Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 443

Once in a Lifetime is a play of unbridled optimism. May and Jerry succeed, and the most naïve character, George, becomes the farcical counterpart of the self-made man. Just as the Depression was getting well under way in the United States, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart offered hope to every person through this play, and especially the character of George. George flies in the face of conventional wisdom by challenging the power structure of Hollywood embodied in Glogauer.

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As a counterpoint to George, Kaufman and Hart present the character of the New York playwright who was lured to Hollywood with a lucrative contract. Not only is Vail unable to see Glogauer in his office, but also he eventually has a nervous breakdown and must seek help in a sanatorium. In spite of the seemingly serious nature of Vail’s breakdown, it serves a comic function in the play.

The play was written at a time when the use of sound in films was in its nascent stages. It pokes fun at the film industry, showing overworked executives being forced to make major decisions much too quickly. Some of those decisions—for example, Glogauer’s decision not to use the invention that made talking pictures possible—are made without much foresight. Those quick decisions at times come back to haunt the executives. Certainly in the play Glogauer is swayed by financial considerations, but he is also motivated by the embarrassment he suffered by not being farsighted enough to see the possibilities inherent in the use of sound in film.

Romantic themes are also prevalent in the play. May, a strong-headed woman with a sharp wit, is portrayed as very much in love with her vaudeville partner Jerry. In this male-oriented play, she eventually comes back to him. The relationship between George and Susan represents a union of the naïve. It seems fitting that the play should end with these characters together again. Here the values of the playwrights, as well as those of American society in the late 1920’s, are displayed. Though Kaufman and Hart were willing to disparage the film industry of Hollywood, they remained content with representing conventional ideals of romantic love.

George’s rise to the top suggests the value of spontaneity. His character displays the optimistic attitude many Americans had toward Hollywood in the 1920’s, and he embodies the hope for fame and fortune that many cherished in the early days of the industry. In this play, the motion-picture world can be seen as a metaphorical microcosm of the United States itself, a country where individual success is dependent on luck as well as courage and creativity.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 667

Friendship and Loyalty
At the center of the Once in a Lifetime is the loyal friendship of May, George, and Jerry. From the beginning, they stick together—they even have one bank account. The three had a vaudeville act, which Jerry sold when he thought there was better chance for them in Los Angeles. Though May, and to some degree George, did not like the fact that Jerry did not consult with them before making such a big decision, they go along with it. May comes up with their elocution school plan, uses her contract to get it going, and does most of the work when it is open.

Though their friendship is challenged by life in Hollywood, it does survive. May becomes somewhat resentful that she has to do much of the work and that Jerry, her love interest, has become wrapped up in life in the fast land. George does not like always feeling like the other two do not respect his intelligence or abilities. Jerry is temporarily oblivious of his responsibilities towards the other two. But when the chips are down, they rally around each other. After George is appointed head of the studio and insists that May and Jerry are hired as well, the pair comes through for George when he really needs their support. By the end of the play, their friendship is as strong as ever. Once in a Lifetime shows the importance of such relationships in an unstable world.

Hope and Optimism
Throughout Once in a Lifetime, there is an undercurrent of hope and optimism. No matter what life throws at May, Jerry, and George, or most of the other characters, they always have some positive feelings for the future. Jerry believes he, May, and George will improve their lot in Los Angeles. George believes that Susan will be a successful actress. Their optimism pays off in both situations: both of their hopes come true. Even the wannabe film-types, the actors, actress, and scenario writers who work in the hotel, do not have any doubts about their futures. They believe they will work in the movie industry.

The only person seemingly without hope is Lawrence Vail, the underused playwright and film scenario writer who is shuffled from person to person in an attempt to meet with someone about his work at the studio. Vail is frustrated because, while he draws a paycheck, he also has had no writing assignments. Though Vail is frustrated by the runaround he is getting, he knows that a better life is out there. Vail was happy in New York City as a playwright, and in Act III, he returns home, after a brief stay in a sanitarium just for playwrights such as him. Once in a Lifetime offered unbridled optimism in stark contrast to the economic situation in the United States at the time. It harkens back to the attitude of the Jazz Age of the 1920s, before the start of the Great Depression.

Success and Failure
Related to the idea of optimism, the theme of success and failure is also important to Once in a Lifetime. Nearly everyone is successful in some way in the play. There are no true failures depicted, save perhaps for Lawrence Vail, but even Vail fails only to get a meeting. He is still paid, though he does no work. May, Jerry, and George’s elocution school at the studio fails and they are fired, but this is only a temporary setback. By standing up to the studio owner, Herman Glogauer, George is hired as studio supervisor, and insists that his two friends be hired as well. Though George gets himself in some sticky situations as studio head—he is fired when studio owner Glogauer realizes that George has ordered the wrong script to be shot and when he buys 2,000 aeroplanes for the studio—he retains his position and solidifies his status as resident genius in Glogauer’s eyes. Success is depicted as easy in Hollywood, though sometimes short-lived.

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