You Can't Take It with You Summary


Act I Summary

A scene from the 1983 National Theatre production in London Published by Gale Cengage

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 eclectically 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...

(The entire section is 703 words.)

Act II Summary

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...

(The entire section is 319 words.)

Act III Summary

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...

(The entire section is 272 words.)