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You Can’t Take It with You, winner of the 1938 Pulitzer Prize, is a classic American stage comedy that deftly blends elements of farce, slapstick, whimsical humor, social commentary, and romance, together with a generous dash of good-natured optimism about the human condition. First staged in December, 1936, at a time when the United States was only beginning to recover from the bleakest days of the Great Depression, You Can’t Take It with You was the third play written by the team of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the most successful collaborators in the history of the American theater.

The play is set in New York City, in the Sycamore household, a zany little kingdom presided over by Grandpa Vanderhof, who thirty-five years before had decided that the world of business could get along quite nicely without him and has “been a happy man ever since.” Grandpa’s iconoclastic attitudes toward work, money, and happiness have obviously infected the entire household: As the stage directions announce, “This is a house where you do as you like, and no questions asked.” In the best tradition of “screwball” comedy, the family is made up almost completely of lovable eccentrics. Mrs. Sycamore, for example, has passed most of her time for eight years writing plays (with titles such as “Sex Takes a Holiday”), not from any deep artistic motives but only because a typewriter was delivered to the house one day by mistake. Mr. Sycamore manufactures a variety of fireworks in the basement with the assistance of Mr. De Pinna, a man who showed up years before to deliver ice and simply decided to stay, and oldest daughter Essie, when she is not making candy that she stores in a skull, takes ballet lessons from a burly Russian emigré named Kolenkhov. The only exception seems to be the Sycamore’s younger daughter, Alice, an attractive and “normal” young woman who loves her family dearly in spite of their eccentricities but wonders at times why they “can’t be like other people.”

The comic antics of the Sycamore household, however, while delightful enough, primarily serve as the background for the play’s central action, which involves Alice’s romance with Tony Kirby, whose wealthy father owns the Wall Street firm where Alice works. Alice is understandably worried about how Tony’s quite proper and conservative parents will respond to her family, and she does her best to arrange a dinner party at her home where everybody will be on their best behavior. The Kirbys show up a day early, however, catching Alice’s family in their full comic glory and ensuring exactly the sort of disaster that Alice has dreaded.

One misunderstanding leads to another, and the Kirbys’ visit ends with an explosion in the basement and with nearly everyone, including the Kirbys, being carted off to the police station by government agents responding to several seditious circulars unwittingly printed and distributed throughout the city by Essie’s husband, Ed. Humiliated, Alice decides on the following day to abandon her marriage plans and leave town, but Grandpa is able, after Tony and his father return, to bring the young lovers back together and to persuade everyone that love and personal contentment are much more likely to produce happiness than wealth and social standing. Even Mr. Kirby becomes a convert to Grandpa’s way of thinking, and the play ends with the entire household sitting down to a dinner of cheese blintzes prepared and served by a Russian grand duchess introduced by Kolenkhov.

Dramatic Devices

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You Can’t Take It with You presents the audience with a variety of action. Snakes, a typewriter, a saxophone, a xylophone, and dancing all abound. Offstage are the basement with its fireworks manufacture and the kitchen with its candy making and meal preparation. Any lull in the onstage action is sure to start fireworks from the basement. The dialogue is typical of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Grandpa argues that he should not pay the income tax by asking what the government would do with the money. He continues, “What do I get for my money? If I go into Macy’s and buy something, there it is—I see it. What’s the Government give me?” After listening to the agent’s list of things that government supplies, Grandpa decides that he might pay seventy-five dollars. The dialogue leaps from subject to subject, its logic apparent only to the characters themselves. As Essie asks Ed to remember the music he just played on his xylophone, Penny interjects, “Ed, dear. Why don’t you and Essie have a baby?” Ed and Essie answer, but Penny is already back working with her manuscripts.

