You Can't Take It with You

by George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart

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A Play Within the Context of the Great Depression

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In the 1930s, Americans needed to laugh. The United States was suffering through the harsh economic times of the Great Depression and people went to theaters and movie houses to forget their troubles. So it is not surprising that in 1936 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's You Can't Take It with You was a commercial success. This screwball farce filled the stage with eccentric characters who did silly things and made witty remarks while fireworks literally went off in the background. Both frantic and funny, the play gave audiences just the sort of escapist entertainment they wanted.

You Can't Take It with You not only pleased Depression-era theater-goers, it went on in the decades which followed to become a classic American comedy, continually produced by theater companies of all kinds. Why has this play enjoyed lasting popularity when many other clever farces from the same era have been forgotten? Perhaps this well-constructed work endures both because it skillfully employs classic comedic techniques and because it celebrates individualism, reiterating ideas Americans have embraced since the country's inception. Without exaggerating the philosophical importance of Kaufman and Hart's loveable bunch of screwballs, it is safe to say that You Can't Take It with You repackages, in the congenial form of Grandpa Vanderhof's worldview, the individualistic and anti-materialist ideals of American thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. As the idiosyncratic Vanderhof-Sycamores amuse, they also encourage the viewer to resist conformity, question the dominant culture's social and economic values, and seek personal fulfillment. The play fulfills its obligations as a farce, delivering verbal and physical comedy aplenty, but it also offers, with an appropriately light touch, a message Americans want to hear.

But, as many critics have pointed out, any message You Can't Take It with You delivers is secondary to its main purpose: producing laughs. From the moment the curtain goes up, Kaufman and Hart keep audiences amused with sight gags and witty lines. Act I introduces the wacky Vanderhof-Sycamore family. They all follow their dreams, making the best of what life and chance have presented them: Penny writes plays because a typewriter was once delivered to the house by mistake, Essie dances and makes candy, Ed plays the xylophone and prints circulars on a hand-press, Paul makes fireworks with the assistance of Mr. De Pinna, and Grandpa collects stamps and attends commencement exercises. None of them seems to mind that young Alice actually has a job as a secretary on Wall Street. In fact, no one seems to mind much of anything at all. No explosion is so loud and no behavior so strange as to disturb this family's balance.

Kaufman and Hart begin their play in a liberated realm—Grandpa Vanderhof's living room. This is a reversal of the traditional comic model literary critic Northrop Frye once proclaimed, where, as in many Shakespearean romantic comedies, the protagonists must escape a world of hypocrisy and habit and create their own new society of truth and freedom. In You Can't Take It with You, there is no need for Alice and Tony to run away and make a new community, for they start out in a fully-formed alternative society. The "real world" remains safely off stage, and the Vanderhof-Sycamore world order—no jobs, no taxes, no formalities—holds sway. The humor and fun, of course, comes from watching the conservative Kirby family at first clash with and later attempt to adapt to this unorthodox world. The overall structure of the play, however, is quite traditional; three balanced acts, in turn, set-up, complicate, and resolve the humorous situation.

After Act I has...

(This entire section contains 2235 words.)

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introduced the unconventional cast of characters and made clear the problem of the play, that Alice and Tony want to marry but fear that their families are incompatible (a lighter version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet), Act II generates hilarious complications by bringing Tony and his parents to dinner at the Vanderhof-Sycamore house on the wrong night. (This formula of a likeable but unusual family placed in ludicrous circumstances is a familiar one. Many critics credit Kaufman and Hart with originating this scenario so often adopted by television situation comedies such asThe Addams Family and The Simpsons.) This second act illustrates the broad comic techniques of farce, which place exaggerated characters in awkward physical positions and silly costumes. Kaufman and Hart start off with Essie, in her tutu, leaping through the living room, the balding Mr. De Pinna dressed like a Roman discus thrower, and Penny in the caricatured costume of "the artist." All funny sights even before the Kirbys show up in full evening dress (formal gown and tuxedo) to provide contrast. And the physical comedy continues throughout the scene, with Mr. Kolenkhov accosting the uptight Mr. Kirby in an attempt to wrestle, Donald running in and out to the store, and finally the chaotic arrival of the F.B.I., which is capped by a fireworks explosion and pandemonium. When reading a comedy (as opposed to actually seeing it produced), it is easy to overlook the importance of the visual and physical elements which are a crucial part of the humor. Kaufman and Hart certainly intended You Can't Take It with You to entertain both eye and ear; Kaufman in particular was well-known for adroitly choreographing the on-stage mayhem in productions he directed.

