You Can't Take It with You

by George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart

Start Free Trial

Characters Discussed

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Penelope (Penny) Vanderhof Sycamore

Penelope (Penny) Vanderhof Sycamore, a mother in her mid-fifties, the matriarch of a comic household, carefree and easygoing. Penny clearly loves her family and life itself. After a typewriter is mistakenly delivered to her, she drops her old hobby of painting and begins to write plays. She does both very badly, but with style and good humor.

Paul Sycamore

Paul Sycamore, Penny’s husband and father of the Sycamore brood. Paul has given up ordinary work to construct fireworks in his basement. He often tries them out in the center of the living room. He intends to market them, but his plans never quite work out. Paul is less involved than his wife in the lives of the children because he spends so much time in the basement.

Grandpa Martin Vanderhof

Grandpa Martin Vanderhof, the patriarch and founder of the family’s unconventional lifestyle. The Sycamore family clearly revolves around Grandpa, and his eccentric clear-sightedness saves the day more than once. One day, Grandpa left work and never returned; he spends his life now in a more productive manner, throwing darts, attending commencements, and enjoying his family.

Essie Sycamore Carmichael

Essie Sycamore Carmichael, the elder daughter, who is married. Essie splits her time between making new kinds of candy (successfully) and practicing to become a ballerina (unsuccessfully).

Ed Carmichael

Ed Carmichael, Essie’s husband. Ed plays the xylophone, operates an amateur printing press in the living room, and occasionally peddles Essie’s candies.

Alice Sycamore

Alice Sycamore, the younger daughter, in her early twenties. Alice is the only normal person in the Sycamore family. She works in an office on Wall Street and has no unusual hobbies. She is devoted to her outlandish family, however, and generally approves of their lifestyles. Alice is in love with Tony Kirby but is afraid that their families will never get along.

Anthony (Tony) Kirby, Jr.

Anthony (Tony) Kirby, Jr., Alice’s fiancé, fresh out of college and the new vice president of his father’s business, where Alice works. Tony finds the Sycamores delightful, in contrast to his stodgy family, although, like Alice, he is basically a normal person.

Anthony Kirby, Sr.

Anthony Kirby, Sr., Tony’s father. Mr. Kirby is a stereotypical Wall Street mogul: tired, worried, stiff, and bothered by indigestion. He is at first appalled by the antics of the Sycamores but comes to appreciate their “seize the day” attitude.


Rheba, the black maid. Entertaining in her own right, Rheba provides fairly objective commentary on the doings of the Sycamores.


Donald, Rheba’s boyfriend. Donald is on relief and wanders around the Sycamore house in his bathrobe, but he, too, appears more normal than the white people around him.

Mr. De Pinna

Mr. De Pinna, an iceman who came to make a delivery eight years earlier, fell under the Sycamores’ spell, and has stayed ever since. Mr. De Pinna is Paul’s assistant in the basement fireworks factory and models for Penny’s paintings.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Ed Carmichael
Essie's husband Ed, as the stage directions inform, is a "nonedescript young man" in his thirties. He is a musician and composer who likes to play the xylophone as well as ply his trade as an amateur printer. As a hobby, he uses his hand-press to print sayings which he comes across in the writings of the revolutionary Russian Communist Leon Trotsky such as "God Is the State; the State is God." Proud of his work, he encloses these printed bills in the boxes with Essie's candy. Although Ed prints his slogans just for the fun of it,...

(This entire section contains 1485 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

their political messages attract the attention of the F.B.I., who believe Ed is an insurrectionist attempting to undermine the United States government.

Essie Carmichael
Mrs. Sycamore's eldest daughter, Essie Carmichael, is a 29-year-old aspiring ballerina. She dances her way through the play, improvising steps to her husband Ed's xylophone music and eagerly following the instructions of her dance instructor, Mr. Kolenkhov. She makes candy, naming her newest confections "Love Dreams," but she never takes off her ballet slippers even when she dons her candy-making apron. Like the other Sycamores, Essie is both happily absorbed in tasks which amuse her and wholly undisturbed by the eccentricities of her family.

Mr. De Pinna
Described in the stage directions as a "bald-headed little man with a serious manner," the middle-aged Mr. De Pinna arrived at the Vanderhof residence eight years ago to deliver ice and ended up moving in. Although a minor character, he shows how open and accepting the Vanderhof-Sycamore family can be: everyone is obviously welcome in this house. Mr. De Pinna has clearly taken to this family's way of life. He helps Paul make firecrackers, poses in Roman costume for Penny's painting of a discus thrower, and remains undisturbed by the chaotic household.

Rheba's boyfriend, who, like her, is described in the stage directions in racist terms such as "a colored man of no uncertain hue." Cheerful and at ease in the household, he is a minor comic character who willingly runs errands and occasionally offers amusing comments.

F.B.I. agents
The three F.B.I. agents (G-men) who come to investigate the seemingly political papers Ed Sycamore has been enclosing in candy boxes.

Grand Duchess Olga Katrina
See Olga.

Henderson is the Internal Revenue Department agent who comes to collect twenty-two years' back income tax from Grandpa Vanderhof.

Wilbur C. Henderson
See Henderson.

Anthony Kirby, Jr.
See Tony Kirby.

Anthony Kirby, Sr.
See Mr. Kirby.

Miriam Kirby
See Mrs. Kirby.