A rickety card table used for typing, cages for snakes, a xylophone, and the dining table fill the set; the family really lives in this room. Entrances are timed for comedic effect. Immediately after Alice asks that a nice dinner be planned for Tony’s parents on the next evening, the Kirbys show up in full evening dress. As the Kirbys start to leave, the government agents arrive and arrest everyone. While Mr. Sycamore stalls Alice’s request for a taxi, Tony arrives to intervene. Exits also offer grounds for comedy. The tax agent starts to leave after threatening Grandpa, only to be warned to watch out for the snakes and then to be frightened by an explosion from the basement. He literally jumps out of the room. Penny’s word association game is filled with words that embarrass Alice: potatoes, bathroom, lust, honeymoon, sex.

The action on the crowded set includes Essie dancing through conversations, Kolenkhov throwing Mr. Kirby to the floor in a wrestling demonstration, and the pompous entrance and attempted exit of Mr. and Mrs. Kirby. Sound effects range from Penny typing and Ed printing to the music of Ed’s xylophone and the frequent explosions of the fireworks from the basement.

The hobbies chosen by each of the characters help to build the characterization. Each of the images created by the hobbies indicates how far the Vanderhof family departs from the accepted norm in its pursuit of true happiness. Money, success, and power have no place in their activities. The Kirbys, in contrast, choose hobbies that are fashionable for the rich and powerful: Mr. Kirby raises orchids, and Mrs. Kirby pursues spiritualism. Alice explains to Tony, “Your mother believes in spiritualism because it’s fashionable, and your father raises orchids because he can afford to. My mother writes plays because eight years ago a typewriter was delivered here by mistake.”

Historical Context

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In the mid-1930s when Kaufman and Hart wrote You Can't Take It with You, Americans were suffering through one of the worst economic periods in the history of the United States, an era known as the Great Depression. Many Americans lost their life savings, homes, and jobs in the stock market crash of 1929 and the numerous bank failures which followed. Unemployment rose to record heights for the time, reaching over 20% in 1935. Hopes raised by an apparent upturn in the economy in 1936 were dashed when the recovery collapsed in 1937.

After his election in 1932, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt instituted his "New Deal" legislation, a series of liberal reforms which put in place welfare, social security, and unemployment benefits. These relief efforts dramatically changed Americans' relationship with their government, which now provided many with a living either in the form of a job in a federal program or through welfare benefits. The nature of the presidency changed at this time as well; the executive branch gained powers no president since Roosevelt has seriously attempted to invoke.

Although the New Deal eased the effects of the Depression, the 1930s were an exceptionally tough time for the majority of Americans. The enormous hardships endured by ordinary people led many to question free market capitalism. Left wing ideas, such as socialism, gained in popularity during this decade, and labor unrest led to strikes across the country.

Not surprisingly, these political and economic factors influenced American popular culture. The art and literature of the 1930s gave rise to both works intended to argue political ideas and works intended to provide escape from the rigors of daily life. Newspapers contained more editorial columns than ever before and politically oriented magazines such as the Nation and the New Republic flourished; yet papers also included more comic strips and serialized stories than they had previously, and pulp detective and mystery fiction—prime escapist fare—flourished. Radio offered frequent news reports but also gave listeners lighthearted comedy programs such as Amos 'n' Andy and Fibber McGee and Molly. In the theater, propaganda plays such as Clifford Odets's Waiting for Lefty (1935) were balanced by farces such as Kaufman and Hart's plays.

Movies, too, touched on the harshness of the times with films like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1936). More frequently, however, films offered optimistic escapism. Hollywood produced excellent slapstick and screwball comedies starring actors like Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and Cary Grant, as well as classic animated features such as Walt Disney's The Three Little Pigs (1933) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937). Also enormously popular were upbeat films featuring the child actress Shirley Temple, including Little Miss Marker (1934) and Heidi. With little money to spend on entertainment, Americans also embraced a series of amusing "fads," often activities which were inexpensive (dance marathons, chain letters) or could be done at home (jigsaw puzzles, bridge).

The decade of the Great Depression is thoroughly documented both by still photography and motion pictures. Late-twentieth century society is familiar with images—for example the Dust Bowl, bread lines, and sit-down strikes—captured by 1930s photojournalists such as Margaret Bourke-White and Walker Evans. Magazines such as Life and Fortune published these photos and gave Americans a new perspective on themselves and their nation.

