George S. Kaufman Analysis

Other Literary Forms

George S. Kaufman began his literary career by voluntarily writing humorous verse and prose for Franklin P. Adams’s column in the New York Evening Mail. Later, he was hired to write his own column in the Washington Times. Kaufman then replaced Adams at the Evening Mail for a short time, was fired, and took a job as a reporter on the New York Tribune. Shortly thereafter, he was made drama editor, only to leave the Tribune in 1917 for the same position at The New York Times. He held on to his relationship with The New York Times, despite his success as a playwright, until 1930, when he was asked to resign because his career as a playwright was taking too much of his time. Throughout his life he contributed short sketches, prose humor, and light verse to such magazines as Saturday Review, The Nation, Life, Theatre magazine, Playbill, and The New Yorker (founded by his friend Harold Ross), as well as various newspapers.

Kaufman also wrote several screenplays, although he disliked Hollywood and, as a rule, avoided long-term relationships with the film industry. The Marx Brothers ’ films The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1931), which Kaufman wrote in collaboration with Morrie Ryskind , were adapted from their plays and filmed in New York. Later, Samuel Goldwyn hired Kaufman and Robert E. Sherwood to write the screenplay for Roman Scandals (1933); a disagreement with star Eddie Cantor caused Kaufman to invoke the clause of his contract that stipulated that he would not have to work with Cantor. In 1935, Irving Thalberg of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer guaranteed Kaufman $100,000 to write (with Ryskind) the Marx Brothers’ classic A Night at the Opera (1935). By 1936, his distaste for Hollywood was such that he refused to adapt his and Moss Hart’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play You Can’t Take It with You for the screen. Ironically, the film later won the 1938 Academy Award for Best Picture.


Although George S. Kaufman is generally considered to be one of the greatest geniuses of the Broadway theater, it is difficult to assess his individual talents because he wrote nearly all his plays in collaboration. The Butter and Egg Man, his only full-length comedy written solo, was composed early in his career and shows his talent; nevertheless, apparently never fully confident of his talent even after dozens of successful plays, he continued, until his death, to work with collaborators, some of whom were among the major literary figures of his period. From 1918 to 1955, Kaufman’s name appeared as author or coauthor on more than forty productions, some of which were unsuccessful and many of which were successful. Forty-eight full-length motion pictures from 1920 to 1961 were based on plays Kaufman had either written or directed. He directed some forty-five plays, many by notable authors other than himself. As a result, perhaps no one had more influence on the shape and direction of popular drama from the 1920’s through the 1950’s than Kaufman. He was considered a master of stage technique, an incomparable wit, and an extraordinary satirist. His record of success on the Broadway stage is without equal.


Connelly, Marc. Voices Offstage: A Book of Memoirs. Chicago: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968. One of Kaufman’s frequent collaborators describes his work with Kaufman.

Ferber, Edna. A Peculiar Treasure. Garden City, N.Y.: Literary Guild of America, 1939. Ferber discusses her collaborations with Kaufman in this, her autobiography.

Goldstein, Malcolm. George S. Kaufman: His Life, His Theater. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. This volume is considered the standard biography of the prolific man who wrote or collaborated on more than forty Broadway plays.

Hart, Moss. Act One. New York: New American Library, 1959. Act One is a witty memoir written by the great American dramatist who was Kaufman’s longtime collaborator.

Mason, Jeffrey. Wisecracks: The Farces of George S. Kaufman. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1988. A scholarly study of the comedic dramas of Kaufman. Index.

Meredith, Scott. George S. Kaufman and His Friends. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974. This useful biography offers much Broadway local color and theater lore. It is also available in abridged form under the title George S. Kaufman and the Algonquin Round Table.

Pollack, Rhoda-Gale. George S. Kaufman. Boston: Twayne, 1988. Pollack has written a concise but useful biography on the playwright. Supplemented by a short bibliography.

Teichmann, Howard. George S. Kaufman: An Intimate Portrait. New York: Atheneum, 1972. Although dated, this volume is still useful, especially in its discussion of Kaufman’s origins in Pittsburgh and his early career. It is exhaustive and carefully illustrated. It, however, presents ample quotations, quips, anecdotes, and personal reflections but little analysis.