Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2459
Those who approach the plays of Moss Hart as literary products to be analyzed and placed in some dramatic category will be disappointed. Hart wrote his plays to give pleasure to large crowds. He learned early in his career that his talent lay in witty light comedy rather than serious drama. Though his plays satirized every institution of the time, from the New Deal to the motion-picture industry, their prevailing tone is one of wild spoofing, not serious criticism. This is not to dismiss Hart as merely a pleasant hack. With Kaufman, he created some of America’s funniest plays. Hart stayed within the limits of the popular theater, though he did try to extend those limits. As a result, he created superior entertainment that continues to delight audiences even today.
Once in a Lifetime
A good example of the Kaufman and Hart comedy is their first collaboration, Once in a Lifetime. It concerns three down-and-out vaudeville actors: the likable-but-dumb straight man George Lewis; the tough, clever May Daniels; and the enterprising Jerry Hylands. They sell their act and travel to Hollywood in the first days of sound pictures to open an elocution school for movie actors, who must now be heard as well as seen. The school, operating in Glogauer Studios, is a failure, but when George repeats some unflattering comments on motion pictures in general and Glogauer in particular (comments that he has picked up from Lawrence Vail, a disgruntled playwright hired by Glogauer to turn out film scripts), he is taken by the producer to be an outspoken genius and is made studio supervisor. With Jerry and May as his assistants, George oversees the production of Gingham and Orchids, a movie that has the script of another film, a set only half-lit, and the noise of George incessantly cracking Indian nuts throughout the sound track. To everyone’s surprise, the film becomes a financial and critical success, and George is the hero of the hour. Jerry and May, realizing that George does not need their guidance in order to get along in pictures, return to New York to get married.
There is scarcely any facet of Hollywood in the early 1930’s that Once in a Lifetime does not ridicule, whether it is the “early De Mille” architecture, vapid movie columnists, temperamental German directors, or stars who cannot act. Many of the authors’ opinions are put into the mouth of Lawrence Vail, a representative figure among the successful Broadway dramatists who went to Hollywood to write for the studios and then were given nothing to do. (Vail’s part was played in the original run of Once in a Lifetime by Kaufman himself.) According to Vail, the film industry is “the most God-awful thing I have ever run into.”
Given the topsy-turvy nature of movies, the success of George Lewis is perfectly logical. George takes everything at face value and therefore is perfect in a business that runs on hype. He is incompetent and thus is able to excel in a business that cannot tell the difference between a good film and a bad one. Ironically, Jerry and May decide to leave Hollywood, even though it was Jerry who suggested that they go there and May who came up with the elocution idea. Hart and Kaufman imply that intelligence has no value in pictures.
The major targets of the play’s satire are stupidity and vanity, rather than the darker flaws revealed in such a work as Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939). The only hint of such depths in Once in a Lifetime comes when Jerry denies any involvement with the making of Gingham and Orchids because the movie looks initially like a flop, but Jerry’s duplicity is soon atoned for when he nobly tells off Glogauer and gets himself fired. Even Glogauer, though he is as inaccessible and arbitrary as an Eastern potentate, is not genuinely corrupt; he is simply a silly, vulgar little man puffed up with money. The play does not try to expose Hollywood as much as it tries to have fun at its expense. The film industry was not particularly offended by the play and even made it into a movie.
The Man Who Came to Dinner
Another example of Kaufman and Hart’s good-natured humor is The Man Who Came to Dinner. The main character, Sheridan Whiteside, was largely based on the authors’ friend Alexander Woollcott, radio commentator, wit, and man of letters. Whiteside slips on a piece of ice on the doorstep of the Stanleys, a prominent family in Mesalia, Ohio, and fractures his hip. Convalescing for several weeks in the Stanleys’ home, he turns their lives inside out. He does his radio broadcasts from the library, sends and receives messages from all over the world, and populates the house with murderers, penguins, and other exotic creatures. Worse, he encourages the Stanleys’ son and daughter to direct their lives independently of their parents’ wishes and blackmails Mr. Stanley into submitting. Whiteside also tries to break up and then restore the romance between his secretary, Maggie Cutler, and Burt Jefferson, a Mesalia reporter. Just as the play ends and Whiteside is leaving, he slips on the ice again and announces that he is suing Mr. Stanley for $350,000.