During this time of struggle and societal stagnation, ironically, a few women found their opportunities in the public sector expanding. The rapid growth of New Deal offices in Washington D.C. led to unconventional appointments and brought women into such government positions as the cabinet, treasury, and higher courts. Occasionally, as would be the case during World War II women stepped into men's traditional role of family breadwinner—especially given that many men refused to work in clerical and secretarial positions that were typically identified with women. And despite open discrimination against married women (because many people believed wives shouldn't be allowed to work if their husbands already had jobs) the number of women in the labor force increased throughout the decade. Although the basic cultural assumptions about "women's place" in the home remained largely unchallenged in the 1930s, some women were drawn into newly active roles in government and the workplace.

Unfortunately, many ethnic minorities in America did not find even slightly increased opportunities in the 1930s. At the start of the decade, three-fourths of all African-Americans in the United States lived in rural areas. Existence for farm workers had already been harsh in the agriculturally depressed 1920s; conditions deteriorated during the depression of the 1930s. In urban communities as well, unemployment, worsened by discrimination, made life severely difficult for black workers. African-American leaders protested that New Deal programs did not offer equal relief or eliminate discrimination against black citizens. Although a legally supported system of segregation stayed in place in the Southern states and racist bias was in evidence throughout the country, some reform did begin in 1935 when President Roosevelt banned discrimination in the federal relief programs and African-Americans made some gains in attaining their deserved rights and recognition during the second half of the decade.

The 1930s were a time dominated by economic and political concerns. Americans faced difficulties at home and saw unrest abroad, as civil war waged in Spain (1934-1936) Joseph Stalin exercised totalitarian power in Russia, and Hitler installed a fascist dictatorship in Nazi Germany. At the end of the decade the United States faced the frightening prospect of going to war as diplomacy throughout Europe and Asia failed and political tensions rose.

Literary Style

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You Can't Take It with You has three well-balanced acts. Act I introduces the members of the eccentric Vanderhof-Sycamore family and sets up the play's central conflict: Alice Sycamore becomes engaged to her boss's son, Tony Kirby, but she does not think his family can accept hers. Act II depicts the laughably disastrous encounter between the two families when the Kirbys arrive for a dinner party on the wrong night. Act III then resolves all the problems that confront the family and the young couple.

Farce
You Can't Take It with You employs many elements of farce, which is defined most simply as broad comedy mixed with a healthy dose of improbability. Farce typically takes highly exaggerated characters and places them in unlikely situations. Key elements include witty wordplay and physical humor for broad comic effect to provoke simple, hearty laughter from the audience. Clearly, the dancing, xylophone-playing, firecracker-making members of the Vanderhof-Sycamore household are exaggerated, make witty verbal jokes, and engage in physical horseplay.

Romantic Comedy
The basic plot of You Can't Take It with You is that of a romantic comedy, a story of a love affair in which the couple must overcome obstacles—usually with comic results—before they can marry. Like many young lovers in Shakespearean comedy, Kaufman and Hart's Alice and Tony face difficulties on the path to their eventual happy ending. While straight-up romantic comedy is often derided by critics for being too cute or overly sentimental, Kaufman and Hart balance this element of their play with frequent interuptions from the loony family members.

Satire
Satire typically attacks political or social philosophies, showing them to be false or misguided through mockery and ridicule. Although You Can't Take It with You is not a harsh satire, it does gently ridicule the American tax system, welfare, and market capitalism through its ludicrous presentation of Henderson the I.R.S. agent, Donald and Ed's comments about "relief," and Grandpa's anti-materialist views. It also pokes fun at the typical perception of the American Dream—one that encourages individuals to exert themselves in the pursuit of money and status without any regard for happiness and leisure activity.

Compare and Contrast

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1930s: During the Great Depression unemployment reaches a high of 20% in 1935. In 1938, unemployment is at 19.1%, which means 10.39 million Americans are unemployed.

Today: In the mid-1990s unemployment runs as low as 5%. With 66% of Americans in the labor force, a larger proportion of Americans are working than ever before. Yet the disparity between the wealthiest 10% and the poorest 10% of the population is greater in the United States than in any other industrialized country except Russia.

