George. Kaufman S Critical Essays


(Drama Criticism)

George S. Kaufman 1889-1961

American playwright, scriptwriter, journalist, and critic.

A member of the Algonquin Round Table, Kaufman collaborated on more than forty plays during his long career. He is best known for the sharp, scathing wit that informs most of his works. He satirized such diverse subjects as politics, the entertainment industry, and pretentious middle class values by using put-downs and comic one-liners.

Biographical Information

Kaufman was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on November 16, 1889, and graduated from Pittsburgh Central High in 1907. While there he was encouraged to act by his rabbi. Kaufman joined a student group and later collaborated with a friend, Irving Pichel, to write a play. Kaufman briefly studied law at Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh), but still held an interest in working in the theatre. From 1909 to 1912 Kaufman worked as a ribbon salesman for the Columbia Ribbon Company in Paterson, New Jersey, where his father was a plant manager. In 1910 Kaufman enrolled in the Alveine School of Dramatic Art in New York, and from 1914 to 1915 he took courses on playwrighting and modern drama at Columbia. Kaufman began sending contributions to a popular newspaper column called “Always in Good Humour,” featured in the New York Evening Mail. Franklin P. Adams, who wrote the column, later suggested to Frank Munsey, the publisher of The Washington Times, that Kaufman could write a daily humor column for the newspaper. Kaufman was hired in 1912 and continued to write for The Washington Times until 1913 when Munsey fired him for being Jewish. Kaufman's first broadway credit came during the 1917-1918 season, when producer George C. Tyler asked him to revise the comedy Someone in the House.

Major Works

While working as a drama reporter and critic for The New York Herald Tribune and The New York Times during the 1920s, Kaufman began to collaborate on plays with Marc Connelly. Kaufman and Connelly's first play, Dulcy (1921), was a commercial and critical success. The play revolves around a scatterbrained heroine whose unorthodox attempts to entertain her house guests result in ludicrous situations. Merton of the Movies (1922) clearly displays Kaufman's disdain for Hollywood in its story of an incompetent yet successful young filmmaker. Kaufman wrote one of his most ambitious plays, Beggar on Horseback, with Connelly in 1924. Based on the experimental drama Hans Sonnenstossers Hollenfahrt by Paul Apel, Beggar on Horseback centers on a young composer torn between artistic integrity and the financial security he could obtain by marrying into his girlfriend's wealthy family. During a dream sequence the protagonist becomes enraged at his fiancee's family and murders them. They come back to life to testify against him, and he is ultimately sentenced to work at an “Art Factory” where he is forced to produce only trite, commercial work. Kaufman's most enduring and accomplished plays were written with Moss Hart. Once in a Lifetime (1930), their first collaboration, introduces the multiplicity of characters and outrageous incidents that became a hallmark of their work. You Can't Take It with You (1936) concerns the eccentric Sycamore family and their friends, whose assorted activities include ballet, candymaking, manufacturing fireworks, playwriting, and painting. The contrast between the mad confusion of the Sycamore household and the staid behavior of a visiting family provides much of the play's humor; the determined individualism of the Sycamores is portrayed as the more fulfilling lifestyle. Kaufman and Hart also cowrote The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939). The play's protagonist, based on Alexander Woollcott, is an unpleasant, sophisticated man whose barbed wit is aimed at the conservatism of his middle-class hosts. Among Kaufman's most successful plays of the 1940s and 1950s are The Late George Apley (1944), written with John P. Marquand, and The Solid Gold Cadillac (1953), with Howard Teichman. One of Kaufman's last original productions, Silk Stockings (1955), coauthored with Leueen MacGrath and Abe Burrows, was a musical adaption of the film Ninotchka.

Critical Reception

The musical comedy Of Thee I Sing (1931), written in collaboration with Morrie Ryskind, was the first musical to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Kaufman's direction of Abe Burrows's Guys and Dolls earned him the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award in 1951. Some critics, including Joseph Wood Krutch, conceded that Kaufman was a formidable comic craftsman, but objected to what they saw as coldness in his writing. Eleanor Flexner and William Sheed criticized Kaufman's plays as superficial, but funny. Kaufman's plays during the 1940s and 1950s, though well received, were generally criticized as not matching the quality or achievement of his earlier works.