The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The setting of The Show-Off is the Philadelphia home of Mr. and Mrs. Fisher. Clara, their oldest daughter and wife of Frank Hyland, stops by one evening to bring her mother some candy. They discuss younger sister Amy’s infatuation with Aubrey Piper, a young man who visits to court Amy. Mrs. Fisher says, “It looks like a steady thing. And you never in your life heard anybody talk so much, Clara—I don’t know how she stands him.”

Clara reveals that Frank knows Aubrey, who has misrepresented himself to Amy. Aubrey claims that he is the head of the Pennsylvania Railroad freight department, but he is merely a clerk there. Aubrey is also not wealthy: Frank says that a clerk earns no more than one hundred fifty dollars per month. However, they all agree that Amy will ignore their warnings that Aubrey is a deceitful show-off. When Amy enters the room, the audience soon sees that she is bratty, headstrong, and interested only in making herself attractive for the evening. By contrast, Clara is sensible, Frank is dreamy and preoccupied, and Mrs. Fisher is a tart-tongued but warmhearted gossip.

Aubrey arrives and soon manages to irritate everybody. For instance, since Joe Fisher is an inventor, Aubrey claims to have invented a formula to prevent rust but says the industrialists refused to pay him the millions he deserved for it. Joe says later that in fact the antirust formula was his own idea. When Aubrey finally leaves, Mrs. Fisher sternly talks with Amy, advising her to look for a man who will be able to support her, but Amy defiantly says that she will marry whom she chooses.

In act 2, six months later, Amy and Aubrey are married. Aubrey arrives with the news that they need to buy a house but laughs off Mrs. Fisher’s advice that he should buy one that he can afford. Aubrey departs, saying that he wants to go look at automobiles. Mr....

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

George Kelly’s sets reflected his dramatic realism. Unlike the beautiful stages designed by other playwrights of his time, he described an urban, working-class, garish home in which the props and furniture, such as candy boxes, cups and glasses, or junk-filled cabinets, are heavily used in the action. He preferred to stage an entire play in a single set. In The Show-Off only the living room is ever seen, though characters use many doors to enter the parlor, basement, kitchen, and other rooms. The result is to produce a familiarity with this room, which may come to seem confining, especially when Aubrey sweeps through it speaking of his grandiose dreams. It also means that actions occurring elsewhere must be reported by characters, who enter and exit the single room, and these actions are described in different manners by the different characters, revealing much about their personalities.

The Show-Off is an expansion of Kelly’s one-act play Poor Aubrey (pr. 1922). Since Kelly was limited to this single set, the characters are always moving around it, calling offstage to each other, slamming doors, listening at doors, hiding behind doors, running up the stairs or down into the basement. Because his work is realistic rather than experimental, Kelly does not provide spectacle: The action is entirely dialogue-based. A lesser playwright would run the risk of boring the audience, but Kelly’s characters are so amusing that his “talky” drama seems busy and kinetic, even frantic, rather than tedious.

Kelly gave specific directions about the color scheme for the set, which included silver-green furniture with tones of orchid and green blended into walls and ceilings. It is the sort of room that a working-class family of the 1920’s would consider tasteful, though its poverty cannot be ignored. Many plays of his time featured the adventures of upper-class or aristocratic characters, but Kelly greatly pleased his audiences with his depictions of people much like themselves.


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Graves, Mark A. George Kelly: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Hirsch, Foster. George Kelly. New York: Twayne, 1975.

Hornby, Richard. “The Show-Off.” Hudson Review 44 (Winter, 1992): 636-638.

Kaufman, Alvin S., and Franklin Case. Modern Drama in America: Realism from Provincetown to Broadway, 1915-1929. Vol. 1. New York: Washington Square Press, 1982.

Kissane, Joseph. “Brandered by Matthews: The 1924 Pulitzer Prize.” Theatre History Studies 19 (1999): 43-62.

Maisel, Edward. “The Theatre of George Kelly.” Theatre Arts Monthly 31 (February, 1947): 39-43.

Moses, Montrose Jonas, and Joseph Wood Krutch. Representative American Dramas, National and Local. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1941.

Wills, Arthur. “The Kelly Play.” Modern Drama 6 (1963): 245-255.