Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
You Can’t Take It with You, winner of the 1938 Pulitzer Prize, is a classic American stage comedy that deftly blends elements of farce, slapstick, whimsical humor, social commentary, and romance, together with a generous dash of good-natured optimism about the human condition. First staged in December, 1936, at a time when the United States was only beginning to recover from the bleakest days of the Great Depression, You Can’t Take It with You was the third play written by the team of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the most successful collaborators in the history of the American theater.
The play is set in New York City, in the Sycamore household, a zany little kingdom presided over by Grandpa Vanderhof, who thirty-five years before had decided that the world of business could get along quite nicely without him and has “been a happy man ever since.” Grandpa’s iconoclastic attitudes toward work, money, and happiness have obviously infected the entire household: As the stage directions announce, “This is a house where you do as you like, and no questions asked.” In the best tradition of “screwball” comedy, the family is made up almost completely of lovable eccentrics. Mrs. Sycamore, for example, has passed most of her time for eight years writing plays (with titles such as “Sex Takes a Holiday”), not from any deep artistic motives but only because a typewriter was delivered to the house one day by mistake. Mr....
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In the mid-1930s when Kaufman and Hart wrote You Can't Take It with You, Americans were suffering through one of the worst economic periods in the history of the United States, an era known as the Great Depression. Many Americans lost their life savings, homes, and jobs in the stock market crash of 1929 and the numerous bank failures which followed. Unemployment rose to record heights for the time, reaching over 20% in 1935. Hopes raised by an apparent upturn in the economy in 1936 were dashed when the recovery collapsed in 1937.
After his election in 1932, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt instituted his "New Deal" legislation, a series of liberal reforms which put in place welfare, social security, and unemployment benefits. These relief efforts dramatically changed Americans' relationship with their government, which now provided many with a living either in the form of a job in a federal program or through welfare benefits. The nature of the presidency changed at this time as well; the executive branch gained powers no president since Roosevelt has seriously attempted to invoke.
Although the New Deal eased the effects of the Depression, the 1930s were an exceptionally tough time for the majority of Americans. The enormous hardships endured by ordinary people led many to question free market capitalism. Left wing ideas, such as socialism, gained in popularity during this decade, and labor unrest led to strikes across the country....
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You Can't Take It with You has three well-balanced acts. Act I introduces the members of the eccentric Vanderhof-Sycamore family and sets up the play's central conflict: Alice Sycamore becomes engaged to her boss's son, Tony Kirby, but she does not think his family can accept hers. Act II depicts the laughably disastrous encounter between the two families when the Kirbys arrive for a dinner party on the wrong night. Act III then resolves all the problems that confront the family and the young couple.
You Can't Take It with You employs many elements of farce, which is defined most simply as broad comedy mixed with a healthy dose of improbability. Farce typically takes highly exaggerated characters and places them in unlikely situations. Key elements include witty wordplay and physical humor for broad comic effect to provoke simple, hearty laughter from the audience. Clearly, the dancing, xylophone-playing, firecracker-making members of the Vanderhof-Sycamore household are exaggerated, make witty verbal jokes, and engage in physical horseplay.
The basic plot of You Can't Take It with You is that of a romantic comedy, a story of a love affair in which the couple must overcome obstacles—usually with comic results—before they can marry. Like many young lovers in Shakespearean comedy, Kaufman and Hart's Alice and Tony face difficulties on the path to their...
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Compare and Contrast
1930s: During the Great Depression unemployment reaches a high of 20% in 1935. In 1938, unemployment is at 19.1%, which means 10.39 million Americans are unemployed.
Today: In the mid-1990s unemployment runs as low as 5%. With 66% of Americans in the labor force, a larger proportion of Americans are working than ever before. Yet the disparity between the wealthiest 10% and the poorest 10% of the population is greater in the United States than in any other industrialized country except Russia.
1930s: Starting in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal legislation combats the economic hardships of the Great Depression, introducing social security, acts creating jobs in the public sector, welfare, and unemployment benefits.
Today: Social Security funding is endangered and economists warn that the system could collapse in the near future. Congress passes a Welfare Reform Act in 1996 limiting lifetime benefits to five years and requiring all welfare recipients to participate either in job training or employment programs.
1930s: Beginning in 1938 Joseph Stalin the communist dictator of the Soviet Union, kills 8 to 10 million people in an attempt to eliminate all his political enemies in an event later called the "great...
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Topics for Further Study
Look up a classic discussion of comedy—such as Aristotle's Poetics, Charles Baudelaire's On the Essence of Laughter, Sigmund Freud's Jokes and the Comic, or Northrop Frye's The Mythos of Spring: Comedy—and evaluate the form and content of You Can't Take It with You according to your chosen theorist's definition of comedy.
Read either Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" (1841) or the chapter "Economy" from Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854). Consider how the ideas in your chosen text are reflected in You Can't Take It with You.
