George M. Cohan Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

George M. Cohan 1878-1942

(Full name George Michael Cohan) American stage performer, playwright, songwriter, director, and producer.

Cohan was a dominant force in shaping American musical theater in the early part of the century through a successful Broadway career that produced some of the biggest songs hits of the time. Known for his patriotic themes and sentimentality, his works embodied the attitudes of a country flexing its muscles as an emerging world power.

Biographical Information

Cohan was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the third child born to the vaudevillians Jeremiah and Helen Cohan, who with their daughter Josephine (the first child died in infancy), traveled from town to town as "The Four Cohans." After making his début in his father's arms, the young Cohan, precocious, ambitious and confident, eventually took over the troupe. He began writing many of its skits and managed its business affairs, despite receiving little formal education. His first Broadway productions, The Governor's Son and Running for Office, were dismal failures but Cohan persevered and his third play, Little Johnny Jones, was a rousing success. Cohan went on to write 40 plays and more than 500 songs.

Major Works

Cohan's style was to create uncomplicated stories about easily identifiable characters that appealed to a broad audience. From his vaudeville training, he understood how to jerk a tear and elicit a laugh through mawkishness and a prankish manner. His unabashed appeals to American patriotism can be seen in the titles of some of his more popular songs and plays, including The Yankee Prince, "Yankee Doodle Boy," "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy," "It's a Grand Old Flag," and "Over There." While critics descried his works as unsophisticated and trivial, his work was wildly popular with audiences around the country for most of Cohan's career.