The comedy in The Man Who Came to Dinner is based on the fantastic characters that populate it, the greatest of whom is Whiteside. In fact, the personality of Whiteside, his eccentricities, his talent for insults and witty repartee, his scheming mind, and his carefully concealed streak of compassion dominate the play and win the audience to him in spite of his boorishness and his impositions on the Stanleys. Whiteside is supported in his comic antics by such figures as the nymphomaniac actress Lorraine Sheldon, the playwright Beverly Carlton (based on Noël Coward), and the movie clown Banjo (based on Harpo Marx). These figures are part of the great world in which Whiteside lives, the world of such figures as Mahatma Gandhi, Walt Disney, and H. G. Wells, all whom provide some of the play’s fun.
You Can’t Take It with You
Hart and Kaufman’s finest play is probably You Can’t Take It with You, which to some extent resembles The Man Who Came to Dinner. Both plays portray the collision of a group of wild eccentrics with a respectable family. The eccentrics in You Can’t Take It with You are Martin Vanderhof and his family. Martin, called Grandpa in the play, was once a businessman who felt that he was missing the fun of life. For thirty-five years, he has dedicated his life to enjoying himself, and his family has done likewise. While Grandpa collects snakes and attends commencements, his daughter Penny Sycamore writes plays; her husband, Paul, makes fireworks; their older daughter, Essie Carmichael, studies ballet with an expatriate Russian tutor; and Essie’s husband, Ed, plays the xylophone and operates a small printing press. The only “normal” member of the group is Penny’s younger daughter, Alice, a secretary for a Wall Street firm who has fallen in love with Tony Kirby, Jr., her boss’s son. Even though she loves the members of her family, and even though Tony himself is charmed by them, Alice fears that their somewhat anarchistic lifestyle will clash with the values of the ultra-respectable Kirbys.
Alice’s fears are justified when the Kirbys arrive for dinner on the night before they are expected. A drunken actress flirts with Mr. Kirby, Penny tells Mrs. Kirby that the Spiritualism in which she devoutly believes is fake, and Kolenkhov, the Russian dance instructor, wrestles with Mr. Kirby. At the evening’s climax, federal agents, suspecting Ed of subversive activities, arrest everyone just as Paul’s fireworks go off. Alice and Tony’s wedding seems doomed until Grandpa explains his way of life to Mr. Kirby. According to Grandpa, the quest for material success and social acceptance should never be pursued at the cost of personal happiness. When Tony reminds his father that he once dreamed of being a trapeze artist and later a saxophone player, the elder Kirby becomes reconciled to the Vanderhofs’ unusual ways and his son’s refusal to follow in his footsteps, and he joins his future in-laws for dinner.
You Can’t Take It with You contrasts two families who have in different ways achieved the American Dream. The Kirbys, through hard work, sobriety, and duty, have attained wealth and respectability. The cost of their success has been the sacrifice of their personal happiness. Mr. Kirby suffers from indigestion and regrets that he has lost his youthful ideals. Mrs. Kirby takes solace in the fashionable humbug of Spiritualism and, in a game of word-association, responds to “sex” with “Wall Street.” Tony feels that his parents do not understand him and plans to leave his father’s firm to become a bricklayer. Even Mr. Kirby’s hobby of growing orchids has been taken up as a refuge from business cares and not for its own sake. His remarks concerning the orchids center on the time it takes to grow one, as the Kirbys’ lives are, in general, centered on time and schedules.
