Once in a Lifetime

by George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart

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The Play

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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...

(This entire section contains 1515 words.)

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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 Hollywood studios. It is a lavishly decorated room. Telephones ring, important-looking people rush in and out, and those of minor importance are doomed to wait at the leisure of the studio’s boss, Glogauer. Miss Leighton, the receptionist, is deftly handling the studio’s pages, who enter with signs announcing where Glogauer is. In the reception area, an underworked New York playwright, Lawrence Vail (a role initially played by Kaufman himself), is waiting in the hope of seeing Glogauer. Miss Leighton and the lot stars Phyllis and Florabel are boasting of the new elocution skills taught to them by May.

May enters and confidentially talks to Jerry, who she thinks is beginning to be swept up by the Hollywood scene too quickly and thoroughly. Jerry exits, pained by the suggestion, which has hit home. Helen Hobart enters looking for a story on lot star Dorothy Dodd but also informs May that Glogauer is very unhappy with the results of the school and is going to close it. She exits with a “Bon voyage!” To make matters worse for George, Susan is planning to return home to Columbus, upon the request of her father.

The plot twists quickly when Glogauer finds that his German-imported director, Kammerling, does not want to work with the actor he has been given, Dorothy Dodd, a known star. He refuses to do the picture unless a cast change is made. Glogauer agrees with him, but has no immediate suggestion as to whom to engage to replace Dodd. George quickly suggests that Susan would be perfect for the role of an innocent country girl.

When Glogauer scoffs at the suggestion, George, in a fit of insight, suggests that no one in the studio is competent, not even Glogauer himself, for he turned down the chance to be the first to use the vitaphone. Ashamed, and impressed with George’s forthright manner, Glogauer quickly agrees to use Susan. He then schemes to present Susan in New York City as a new discovery of his from England. He puts George in charge of the entire operation and accedes to George’s demand to rehire May and Jerry.

The last act is broken down into three fast-moving scenes that bring the action of the play to its climax while further emphasizing the power of the quick decision that is clearly the modus operandi of Hollywood. The first scene takes place on the set of Gingham and Orchids, George’s project, which stars Susan. It is the last day of shooting, and May is coaching Susan with her only line in a wedding scene: She must say “I do.” Glogauer is to visit the set, for he is amazed that the film has actually come in under the shooting schedule, something that has never occurred in the history of the studio.

At the ending, Glogauer becomes confused and realizes that George has filmed the wrong scenario. He is so furious at this waste of time and money that he again fires George, May, and Jerry; he tells Susan that the film will be the end of her career. Jerry tries to save his job by talking Glogauer out of his rash decision, but May seizes the opportunity to attack the studio executive with her sharp wit. As the scene ends and Glogauer exits, the three are served their notices.

Act 3, scene 2 takes place on the same Pullman car that brought the threesome to California. May is the only one of the three on the train. At the first stop, Vail climbs aboard, having left a sanatorium for underworked Hollywood playwrights. In this institution, as part of their cure scenario writers are allowed to stand in front of life-size reproductions of the executives of the studios to say whatever they like to them. The porter comes into the car with notices of Gingham and Orchids, and to May’s surprise the reviews are overwhelmingly positive. Some of the remarks described the use of bonglike sound reminiscent of Eugene O’Neill’s tom-toms in The Emperor Jones (pr. 1920). That sound was actually George cracking his Indian nuts on the set during the filming. It seems that all George’s mistakes turn out to be innovations. A telegram is delivered to May from George, begging her to help him. She quickly changes her plans and decides to return to Hollywood.

The final scene of the play revolves around the reuniting of May with George and later with Jerry. There is a sense of closure; May and Jerry are together again, as are Susan and George. Just as all seems to be in harmony, Glogauer comes into the scene to fire them all for the third time. He has just been informed that George has bought two thousand airplanes so that he can get one free. In the nick of time, Glogauer receives a message that all the rival studios are clamoring to buy the airplanes from him: There is a new interest in making airplane pictures, but George has bought all the airplanes that were available. Again, Glogauer recants, perceiving George as a film genius. Miss Leighton then informs Glogauer that the studio is being torn down, on orders from George. When George explains that it is being torn down to build an even bigger studio, Glogauer exclaims, “Tell them to go ahead.”