Compare and contrast Frank Capra's film adaption of You Can't Take It with You with Kaufman and Hart's original play. What alterations did Capra make which reflect his definition of family and community? How do the depictions of the business world in the play and film differ? Do the two versions emphasize the same political, economic, and social philosophies?
Research the living and working conditions of minority groups—such as African-Americans and Eastern European immigrants—in mid-1930s New York. What would life have been like for a real African-American domestic worker or a Russian escaping persecution? Find authentic accounts to compare with the joking stereotypes presented in Kaufman and Hart's play.
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Frank Capra produced and directed an Academy Award-winning film version of You Can't Take It with You. The film stars James Stewart and Jean Arthur, Columbia, 1938; available from Columbia Tristar Home Video. The film adaption does alter the plot in some ways. Excerpts from Robert Riskin's screenplay were published in Foremost Films of 1938, edited by Frank Vreeland, New York: Pitman, 1939. Copies of the unpublished screenplay are available at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the University of California, Los Angeles Theatre Arts Library.
CBS produced a television adaption of the play featuring Jean Stapleton and Art Carney which aired May 16, 1979.
A 1984 taped performance of the play featuring Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards is available from Columbia Tristar Home Video, Vestron Video, and Live Entertainment.
The Moss Hart Papers at the Wisconsin Center for Theater Research include the script for an October, 1950, Pulitzer Prize Playhouse television adaption of the play, as well as an undated radio adaption by Tony Webster.
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What Do I Read Next?
Harvey, Mary Coyle Chase's 1944 comedy. This play, like You Can't Take It with You, won a Pulitzer Prize, and tells the story of another classic American eccentric, a charming man who keeps company with a huge, imaginary rabbit named Harvey.
Act One, Moss Hart's well-received 1959 autobiography. This work offers insight into both the Broadway theater at mid-century and the Hart-Kaufman collaboration.
The Man Who Came to Dinner, Kaufman and Hart's 1939 play. This fourth Kaufman-Hart collaboration, like You Can't Take It with You, depicts a crazy family and a rambunctious social occasion. Some critics consider this to be Kaufman and Hart's best work.
Ah Wilderness!, (1933) by Eugene O'Neill. This nostalgic play, the only comedy O'Neill ever wrote, looks at family life in 1906 Connecticut.
Dorothy Parker's essays, book reviews, and drama reviews from the 1930s can be found in The Portable Dorothy Parker as well as other anthologies of her work. Parker's famous satirical wit reflects the tone of the Algonquin Round Table, an intellectual group which influenced Kaufman.
The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, (1895) a play by Oscar...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Atkinson, Brooks. "The Giddy Twenties" in his Broadway, MacMillan (New York), 1970, pp 227-37. In this chapter from his book-length history of Broadway, Atkinson describes New York theater at the time George S. Kaufman came on the scene, discusses the influence of the Algonquin Round Table, and touches on the beginnings of Kaufman's collaborations with Moss Hart.
Cavell, Stanley. Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, Harvard University Press, 1981, pp 1-42. Cavell's introduction provides a useful interpretation of the film version of You Can't Take It with You, and his discussion of screwball comedies in the body of the book illustrates strategies for analyzing farce in both film and theater.
Frye, Northrop. "The Mythos of Spring: Comedy," in his The Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton University Press, 1957, pp. 163-186. Frye's classic analysis of comedy does not deal with Kaufman and Hart specifically but offers a useful overview of the development of comic form from the Greeks through Shakespeare to the Victorian era.
Goldstein, Malcolm. George S. Kaufman: His Life, His Theater, Oxford University Press (New York), 1979. In this detailed and readable biography, Goldstein examines both Kaufman's life and work. Chapter 15, "The Birth of a Classic," explains the development of You Can't Take It with You, offers a reading of the...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Brown, John Mason. “The Sensible Insanities of You Can’t Take It with You.” In Two on the Aisle: Ten Years of the American Theatre in Performance. New York: W. W. Norton, 1938.
Goldstein, Malcolm. George S. Kaufman: His Life, His Theater. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Gould, Jean. “Some Clever Collaborators: George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.” In Modern American Playwrights. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1966.
Harriman, Margaret Case. “Hi-yo Platinum! Moss Hart.” In Take Them Up Tenderly: A Collection of Profiles. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1945.
Hart, Moss. Act One: An Autobiography. 3d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
Mason, Jeffrey D. Wisecracks: The Farces of George S. Kaufman. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Research Press, 1988.
Mason, Richard. “The Comic Theater of Moss Hart: Persistence of a Formula.” Theater Annual 23 (1968): 60-87.
Meredith, Scott. George S. Kaufman and His Friends. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974.
Pollack, Rhoda-Gale. George S. Kaufman. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
Teichmann, Howard. George S. Kaufman: An...
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