The Vanderhofs are another side of the American Dream, the individualistic side of the Dream represented by Walden Pond. They do exactly as they like and live off the money from Grandpa’s land. They have no desire to make money or to win other people’s respect, only to be happy and to make others happy. Their hobbies are taken up spontaneously; Penny became a dramatist only because a typewriter was accidentally delivered to the house. Their meals are largely impromptu affairs. The house is shared by various people, including Donald, the boyfriend of their housekeeper Rheba, and Mr. De Pinna, who used to be their iceman. While the Kirbys live by the clock, time is not quite real to the Vanderhofs; when Alice asks the time, her family’s replies are confused.
Like many radical individualists in American history, the Vanderhofs are at odds with the government. Not only is Ed thought to be a subversive, but also Grandpa is harassed for not paying his income tax. Mr. Kirby calls their way of life Communism, but it is really closer to the American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness than is his own way of life. The play does not really answer the arguments against living exactly as one pleases, nor is it meant to do so. What attracts the audience to the Vanderhofs is not the cogency of their arguments but the delight in seeing people do things that others would like to do and the charm with which the Vanderhofs succeed. In this sense, the play is an American pastoral presenting an idyllic world to relieve the frustrated Kirbys in the audience. Interestingly, You Can’t Take It with You was not originally as successful in England as in the United States; perhaps its celebration of individualism was too extreme for English tastes.
Lady in the Dark
No survey of Moss Hart’s work would be complete without notice of his solo plays, of which the best is Lady in the Dark. Lacking the slapstick situations and witty dialogue of his best work with Kaufman, the play examines the psychological state of Liza Elliot, editor of Allure, the most popular women’s magazine in the country. Liza has reached the top of her profession yet is going through a psychological crisis. She undergoes analysis to find the cause of her problems, and her psychological states are dramatized in a series of fantasy sequences. In one sequence, Liza is a glamour girl adored by every man, even though in real life she tries to appear totally unglamorous. The fantasy ends when a man resembling Charley Johnson, the advertising manager, paints a portrait of Liza as she really appears.
As Liza’s analysis continues, she realizes that her problems relate to a sense of inferiority as a woman, derived from an unconscious belief that she can never be as beautiful as her celebrated mother, who died when Liza was young. Therefore, Liza tries to make other women beautiful while remaining plain herself. Her lover, Kendall Nesbitt, is a married man for whom Liza does not have to compete. When Kendall gets a divorce, Liza does not wish to marry him. Similarly, she has a brief romance with Randy Curtis, an insecure movie star who looks to Liza as a mother figure rather than as a lover. Only when Liza understands her neurosis can she love the man who really loves her, Charley Johnson, who appears in her fantasies as her nemesis. Charley sees behind Liza’s unfeminine pose and infuriates Liza until she realizes that he is the only man who can fulfill her needs as a woman.
Lady in the Dark, with its concern for psychological complexity, innovative dramatic techniques, and serious theme, was a marked departure from Hart’s previous work, although similarities to the earlier plays exist. Like Once in a Lifetime and You Can’t Take It with You, this play explores the somewhat dubious value of success. Hart comments in his autobiography, Act One, that, as sweet as success is, it does not bring personal happiness and indeed often makes unhappiness more noticeable and difficult to bear. Just as success has given no joy to Mr. Kirby, so it has given none to Liza, since it is largely a flight from her unconscious fears. Only when Liza faces these fears can she achieve happiness.
Hart’s technique of alternating fantasy and reality in the play through the use of four revolving stages is a brilliant and innovative method for dramatizing what occurs in Liza’s mind. Especially effective is the device of using people from the real world as characters in Liza’s dreams. Thus, Charley Johnson exposes Liza’s self-imposed plainness in her glamour fantasy, exactly as he destroys her unglamorous competent-executive image in reality. The technique’s effectiveness is weakened, however, by having Dr. Brooks explain what the fantasies mean rather than having the audience interpret them on its own.
Lady in the Dark demonstrated that Hart could work alone as well as in collaboration and in serious drama as well as in comedy, yet it also proves that his real talent lay in comedy, for although the play received popular and critical praise, it does not have the bite or sparkle of The Man Who Came to Dinner or You Can’t Take It with You. It is good serious drama but not superlative entertainment, and it is for his or her superlative work that any artist should be remembered.
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