Dramatic Devices

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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

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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 Age and the beginning of the Great Depression. The 1920s had been an unprecedented age of prosperity in the United States. The stock market had captured the interest of the general public for the first time in the 1920s. People from all walks of life played the stock market.

In the summer of 1929, this interest turned into a craze. Warning signs of an impending crash were ignored: people traded more, creating an endless backlog of paperwork. After October 29 (called Black Tuesday), 1929, the American economy quickly slipped into a depression. President Herbert Hoover was not reelected in 1932 because of his perceived mishandling of the crisis. Life quickly grew grim in the United States. Unemployment increased exponentially. Banks failed (13,000 in 1930 alone), taking the savings of their depositors with them. Many people lost their homes. Hoover’s federal government did not do much to relieve these conditions. Uncertainty ruled many people’s lives.

Life for women in the United States changed greatly in this time period. Women had just gotten the right to vote in 1920. In the 1920s, more women went to work. Their numbers in white-collar office jobs especially increased. By 1930, 24.3 percent (11 million) of all women were in the workforce. But women were paid significantly less than men for the same work, especially in manufacturing jobs. Even educated women were restricted to so-called women’s work, such as teaching or nursing. Before the Depression, 29 percent of married women worked. As it took hold, many single women called for married women to quit so that those without other means of support could find work. The rates of marriage, divorce, and childbirth changed during the Depression. It cost too much to get a divorce, so the procedure was put off. It became more common for women not to marry or have long engagements because their potential mates could not find employment. This also affected the birth rate in 1930. Fewer children were born because of the cost of rearing them.

One industry thrived during the 1930s. The movie industry came into its own, and made lots of money. The industry had been turned on its head when the first movie with spoken dialogue was made in 1927. Until that point, movies had been silent, with live music played at local music theaters. In 1926, the first movie with a synchronized music soundtrack was released, Don Juan, but the technology was not great and it was not particularly successful. The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first film with spoken dialogue and singing. It was made with Vitaphone technology. The Jazz Singer was a blockbuster smash.

The popularity of The Jazz Singer and sound movies changed the face of the movie industry. It affected how scripts were written, and how actors acted. Movie cameras had to be made differently, and theaters had to be rewired for sound. The question of how to deal with foreign-language markets had to be answered. By the end of the 1920s, as technology caught up, the number of talkies increased and silent films were generally no longer made. Musicals were especially popular. The popularity of the talkies killed off vaudeville, and provided serious competition for live theater. The 1930s proved to be the golden era of cinema, an escape from the upheaval going on outside of the movie palace.

Literary Style

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SettingOnce in a Lifetime is comedy/satire that is set in New York City and Los Angeles in the late 1920s, when sound movies were coming into their own. The action of the play takes place in several locations. Act I, scene i occurs in a small, shabby furnished room in New York City where George and Jerry live. This setting emphasizes the desperate straits the vaudevillians have found themselves in. Act II, scene ii and Act III, scene ii both take place on the train between New York City and Los Angeles. In the former, May, Jerry, and George formulate the plan for their future. In the latter, May and Lawrence Vail, the frustrated playwright, share their disillusionment about the movie industry. The rest of the scenes take place in Los Angeles, at the Gold Room of the Hotel Stilton, the Glogauer movie studio, its reception area, and on the set of Gingham and Orchids. In all of these scenes, the absurdity of Hollywood is front and center. As a whole, the setting of Once in a Lifetime provides the context for the comedy of the play.

Costumes and Props In Hollywood, image is everything. Hart and Kaufman use this fact in the costumes called for in the directions of Once in a Lifetime. To add some visual comedy to the play, Miss Leighton, the receptionist at Glogauer, is supposed to wear a black evening gown and pearls, even though her scenes take place in the morning. Helen Hobart, the famous movie critic, dresses in similar fashion. Hart and Kaufman write ‘‘Her ensemble is the Hollywood idea of next year’s style a la Metro-Goldwyn.’’ Glamorous is what is expected from Hollywood, even among its receptionists and film critics.

A similar excess is portrayed in the props of the studio reception. Everything there is bigger than life, especially the furniture and fixtures. This is in stark contrast to the furnishings of the room where some of the vaudevillians lived in New York City. The fleeting nature of Hollywood success is emphasized by another prop inside the reception room. One of the doors leads to the office of May, Jerry, and George, and their elocution school. May con- firms that they have been fired when Mr. Flick comes to remove their names from the door. Such visual elements emphasize the humor in Once in a Lifetime.

