The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Once in a Lifetime opens in a rundown apartment in New York City in 1929, where George Lewis, whose passion is eating Indian nuts, is conversing with the witty May Daniels. Jerry Hyland, the third to enter, completes the team for their vaudeville act. The three have only $180 between them, and their prospects seem dim.

Jerry, an ambitious man in his early thirties, proclaims that the new “talkies” have made the theater extinct and that he has just sold their act for five hundred dollars. He has decided to take his chances in Hollywood, inspired by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927). May, hiding her affection for Jerry, agrees to the move. She reasons that they could make their fortune by opening a school of elocution to teach silent stars the proper way of speaking. George, who appears to be more interested in his Indian nuts than in any of the action going on around him, is reluctant to commit himself to the move. Soon, however, he is persuaded of the possibilities in the land of “talkies.” The first scene ends with all three singing “California Here I Come!”

In act 1, scene 2, the setting is a Pullman car headed west. George eats his Indian nuts as May nervously looks through a book on elocution in order to be ready to teach it in Hollywood. She reads aloud to George, “We strongly urge the use of abdominal breathing as a fundamental principle in elocutionary training.” Irritated by his continual crunching, she asks whether “those things come without shells”; impatiently, she leaves the coach. In his first sign of affection for May, Jerry tells George that they must keep her spirits up.

Having seen Helen Hobart, a well-known gossip columnist from Hollywood, on another car, May returns to the coach. It seems that May and Hobart are old acquaintances. The travelers hatch a scheme to enlist Hobart’s support for their new school of elocution, taking advantage of the contacts and funds to which she has access. The threesome decide to impress her, going so far as to give George the fictitious title “Doctor.”

Hobart is easily convinced that such an enterprise would be worthwhile and offers financial support as a 50 percent owner of the school. She decides that it should be housed in the studios of Herman Glogauer. Since he passed up an opportunity to own the technique used in the making of “talkies,” the vitaphone, he would be a most likely help in this cause, if for no other reason than embarrassment. Hobart’s promise is made as the scene moves toward conclusion. Susan Walker then enters the car. It quickly becomes obvious that she and George are a perfect match—both naïve and blindly hopeful of success.

The main action of act 1, scene 3 is the closing of the deal to open the school of elocution at the Glogauer Studios. Hobart sets up a meeting with Glogauer at the Stilton Hotel. Susan and her mother are the first to arrive and are barraged by movie star look-alikes and those hopeful of being discovered. George, May, Jerry, and Hobart appear. The last to arrive is Glogauer with a police escort. He agrees after some discussion to take on the threesome to educate his actors to speak properly. Two of the stars from his studios, Phyllis Fontaine and Florabel Leigh, have terrible regional accents. As the scene comes to an end, viewers are introduced to Glogauer’s closest competition, the twelve Schlepkin brothers. George introduces Susan and asks her to recite “Boots,” by Rudyard Kipling, in order to impress Glogauer. She begins the recitation; simultaneously, the Schlepkin brothers make an offer for merging the two studios.

The second act takes place in the reception area of Glogauer’s...

(The entire section is 1515 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Once in a Lifetime relies on the audience’s empathy with the main characters, George, May, and Jerry. The play begins in a seedy New York City hotel, a setting that immediately suggests the characters’ hard luck and the unsettledness of their situation. The play’s two Pullman car scenes further help to express the idea of the great American frontier. Mobility and flexibility are essential if one is to pursue a better life.

The play’s structure is dependent on the comic technique of quick reversals. For example, when George berates Glogauer for incompetence, instead of being physically removed from the premises, he is given complete artistic control over a film. Later, when it is learned that he has bought two thousand airplanes in order to receive one free of charge, he is applauded rather than condemned, for Glogauer discovers that all the competing studios are interested in purchasing airplanes.

The character of Lawrence Vail, with his despair at being a playwright in Hollywood, as well as his trip to the sanatorium for writers, embodies the fear of many playwrights of the time that film would entirely displace live theater. The nature of theater as a critic of the forces of its demise helps to push the drama forward and creates many comic moments. Notably act 3, scene 1 takes place on a film set and so serves as a sort of play-within-the-play. In it, the actor Susan is being asked to memorize a line of dialogue, the lifeblood of drama, but she finds the chore difficult. However, the press eventually hails her as a fresh new talent.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Life in the United States changed dramatically on October 29, 1929. On that day, the stock market crashed. This marked the end of the Jazz...

(The entire section is 567 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Once in a Lifetime is comedy/satire that is set in New York City and Los Angeles in the late 1920s, when sound...

(The entire section is 524 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1930: The American economy is in a downward spiral after October 29, 1929 stock market collapse. By the end of the year, more than 4.5...

(The entire section is 277 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the history of the American entertainment industry in the late 1920s and early 1930s. What affect did the advent of sound movies...

(The entire section is 122 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Once in a Lifetime was adapted as a film in 1932. Directed by Russell Mack, this version starred Jack Oakie as George, Aline MacMahon...

(The entire section is 59 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Merton of the Movies, a play written by Kaufman and Marc Connelly in 1922, also concerns the absurdities of life in Hollywood. It was...

(The entire section is 138 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Atkinson, J. Brooks, review of Once in a Lifetime, in New York Times, September 25, 1930, p. 22.


(The entire section is 301 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bach, Steven. Dazzle. Cambridge, England: DaCapo, 2000.

Goldstein, Malcolm. George S. Kaufman: His Life, His Theater. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Hart, Moss. Act One: An Autobiography. 3d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.

Mason, Jeffrey D. Wisecracks: The Farces of George S. Kaufman. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Research Press, 1988.

Meredith, Scott. George S. Kaufman and His Friends. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974.

Pollack, Rhoda-Gale. George S. Kaufman. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

Teichmann, Howard. George S. Kaufman: An Intimate Portrait. New York: Atheneum, 1972.