(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 2459 words.)