf, 1953.
[In the following review, Nathan dismisses Fancy Meeting You Again, a play about reincarnation which Kaufman co-wrote with his wife, Leueen MacGrath.]
George S. Kaufman's Fancy Meeting You Again, in which his wife, Leueen MacGrath had a hand, deals with reincarnation, a subject that in one form or another was very appetizing to audiences in the early years of the present century. It was in that period that plays like The Road to Yesterday, written by a pair of elderly New England ladies who apparently believed quite seriously in it, and like When Knights Were Bold, written by a Britisher who believed it was just a lot of gumbo that would cash in at the box-office, attracted the impartial favor of our theatergoers. For the next two decades, however, the topic was forgotten until a believer who owned several million dollars' worth of oil wells in Texas thought it high time that it again be treated devoutly and confected something called The Ladder, which remains in history as the damnedest rubbish of its or any other era.
The exhibits of the genre, whether tolerable or awful, committed themselves in a general way to two plots. In one, advocated by the believers, it was argued that what you are in the present life is a reflection of what...
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Goldstein, Malcolm. George S. Kaufman: His Life, His Theatre. New York, Oxford University Press, 1979, 503 p.
Interweaves a biography of the man and study of his work.
Meredith, Scott. George S. Kaufman and His Friends. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1974, 723 p.
An anecdotal biography based on the recollections of friends and collaborators
Pollack, Rhoda-Gale. George S. Kaufman Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988, 144 p.
A comprehensive, chronological study of Kaufman's life and career.
Teichman, Howard. George S. Kaufman: An Intimate Portrait. New York: Atheneum, 1972, 372 p.
Charts the course of Kaufman's life and career by his collaborator on The Solid Gold Cadillac.
Gassner, John. “The Kaufman Cycle.” in Masters of the Drama, pp. 666-8. New York: Dover Publications, 1940, 804 p.
Provides a very brief overview of Kaufman's works and influence.
Mason, Jeffrey D. Wisecracks: The Farces of George S. Kaufman. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988, 134 p.
A study of Kaufman's farces arguing they rank among the classics of the American theater.
Additional coverage of...
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