The play is filled not only with clever sight gags but also with great one-liners. Audiences never fail to laugh when Penny muses about her play's plot ("you know, with forty monks and one girl, something ought to happen") or when Grandpa sums up his sense of the government's value ("well, I might pay about seventy-five dollars, but that's all it's worth"). The caricatured Russian Kolenkhov energetically delivers some of the silliest lines in the play ("Life is chasing around inside of me, like a squirrel") and performers love the part. As the actor Gregory Peck said in A Celebration of Moss Hart about playing Kolenkhov, "it had that marvelous line—'Confidentially she stinks'—in it. I had the privilege of saying that, I think, four times at every performance, and for the first time in my life hearing an audience just tear the joint up. That was the surest-fire laugh line that any actor ever had." Hart and Kaufman's verbal wit shows up throughout the play, but perhaps a particularly good example of their ability to get big laughs from short lines is Penny's word game, where Mrs. Kirby's associations of bathroom—Mr. Kirby, honeymoon—dull, sex—Wall Street, are revealingly suggestive.

You Can't Take It with You might stand as a model for aspiring comedic playwrights, illustrating balanced structure as well as a skillful blend of physical and verbal humor. But its enduring appeal more likely can be credited to the other lesson it has to offer, that of Grandpa Vanderhof's life philosophy. Living out Grandpa's notions, the Vanderhof-Sycamores illustrate Ralph Waldo Emerson's idea, famously expressed in his 1841 essay "Self-Reliance," that to be an individual one must be a "nonconformist" and reject the "joint-stock company" of society which asks citizens to sacrifice their "liberty and culture." As Alice says about her family, "they do rather strange things" but "they're fun, and ... there's a certain nobility about them." American audiences raised on individualistic beliefs are inclined to agree that there is something noble about folks who "just don't care about things that other people give their whole lives to." Society demands conformity, but in the world of Kaufman and Hart's play, those who follow society's dictates get little satisfaction from life, while those who make up their own rules find contentment. Echoing Emerson, You Can't Take It with You emphasizes the pleasure of following one's bliss. In this comedic world, nonconformists have fun. It really is a play about "play," in the sense of games and entertainment.

Grandpa laments the fact that most people have forgotten about having fun: they work because they are supposed to but no longer know what they are working for. He asks, "why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?" Grandpa himself used to "get down to the office at nine o'clock sharp, no matter how [he] felt" and "lay awake nights" worrying about contracts. He had been "right in the thick of it—fighting and scratching, and clawing"; the working world was a "regular jungle." Then one day he realized he "wasn't having any fun" so he "just relaxed" and has "been a happy man ever since." Grandpa's experience and realizations echo the well-known statements of Emerson's contemporary Henry David Thoreau, who in his 1854 book Walden, declared that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Thoreau argued that people "labor under a mistake." Even when they try to have fun, an "unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called... games and amusements... there is no play in them, for this comes after work."

As theorist Stanley Cavell suggested in his discussion of 1930s film comedies, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, characters with individualistic and anti-materialist ideals like the Vanderhof-Sycamores underscore the difference between those who know what has true value in life and those who have forgotten what really counts. In Cavell's words "happiness is not to be won just by opposing those in power but only, beyond that, by educating them, or their successors." We see this in You Can't Take It with You where the happy ending depends upon Mr. Kirby and Tony learning to share Grandpa's ideals. In "screwball comedies" like this, as Cavell argued, fulfillment "requires not the fuller satisfaction of our needs as they stand but the examination and transformation of those needs." Grandpa wants Tony to make such a reassessment so that he will not "wake up twenty years from now with nothing in his life but stocks and bonds." Grandpa's advice to the Kirbys is very much in the tradition of Thoreau—who wrote that he went to live at Walden Pond so that he would not "discover that I had not lived." "You've got all the money you need," Vanderhof tells Mr. Kirby, "you can't take it with you." So now is the time to consider what will bring happiness. As Grandpa goes on to say, "how many of us would be willing to settle when we're young for what we eventually get? All those plans we make... what happens to them? It's only a handful of the lucky ones that can look back and say they even come close."

