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 George and Ira Gershwin] 1931
Dinner at Eight [with Edna Ferber] 1932
The Dark Tower [with Alexander Woollcott] 1933
Let 'Em Eat Cake! [with Morrie Ryskind; music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin] 1933
Bring on the Girls [with Morrie Ryskind] 1934
Merrily We Roll Along [with Moss Hart] 1934
First Lady [with Katherine Dayton] 1935
Stage Door [with Edna Ferber] 1936
You Can't Take It with You [with Moss Hart] 1936
I'd Rather Be Right [with Moss Hart; music and lyrics by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart] 1937
The Fabulous Invalid [with Moss Hart] 1938
The American Way [with Moss Hart] 1939
The Man Who Came to Dinner [with Moss Hart] 1939
George Washington Slept Here [with Moss Hart] 1940
The Land Is Bright [with Edna Ferber] 1941
The Late George Apley [with John P. Marquand] 1944
Fancy Meeting You Again [with Leueen McGrath] 1952
The Solid Gold Cadillac [with Howard Teichman] 1953
Silk Stockings [with Leueen MacGrath and Abe Burrows; music and lyrics by Cole Porter] 1955
Roman Scandals [with Robert E. Sherwood] (screenplay) 1933
A Night at the Opera [with Morrie Ryskind] (screenplay) 1935
Star Spangled Rhythm [with Arthur Ross, Fred Saidy, Melvin Frank, and Norman Panama] (screenplay) 1943
The Senator Was Indiscreet (screenplay) 1947
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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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