1930s: Starting in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal legislation combats the economic hardships of the Great Depression, introducing social security, acts creating jobs in the public sector, welfare, and unemployment benefits.

Today: Social Security funding is endangered and economists warn that the system could collapse in the near future. Congress passes a Welfare Reform Act in 1996 limiting lifetime benefits to five years and requiring all welfare recipients to participate either in job training or employment programs.

1930s: Beginning in 1938 Joseph Stalin the communist dictator of the Soviet Union, kills 8 to 10 million people in an attempt to eliminate all his political enemies in an event later called the "great purge." In this same year, fascist general Francisco Franco starts a revolt in Spain which leads to a three-year civil war.

Today: In Europe, genocidal slaughter takes place in Bosnia-Herzegovina during a civil war in the 1990s; thousands of people are killed in the name of "ethnic cleansing." In Africa, during the civil war in Rwanda, mass killings also take place in 1995 as two ethnic tribes attempt to eliminate one another.

1930s: In 1930, life expectancy for American men was 58.1 years; American women were expected to live 61.6 years. By 1940, life expectancies for American men and women had risen to 60.8 years and 65.2 years respectively.

Today: In 1990, the average life expectancy for men in the United States was 71.6 years, for women it was 79.2 years.

1930s: In 1933, Frances Perkins becomes the first woman cabinet member when she accepts the post of Secretary of Labor.

Today: Madeline Albright becomes the United States' first female Secretary of State in 1997.

1930s: According to census records, the population of the United States rose from 123,202,624 in 1930 to 132,164,569 in 1940, an increase of approximately 7%.

Today: In 1980, the U.S. population was 226,504,825. It grew to 248,709,873 by 1990, an increase of approximately 9%.

Media Adaptations

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Frank Capra produced and directed an Academy Award-winning film version of You Can't Take It with You. The film stars James Stewart and Jean Arthur, Columbia, 1938; available from Columbia Tristar Home Video. The film adaption does alter the plot in some ways. Excerpts from Robert Riskin's screenplay were published in Foremost Films of 1938, edited by Frank Vreeland, New York: Pitman, 1939. Copies of the unpublished screenplay are available at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the University of California, Los Angeles Theatre Arts Library.

CBS produced a television adaption of the play featuring Jean Stapleton and Art Carney which aired May 16, 1979.

A 1984 taped performance of the play featuring Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards is available from Columbia Tristar Home Video, Vestron Video, and Live Entertainment.

The Moss Hart Papers at the Wisconsin Center for Theater Research include the script for an October, 1950, Pulitzer Prize Playhouse television adaption of the play, as well as an undated radio adaption by Tony Webster.

Bibliography

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Sources for Further Study

Brown, John Mason. “The Sensible Insanities of You Can’t Take It with You.” In Two on the Aisle: Ten Years of the American Theatre in Performance. New York: W. W. Norton, 1938.

Goldstein, Malcolm. George S. Kaufman: His Life, His Theater. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Gould, Jean. “Some Clever Collaborators: George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.” In Modern American Playwrights. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1966.

Harriman, Margaret Case. “Hi-yo Platinum! Moss Hart.” In Take Them Up Tenderly: A Collection of Profiles. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1945.

Hart, Moss. Act One: An Autobiography. 3d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.

Mason, Jeffrey D. Wisecracks: The Farces of George S. Kaufman. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Research Press, 1988.

Mason, Richard. “The Comic Theater of Moss Hart: Persistence of a Formula.” Theater Annual 23 (1968): 60-87.

Meredith, Scott. George S. Kaufman and His Friends. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974.

Pollack, Rhoda-Gale. George S. Kaufman. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

Teichmann, Howard. George S. Kaufman: An Intimate Portrait. New York: Atheneum, 1972.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Further Reading
Atkinson, Brooks. "The Giddy Twenties" in his Broadway, MacMillan (New York), 1970, pp 227-37. In this chapter from his book-length history of Broadway, Atkinson describes New York theater at the time George S. Kaufman came on the scene, discusses the influence of the Algonquin Round Table, and touches on the beginnings of Kaufman's collaborations with Moss Hart.