Certainly the Vanderhof-Sycamores are just such a "handful of lucky ones." They all seem to have followed the approach to life put forth in Walden, which encourages its readers to "simplify, simplify," to get back to the basics, and to relax like Thoreau for whom "time is but a stream I go a-fishing in." Although the disasters of Act II cause some doubts about this philosophy at the opening of Act III—when Paul wonders if he's been wrong to have "just been going along, enjoying myself, when maybe I should have been thinking more about Alice" and Alice herself wishes her family "behaved the way other people's families do"—the play's happy resolution affirms that Grandpa's way really is best.

Given the economic hardships of the 1930s, we can see why audiences of the time would want to believe Grandpa when he says "life is simple and kind of beautiful if you let it come to you." Of course Kaufman and Hart, through occasional satiric moments, point out the impracticality of their philosophy with quips like Kolenkhov's reminder that "you cannot relax with Stalin in Russia. The czar relaxed and what happened to him?" Reminders of Depression-era reality aren't totally absent either, although they are always played for laughs. Donald's remark that going to pick up his relief check "breaks up his week," the peculiar dinner menus, Kolenkhov's just-in-time-for-a-meal arrivals, and the F.B.I.'s investigation of Ed's seemingly subversive circulars bring to mind welfare, hunger, and bureaucratic paranoia respectively. But You Can't Take lt with You does not aim for political satire but rather hopes to generate mirth, to, at least temporarily, help the audience forget the trials of the real world. The satire here is gentle and the hint of "bad times" only emphasizes the light-hearted good times we see depicted on the stage.

Comedy traditionally affirms the possibility of change and growth. There is always a new and better day to come. As Thoreau wrote, "it is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof." So even the older Mr. Kirby can learn to change his mind and see the world through Grandpa's eyes. When considered in the context of traditional American individualism, as expressed in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, the Vanderhof-Sycamore philosophy which Mr. Kirby initially thinks is "dangerous" and "un-American" seems just the opposite: distinctly American. You Can't Take It with You deserves recognition not only as an excellent farce but as a classic celebration of American individualism. As Moss Hart said, "I do not look down my nose at comedies; they are an ancient and honorable form of making certain truths palatable with laughter, and an age can be understood as well by its comedies as by its tragic dramas."

Source: Erika Kreger, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.

The Sensible Insanities of You Can't Take It with You

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In a world in which the sanity usually associated with sunshine is sadly overvalued, You Can't Take It With You is something to be prized. It is moonstruck, almost from beginning to end. It is blessed with all the happiest lunacies Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman have been able to contribute to it. The Sycamore family is the most gloriously mad group of contented eccentrics the modern theatre has yet had the good fortune to shadow. Its various members comprise a whole nest of Mad Hatters. They are daffy mortals, as lovable as they are laughable. Their whims are endless. So, too, for that matter, is the fun they provide, except when Cupid is foolish enough to force his way into the family circle.

The Sycamores, bless them, live uptown in New York. They are, however, not nearly so far removed from Wall Street as they are from the rent-day worries to which most of us are heir. Grandfather Vanderhof... has for some years now refused, on very sensible grounds, to pay his income tax. More than that, though he still has some money, he has long ago retired from business in order to seek happiness in attending commencements, visiting zoos, and collecting snakes and stamps. All the members of his demented household have hobbies of their own and practice the gospel of relaxation which he preaches. His daughter, Mrs. Sycamore... has abandoned painting, to which she temporarily returns, for playwriting, because eight years ago a typewriter was delivered by mistake to the Sycamore bedlam. (pp. 177-78)

The quiet lunacy of the family is established by ... Grandfather Vanderhof, [who] is as lovably gentle as he is unworldly.... Old though he is, he is happy because he has been able to remain a child of impulse in a sternly coercive world. He is more than strange. His strangeness is the measure of his wisdom and the point of his philosophy. His is a serenity and a goodness which make it possible for him, when saying "grace," to speak directly to his Creator with a reverent simplicity such as has not been equaled hereabouts since The Green Pastures and such as should be the property of all bishops and archbishops in a Panglossian universe. (p. 179)

[Mrs. Sycamore's] head may be light, but her heart is filled with the same kindness which floods Grandfather Vanderhof's. She, too, sets about the business of being flighty and foolish with a blessed unconsciousness of how laughable she succeeds in being. So, also, does ... her amiable husband. And so, for that matter, do the rest of the agreeably demented Sycamores.

