Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 703
Act I, Scene i
You Can't Take it with You takes place in the living room of Grandpa Martin Vanderhof's home in New York City. The action begins on a Wednesday evening in 1936. The curtain rises on an eclectically decorated room containing a solarium full of snakes, a xylophone, and a printing press in addition to more common furniture items like chairs and tables.
Writing an essay?
Get a custom outline
Our Essay Lab can help you tackle any essay assignment within seconds, whether you’re studying Macbeth or the American Revolution. Try it today!
The first scene of the play introduces the members of the eccentric Vanderhof-Sycamore household as they come in and out of the living room. Grandpa's middle-aged daughter Penny Sycamore sits at a rickety card table industriously typing a play. She is joined by her twenty-nine-year-old daughter, Essie Carmichael, who makes and sells candy but really wants to be a dancer. Essie wears ballet slippers and dances rather than walks from place to place. Next, Rheba, the family maid, comes in and listens to Penny explain that her play's heroine has entered a monastery, and Penny can't think of a way to get her out. Then, Penny's husband Paul Sycamore emerges from the basement where he's been making fireworks. He is soon followed by his assistant Mr. De Pinna, a sort of permanent house guest who came eight years ago to deliver ice and has never left. Essie's husband, Ed Carmichael, comes in and goes to the xylophone and begins playing a tune. Essie is immediately up on her toes dancing to it. When the song is finished Ed goes to work at his printing press while Rheba's boyfriend Donald enters, bringing flies to feed the snakes.
At this point, Grandpa, the family patriarch who gave up business thirty-five years ago and now does whatever he likes, enters the bustling living room. He has just returned from watching the Columbia commencement exercises, one of the many activities—such as stamp collecting and going to the zoo—which he pursues just because he enjoys them. Not long after Grandpa arrives, Penny's younger daughter, Alice, enters. Alice is the one "normal" member of the family who has a secretarial job on Wall Street. After a few cheerful exchanges with her various relatives, she quiets down the group in order to tell them that her boss's son, Tony Kirby, will be calling for her later in the evening. She asks them all to behave as normally as possible because she likes this young man. She then goes upstairs to change.
When the doorbell rings, however, it turns out to be, not Alice's young man, but rather an Internal Revenue Agent named Henderson who has come to inform Grandpa that he owes twenty-two years' worth of unpaid income tax. But Henderson is scared off by a firecracker explosion before he can even get Grandpa to admit that the government does anything worth paying taxes to support. Finally, Tony arrives and gets a brief glimpse of Alice's family. As Alice whisks Tony back out the door, Essie's dance instructor, a loud Russian named Mr. Kolenkhov arrives. Kolenkhov and the rest of the family then sit down to dinner and Grandpa says grace, asking God to let them all continue living life just as they like.
Act I, Scene ii
Scene ii takes place later that same night. Alice and Tony have returned to the house after their date. They begin a conversation confessing how much they love each other. Alice admits she loves Tony but does not think they can ever marry because his traditional family could never accept her unconventional relatives. Tony does not think this is necessarily the case and convinces Alice that all that matters at the moment is their love for one another. The two become engaged and Tony departs.
At different points during this conversation Alice and Tony are interrupted by various family members who demonstrate the very eccentric behavior Alice thinks the Kirbys will be unable to accept. Penny comes through in her bathrobe looking for her play, "Sex Goes on Holiday." Essie and Ed return from the movies arguing about Ginger Rogers's dancing skill and casually mentioning that Grandpa thinks they should go ahead and have a baby. Donald passes by in his nightshirt carrying his accordion, and Paul emerges from the basement where he has continued making fireworks.