You Can't Take It with You

by George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart

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What three examples from You Can't Take it With You establish the Sycamore/Vanderhof home?

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Examples from George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s play You Can’t Take it With You that help establish the world inhabited by the Sycamore-Vanderhof clan generally come from the playwrights’ stage directions, such as those that establish the setting at the beginning of Act I.  Kaufman and Hart describe a setting that mixes the intellectual with the chaotic – a not uncommon formula for genius:

“Scene 1: The home of Martin Vanderhof – just around the corner from Columbia University, but don’t go looking for it.  The room we see is what is customarily described as a living room, but in this house the term is something of an understatement.  The every-man-for-himself room would be more like it.  For here meals are eaten, plays are written, snakes collected, ballet steps practiced, xylophones played, printing presses operated – if there were room enough there would probably be ice skating.  In short, the brood presided over by Martin Vanderhof goes on about the business of living in the fullest sense of the word.”

Of course, theatergoers paying to view a production based on the writing of this particular team, Kaufman and Hart, enter the theater expecting light-hearted fare.  Kaufman was perhaps the preeminent comedic writer of his time [his collaborations with the Marx Brothers remain classics; early in the play, there is even a reference to the Marx Brothers, when Penny, the mother, instructs the family maid, Rheba, to remove the kittens from the living room: (Crossing to RhebaHanding her the kittens.)“And here, take Groucho and Harpo into the kitchen with you.”], and anarchical, spontaneous action combined with witty, erudite dialogue are staples of his work.  The reference in the above stage instructions to Columbia University is fully intended to convey a sense of intellectual curiosity amid above-average intellects.  The description of the living room is equally intended to convey a sense of absurdity and a complete absence of structure in the lives of those who occupy it.  The crowded, chaotic atmosphere of a confined space cluttered with musical instruments symbolizing the family’s dedication to or interest in the arts, the printing presses symbolizing their deeply-ingrained interest in the written word, etc. all present the picture of a family that functions at a high level intellectually and for whom the fine arts are a natural component of their daily existence, although, the printing press, it will be revealed exists more for the amusement of Ed Carmichael, who is obsessed with its use for any purpose whatsoever.  As the play progresses, with no apparent structure or even storyline evident, the full nature of these people continues to be revealed, as with the following remark by Paul, Penny’s husband and a character for whom one anticipates some sort of disaster when it is revealed that his hobby involves the manufacture of fireworks in the basement: 

“Oh!  Ed, I got a wonderful idea in the bathroom just now.  I was reading Trotsky.  It’s yours, isn’t it? . . .Anyhow, it struck me it was a great fireworks idea.  Remember ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’?”

With this brief exchange, Kaufman and Hart further cement the notion that this is an incredibly eccentric family with a deeply-imbued sense of intellectual curiosity – a theme that recurs throughout the play.  Leon Trostky, of course, was leading figure of the Bolshevik Revolution and a historical figure not adverse to carrying out acts of violence in the interests of advancing a political agenda.  This is a comedy.  The father enjoys playing with explosives in his basement.  The reference to a violent revolutionary figure is made, as is the reference to an early-19th Century novel by a Russian author about the cultural schisms emerging in ancient Rome, to both illuminate the mental level at which these characters function and the anarchic nature of the surroundings. 

Another example from the script to You Can’t Take it With You that captures the essence of the world these characters inhabit, while injecting yet another of Kaufman’s subtle references to his own repertoire, involves the entrance of Alice, Penny and Paul’s daughter (along with Essie) who represents a hint of sanity in this otherwise tumultuous atmosphere.  Alice’s initial comments, subsequent to her greetings to and from members of her family, captures the world of the Sycamores and Vanderhofs quite well.  Removing her gloves and hat, she comments to those around her:

Alice: “I just like to brighten up the office once in a while.  I’m known as the Kay Francis of Kirby & Co. (the fictitious company owned by her boyfriend’s family). . .Well, what’s new around here?  In the way of plays, snakes, ballet dancing or fireworks.  Dad, I’ll bet you’ve been down in that cellar all day.”

Paul: “Hug?”

Penny: “I’m going back to the war play, Alice.”  (Essie does dance step exercise.)

Again, Kaufman and Hart inject a lot of substance into a quick passage that illuminates the nature of this particular universe.  The reference to Kay Francis is, again, no accident.  Francis was a prominent stage actress of the time who also appeared in the Kaufman-penned Marx Brothers play and film The Cocoanuts.  The quick run-down of the usual activities associated with this house is provided (Essie, of course, is a serious student of ballet, but remains totally inept; the reference to the snake highlights the eccentric nature of this family, as who in New York in the early 20th Century would have as a pet a snake.)

Here, then, are several examples of how Kaufman and Hart establish the setting and the atmosphere in which their play takes place.  

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In You Can't Take it With You, identify examples of objects that clearly help or does not help establish the world of the Sycamore/ Vanderhof Home.

One example of an object or item that helps to establish the world of the Sycamore/ Vanderhof home would be Grandpa's snakes.  They embody that spirit of unconventionality that resides at the very base of the family.  The primary reason why the family is perceived as "off" is because of its unconventional nature.  Grandpa's snakes are representative of that.  They are elements that he cares for and could care less what others, such as Gay or Wilbur Henderson, think of them.  Grandpa's essence is to find happiness for himself and the snakes represents that.

I think that another symbol that captures the essence of the Sycamore/ Vanderhof home would be the fireworks in the basement.  It is not merely that the fireworks cap off the calamity that is Act II, but they represent something that cannot be contained or constrained.  The fundamental argument between Grandpa and Mr. Kirby resides in the collision to live life in accordance to the expectations of others or in accordance to one's own subjectivity:

KIRBY: A man can't give up his business.
GRANDPA: Why not? You've got all the money you need. You can't take it with you.

The fireworks represent something of beauty and of a creative life force, an element towards which Alice remarks,"It's the most beautiful red fire in the world..."  The fireworks embody the force of creativity and life that others might not understand. People like Mr. Kirby won't understand such intrinsic worth.  However, it is their spirit of vitality that causes one to pursue them and embrace them.  It makes sense that at the point the house is run with government agents, who are forces of conformity, the fireworks explode.  This embodies how they cannot be controlled or contained.  The only element from them that cannot be embraced is the very idea that only their beauty and intrinsic worth can be taken from them.  In this regard, the fireworks come to represent the world of the Sycamore/ Vanderhof home.

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