Mr. Kirby
Tony's father, the middle-aged Mr. Kirby, is a successful Wall Street businessman. He is a traditional authority figure who represents the conventional worldview the Vanderhof-Sycamores reject. Conservative and repressed, he has perpetual indigestion and tells his wife he thinks "lust is not a human emotion." He is initially shocked by Alice's family and says Grandpa Vanderhof's idea of doing only what makes you happy is a "a very dangerous philosophy ... it's un-American."

Mrs. Kirby
Tony's mother, the middle-aged Mrs. Kirby, is the conservative female equivalent of her businessman husband. She, too, is shocked by the unconventional Vanderhof-Sycamores. She is affronted when Penny says spiritualism is "a fake" and seems to reveal she is dissatisfied with her marriage when in the word game she associates "honeymoon" with "dull" and almost admits that Mr. Kirby talks about Wall Street even during sex.

Tony Kirby
Tony Kirby is a Vice President of Kirby & Co., his father's business. The stage directions tell us he is a "very nice young man" who has recently attended Yale and Cambridge. He has fallen in love with Alice Sycamore and wants to marry her. Now that he's done with college he believes, as he tells Grandpa Vanderhof, that now "the fun's over, and—I'm facing the world," but his contact with Alice's family teaches him that if he makes the right choices his fun may just be starting. He purposely brings his parents to the Vanderhof-Sycamore house on the wrong night because, as he says to his father, "I wanted you to see a real family—as they really were. A family that loved and understood each other." Determined to do something that he wants to do, Tony rejects his father's business and embraces the Vanderhof's philosophy of seeking happiness over wealth.

Boris Kolenkhov (ko-len-kawv)
Essie's dance instructor Boris Kolenkhov is introduced in the stage directions as an "enormous, hairy, loud" Russian. A stereotypically-depicted comic character, he contributes to the chaotic activity in the Vanderhof-Sycamore home, encouraging Essie to dance and wrestling with the unsuspecting Mr. Kirby. He has a habit of conveniently arriving just in time for meals.

The Grand Duchess Olga is a Russian friend of Kolehnkov's who has fallen on hard times following the Communist Revolution in Russia. She is now a waitress and has a talent for making blintzes. She prepares the bountiful meal of blintzes which everyone sits down to at the conclusion of the play.

Rheba is the Sycamore family's efficient, practical, and adaptable "colored maid." The stage directions introduce her in stereotypically racist terms—"a very black girl somewhere in her thirties"—common during the years preceding the Civil Rights movement. During the course of the play's action, however, Rheba emerges as a distinct individual, speaking her mind and holding her own within the eccentric household.

Alice Sycamore
Alice Sycamore is Penny's attractive younger daughter. The twenty-two-year-old Alice has, according to the stage directions, "escaped the tinge of mild insanity" that pervades her relatives, but her "devotion and love for them are plainly apparent." The only member of the family with a regular job, she is a secretary at a Wall Street firm and has fallen in love with the boss's son, Anthony Kirby, Jr. Although she loves Tony, she fears his conservative parents will never accept her family's eccentricities. Since Alice is a "normal" and likeable character, the audience is likely to sympathise with her and share her point-of-view.

Paul Sycamore
Penny's husband Paul Sycamore is in his mid-fifties. Quiet, charming, and mild-mannered, he never loses his composure, even when the firecrackers he makes in the basement with Mr. De Pinna unexpectedly explode. Like his wife and father-in-law, Paul possesses what the stage directions call "a kind of youthful air." A complete contrast to a disgruntled businessman such as Mr. Kirby, Paul contentedly pursues his chosen activities, such as making new "skyrockets" and building things with an Erector Set.

Penny Sycamore
See Penelope Vanderhof Sycamore.

Grandpa Vanderhof
See Martin Vanderhof.

Martin Vanderhof
Grandpa Vanderhof, as Kaufman and Hart describe him in the stage directions, is a 75-year-old "wiry little man whom the years have treated kindly." One day thirty-five years ago he gave up his business career, since, as he explains to Mr. Kolenkhov, it struck him that he "wasn't having any fun." So he "just relaxed" and has "been a happy man ever since." He now has "time enough for everything" and, as he tells Mr. Kirby, he no longer has "six hours of things I have to do every day before I get one hour to do what I like in." Grandpa collects stamps, throws darts, attends the commencement speeches at Columbia University, and encourages his family to follow his example and do only what makes them happy. He hasn't payed income tax in twenty-two years because he doesn't think the government does anything useful with the money. He provides the philosophical center of the play, explaining the folly of seeking material wealth at the expense of personal fulfillment, and asking only, as he says while saying grace before dinner, that their family be allowed "to go along and be happy in [their] own sort of way."

Penelope Vanderhof Sycamore
Grandpa Vanderhof's daughter, Penny Sycamore, is the first character on stage in You Can't Take It with You. Kaufman and Hart describe her in the stage directions as an endearing "round little woman" in her fifties, who loves nothing more than writing plays. As eccentric as the other members of her family, Penny was an enthusiastic painter but gave up this hobby for writing when a typewriter was delivered to the house by mistake eight years earlier. Charmingly blunt, she causes some embarrassment during the Kirby's visit, first by calling Mrs. Kirby's beloved spirtualism "a fake," and then by proposing a word association game and asking what everyone associates with the words "sex," "bathroom," and "lust." Penny's enjoyment of life and direct speech are in marked contrast to Mrs. Kirby's seeming discontent and reserved acceptance of social conventions.

Gay Wellington
Gay Wellington, described in the stage directions as "an actress, nymphomaniac, and a terrible souse," comes to the Sycamore house to discuss a script with Penny but then passes out on the couch. She occasionally awakens, usually just in time to contribute to the chaos that erupts following the Kirby's unexpected visit.


Critical Essays