Once in a Lifetime

by George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart

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Critical Context

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Once in a Lifetime was the first commercial play written by Moss Hart. He is generally considered the creator of the play; it is thought that he later collaborated with George Kaufman so as to make it a commercial success. This venture was the first between Kaufman, by this time an established playwright, and Hart. Before their collaboration came to an end they had created such successes as Merrily We Roll Along (pr., pb. 1934), You Can’t Take It with You (pr. 1936), and The Man Who Came to Dinner (pr., pb. 1939). The fascination Kaufman felt with actors and backstage life is reflected in Once in a Lifetime. He used similar characters, people both mistrusted and adored by their public, in plays such as Merton of the Movies (pr. 1922, pb. 1925), Dinner at Eight (pr., pb. 1932), and Stage Door (pr., pb. 1936). Merton Gill, the prototype for George Lewis, is a naïve character who has boundless belief in his ability to succeed in the silent film industry. He reads all the glamour magazines, takes a correspondence course in acting, and refuses to believe in anything other than his possible success. In Stage Door the protagonists are actors who are seeking success in New York’s theater world. The main characters of Dinner at Eight are stars who have seen better days.

Kaufman and Hart’s characters are basically true-to-life people in outrageous situations. The best known of the two playwrights’ collaborations is You Can’t Take It with You, in which the American Dream is viewed through the Vanderhof family, an odd collection of individualists who pursue their respective hobbies passionately. The Vanderhofs symbolize the American value of individualism, which had already been reflected in the main characters of Once in a Lifetime.

The work of Kaufman is generally accepted as classic American comedy, and his work with Hart is viewed as some of his best. Their strength lay in their ability to draw character and to create situations that are simultaneously believable and outrageous. Kaufman’s success on Broadway was tremendous, and his collaborations with some of the best Broadway writers of the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s were a testament to his desire to create and explore new avenues of theatrical expression.

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Critical Overview