Critical Context (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)
You Can’t Take It with You is one of six plays, two musicals, and one one-act written by the team of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Best known of the other plays are Once in a Lifetime (pr., pb. 1930), The Man Who Came to Dinner (pr., pb. 1939), and George Washington Slept Here (pr., pb. 1940). Kaufman and Hart were the most successful collaborators of their generation. Despite a few topical references to the contemporary scene, You Can’t Take It with You wears well. Some revivals change the topical references; others allow them to provide historical authenticity.
You Can’t Take It with You reflects the Depression era from which it comes. The madcap farce of antimaterialism opened in December of 1936. By February, 1937, its seats were selling four months in advance. It was not until the heat waves of July and August that there were empty seats, and even then they had been sold. Its initial run included 837 performances. The combination of the notion of seeking happiness by pursuing activities for their own sake and the delightful spectacle of the Vanderhofs penetrating the pomposity of the Kirbys perfectly fit the needs of late Depression-era audiences. It was selected as the Pulitzer Prize winner for the best play of 1937.
The main idea that the good life comes from doing what one wants to do rather than what others consider reasonable or even normal serves as a sound comic base. When pushed to farce, it becomes an entertaining tale of a madcap family juxtaposed with a staid family from the successful social world of American business. Despite their unmethodical actions, the Vanderhofs do seem to offer sense. They urge members of the audience to seek their own paths rather than to conform to the ways of their society. They may be mad, but they are lovable. These eccentrics provide a form of almost sensible insanity; when contrasted to the power-crazed successes of their day, they seem both happier and more sensible. You Can’t Take It with You provides both entertainment and insight into the mindset of the Depression era as it warns against taking standard ideas of success too seriously.