The primary theme of I Remember Mama, since it is seen through Katrin’s eyes, is Katrin’s process of growing up through these years. She learns the importance of family, not to take money for granted, what selfishness is, dedication to the family, and what it is to be a writer. There is pain for Katrin as she grows up, and the audience feels her pain with her. Although Katrin is not in all the scenes, they are all from her memory and it is her play, and so one can assume that they are all part of her growth and learning experience.
John van Druten’s characters are somewhat symbolic of different qualities and values, as family members must always seem to a teenager, at least in memories. Aunt Jenny and Aunt Sigrid are mostly selfish and petty, Aunt Trina is mostly sweet, Mama is always perfect, Papa is always loving and mostly the provider, Christine is brutally honest, Dagmar is mostly young, Nels is always wise, and Uncle Chris is always gruff, at least until Katrin gets to know him better.
One of the themes of this play is the nature of selfishness and unselfishness. In the opening scene, one sees how unselfish the family members are with one another as they all try to figure out a way that Nels can afford to go to high school: Marta offers to forgo her warm coat for a while longer, Nels offers to work in Dillon’s grocery after school, Papa offers to give up tobacco, and Christine offers to mind the Maxwell children on Friday nights. With all these sacrifices, the plan works. It seems a selfish thing for Mr. Hyde to give Marta a bad check for his back rent, which it is, but he does leave all of his books, which the audience knows are dear to him and which Marta...
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I Remember Mama is based on a collection of stories by Kathryn Forbes called Mama’s Bank Account (1943). John van Druten’s play opened on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre on October 19, 1944. It was staged realistically, by the author, with three turntables allowing for changing of scenes. It received unanimous praise from critics and was so well attended that it ran until June 29, 1946, for a total of 713 performances. Several critics mentioned that the adaptation from stories made it episodic and unconventional as a play, that the focus was on the characters, and that there was no actual plot in the usual sense, but that the play nevertheless worked wonderfully and made an excellent and heartwarming evening of theater. They also mentioned that its popularity made it a financial success, which was especially exciting for van Druten because another of his plays, The Voice of the Turtle, was a success at the theater next door.
Although it was not written for young audiences, the play may be popular with them because of its focus on Katrin and her brother and sisters, and because the challenges that she faces as she grows up are so familiar to young people.