Cavell, Stanley. Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, Harvard University Press, 1981, pp 1-42. Cavell's introduction provides a useful interpretation of the film version of You Can't Take It with You, and his discussion of screwball comedies in the body of the book illustrates strategies for analyzing farce in both film and theater.

Frye, Northrop. "The Mythos of Spring: Comedy," in his The Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton University Press, 1957, pp. 163-186. Frye's classic analysis of comedy does not deal with Kaufman and Hart specifically but offers a useful overview of the development of comic form from the Greeks through Shakespeare to the Victorian era.

Goldstein, Malcolm. George S. Kaufman: His Life, His Theater, Oxford University Press (New York), 1979. In this detailed and readable biography, Goldstein examines both Kaufman's life and work. Chapter 15, "The Birth of a Classic," explains the development of You Can't Take It with You, offers a reading of the play, and considers its influence on both collaborators.

Gould, Jean. "Some Clever Collaborators" in Modern American Playwrights, Dodd, Mead & Co. (New York), 1966, pp. 154-167. Gould provides concise biographical sketches of Kaufman and Hart, then moves on to a discussion of their most successful plays, devoting several paragraphs to You Can't Take It with You.

Hart, Moss. "No Time for Comedy or Satire: My Most Interesting Work" in Theatre Arts, Vol. 38, no. 5, May, 1954, pp. 32-33. An article written by Hart that discusses a number of his better-known works and presents his philosophy toward drama.

Mason, Richard. "The Comic Theatre of Moss Hart: Persistence of a Formula" in Theatre Annual, Volume 23, 1967, pp. 60-87. Mason discusses all of Moss Hart's comedies, examining closely the structure of each and arguing Hart contributed important comic elements to the farce form.

Mordden, Ethan. The American Theater, Oxford University Press, 1981. Mordden's book provides an excellent overview of the history of American theater. He charts the development of comedy as well as serious drama and offers an insightful discussion of Kaufman and Hart.

O'Hara, Frank Hurburt. "Farce with a Purpose'' in Today in American Drama, Greenwood Press (New York), 1969, pp. 190-234. O'Hara includes a brief, complimentary discussion of Kaufman and Hart in this chapter dealing with 1930s farcical comedies.

Pollack, Rhoda-Gale. George S. Kaufman, Twayne (Boston), 1988. Pollack devotes a chapter of her brief biography to "The Years with Moss Hart." She discusses the critical response to You Can't Take It with You and its impact on Kaufman's life rather than attempting any analysis or interpretation of the play itself.

Sources
Atkinson, Brooks. Review of You Can't Take It with You in the New York Times, December 15, 1936.

A Celebration of Moss Hart, University of Southern California, April 12, 1970, p. 16.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, Bantam, 1989, p. 111, 172-73, 178.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 167

Sources for Further Study

Brown, John Mason. “The Sensible Insanities of You Can’t Take It with You.” In Two on the Aisle: Ten Years of the American Theatre in Performance. New York: W. W. Norton, 1938.

Goldstein, Malcolm. George S. Kaufman: His Life, His Theater. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Gould, Jean. “Some Clever Collaborators: George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.” In Modern American Playwrights. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1966.

Harriman, Margaret Case. “Hi-yo Platinum! Moss Hart.” In Take Them Up Tenderly: A Collection of Profiles. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1945.

Hart, Moss. Act One: An Autobiography. 3d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.

Mason, Jeffrey D. Wisecracks: The Farces of George S. Kaufman. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Research Press, 1988.

Mason, Richard. “The Comic Theater of Moss Hart: Persistence of a Formula.” Theater Annual 23 (1968): 60-87.

Meredith, Scott. George S. Kaufman and His Friends. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974.

Pollack, Rhoda-Gale. George S. Kaufman. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

Teichmann, Howard. George S. Kaufman: An Intimate Portrait. New York: Atheneum, 1972.

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