It is only when workaday reason invades the Sycamore home; when dull normalcy makes its appearance; when an orthodox Cupid bursts into this inspired bedlam, that You Can't Take It With You suffers. The Sycamores ... are too fortunate in their nonsense ever to be disturbed by something as illogical as ordinary common sense. (pp. 179-80)

Source: John Mason Brown, "The Sensible Insanities of You Can't Take It with You" (1936) in his Two on the Aisle: Ten Years of the American Theatre in Performance, W. W. Norton & Co , 1938, pp. 177-80. Brown was an influential and popular American drama critic who wrote extensively on British and American drama.

Kaufman's Eagerness to Please an Audience

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Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman have written their most thoroughly ingratiating comedy, You Can't Take It With You, which was put on at the Booth last evening. It is a study in vertigo about a lovable family of hobby-horse riders, funny without being shrill, sensible without being earnest. In Once in a Lifetime, Mr. Hart and Mr. Kaufman mowed the audience down under a machine-gun barrage of low comedy satire, which was the neatest trick of the season. But you will find their current lark a much more spontaneous piece of hilarity; it is written with a dash of affection to season the humor and played with gayety and simple good spirit. To this column, which has a fondness for amiability in the theatre, You Can't Take It With You is the best comedy these authors have written.

To people from the punctilious world outside, the Vanderhof and Sycamore tribes appear to be lunatics. For thirty-five years, grandfather has done nothing but hunt snakes, practice dart throwing, attend commencement exercises and avoid income tax payments. His son-in-law makes fireworks for a hobby in the cellar; various members of the family write plays, study dancing, play the xylophone and operate amateur printing presses. Being mutually loyal they live together in a state of pleasant comity in spite of their separate hobbies. If Alice Sycamore had not fallen in love with the son of a Wall Street banker there would be no reason for this comedy. The contrast between his austerely correct world and their rhymeless existence in a cluttered room supplies the heartburn and the humor. By the time of the final curtain even the banker is convinced that there is something to be said for riding hobbies and living according to impulse in the bosom of a friendly family.

Not that You Can't Take It With You is a moral harangue. For Mr. Hart and Mr. Kaufman are fantastic humorists with a knack for extravagances of word and episode and an eye for hilarious incongruities. Nothing this scrawny season has turned up is quite so madcap as a view of the entire Sycamore tribe working at their separate hobbies simultaneously. When Mr. Kirby of Wall Street and the Racquet Club walks into their living-room asylum his orderly head reels with anguish. The amenities look like bedlam to him. What distinguishes You Can't Take It With You among the Hart-Kaufman enterprises is the buoyancy of the humor. They do not bear down on it with wisecracks. Although they plan it like good comedy craftsmen, they do not exploit it like gag-men.

And they have assembled a cast of actors who are agreeable folks to sit before during a gusty evening. As grandfather, Henry Travers, the salty and reflective one, is full of improvised enjoyment. Josephine Hull totters and wheedles through the part of a demented homebody. As a ferocious-minded Moscovite, George Tobias roars through the room. Under Mr. Kaufman's direction, which can be admirably relaxed as well as guffawingly taut, every one gives a jovial performance—Paula Trueman, Frank Wilcox, George Heller, Mitzi Hajos, Margot Stevenson, Oscar Polk. Well, just read the cast. The setting is by Donald Oenslager, as usual.

When a problem of conduct raises its head for a fleeting instant in the Sycamore family, grandfather solves it with a casual nod of philosophy, "So long as she's having fun." Mr. Hart and Mr. Kaufman have been more rigidly brilliant in the past, but they have never scooped up an evening of such tickling fun.

Source: Brooks Atkinson, review of You Can't Take It with You (1936) in On Stage: Selected Theater Reviews from the New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, pp. 182-83.


Critical Overview