Critical Context

Although George Kaufman and Moss Hart both wrote plays individually and in collaboration with other playwrights, their most enduring and brilliant plays were written together, beginning with Once in a Lifetime (pr., pb. 1930). Many critics consider You Can’t Take It with You (pr. 1936) the partnership’s most successful play. The story of the eccentric Sycamore family ran for 837 performances on Broadway when it first opened and won the Pulitzer Prize, but it never played well in England, probably because of its distinctive brand of American humor. The film version of You Can’t Take It with You, starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur, was released in 1938.

At 739 performances, The Man Who Came to Dinner was the team’s second most valuable play, but unlike You Can’t Take It with You, it played very well in England. Selected for Burns Mantle’s The Best Plays of 1939-1940, The Man Who Came to Dinner has enjoyed many revivals in both professional and amateur theaters. It was also made into a successful film in 1941, with Monty Woolley re-creating his Broadway role, Bette Davis as Whiteside’s secretary, and Jimmy Durante in the Banjo/Harpo role.

While it is true that The Man Who Came to Dinner was and is popular with audiences, critics have had little to say about the play. When the achievements of a comedy writer are appreciated, the writer is usually praised for producing warm, human situations rather than for the brilliant, witty dialogue and creative plot twists at which Kaufman and Hart excel. The Man Who Came to Dinner poses a special problem, because so many of the references are dated. For example, the names of Dr. Dafoe, Alexis Carrel, and Sacha Guitry are unlikely to have any meaning for modern audiences. Yet if a director tries to update the references, he destroys the rhythm and balance of the play. As a result, most of what has been written about Kaufman and Hart focuses on their personal lives and the celebrity circles in which they moved, as well as their unusually long list of Broadway hits. Very little attention has been paid to the timelessness of many of their lines, such as Whiteside’s comment to the Stanley children, “Suppose your parents are unhappy—it’s good for them. Develops their characters.”