Playwright as Actor Playing a Playwright In the original production of Once in a Lifetime, Kaufman took on the role of Lawrence Vail for about eight months. Hart took over the role in the following year, still in the initial run. These casting choices added an element of realism and contributed to the comedy and irony of these productions. Both Hart and Kaufman had only written plays, and were not really actors. Neither of them had worked in Hollywood or the movies when they wrote the play, though they knew others who had. The frustrations they imagined for Vail were very real to them, and easy for them to portray. It was also a new gimmick that brought people into the theater, ensuring more would see the play.

Compare and Contrast

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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 million will be out of work and the Great Depression would take hold.

Today: The American economy is experiencing an unprecedented economic growth, seemingly without end. With a carefully regulated stock market, unemployment is very low.

1930: Sound movies are still a novelty, with the full impact yet to be seen. Theaters are the only places to see movies. While early prototypes of televisions have been made, radio is the primary form of home entertainment.

Today: Movies can be seen in a variety of places, not just movie theaters. Video, DVD, and other technology can be used to view movies in the home and on the go. There is uncertainty about how interactive games and computers will affect the film industry.

1930: Most people travel the country by train; and commercial passenger air travel is only in its infancy.

Today: Air travel is the preferred way of traveling the country. The appeal of train travel is limited, and Amtrak, the national passenger service, is subsidized by the government.

1930: Only 27 percent of all women are in the workforce in the United States. Most are con- fined to ‘‘women’s work,’’ and paid less than the men for the same work. During the Depression, women are paid even less than men.

Today: While some of these conditions have remained the same (women still make less than men for the same work) and a glass ceiling (an unofficial but real barrier) exists, there are many more women in the workplace, working in nearly every occupation, and some hold positions of power.

Media Adaptations

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

A made-for-television version was aired in 1988, as an episode of Great Performances on PBS. Directed by Robin Midgley and produced by Shaun Sutton, it starred Zoe Wanamaker as May.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

———, review of Once in a Lifetime, in New York Times, December 7, 1930, section 9, p. 1.

Baughman, Judith S, ed., American Decades: 1920–1929, Gale, 1995, pp. 280-81.

Daniels, Robert L., review of Once in a Lifetime, in Variety, June 8, 1998, p. 81.

Eder, Richard, Review of Once in a Lifetime, in New York Times, June 16, 1978, p. C3.

Evans, Sara M., Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America, The Free Press, 1989, pp. 182-83.

Gussow, Mel, review of Once in a Lifetime, in New York Times, April 4, 1975, p. 22.

Hart, Moss, and George S. Kaufman, Once in a Lifetime, Samuel French, Inc., 1930.

Kalem, T. E., ‘‘Tower of Babble,’’ in Time, July 17, 1978, p. 83.

Review of Once in a Lifetime, in Commonweal, October 8, 1930, p. 584.

Simon, John, ‘‘Forced Farce Cryer’s Outcry,’’ in New York, July 3, 1978, p. 74.

———, ‘‘No Man’s Romance,’’ in New York Times, June 22, 1998, p. 61.

Taubman, Howard, review of Once in a Lifetime, in New York Times, January 29, p. 20.

———, ‘‘Troupe in Capital Gives Once in a Lifetime,’’ in New York Times, October 30, 1962, p. 30.

Further Reading Flexner, Eleanor, American Playwrights: 1918–1938, Simon & Schuster, 1938, pp. 216-20. This book considers the careers of the most important playwrights on the American stage, including Hart and Kaufman. Flexner considers and compares Once in a Lifetime and other plays.

Hart, Moss, Act One: An Autobiography, Random House, 1959. This memoir covers the whole of Hart’s professional life, including details surrounding the conception and production of Once in a Lifetime.

Pollack, Rhoda-Gale, George S. Kaufman, Twayne Publishers, 1988. This critical biography on Kaufman’s professional life includes a chapter on his collaborations with Hart.

Teichmann, Howard, George S. Kaufman: An Intimate Portrait, Atheneum, 1972. This biography includes Kaufman’s personal and professional life, including his work on and in Once in a Lifetime.


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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.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide