Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2235
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 introduced the unconventional cast of characters and made...
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