Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

One of the major themes in Beggar on Horseback is the vulgarization of the arts, a trend that became all too apparent in the 1920’s. Marc Connelly and George S. Kaufman’s decision to write an expressionist play, risking failure at the box office, rather than to cater to the whims...

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One of the major themes in Beggar on Horseback is the vulgarization of the arts, a trend that became all too apparent in the 1920’s. Marc Connelly and George S. Kaufman’s decision to write an expressionist play, risking failure at the box office, rather than to cater to the whims of the public certainly could have influenced the portrayal of Neil and his predicament. Neil’s memory of Mr. Cady’s pronouncement during Neil’s party that his music is too “highbrow” ever to be as commercially profitable as the jazz piece “The Frogs’ Party” manifests itself as a nightmarish portion of Neil’s dream.

Neil and other artists are forced to work in a factory where they “grind” out music, literature, and paintings in assembly-line fashion. Like the other artists, Neil produces facsimiles of his works without even thinking, because it is more important to please the public and make money than to please oneself. Neil’s decision to be executed rather than remain a wealthy slave to commercial interests in his dream is followed by his real-life decision to jilt Gladys and remain poverty-stricken but true to his art. Neil’s dilemma, Connelly and Kaufman suggest, is one that all serious artists must face. The true artist, the playwrights imply, is indeed a hero of sorts.

Connelly and Kaufman also satirize the way that Americans of the 1920’s conducted business. Mr. Cady, the consummate businessman, is never far away from the telephone, which is his direct line to the business world. Mr. Cady’s widget factory is Connelly’s humorous depiction of the business world. Mr. Cady defines a business conference as a meeting during which people make speeches and decide things, and the business leaders who attend the conferences are fat, prosperous men who mutter empty words like “overhead” and “turnover.” They all sit and move in exactly the same way, illustrating the lack of individuality that Connelly and Kaufman feel is a necessary quality for success in the business world. The leaders’ fixation with cutting costs emerges in their eagerness to reward Neil for coming up with a scheme that will save them money, yet Mr. Cady’s factory is so riddled with “red tape” that Neil has to fill out an entire stack of forms just to get a new pencil.

The “get-rich-quick” owners of the factory, the Cady family, are broad parodies of the millions of new-rich Americans who had immersed themselves in the materialistic prosperity of the early 1920’s. The devices that Connelly and Kaufman employ in the expressionist section demonstrate dramatically the lack of value inherent in such a life; for example, the butlers about whom the Cadys brag during Neil’s party multiply each time they appear. The meaningless existence of the rich is also embodied in the character of Gladys, who wants to spend all of her time dancing and attending parties because she is incapable of relating to another human being on a more personal level.

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Characters