As a practical man of the theater, George S. Kaufman concerned himself with the meticulous details of whatever project he was working on and gave little consideration to his place in the literary world or posterity. If he was writing, he would badger his collaborators to write better exit lines, to add more humor, to refine every sentence. When directing, he acidly chastised the slightest carelessness of an actor. As a literary figure, though, he was peculiarly unconcerned with plays or productions he had done in the past, eschewing the role of an author of drama, ignoring the possibility that what he had written with his collaborators had literary merit. Only once was he active in the revival of one of his plays, Of Thee I Sing. Indeed, his own attitude toward his art has contributed to the critical neglect of his work.
Primary among Kaufman’s talents was his wit. The only weapon of a slim, shy boy and honed by his association with Adams, Woollcott, Dorothy Parker, Groucho Marx, and others of the Algonquin Round Table, “wisecracks” became characteristic of a Kaufman play and are obvious in every play on which he worked, from Dulcy, his first success, to The Solid Gold Cadillac. After three failures on Broadway, the success of Dulcy, with Lynn Fontanne in the title role, surprised Kaufman as much as anyone else (he always seemed to see his success as undeserved and always expected a disaster). As Malcolm Goldstein observes, Dulcy was basically a rehash of materials used by dozens of writers; what made it different from other plays was its flow of wit.
Although Kaufman would use any form of humor or stage technique to achieve his desired effect—in his plays there are many examples of slapstick, parody, nonsense, and various levels of verbal humor—satire is a recurring element. Ironically, one of the most famous quotations of Kaufman is “Satire is what closes Saturday night,” as if he wished to ignore his own use of it. His wit could be quite vicious, particularly toward those who he felt had crossed him in some way. Even Dorothy Parker, the master of the acid quip, was severely wounded by Kaufman’s barbs on more than one occasion. Earl Wilson once commented that Kaufman had been “blasting away at somebody or something all his life.” It was only natural that such wit would be turned to satiric purpose against the pompous, the pretentious, the rich, and the powerful.
Little in society escaped his satire. Beggar on Horseback (written with Marc Connelly), the only commercially successful American expressionist play, satirized the American obsession with success, as if Kaufman were trying to exorcise the ghosts of failure from his own childhood. Merton of the Movies (also with Connelly) and Once in a Lifetime (with Moss Hart) mocked Hollywood. June Moon (with Ring Lardner) satirized Tin Pan Alley. I’d Rather Be Right (with Moss Hart) satirized Franklin D. Roosevelt, while Of Thee I Sing (with Ryskind) took on the presidential election process and vice presidency. The Solid Gold Cadillac (with Teichmann) poked fun at big business. One of his more curious satiric vehicles is The Man Who Came to Dinner (with Moss Hart), in which the major character was based on Kaufman’s pompous friend Alexander Woollcott, who even good-humoredly agreed to play the title role in one production. It was perhaps convenient, even wise, for Kaufman to deny that he had satiric intent, particularly when he was more concerned with giving an audience a pleasant evening, but the moral outrage, sarcasm, and derision that is characteristic of satire is present to an extraordinary degree in his work.
Yet another element that can be observed in many of Kaufman’s plays is the struggle and...
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