Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589

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.

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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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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 508

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....

(The entire section contains 3742 words.)

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