You Can't Take It with You

by George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart

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Critical Overview

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On its opening night in December of 1936, You Can't Take It with You became an instant commercial hit. Since then, the play's popularity has never waned; it has been successfully staged by theaters of all sizes for over six decades. Yet even while praising the skill with which Kaufman and Hart constructed their clever comedy, critics have generally categorized the play as an escapist farce, enjoyable yet lacking any significant content. When the play won the Pulitzer Prize in 1936, some questioned the choice, saying judges played it safe, choosing a popular work rather than a more controversial drama with greater depth and artistic merit.

In his New York Times review, Brooks Atkinson described You Can't Take It with You, as "a spontaneous piece of hilarity" composed with "a dash of affection to season the humor" by two writers with "a knack for extravagances of word and episode and an eye for hilarious incongruities." Most other reviews of the first production were equally positive, though some expressed surprise that the play was less satirical than Kaufman's earlier works. But perhaps because its humor was gentle and its message palatable, You Can't Take It with You appealed to audiences all across the country and touring companies shared the success of the Broadway production. The strong ticket sales were all the more remarkable considering the tough economic conditions of the Great Depression—and speak volumes of the play's appeal as escapist fare.

Over the years, critics' comments regarding You Can't Take It with You have been remarkably consistent. Frank Hurburt O'Hara, in his 1939 collection of essays Today in American Drama, praised Kaufman and Hart for creating a play that despite being "hilariously preposterous" still manages to be "more persuasive to audiences than most farces." Almost thirty years later, Richard Mason, in a 1967 Theater Annual article, would still admire the imagination and warmth in this play where "neither satire nor any weighty preoccupation with issues is allowed to get in the way of the comedy ... any metaphorical values possessed by the play are quite overshadowed by its farce exuberance."

Pleasantly escapist, You Can't Take It with You is, as Ethan Mordden wrote in his 1981 book The American Theater, "one hit whose popularity is easy to understand." First opening in a decade when, as Mordden puts it, many "plays dealt with disoriented characters—alienated either by epic environmental pressures they don't understand or because they understand and dislike their environment," You Can't Take It with You offered audiences an amusing reversal: "the screwballs have their world in order; it's everyone else who's disoriented." And most critics would, along with Mordden, attribute the play's enduring appeal to the fact that although "very much of its time" Kaufman and Hart's comedy is "not dependent on timely allusions;" we can still easily understand Grandpa's message to "do what you want before it's too late."

In the 1990s, more criticism has been written on Frank Capra's 1938 film version of You Can't Take It with You than on Kaufman and Hart's original play. This reflects the burgeoning of popular culture and film studies, fields more interested in the 1930s Hollywood screwball comedies than the Broadway stage of the same era. But the lack of recent criticism may also indicate that many late-twentieth century scholars agree with Mason's judgement of all Kaufman and Hart's comedies: they "are there to be thoroughly enjoyed on the stage, but it is fatal to think about them."

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Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)

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Essays and Criticism